Trademarks in effect; permission granted from Redcomet, Black Knight, Zinegata, and kishiria for use of their properties.
Abyssal Lasombre Productions
and the UC Writer's Guild
Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: In Course Reciprocal
A FanFiction novella by
His Divine Shadow
Obedient to the Moon he spent his date
In course reciprocal, and had his fate
Linked to the mutual flowing of the Seas,
Yet (strange to think) his wain was his increase:
His Letters are delivered all and gone,
Only remains this superscription.
The Line, Earth Sphere, Sol System
November 12, 0083
"I hate how you see Life. . ."
The scathing tone of the voice in his memory pierced even the pain that wracked every move and every gesture he made. That was curious, since for the last hour or thereabouts, he had felt little to nothing except for the desperate fingers that were buried to their second knuckles in the ruin that was his left side, and the tremendous cold that was sucking the life from him with a slowness he found winsome in its approach. A long-time resident of Space, he had always believed that it was a fast killer to those unlucky enough to fall victim to it; every child in the Duchy had been taught that since grade school. It was visceral to know that some fundamentals of existence were proven incorrect through circumstance. The Darkness Without End, it seemed, possessed a malice all its own.
"I hate how you see Life. . ."
He didn't know which actually hurt more: the gaping hole in his torso that continued to spill his blood and worse into the ruined cockpit of his crippled MS-09RII Rick Dom II, or the memories that the voice was bringing to the forefront of his consciousness. He coughed, agonizingly, thick gouts of blood erupting from his mouth to coalesce into red-brown spheres of solid ice that drifted away in the zero-G vacuum, to shatter into a million shards on the ragged remains of his cockpit interior, or float out and away into the Darkness Without End. The vastness of Space loomed where the armored cockpit hatch had been sheared away, breaching the integrity of his suit. Another circumstance, nothing more.
"I hate how you see Life. . ."
His blue-grey eyes, once gleaming with a vibrancy few others could hope to match but now clouded with a pain no normal human could have hoped to endure consciously, managed to lift and stare out into the Void. Within the confines of his helmet, his bluing lips opened, revealing bloodstained teeth that bared themselves in hate at the Universe that dared raise its hand to him. Somehow, he found the energy to speak to the memory that had begun to pick at his sanity in the midst of a mortal crisis: "Shut up, wench."
He looked over at the other half of this monstrous scene, the still form of an MS-14F Gelgoog Marine drifted at the same inertia as his own damaged Rick Dom II. In a way, he was glad that he had managed to kill the bastard who had slain him. This Gelgoog of the Cima Fleet had managed to get in close enough to his suit to slash it open with a beam saber, but he had been fast enough to put a few MMP-80 rounds through the traitorous machine's torso and take it out of the fight; the machine gun was still clenched in his Rick Dom II's frozen left hand. The sight of the dying Gelgoog was comforting as well as disturbing, given that its fingers would occasionally twitch, almost like a human corpse would. In spite of the morbid idea that the pilot was still alive inside the Gelgoog, just as he was alive in his own suit, the mortally-wounded Gelgoog provided an excellent foreground for viewing the ongoing battle itself.
"I hate how you see Life. . ."
Gato and the remnants of the Delaz Fleet were doing well, in spite of the betrayal of the Cima Fleet and the incoming Federation reinforcements from Solomon/Konpei Island closing in on their rear. Standing off in the distance, the Axis advance fleet waited and watched. Lt. Commander Markus von Hardenberg wanted to spit at them for not helping more, but he also understood their reasoning.
While outside battles raged, within him lay a war all his own to fight.
But how much worse could it get than now? Not much, he admitted to himself. He had less than three hours' worth of oxygen left now, greedy Space and his own labored breathing exhausting his precious supply. If he was not rescued soon, he would either asphyxiate or freeze/boil to death in the ruined confines of his Rick Dom II.
BUT I LOVED HER!!!! shrieked his subconscious, the human in him, the creature that he had subsumed below layer after layer of cruel abandon, amoral sentiments, and the need to avenge the dead. But now, as he was slowly bleeding out in the ruined cockpit of this Rick Dom II, he began to see the truth of it all. In the end, everything he was had been because of her. He needed her forgiveness, or he could not die. He had to see her once more time, because if he could do that, then he would not need to fear a Hell he had never really believed in, but nevertheless had concerns about. He certainly hoped it wouldn't be lonely; he'd sent enough people to it in his career, and there were some few of the Fifteen who had deserved to be there even more than him.
He was looking forward to seeing them again, even as he dreaded the time he would have to leave this plane. He only hoped that wherever he went, she would be there, too. . .then Hell would be Heaven indeed.
He wanted to laugh, even as the mask of the machine bled away, back into the background of his thoughts. Oh, you are the fool indeed, Markus von Hardenberg! All this time, she loved you, and you never once said it back to her! What kind of man are you?
Not much of one, he had to admit, especially at the moment. He raised his eyes again, looking at the Gelgoog Marine as it spun idly around yet again, its dead mono-eye coming around to face him.
Its cockpit hatch was open; it had not been before.
New Koenigsberg, Side 3, Archduchy of Zeon
February 25, 0073
Rosenmonntag, UC 0073; Rose Monday, two days before Ash Wednesday. He could not have been more than sixteen, just a face in the crowds as Fasching blazed around and past him, full-tilt in a German orgy of frantic amusement as the cap-off to Catholic Lent. It was still practiced among the Bavarians and Baden-Wuertemmbergers, and even into the Hessian districts and into Westphalian territory, despite the almost-overwhelming hatred of all things Catholic amongst New Koenigsbergers. A party was a party, no matter the excuse; making up excuses to party was a universal German trait.
The entire city was decked out in lights and colored streamers. Revelers in costumes both modern and medieval were out en masse; there had been a parade of dancing fools through the entrance of the city gate in the "Old Quarter" just hours ago. People had spent the last three days in states of almost constant inebriation, greeting each other with "Alaaf!" and "Helau!", the traditional greetings of Carnival season. Music of all forms and fashions cascaded through the streets. Brothels, bars, per-night hotels, rave clubs, dance halls, and smokeries were all doing booming business. Politics were mocked, formalities ignored, and wickedness had a gala affair throughout the colony. New Koenigsberg was in a state of uncontrollable bliss; Welthammer, the colony next door, was in a similar state. Vulgarity had been crowned President of Side 3 just a day ago while the other colonies watched with unabashed horror/jealousy. It would all be over on Ash Wednesday, and the rest of Space was missing this unless they were lucky enough to have booked passage early to the annual bash. Most had not, and the majority of Side 3 was forced to watch the festivities via the live-vid newscasts from the scene.
He had been a bit tipsy; they all had been, caught up in all the madness, surrounded by the smells of food, smoke, alcohol, sweat, and pheromones. Veritable panoply of aromas for one trained to localize a single scent in the midst of a cloud of them.
And then she had walked in, and for Markus von Hardenberg, his universe collapsed onto a single shining star of focus and clarity. Even the fresh beer in front of him, placed there by some Bierfrau not paying attention to where she was putting the giant glasses she carried, was no lure for him anymore. A wave of emotion he had never felt before in all his life swept through him like a hot current, and he shivered from its chill even as he gawked like a loon.
She was tall, almost as tall as he was, and still had room to grow taller. An obvious athlete, as well, judging by her musculature that even her well-fit clothing could not hide; wiry strength, and no implication of weakness, and yet she still moved with a delicacy that no butch she-bitch would have, even in the higher gravity. Auburn hair that caught the yellow firelight from the faux torches in the wall sconces and highlighted its shorter-than-normal length in gold, or delved into shadow and became like a cap of blood; green eyes not the most vivid he had ever seen but still alight with an inner fire that he was compelled to lose himself in. Attractive by any sane person's standard, and his standards were more exacting than even those.
This one is different. The weak will do whatever she bids, if she ever discovers the need to ask. A true rarity of offworlder randomness; may she never find out her true power. This knowledge made him pause.
As if noticing his friend's plight, Rudolf von Kahlden maneuvered his way over to von Hardenberg's table, plinking down his drink as an announcement of his presence. The brown/blond-haired man reeked pretty badly of alcohol, which told von Hardenberg that he probably did too; they were both imbibing far too much even for their own tolerances, and their dignity was becoming stained from it all. But between the two of them, they were equals, so the formalities did not have to be so strict. Besides, aside from certain necessary internal agendas, they had few secrets from each other; they had known each other since birth, most were within one month's age of each other, and they had all gone through Gross-Lichterfelde Academy, New Koenigsberg's most elite and most cruel formative school, with each other as classmates and/or competition of the highest caliber. If camaraderie was not born in such an environment, at the least mutual respect was nurtured there.
"So, Graf von Hardenberg of Rheinland-Pfalz, what are we so taken with that we've gone suddenly mute?" Von Kahlden's lips twisted in something close to a grin, but not quite there. He adjusted the ever-present dagger he had strapped to a sheath on his left arm, beneath his sleeve, as he sat down.
"Salle, Rudi," Von Hardenberg blinked, trying to focus on von Kahlden's words but unable to tear his eyes from the auburn-haired girl who was cruising through the crowd. "See her over there, near the fourth keg?"
Quirking a sand-brown eyebrow, von Kahlden whistled appreciatively, casting his hunter's eye on the quarry. "My, my," he murmured in his usual stoic-yet-not-so-stoic way, sipping from his glass. "Quite the pretty one, isn't she?"
Von Hardenberg, not particularly interested in the conversation even though he and Rudolf von Kahlden were very close, nodded somberly. In their world of lords and lorded, you found the ones with the most in common with you, and none were more uncommon than the Fifteen, except to each other.
Besides, von Kahlden was cheating: his stein was filled with Berlin Weissbier, much weaker in toxicity than what everyone else was having, so he was out trolling for secrets in territory that wasn't his. Thankfully for him, unlike some of the others, von Hardenberg was not the type to be offended by such.
"Doesn't look local," pointed out von Kahlden, too obviously, opening the door to a deeper conversation, and one of a more personal import. Her attire and the way she moved, almost a tired sort of desperate clawing through the throng of raucous bodies in the bar as she fought her way towards the bartender, spoke strongly of her not being from this colony. She was probably a tourist, or the dependant of one of the myriad businesses that had contracts with New Koenigsberg's denizens. Either way you sliced it, in this instance she was far out of her element, though she was putting up a tremendously good show of keeping fear off of her face.
"True." Von Hardenberg was entranced. Here she was, totally alien to what was happening around her, yet holding her own in spite of she not knowing the customs, their way of life, and not understanding why it was she could be so exhausted: the heavier gravity was one of the best-kept secrets of this place. This one was a fighter, not a runner, and that was intriguing all its own, especially in a girl who looked maybe a year older than himself and a hundred years too young to cope with the world she had just walked into blindly.
"Think she's a compat?"
Von Hardenberg shrugged offhandedly, disregarding the question as to gene-compatibility. "Does it matter?"
"Not for you or I. The bio-scholars. . .?" Von Kahlden shrugged this time, then nudged his friend's elbow with his own. "Well? What are you waiting for? She looks lost enough to warrant a guide, Markus. Be guideful."
"'Guideful'? Is that even a word?" Von Hardenberg was genuinely confused about what to do.
Von Kahlden snorted. "You're struck stupid as a peasant with one look at this girl and you're worried about my grammar? Your sense of priorities is askew, my Palatine friend."
Von Hardenberg crossed his arms and sat back, glaring at von Kahlden. "And what would you recommend I do about it? Fling myself at her feet and beg her for a dance?"
"Why not?" Von Kahlden's grin became something that was one part insinuating and one part rapacious. He ticked off his points on each finger as he spoke. "You're intelligent, resourceful, well-trained, a warrior, have some wits about you, are literate and educated and could almost be good-looking in the right lighting conditions. . ."
"Du kannsch de Hase gebbe! You sound like one of those idiot matchmaking ads, Rudolf. You're not trying to seduce me, are you?"
Von Kahlden smirked. "As if you'd actually say 'no' to the offer, Markus. I'm just trying to get it through that skull of yours that if you're that hard-up for her, go talk to her. God knows you could use the companionship. You're looking as dour as Reinhardt is."
"I'll keep that in mind, thank you kindly. I do try to be as cheerful as any other Brandenburger." The rudeness of the double entendre was not lost on either of them; von Kahlden's Berlin heritage placed his line in the middle of the Brandenburg March, where the von Seydlitzes were master; that the von Kahldens were still a House all their own was a testament to their tenacity.
"Schleich dich!" The slightly-older teenager leaned his elbows on the table, reaching over to grab the back of von Hardenberg's head and drag him forward until their foreheads clacked together. "Look, Markus, I'm not trying to be a horse's ass here. I'm offering you advice. Don't miss the chance, old friend, just because you've got some kind of superiority complex merged with shyness. Jump at it with teeth bared and claws gleaming, Markus. Hell, just treat her like one of your flowers if you're so scared to hurt her."
He's not getting it, thought von Hardenberg coldly. It's not like what you and I have, Rudi. . .
Von Kahlden let von Hardenberg go, then leaned back and stretched until his augmented spinal column popped happily. "Besides, how much value would you put on a cattle wench? You think this is more serious than puppy love?"
Von Hardenberg looked him dead in the eyes. "Yes."
After a moment's silence between them, von Kahlden took a long drink from his glass stein. "You don't even know her name and you're entertaining the notion of breeding with her? Is this your Time?"
"No." How easily he had answered that question now gave no hint that the same question had only frightened him years earlier. He took a drink from his own stein, trying to stifle the memory of the last Time of his mating cycle's ascent. He knew that von Kahlden was remembering it, too.
The other Elector-Prince looked at him with a curious expression on his face. "This could be a problem, Markus. Maybe it would be better if you didn't take this chance."
Von Hardenberg glanced out of the corner of his eye. She had made it to the bar and was yelling something over the din, but he couldn't quite make it out. "I think I can handle it, Rudi," he replied snidely, a little peeved at von Kahlden's chill towards the idea. "It's a dalliance, after all. She is cattle."
"Just remember that we leave for the Academy in two days!!" hollered von Kahlden as von Hardenberg finished his beer and stood, walking away from his friend towards the lost-looking girl who had just managed to sneak into Fasching and steal his heart right out from under him.
New Koenigsberg, Side 3, Archduchy of Zeon
May 14, 0074
0530 hours. Almost everyone else on the estate manor belonging to House von Hardenberg was still asleep; the colony interior was still in "night" mode, its solar panels angled away from Sol's rays to darken the cylindrical landscape within. For Markus von Hardenberg, this was the best time to be up and moving, when the chill of the morning precipitation still tainted the atmosphere, and every other soul he was obliged to pay attention to was out cold.
He was home on leave from Zuum Academy; everyone had vacated the premises of the Zeon military school as soon as they could, but he had caught a later shuttle. This was the first time in a year he had returned home, and he had been appalled by the state his garden was in. Had he not brought a guest home with him, he would have had one or more of the groundskeepers flogged over the condition of his outdoor flora. . .but not too harshly, since the indoors were looking well cared for in his absence. Besides, for all his threats to the house staff, he'd never had any of them actually flogged.
The Neu-Kaiserslautern estate of the von Hardenbergs was actually a duplicate of the Stolzenfels castle of Koblenz; with its flat roofs, expansive garden and terraces, and ochre yellow paint, even the keep-like residential tower did not detract from the almost Mediterranean ambience of the place. Of all of the manors of the Electors, this was the one that seemed the least Germanic by virtue of appearance in spite of its Neo-Gothic interior architecture. Even to the vines that grew around the pillars of the terraces near the central fountain, this place had been painstakingly re-crafted to resemble the old Romantic summer palace. Despite the beauty of its craftsmanship, however, the scion of the House much seemed to prefer the gardens as his abode. It gave him almost thirty acres of terrain to bend to his Will as he saw fit, since his father ruled the house interior with his own iron fist.
He was dressed in nothing more than a pair of outdoor slippers and some loose-fitting cotton drawstring pants at the moment, preferring the feel of the air on his flesh as he perused the state of his outdoor flora. Plants had always been his specialty, and since only the hardiest ones ever seemed to do well in the artificial environments of the colonies, he had made it his personal hobby to fiddle with cross-breeding species of flower that did not grow well with ones that did. It was a laborious process, and one that took vast amounts of time to come to fruition, but he had never lacked for a proper corsage whenever a dance or social function came about, nor did he ever have to special order one of the abominable freeze-dried bouquets from Terra. His state of undress concerned him even less than the temperature; had he not been forcing his House to play host to a foreigner during his time home, he would have been nude. Had that same foreigner not been Isolda Raake, he might still have been nude.
He grinned as he reached deep into a hedge of hydrangea 'Leucht Feuer' shrub, snipping off a dead branch precisely where it would re-grow itself as a living extension; the blooms were still dormant, so he'd caught it just in time. He was enjoying making his father squirm a bit, putting him on the spot to watch what he said or did in the presence of Isolda. That lost girl he had met in that bar last year had become somewhat infamous around his House, which suited him just fine; her own father was deep in negotiations with New Koenigsberg for trade rights to gene-modified tulips that would thrive in lower-gravity conditions, and the Agro-Horticulture Ministry was headed by the von Hardenbergs. Because the deal was a lucrative one, Old Man Franz von Hardenberg was being the pinnacle of the gentleman around Isolda, despite the fact that von Hardenberg knew that his father wished he could space the girl and strangle his son.
Isolda was a typical Zeon; independent-minded, brash, opinionated, and not afraid to throw it all in your face. This quality was what had attracted him to her in the first place, and in spite of his own prejudices regarding females, he was willing to accept her actions provided they did not cross a certain line. They had had plenty of arguments since their—--von Hardenberg paused in his inspection; he couldn't put a name to what it was he and Isolda shared. "Relationship" was too tame a word, but "friendship" was too strong. He shook his head and continued on.
The shrubs to his left rustled slightly, and von Hardenberg caught a hint of some familiar smells in the midst of the cloud of hydrangea he was surrounded by; cigarette smoke, leather, and the scent of fire. There was a soft spot in the hedges that the estate used as its fences; only a suicidal fool would try to break into the House itself, so security was not an issue. Only one person knew about the hole in the fence besides Markus von Hardenberg, so he was not particularly surprised when Rudolf von Kahlden stuck his head and shoulders through the shrubs and stepped onto the grounds.
"Guten Morgen, Rudi," remarked von Hardenberg sourly, pretending to not be pleased to see his old friend after a year's separation. Zuum Academy had assigned them to different series for training, so von Hardenberg had only caught glimpses of von Kahlden while they were there.
Von Kahlden looked at him with a practiced eye. "Since when in all the years I've known you have you ever decided to wear pants while trimming the hedge?"
"Since today, when I had a suspicion you'd show up here. When did you fly in?"
"Last night." Von Kahlden looked like he was going to explode into a fit at any moment. "You rotten excuse for a Palatine. I get stuck with cattle and lunkheads for a year without the company of any of you scoundrels and now you treat me like I'm a stranger?"
"That's not true, Rudi," remarked von Hardenberg innocently as he snipped another dead branch, "I didn't close that hole in the hedge you use to sneak onto our property while you were away. Besides," von Hardenberg couldn't resist, "you are technically an immigrant, being not born here and all."
"Now I know you're fucking with me, Markus." Von Kahlden had been the only one of the Fifteen not born on New Koenigsberg itself, and had never lived that down.
Von Hardenberg made one more excision, and then put the trimmers down. "So what did you come here for, good tourist? A kiss?"
"As a matter of fact, that'd do." Von Kahlden grabbed von Hardenberg and pulled him into a hug that was two parts warm to one part brutal. They kissed with the intimacy of people who had done so many times in the past.
Von Hardenberg had not been quite prepared for the amount of passion that von Kahlden was going to put into that kiss, so when they finally parted his head was spinning. "Well," he said, putting his forehead to von Kahlden's, "still think you're a stranger here?"
"Not in the least, old friend," smiled von Kahlden, breaking their embrace and throwing an arm around von Hardenberg's shoulders. "I'll take it from the fact that, as usual, you're out here puttering in your damn plants like some Baechleputzer that you haven't heard the news."
Von Hardenberg suddenly realized that his friend was dressed in hunting leathers. "Apparently not." He stopped in his tracks, hand tightening on von Kahlden's leather-clad shoulder. "A Hunt?" he asked excitedly.
Von Kahlden's smile became feral. "Escaped Hoellepanther. Four dead so far."
"Wunderbar!!" exclaimed von Hardenberg, eyes narrowing. "Who calls the Hunt? What's the prize?"
"Alte von Salza says whoever brings him the pelt of the damn thing gets the Strand of the Warnemuende of Rostock."
Von Hardenberg started walking again, maintaining an indifferent expression in spite of the sudden quickening of his pulse. "That's quite the prize, indeed. I would not mind a nice piece of Pomeranian beachfront property."
"I was almost beside myself when I found out," admitted von Kahlden deviously. "Turns out the beast ate his Kapellmeister up in the hills near Zweit-Kemnitz; that's why Old Adelbert's so hard-up to kill it."
"I won't begrudge him his wrath," commented von Hardenberg with a vicious cast of his own on his face, "especially when I win."
"You? Ha!" quipped von Kahlden, grabbing the veranda door handle and swinging it open, giving a polite bow and a hand gesture that von Hardenberg should enter first. "That's my rug you're talking about, Schwantz."
"'Schafseckel' to that, Rudolf!" barked von Hardenberg as he ran for the stairs to the keep tower, von Kahlden hot on his heels. "I might let a few of you bastards onto my beach for free if you're lucky!"
"Really? I was going to charge you nonetheless!" Von Kahlden snapped back. "Where the hell are we going?"
"To make trouble. You should remember this place readily enough." For a number of different reasons.
They reached the top, where a long heavy-gauge chain dangled. From this tower, one could see all of the estate ground and deep into the Rheinland-Pfalz district.
Von Hardenberg seized hold of the chain. Von Kahlden grabbed hold right above von Hardenberg's hands. With almost twin grins of mischievous evil, they gave the chain a yank.
They hadn't rung the massive brass-and-copper tower bell since they'd been nine years old; that had earned them both a pretty severe lashing and made Franz von Hardenberg tighten and lock the cranks on the bell so that grown men couldn't pull that chain. The acoustics of the colony cylinder, the Colony Corporation tunnel system, and the null-G field that ran through the core of the colony's internal atmosphere generated by the Coriolis force made it so that the sound of this bell would reverberate through the entire of the populated sector of New Koenigsberg, even through the plumbing.
Now New Koenigsberg was about to discover that their sons had come home for the Hunt.
The chain went taut, and the two teenagers gave it another yank, this time harder. The locks on the chain broke, but it was wound too tightly for the bell to swing.
"Once more, Rudi!!" panted von Hardenberg. "This one is easy meat!"
Spitting on his palms, von Kahlden returned his grip to the chain and leaned back and down alongside von Hardenberg. Skin muscles tightened just below their epidermic layers, and sweat broke out on their flesh as they pulled, combining their augmented strength against the ruling of the master of the House. Straining, von Hardenberg lost his grip on the chain, but not before something above them finally gave out under their might, and the bell gave forth its toll to their world.
They both hit the stone of the floor hard, even as the bell began to swing of its own volition, pealing its throaty gong throughout the air. Six times it gave its call to awaken, and both of the Elector-Princes knew that's exactly what was going on downstairs and across the metropolitan area.
Laughing, they ran back downstairs, elated that their strength alone was such to break the obstacle of the bell. The echo of the bell was still ringing throughout the colony, just at the edge of audibility as the vibrations bounced back and forth between the structures.
"YOU BRATS!!" roared a voice, one that halted the two in their tracks as they rounded the corner into the living area. There was a crowd waiting for them, all members of the Household, and at the center was Franz von Hardenberg himself, clothed in a sleeping robe and his house slippers. The expression on his face was like a thundercloud.
"Good morning, Herr von Hardenberg," announced von Kahlden, respectfully bowing his head.
The elder von Hardenberg was staring daggers of ice at his son and heir. "I should have guessed that you would act this way once you were reunited, Markus. After all this time and all your discipline, the Terrible Two still live after all!"
"We are not so easy to kill as that, Father," remarked von Hardenberg defiantly. "Besides, the occasion calls for it."
"NO occasion aside from the eventual crowning of the Emperor Himself would be enough for the two of you to warrant waking up the entire colony!!" He waved his hands at the servants, who scurried off to go to the morning work and vacated the room, keeping their whispers to themselves.
"Even Dietrich needs an alarm clock," mentioned von Kahlden, and von Hardenberg smacked him on the arm.
"Do NOT remind me of that fact!" hissed Franz von Hardenberg angrily. He stepped closer to the two of them. "I had that bell sealed for a reason, and you defied me! So now, as a ransom for your miserable hides, to repay scaring a decade of life away from myself and the Household, what will you offer in exchange for my forgiveness?"
Von Kahlden blustered, about to say something stupidly Berliner in response, but a voice from the stair broke in: "I'd like to know what the occasion was that called for the bell in the first place."
The room turned its eyes to the girl who was standing on the staircase. Isolda Raake leaned on the railing, tapping her fingers on the banister, a curious expression on her face as she stared at von Hardenberg.
Franz von Hardenberg turned, sparing her a glance, before returning his focus to his taller son, who stared at her and no other. Von Kahlden's gaze shifted from her, to von Hardenberg, and back again in stunned amazement. "You devil!" he whispered from between closed lips, subvocalizing.
Von Hardenberg cleared his throat, suddenly aware that he was half-naked in front of a Spacenoid girl who was also his guest, who might take offense at his state of undress even though all she seemed to be wearing was one of his extra-long T-shirts. "G-good morning, Isolda. You've met Rudolf before, yes?"
She walked down the rest of the stairs, smiling. "Of course I have. How have you been, Rudolf? I heard you took series high PT score again this last test."
"You're too kind, Ms. Raake," stated von Kahlden, approaching her and reaching out to take her hand. "But it gets too easy to outrun those inner-Side slowpokes. I miss a real challenge."
There was something in his voice that von Hardenberg didn't like, just like he was becoming a tad uncomfortable as he watched von Kahlden kiss Isolda's hand. Something inside him stirred restlessly, but he couldn't put a name to it. . .just guesses.
She actually blushed. "You want a challenge? Try teaching Markus half your charms, and if you manage it, someone would give you a medal."
"Or a smack to the mouth," muttered Franz von Hardenberg. He glared at his son. "We'll speak of this later, Markus, but before I leave you to your guests, please do tell why you chose to ring my bell without my permission."
"A Hunt has been called, Father," answered von Hardenberg. "Rudolf just told me."
Franz actually grinned, though his eyes bespoke future suffering. "Oh, is that it, then? This had best be a good one. If you win, you might get out of this without having to scrub pots until even your hands bleed."
"It is, Father. Land's at stake." He turned to face an open doorway to the left. "Frau Meyer!! Break out my leathers!"
Von Hardenberg's voice seemed to travel endlessly throughout the building, and another voice answered: "The plains or the crests, Markus?"
"Crests, please!" He turned to Isolda. "She's got the best hearing I've ever seen a doting old woman have. I can be anywhere on the grounds and she'll hear me."
"'Old woman'?? I heard that, you scamp!" hollered Frau Meyer from wherever she was.
Isolda laughed. "A hunt? Like a fox hunt?"
Von Kahlden draped an arm casually around Isolda's shoulders, his rakish glance catching von Hardenberg's eye. "Something like that, yes."
Franz von Hardenberg watched the trio, bemused. "Just be careful, and do try and win. . .for your sakes." He stormed off, but with a slight skip to his step that only von Hardenberg or his mother would have ever noticed. "The armory key is where it always is, Markus!"
Of course it was: only three people in all the House knew where that key was at any given time. "Help yourselves to breakfast. Isolda? Try not to listen to any of Rudolf's bullshit stories. I'm going to get dressed." Now I cannot fail my Father's hopes.
"If you're wearing crests, then I'm going to go change. Be back in no time." Von Kahlden remarked. "I can't have plain old you looking better than me, can I?"
Von Hardenberg swatted von Kahlden on the arm again as he stepped past him, heading for the staircase. The blond man actually giggled as he ran out of the house.
"He's such an adolescent," he remarked, hopping up onto the fifth step and climbing. "I'll be done in a few minutes."
Isolda's gaze traveled the length of his form as he ascended the stairs: he could feel her eyes on him. "Take your time," was all she said.
And it was his turn to blush.
Isolda gaped at him. "You---you're not serious."
Von Hardenberg was now clad in the hunting attire he preferred: a Stenvaag-type black leather shooting jacket over a lighter white cotton undershirt, tanned denim breeches, and almost thigh-length black leather boots that would protect the knees as well. He also wore a set of black leather gloves, fingerless. Emblazoned on the jacket's left breast and rear panel was the crest of his House position as the scion: a silver wheel on red for the Elector of the city of Mainz, and a future Count of the Palatinate.
But it wasn't the un-Zeon garb that had Isolda dumbfounded. It was his choice of weapon.
She crossed her arms. "You mean to tell me that you're going to go out there for God knows how long to track down some escaped animal, and all you're taking is that knife you always carry and. . .that?" She pointed a slender finger at him.
He glanced up and down the length of the broad-bladed boar spear he held in his left hand. "Correct. What's the problem?"
"Markus. . .it's a spear. We hunt on Hoeksche Waard all the time. What's wrong with using a subcaliber gun?"
"Nothing at all," he assured her, "but this is more the challenge."
"'Challenge'?" She'd begun to pick up on what was going on, and he began to get a little nervous. He'd spent the last hour trying to convince her that this hunt, for all its apparent flavor for the males, was really nothing more than a search mission for someone's lost cow, or goat, or prized dog. He wanted to kick himself for the oversight in choosing a boar spear as his instrument for tracking down a supposed lost cow.
Still, it was a fine spear, its blade almost two feet in length, serrated on the reverse, and barbed down a foot of it to make certain that whatever he ran through wouldn't wiggle off of it easily or painlessly. The smooth, black-lacquered shaft was homegrown ironwood, with all the tensile strength of fibresteel and the weight of bamboo. His using it was also a matter of pride; Rudolf wouldn't use a gun to hunt the thing, and it was imperative that Rudolf not outclass him in the weapons inventory.
She walked closer to him, her jade green eyes meeting his blue-green ones. "It's time to stop hiding, Markus. If you're going to track down someone's runaway Labrador, a spear seems a little extreme, don't you think?"
He actually chewed on his lower lip, an old habit he'd had trouble quitting. "Well, it's not exactly a herd animal."
She just looked at him, waiting.
He sighed. Rudolf's going to kill me. "It's a. . .predator. A big cat, like a tiger."
"A predator," she stated simply, "that you intend to hunt and kill with a spear??"
She quirked an eyebrow, disbelieving. "You do realize how dumb that is, right?"
"Not really, unless you plan to wager on the cat."
She shook her head, and was about to say something when the front door opened, admitting Rudolf von Kahlden back in, a cloud of smoke preceding his return.
"Guten Tag, Guten Tag, meine Damen und Herren! Are we ready yet, Markus?" Von Kahlden tossed the butt of his cigarette into a receptacle near the door.
"Just about," answered von Hardenberg glibly. He hated von Kahlden's smoking habit, if just for the fact it occluded the rest of the smells around them.
"What do you think?" von Kahlden asked, spinning on a heel. "Sehr schick, ja?" His attire was close to being identical to von Hardenberg's, though he'd picked a set of light chainmail to go along with his torso garb, and his boots were designed for hiking. The scion of Berlin was also colored more flamboyantly, in a lot of reds and oranges, which blended with his choice of sigil: a red canting fox on a gold background, with trees and six wheat-ears, topped by a mural crown that bore the black bear of Berlin in a small shield on the central tower. Where von Hardenberg's was simple, his was complex in design, though the fox dominated the entire shield.
The Elector-Prince of Berlin looked his friend up and down. "Boar spear? Nice choice, Mister Gutsy."
"That was snide enough. What did you pick? Rocket-propelled grenade?"
Von Kahlden snorted at the sarcasm. "That'd ruin the pelt, Schwuchtl. I'm using a crossbow."
Isolda swiveled her head to stare at him. "A. . .crossbow?" she asked, quietly and yet menacing at the same time.
"Mmm-hmm," answered von Kahlden, amused at her reaction. "Put a bloodletter bolt in the kitty cat to slow it down, then walk up and brain it with a mace. Simple."
Isolda's eyes went wide as saucers. "A MACE!! What is wrong with you two??"
Von Kahlden looked at her, then back at von Hardenberg. "Is this going to be an issue?" The tone of his voice was no longer amused, but disturbed.
Von Hardenberg shrugged offhandedly. "Not for me."
"That's it." Isolda grabbed her jacket and started to put it on.
"What's 'it'?" stammered von Hardenberg, suddenly realizing what she was doing.
"I'm coming with you."
Von Kahlden's eyes bugged out of his head. "Like hell! You're not ready for this, Isolda!"
"Too bad. I'm not going to let someone I care about go and get himself killed because he's out to impress people!"
Who's she talking about? Von Hardenberg wanted to grab her and shake her. "It's not like that!"
"Look, boys, it's real simple," she said, shrugging on her jacket and fastening it. "If this is as easy as you both say it is, then there's no danger, is there? It's a nice day out, and I'm up for a walk, so that's that."
"Mar~kus," warned von Kahlden between clenched teeth, subvocalizing, "sto~op her."
She smiled at them, her freckles dimpling. "Shall we go, gentlemen?"
Von Hardenberg caught von Kahlden's angry stare, then offered her a hand, rashly taking a chance. "Yes, let's."
Von Kahlden had left them a few hours later, in something of a satisfying huff, linking up with another group of hunters who looked like they could use "some panache" and heading southward towards the suburb sector backroads. Isolda and von Hardenberg had continued north, deeper into the walking paths and trails that if a person traveled far enough, they would eventually circumscribe the entirety of New Koenigsberg's inhabited zone. Plenty of places up in the hills and forests for an animal to hide in; that, von Hardenberg concluded, was what he would do if he were a loose predator on the lookout for a food source.
He, however, admitted that his instincts weren't quite as honed as his quarry's, and it wasn't defending an unarmed visitor to its home. He had hunted large predators before, in the myriad of tests that was his life, but never like this.
As they walked, chatting aimlessly about this or that, von Hardenberg wracked his brain, trying to remember the habits of the Hoellepanther gen-mod felinoid. He could not; too much time away, too much time in the garden and not on the trail. He felt something akin to shame, but more annoyance than anything else: now he would have to work harder than necessary to impress his guest.
"See that over there? Above the cityscape, between the trees?" he asked her, stopping and pointing where he was looking with his spear.
She leaned closer to him, her eyes following the direction of the spear, and he felt a rush of heat that almost made him shiver; he chewed on his lower lip instead, inhaling her scent, savoring it. She was almost as tall as he was, though it was apparent that she would never reach his height. He fought to keep from burying his nose in her auburn hair, though it would have been bliss to do so.
"That tower, you mean?" she asked him, voice softer than normal.
"Yes," he replied, also more quietly than he would have intended, "that's an exact replica of the Wardetuerm in Duesseldorf. We've crossed into the Westphalian section."
She looked up at him. "All these 'replicas' of Terra. . .why do your people do that? We're Spacenoids now, aren't we?"
"Oh, yes," he admitted as they began to walk again, but close enough that he could still feel her warmth, "we are, at that. But we also realize the value of remembering what we once had." His face grew hard, filled with a cruelty that had no name. "What was once ours. . .and now lost to us."
She was silent for a long moment, as they walked. Topics like these were common themes among most of Side 3; everyone had a past. Then: "My colony is mostly Dutch, but we have a lot of other groups as well. We emigrated because we couldn't get the Federation to recognize our freedom, but some of the others. . ."
". . .were deportees." Von Hardenberg finished for her. This was an old and common tune.
"Yes. We had a hard time integrating them, but after we became Zeon, it's like no one cares about their Terran past anymore. . .except here." She shuffled a boot through some fallen leaves. "You do a lot of things differently here."
He glanced at her, wondering if she was making a judgment or just delving for secrets. "Not so. We aren't the only colony who embraces the past even as we strive for the future; Neo-Aztlan is quite Hispanic, to give an example. But you also have to remember that my Grossvater and his people did not come here of their own free will, but they made their new home theirs as much as they could."
He swept an arm widely ahead of them. "When they were exiled, they gathered up whatever they could and bought this colony cylinder from Colony Corporation. It's ours, Isolda, something we can make what we wish. Yes, we're Spacenoids, and yes, we're Zeon. . .but we've not forgotten what we were, and we try to keep that even as we move ahead. Besides, how wrong is it really to place value on Space as well as Terra?"
"None, I suppose," she said, "but I do think there's something wrong with fixating on the past when the future's so promising."
"I agree entirely." He smiled at her. "We're always planning for the future here, in spite of the décor."
Another hour passed as they talked, and von Hardenberg noticed that she was very much interested in what it was they had here; almost too interested. He also found himself wanting to tell her everything, but knew that could not. There was too much danger; the Ordnung was not something most other Zeon would ever grasp willingly just on basis of word alone.
"You said something about the 'Westphalian' section earlier. Is there a difference between here and where you live?"
Good question. "Oh, very much so, though for some reason no one seems to notice it but us. My family is administrator to the Palatine section; the area we're in now is governed by the von Schauernberg family."
"Ooo, crossing the border illegally?" she said, her tone jesting. "Are you going to have to pay a toll?"
He shot a smirk at her. "Doubtful. Wilhelm's a friend of mine, so if there's any fee to be paid, he'll probably just make me dance for his amusement."
"You are a pretty good dancer."
"Nonsense." He had made that error last year, even as he tried to cover up his own abilities behind a false clumsiness at the Academy. Unlike von Kahlden, he was trying not to draw too much attention to himself in the presence of outlanders; too many questions led to just as many dangers.
"You're lying, Markus," she accused, grabbing his hand with one of her own, "I've seen you at the Academy, remember? You make a pretty good show of it, but I can see that you hold yourself back. It's kind of cute, in a patronizing way, but all you do is sell yourself short."
He blushed, hating himself for doing so, as he felt her hand in his: delicate and strong at the same time. "Is it. . .noticeable?"
She smiled at him, almost coyly. "Only to me."
"And. . .how long have you. . .?"
"Since the first time I met you, Markus," she said, answering his question before he could ask it. "All those little differences between where I come from and where you come from really start to show when neither of us is where we're from." She gave his hand a squeeze, like she was testing him.
He stopped them, and drew her hand towards him, pulling her closer. "And you pay this much attention to me, why?"
Her smile became an impish smirk. "Maybe you're worth paying attention to. Sometimes."
"Okay," she admitted, drawing even closer to him, "maybe most of the time. . ."
He caught it before her own scent overwhelmed it, even as her face drew closer to his, and he almost kissed her then. He did not complete the motion, and he stood stock still, but his eyes and ears scanned for the source of the smell he had caught the barest whiff of. She noticed that he had stopped, and looked up at him, confused.
"Isolda," he whispered, and the tone of his voice was all business now, "when I tell you to run, do so, as fast as you can back the way we came. Try to find Rudolf and his company."
Her eyes widened, so close to him that something in him ached to just hold her, to comfort her. "Is it---?" she began.
"Yes," he hissed through clenched teeth. "It's watching us right now, from behind you. I cannot see it yet, but I know it's there. Damn me, I may have killed us both."
He felt her hand squeeze his again, but her eyes showed no fear. "I won't leave you, Markus," she whispered back.
Curious response to a threat, he thought, cursing himself again. Everything he had learned about his prey was coming back to him now that it was almost too late. His heart began to beat more rapidly, as he readied for its imminent attack. He slowly drew her hand around his waist. "Take my knife. If it gets past me, it will run you down. Kill yourself before that happens; it will be a mercy."
She had begun to tremble, and her eyes were filling with anger. "No," she answered fiercely.
He smiled sadly down at her, his eyes not leaving hers for an instant. "You must."
Wordlessly, she took the knife from his belt sheath, freeing the blade from its confines just as the bushes behind her gave a rustle. He clasped her hand tighter, and then gave her a pull that would drag her behind him, releasing her as the inertia of the tug sent her stumbling past him. "GO!!" he yelled, as the Hoellepanther exploded from the brush.
It was bigger than he'd imagined, easily four feet high at the shoulder, and it moved with a power he could appreciate in a killer. It had the long legs of a hunter accustomed to running down fast prey, but its body was long and thick, for strength as well as speed. He did not glance back at Isolda, trusting that she was already running at top speed away from him. He whipped the spear down and out, planting a foot on it as he braced it for impact, but he hadn't the time to bring his second hand to the shaft to steady it.
The cat hit him at almost thirty kilometers per hour; it swatted him off his feet with ease. The spear went spinning away in one direction, and he went in another. He hit ground with a grunt, skidding ten feet in the dirt even as he tried to roll with the landing. Two hundred kilos of angry and hungry mottled gray-and-black cat landed right on top of him, stopping that idea cold.
Desperate, he grabbed the cat's face in his hands, holding its jaws away from his throat, his fingers digging into its flesh. It gave a growl of annoyance and tried to shove its head past his grip; his arms trembled under the strain, but held. He growled right back in its face, meeting its feral gaze with his own.
Bet you thought I was just an easy one, didn't you, beast? he thought, its breath a stink around his face. Hoellepanther differed from other big cats in that it would kill the defender of its prey first; he remembered it also liked to track down the smallest parties of prey. I brought the thing to us by getting Rudolf mad and making him go away. How stupid am I?
Von Hardenberg drew his legs up under the heavy beast, then kicked up and out, flipping the cat up and over himself before it could bring its claws into the fight. The cat yowled its displeasure as it smacked onto the ground, but it was up in a flash, its sun-yellow eyes glinting its hunger.
Von Hardenberg staggered up to his feet, just in time to see the cat recover. He made a run for the spear, but it cut him off and prepared to leap on him again. That was its favorite thing: overbear, and then eviscerate. He slid into the first defense mode he could think of to combat a feline opponent, his hands outstretched and open in a Crane stance.
The Hoellepanther was familiar with it, apparently, because it chose to circle him instead. He could sense its intelligence in its eyes, its malevolence. He returned it with his own stare, tracking it as it trotted around him, seeking an opening. You won't find one, pussycat.
Except that it did. It suddenly burst left and headed for the direction Isolda had gone.
"NO!!" roared von Hardenberg, breaking his stance to intercept the beast before it reached the trail. It anticipated him, and whirled back towards him, leaping into the air with a triumphant snarl.
He caught it, managed to lift the squirming thing over his head, and threw it to the ground as hard as he could, but it dug its claws into the leather he was wearing and dragged him down with it, its weight greater than his own. Its jaws snapped closed around his shoulder, and von Hardenberg felt its teeth punch through his flesh and stop at the bone. He shrieked in pain, trying to pull away from the source, but it overbalanced and he fell, and then it used its greater mass and bore him down.
The thing was on top of him now, its weight oppressive, its stench fouled with the smells of those it had killed. He could feel the cat chewing on him, something normal cats could not do, its jaws working on his skin, his blood soaking his clothes as its teeth ground like gears into his muscle tissue, enamel grating on bone sending chords of agony through him. The leather was keeping the beast's claws away from him, thankfully, but he did not know for how much longer. He drew back his right hand and slapped the cat across its nose, then punched it on its neck. The punch must have hurt it, because it let go his shoulder with a snarl, baring fangs coated in his blood, just inches from his face. He used the opening to draw back his hand, two fingers extended, and drive his digits home into one of its eyes.
He felt the cat's eyeball burst, and it screeched in shock and pain as he dug his fingers deeper into the socket, pulling at its skull to force it away from him. Feel that, Vieh? How does evolution taste to you now?
It rolled off of him, trying to free itself. Von Hardenberg let it go before it dislocated his shoulder, and then lurched back to his feet, chest heaving, fighting nausea from the pain. His left arm was hanging uselessly, and pain coursed through his body. The cat shook its head, his blood and its own smeared across its face, and it turned its one baleful eye upon him. It was pissed now, and von Hardenberg laughed at it in defiance. He wished he'd kept that knife.
The big predator's eye narrowed as it considered him, and then charged at him, screaming its rage. Von Hardenberg dodged to one side, and then executed a perfect martelo rotada jumping kick, and smashed it in the head as it leapt at him, just barely clearing the slashing claw it tried to rake him with. The kick made him lose his balance from the force, but it also changed the cat's direction. It landed on its feet nonetheless, which made von Hardenberg feel even sicker. He was still regaining his balance when it leapt again, and this time it hit him in just the right direction that he landed on his right side, the good side, with the cat on top of him.
GODDAMMIT!! he cursed, and he knew this was it. His good arm was trapped underneath him, and the cat's breath was an awful stench as its teeth descended towards his face. He struggled to free his good hand from their combined weight, but it was futile. Sweat and panic broke out from his pores, and he screamed as the cat toyed with him, dragging its left claw through the ruin that was his left shoulder, flexing the rudimentary digits as it hugged him close. He could feel its whiskers tickling his face as it tortured him, and a sandpaper-like tongue scraped across his ruined flesh as it licked at his blood.
This thing reveled in the pain it was giving him. He could relate to that.
It can't end like this, he thought, mind churning to find a way out of this, before it grew bored and finished him off. I am superior; this animal is MY prey! He was losing strength, his lungs unable to inhale fully under the crushing weight of the big cat.
His eyes roamed desperately, trying to find something, anything that he could use to get this thing the hell off of him. On a tree, not even ten meters away, he recognized something that might have helped if he'd had it in his hands. He was about to his wits' end now, his higher processes blinded by pain.
And suddenly, the Hoellepanther screamed out a horrible roar and almost jumped off of him, rolling away from him to escape the spear that had suddenly materialized in its flank, near its hindquarters. Isolda tried to keep hold of the boar spear as the cat rolled, but the barbs held the spear's point in the animal's flesh, and she had to let it go before it dragged her off of her feet. She had not run away, she had defied his order, and now she had wounded his quarry and saved his life in the process.
Von Hardenberg never thought he would see such a beautiful sight again. In spite of the rescue, the damage had been done; he knew it was only a matter of time now; but the vision of her with that spear in her hand, screaming her hate at a far more powerful predator while sinking that steel into it. . .exquisite.
He scrambled to his feet, unsteadily at first. The cat was hissing in rage and pain, trying to dislodge the spear from its side. Time was short now.
"KNIFE!" he commanded her, and in a reflex action, she tossed it at him. He snared it in midair with his good hand and made a run for the tree. "Isolda!!! RUN!!" he called as he raced for his goal.
She listened, just as the cat managed to batter the spear from its body, a thick gout of blood erupting from the wound. Its shriek was ear-splitting. Its single eye fixed, it started after Isolda, who was fleeing pell-mell down the trail.
Von Hardenberg reached the tree, and spared a moment to glance back. The Hoellepanther was slower now, but still faster than she was. It rushed up on her and leapt, and he tried to yell a warning, but knew it was too late.
Isolda leapt, too, diving to the right and away from her previous direction, just in time to avoid being hit from behind. The cat landed on its feet, but its right rear leg collapsed underneath it, and it went rolling in a cloud of fur and dirt. Isolda got to her own feet before the cat did, and took off running. . .back towards von Hardenberg.
Clever girl!! his mind exulted as he gripped the boot knife and chopped at a length of grayish-silver vine from the side of the tree. A second cut severed a three-foot length of it free. He had recognized this species as a modified form of the pumpkin vine with a carnivorous bent towards small mammals; it had been created to control the vermin population in the colony cylinder without the need for chemicals. It had another tongue-twister of a name, but von Hardenberg knew it as 'hypervine'. He stabbed the knife into the bark of the tree, and then waited.
Isolda ran past him in a flurry of limbs, sprinting, the cat just a few steps behind her. Von Hardenberg grabbed both ends of the hypervine length and jumped as the Hoellepanther raced past his position, landing on the big cat's back.
The beast roared its displeasure at its passenger, even as its feet slipped out from underneath it and it twisted around, trying to dislodge its guest. Von Hardenberg gritted his teeth and threw one end of the hypervine around the cat's neck, managing to catch it with his weakened left hand just as the cat leapt into midair, wrenched itself around, and landed on the ground, von Hardenberg on the bottom.
Too late, animal!! he shouted in his mind, as the tremendous weight of the cat smashed the air from his lungs, and all strength left his hands. The monstrous animal rolled off, then grabbed him with its claws, dragging him beneath it as it savaged him. The leather of his jacket gave out, and he felt the bite of its claws in his flesh. He laughed even as he cried out.
But the hypervine had taken its first drink of iron-red blood, from von Hardenberg's own wounds, and as it was designed, it began to constrict, its primary method of claiming its prey. Like a torc, the length of vine wound its way around the Hoellepanther's throat and tightened.
The yowling of the cat cut off abruptly, and what emerged next from its throat was something akin to a squeal. The carnivore abandoned von Hardenberg and thrashed on the ground, raking at its own neck with its claws, trying in vain to sever the immensely strong leash. Von Hardenberg climbed to his feet, watching in satisfaction as the struggles of the suffocating animal grew weaker and weaker. Its razor claws were only succeeding in slashing open its own throat, a fact that von Hardenberg did not fail to miss in his observation, any more than he did not fail to miss the fact that one of his own legs was beginning to spasm.
He calmly walked/limped over to the boar spear and picked it up. From a distance of almost twenty meters, he drew the huge spear back like it was a javelin, and threw it with all the might he could muster, snarling in contempt as he released it. It sank into the side of the tortured cat, and then punched its way out of the far end, effectively skewering it along half the spear's length.
With a last choking gasp and a shudder that rocked its entire frame, the Hoellepanther died, slumping in a heap, its tongue lolling from its gaping jaws. Von Hardenberg fell to his knees, just as Isolda tackled him headlong, wrapping her arms around him in as hard an embrace as she could manage.
He barely felt it nonetheless, and that pained him even more than his wounds did.
She was trembling in his arms, trying hard not to cry even though it was a logical release mechanism for tension. He would not have despised that of her in this instance; she had fought an extremely dangerous predator and survived.
"Shhh," he whispered in her hair, "there's no need for that. We won."
"Gods, Markus," she moaned into his chest, terrified and brave all at once, "what in Hell was that??"
"My prey, Isolda," he answered, somewhat sadly but also relieved, "our prey."
He held her just a little tighter, but not so tight as to alarm her. He could feel it in his veins now, the burning sensation as the end came near. Soon, there would be pain to outmatch even his shoulder. He hoped he would not linger before her, reduced to a pile of humiliated flesh and weakness.
She was still trembling, and her tears were falling in spite of her, and he marveled at what a fighter she was. Though it pained him terribly, he placed his left hand behind her head, stroking her hair. A tingling sensation was building within him, and he knew.
"Listen to me, Isolda," he said calmly, and she looked up into his eyes, breaking his heart as she did so, "you have to go now. Tell everyone what happened here, so that when---"
It struck with no further warning, and only reflex saved her from being crushed as every muscle in his body suddenly clenched. His jaws snapped shut on his words, and he pushed her away as hard as he could manage.
"Markus??" he could hear her words, and she sounded so terrified now that it hurt him to hear it. He fell as another spasm wracked his frame. She was beside him, trying to touch him yet afraid to. "MARKUS!!"
"Go. . ." he hissed through jaws that would no longer loosen, his breath a wheeze. Another seizure locked him in a cage of agony, as his muscles began to cramp from the stress of universal contraction. His fingers tore at the earth like claws, only to snap open again with every spasm, knuckles and veins distended.
"Markus, what's happening?" Her voice had taken on a different quality now, all business and no fear.
"Claws. . ." he managed to gasp, straining to make himself understood. "Venom in its. . .claws. . ."
The next one almost made him bite off his tongue, and his autonomic system fought to keep his heart from stopping. Soon now, but he wondered vaguely if his high-carbon skeletal structure would break first. The stress on his muscles was beginning to place pressure on his bones in areas not meant to withstand such.
"NO!" she screamed at him, and suddenly she was kissing him, and he did not know why, but it was a suitable distraction from the pain. What a pity, he thought, detached from what was happening to him, I guess she was talking about me after all. . .
The next tremor struck him, and as his back bent like a bow and his breath departed in a scream, he blacked out.
". . .mmph," was the first thing Markus von Hardenberg said when his eyes opened again. He blinked painfully: some idiot had put a ceiling light fixture right above his head, so he was practically blind even with his eyelids peeled back. He closed them with a low snarl of displeasure.
He inhaled shallowly, still trying to identify his location. From the scents of antiseptics and enduring pain, he gathered that he was in a clinic of some type somewhere. The bed he was in was uncomfortable enough to lend further credence to that theory. He cracked open an eye again and glanced around slowly. His whole body was sore, sorer than even after the Field of May melee. Even his bones ached, and that was truly an intriguing sensation he'd have preferred to not know about.
He managed to get his neck to obey his commands. He was attached to the bed with restraints; digital machines dutifully monitored his condition, which he was pleased to note were all in the green. A single bag of what looked like swamp water was running gunk into his arm. . .it looked like some sort of culture he might have used to grow lichens from. That thought made him queasy. Time to take a chance, Markus von Hardenberg. . .
He slowly wriggled his way up the headboard until he was sitting, then reached over with his bandaged left arm and deactivated the medical sensors. Then he removed the needle from his arm, and waited the forty seconds it took for his autoimmune system to cease the bleeding entirely. Antivenom? So I'm not in Hell after all, he noted, glancing at a small white label on the IV bag. He began stripping the bandages off of his left side, checking the condition of his flesh. There was little missing from him, but there would be scars indeed. The cat had left its mark on him in the end, but not as deeply as he had left his in it.
He sensed it before he saw: he was not alone in the room. Slowly, he turned his head towards the wall to his right, and saw Wilhelm von Schauernberg sitting in a chair, staring at him.
Logically, a von Schauernberg would be here: this was his family's district, and von Hardenberg, being harmed within its borders, was under their hospitality until he recovered or died: a strange variant of purveyance combined with primus inter pares law. Von Schauernberg was shorter than von Hardenberg, much fairer in skin tone and hair color, and lither as well, but was not to be trifled with in spite of his slighter build and slightly younger age. It was von Schauernberg's eyes that set him truly apart: the irises were white as freshly fallen snow, a shade lighter than the corneas around them, with black pupils. Wilhelm von Schauernberg escaped extermination at birth only because he was far from being blind, as the bio-scholars had feared.
"Gott im Himmel, Markus! What the hell? Have you gone absolutely mad?" He glowered at von Hardenberg with all the fury he could muster. His snow-white eyes, which von Hardenberg had always found to be excellently colored, were ringed with red, and his fair face was flushed.
"Nice to see you again, too, Willi," muttered von Hardenberg. "Sorry for the trouble." Great. He's agitated.
"'Trouble'?" snapped von Schauernberg, rising from the chair to walk over to the side of the bed. "You have the bad manners to get yourself mauled in my territory and you think it's just 'trouble'? I've got my people and yours practically brawling in the hospital lobby over your condition, and Rudolf's had to be ejected, along with that tale-spinning girl you had with you! If you'd been out for even a day longer, I'd have summoned a Henker to cut your throat and told the bio-scholars to start over with your lineage!"
"A Henker?" chuckled von Hardenberg dryly. "Your family would keep a professional executioner, wouldn't they?"
"It's more civil that way," responded von Schauernberg, amicably enough but still snappish, "instead of me having to dirty my own hands in some peasant's blood unless I want to. How you can touch those pretty flowers of yours with someone's lifeblood beneath your nails must account for their livelihood."
Von Hardenberg shot him a withering look. "I'll have to test that theory on the begonias. . .they're looking a bit wan of late."
The younger of the two glared at von Hardenberg, face a mixture of worry and anger. Then, he let out a long breath, visibly calming down. "You scared us all, Markus. You were a mess, the worst I'd ever seen. They didn't expect you to survive the venom's effects, much less almost being damn near disemboweled. If you'd died here in my sector, I don't think I could have borne the guilt."
"Believe me, Willi, I think I would have come out badly in that arrangement as well." He smiled, acknowledging the lessening of the tension between them. He had been in the wrong to risk himself like he had, especially within the providence of another House; he had put von Schauernberg on the spot, and the Elector-Prince of North Rhein-Westphalia had a right to be ticked about it. "You actually kicked Rudolf out?"
Von Schauernberg laughed abruptly, putting a hand on von Hardenberg's shoulder and squeezing as hard as he could before letting him go, as if he knew how much pain von Hardenberg was in and relishing giving him a little more, just because he could. "Yes, but at least he went out just bitching up a storm; same with your father and half your district. But that girlfriend of yours. . .I almost had to Command her out! She's quite the fireball, that one; I think she was considering punching me in the face with the fire extinguisher she was threatening my doctors with."
Von Hardenberg grabbed von Schauernberg by the shoulders. "Where is she? Is she harmed? Where're my clothes? Can I leave yet?"
"'In the ICU waiting room', 'no', 'destroyed, but new ones are on their way up now', and 'I don't see why not', respectively. Is it my turn yet?"
"Not until you promise that the next escaped animal in your turf that I have to Hunt is just a modified platypus. Where is my catch, anyway? Still up in the hills?" He sat down on the bed slowly, taking the gravity off of his aching legs without making it look like that was what he was doing.
Von Schauernberg shook his head, seeming even younger than he was at that moment. "No, no, I had a team bring it down after the girl told us what happened. Hermann's got his father writing up the title transfer paperwork right now. The Kill is yours."
"Thank you, Willi," he said, meaning it. I did not fail you, Father; your son is Elite. A knock on the door broke the silence that had descended, and von Schauernberg answered it, murmuring for a moment with whomever it was before closing and latching it again.
The future Graf of Nordrhein-Westfalen tossed a plastic-wrapped package at von Hardenberg. "Someday," mentioned von Schauernberg wistfully, "you'll have to tell me what really happened up there, Markus."
"Perhaps. When you grow up."
"Mach es dir selber, Hardenberg," laughed von Schauernberg again. "Get dressed. Half of your subjects think we're experimenting with you in here. I'll get your checkout paperwork pushed through, so you can take your Palatine horde, your hellfire girlfriend, and that smarmy Berliner and get the hell out of my district."
"Tell them nothing. I'd rather not be mobbed at the moment," warned von Hardenberg. "And she's not my girlfriend. . .at the moment."
"Really?" jibed von Schauernberg. "That's not what she said."
Von Hardenberg tried his best not to blush. "And you'd listen to a cattle wench over my word?"
"With the amount of lies she told about your combat prowess, not a chance," smirked von Schauernberg, and then he suddenly sobered. "I'll let you get dressed now. Be sure and say goodbye when you leave, since I don't think I'll see you again until after the Academy, your series graduating before mine and all."
"I will." He reached out and took von Schauernberg's hand in his own, drawing him closer. While he was sitting, he was shorter than von Schauernberg was. He buried his face in von Schauernberg's blue-and-yellow spider's-silk shirtfront, inhaling deeply. Such a different scent from von Kahlden's smoke and fire, or Isolda's jasmine and orchid; von Schauernberg's was grapes and tea and sugar and steel, all blended together. Unique, as all people's scents were, once you got around the walls of horrific odors they surrounded themselves with.
He owed von Schauernberg now, and probably would for a very long time.
He felt von Schauernberg's arms embrace his head, one cool hand rubbing the top of his scalp. "It's so confusing, isn't it, Markus?" subvocalized von Schauernberg, his voice a vibration in his chest.
"Are you reading my mind now, Wilhelm, or just taking shots in the dark?" He closed his eyes, trying to drown himself in von Schauernberg's living warmth. He was still cold on the inside; a side-effect of taking a trip to the Darkness Without End's suburbs, he surmised.
"I'd almost have to be reading your mind. You're such the Schwaadlappen. No, I really am just guessing. . .and your reaction to her name was pretty poignant, too."
"I don't know what to do, Willi. I feel like a lost man who's been found, but still can't find his way around his own world." He wouldn't have dared speak of this to anyone else, not even von Kahlden. But he ventured this risk anyway; the privacy of the moment should not be wasted. "It's terrible to know what I want, but to get it requires so much loss. . ."
"I don't have all the answers," said von Schauernberg, almost apologetically. "With Elise and I, it's different. She is of the Race. Your Isolda is Spacenoid, and Zeon. . .but not one of us. To get so close to an outlander. . .surely Rudolf's brought this up."
"He has. Often, and with great vigor."
"Then you know what happens to moths when they skirt the flames."
Von Hardenberg nodded, tightening his arms around von Schauernberg's torso as hard as he could manage, knowing that there was no danger in doing so for them, but for he and Isolda. . . "Death."
Von Schauernberg took von Hardenberg's head in his hands, and raised it so that their eyes met. "This is all the advice I have to give, Markus, and I hope it solves some of your concerns."
Then he bent his neck and kissed von Hardenberg, so gently it was painful. It was very brief, but telling enough that von Hardenberg wondered if it was their souls touching instead of their lips. So different with this, too, he marveled. Rudolf was scorching with his kisses, Isolda's were electricity in his veins. Wilhelm von Schauernberg's kiss was pure molten warmth, suffusing him. Then it was over, and they broke apart.
Von Schauernberg smiled down at him. "You'll have to be like that with her, Markus. All the time; delicate and ever so careful, even in the throes of your violence and your passions. Any more than that, and you run that risk. It's the same price that I have to pay to be with Elise, a sacrifice for the one thing I've desired even more than the Throne. But she is of the Race, and hardier than your woman will be, so your warning comes tenfold in its gravity."
Von Hardenberg met those ice-pale eyes with his own blue-green eyes. "You're almost eight months younger than I am, Wilhelm. . .when did you grow so much wiser?"
The other man laughed, giving him one last crushing hug before releasing him. "You spend too much time with Rudolf; that's enough to degenerate anyone's age bracket." Then he grew sober again. "Be very careful with him, Markus. You have a habit of just throwing facts around directly, or avoiding things altogether, as any proper Palatine would. Don't dance that dance with Rudolf: for all his antics, he's very Prussian, like Reinhardt. He cares so deeply for you it shows in everything he does when you're around. When you let him know, be mindful; if you hurt him, he'll kill you."
Von Hardenberg nodded. "I'll remember."
"Then remember this as well," said von Schauernberg, a note of warning in his voice, "I've only told you these things because I believe that only you could understand. The others. . ." he shrugged. "The others would convince themselves to their deaths that there is no such thing as love except as an invitation to weakness. I think you still have that battle to fight." With one last parting glance, von Schauernberg left the room.
Von Hardenberg pulled open the plastic and began to dress. His face in the mirror on the wall stared balefully back at him, accusing him of having the nerve to be human when it was so obvious this was untrue: he had not yet paid that price.
Zuum Bunch, Side 3, Archduchy of Zeon
January 4, 0078
"Just don't say it," Lieutenant j.g. Markus von Hardenberg, Zeon Military Force (Mobile), implored Lieutenant j.g. Isolda Raake, Zeon Military Force (Marine), as they stood facing one another in the mass of people.
Zuum City's starport was teeming with soldiers, all shipping out for their various postings. The lines for the bag drops were massive, and between the departing graduates and the usual traffic, it was bedlam. Their class of the Zeon Elite Forces Academy was to be among the first to go; all of them would be long gone from this place within the next three days.
Except for Markus von Hardenberg, who would remain here for the duration of a year for additional zero-G training.
"I wouldn't dare," responded Isolda, trying very hard not to cry and not show it, but he knew her better than that: he'd seen that expression before. Her ship was due to leave in an hour; her shuttle was due to depart the port in minutes.
He saw the conflict in her eyes, and in her face, and his heart writhed in his chest. He placed a finger to her lips, gently. "No goodbyes. No farewells. This is not the end of anything, but only the intermission of the beginning."
Truth be told, he didn't believe that line any more than she probably did. This was Hell for him; he had almost flown into a fit of impotent rage when he'd heard that Fleet had assigned her to the Marine contingent and not to Task Forces as he had been. Instead, he had simply nodded, and kept his misery to himself. They had been constant companions for almost three years now, but that part of their dance was at an end.
In the time between the Hoellepanther and this moment, he had come to understand most of what von Schauernberg had told him, about gentility and caution; they had never gone further than hiding in secret corners and places where they could make out without drawing undue attention from stuffier Zeon officers or nosy comrades. After the Hunt, sex for them would have been something dreaded for fear of what it would do to their relationship. Von Hardenberg had told her that he would wait for when she was ready, but that his Time was not something he could simply brush aside in the interim. Isolda, understanding on some rudimentary level that once a year he had to mate, had told him that he was free to do so provided he never tried to force himself upon her. He had agreed, and held to that promise, and she had never mentioned to anyone that he knew of that he was bizarre enough to actually have a mating cycle.
Then again, he'd never told her who he had been mating with. He preferred not to dwell on it, either.
She took hold of his hand with both of her own, allowing him to brush at the tears that had begun to spill down her face. The crowd tried to press in on them as they hurried from place to place; their noise was deafening, but his Will was greater yet. No one came within five feet of them, no matter the density of the crowd or its direction. They were an island in the sea, which was how he wanted it.
"That," she swallowed, "was the corniest line I've ever heard, Markus."
He smiled at her. "But it is true. We'll be together again sooner than you believe. After the Hunt, what is a few hundred thousand kilometers in the Darkness Without End to swim?"
She leaned towards him, and into his embrace. For the millionth time, he wished he could hold her with the same desperate strength she clutched at him with. "Please," she pleaded, her tears wetting his brown uniform jacket, "just be careful here. I know how you get with all the 'Entermensch' around."
"That's 'Untermensch', and I'll try to keep my scathing commentary about their misaligned heritages to myself. Besides, they are Zeon." He had been slowly conceding certain value judgments to her over the years, though more just to avoid the incessant arguments those conversations generated. The only enjoyable portion of fighting with her over ideology was the making up afterwards.
He put a hand to the back of her neck and bent down, his lips brushing against hers with familiarity, but this time it was for a farewell, saying it without words as they had agreed. He almost wept from the pain of it, but tears were something he never shed in public, and so rarely that he believed he had to re-learn how every time.
He also believed only she was able to teach him that, though she was not the only one to ever see him cry.
He closed his eyes as they broke apart, with a reluctance he could feel in his bones. He gave a soft growl of disappointment as the intercom announced Final Boarding for her shuttle, and he disengaged his embrace.
She stroked his face with one of her hands. "Please be careful," she repeated, more earnestly than even before. "And don't forget to write me."
He felt control slipping as the moment of loss loomed on his horizon. She had tears freely flowing now; he could taste them on his own lips, and they burned him to the core. Her hands grasped his forearms in a clutch even as he began to back away from her.
"Go now," he choked out around a breath that was very close to a sob. He still managed to keep it out of his voice. He smiled, then turned around and began to walk away.
"Take care of the flowers!!" she yelled at him, her voice broken with emotion but with a tinge of happiness that he could detect through the grief.
He wanted to go back to her, to hold her and challenge anyone who would break them apart to make him let go; image forbade it. He did not go back, not even to watch her shuttle leave.
There was a harsh knock on the door, hard enough to rattle the hinges, before someone outside tried the handle. Von Hardenberg had locked the door for a reason; he did not want visitors, especially ones that seemed to have no intention of staying out. The door shook in its frame again as the unwanted would-be intruder banged on it, harder.
"VERPISS DICH!!!" roared von Hardenberg at the door. He had been sitting at the desk, head buried in the crook of an arm, thoroughly taking advantage of his depression/loneliness with his usual method of coping: solitary confinement.
"Open the goddamn door, Vollidiot!!" yelled von Kahlden's voice back at him, sounding. . .agitated.
Curiousity being more powerful than even his depression, von Hardenberg levered himself out of the rickety chair and strode over. He unlatched the door with a push of a button, and was almost bowled over as von Kahlden stormed inside.
"Why, come in, Rudi; make yourself at home," von Hardenberg said snidely, closing the door behind his intrusive friend and locking it again.
"It's not fucking right, Markus!" snarled von Kahlden, eyes ablaze with anger, making the hazel in them seem more like orange in color.
Von Hardenberg put aside his own anger, noticing that von Kahlden was very worked up over something. This is serious. "What's the problem? What's happened?"
Von Kahlden threw a piece of paper at him, then started to pace around the billet. "War's coming, Markus, and just like the Academy, they've fucked us over!" He thrust an accusatory finger at the piece of paper in von Hardenberg's hand. "READ IT!"
Von Hardenberg's eyes traveled across the paper. Oh, how many laments must I endure this day? "They've changed your orders. You're---"
"---with the 1st Terrestrial Mobile Division! I'm Terra-bound!" spat von Kahlden angrily. "Any idiot can tell this war's for Space, and they prepare to send me to Terra! Even Dietrich says it's a waste of time to invade the fucking mudball, and where do they plan to send me? To the mudball!!"
Von Hardenberg could read his friend well enough to know that his anger was a mask for anguish. "Rudi, it won't be so bad, really. . .plenty of Feddies to kill down there and all."
"That's NOT the POINT, Markus!" growled von Kahlden caustically. "They kept Dietrich and Reinhardt together! WE were meant to fight this war together, too! Why them and not us? Why not all of us? One unit, one unified team, together the way we were meant to be! Instead---" von Kahlden's face took on a hopeless expression, one so unlike von Kahlden that it hurt to look upon, "---instead it's just a farce. . .I'll be alone again."
Von Hardenberg stared at his friend in silence. He'd never realized it before, but he had never seen Rudolf von Kahlden cry over anything. The Berliner had always been so confident, so sure, so in control over everything. To see von Kahlden looking so vulnerable was humbling, and he felt ashamed that he wasn't feeling the same thing his onetime lover and old friend was. He had spent all his emotion on the loss of Isolda. For Rudolf, he had nothing left to give. . .except the one thing he didn't want to give again.
Von Kahlden brought a hand to his face and angrily wiped at it. "S-sorry, Markus. I know Isolda flew out today, and here I am acting the child over all of this---I've no right. I should be grateful I've had the time I've had with you, but I can't help it---"
Von Hardenberg swallowed painfully. "When do you leave?"
Von Kahlden smiled wanly, his eyes still leaking unbidden and unwanted tears. "Tomorrow I leave for gravity training. After that I'll muster for the landing forces. God, Markus. . .I don't want to be alone! Is that too much to ask??"
"Yes." It was all von Hardenberg could say, no matter how painful it was. Tomorrow? Then I, too, am to face this trial alone, Rudolf.
Gritting his teeth against his grief, von Kahlden reached out and snared von Hardenberg in an embrace, burying his face in von Hardenberg's shoulder. After a pause, von Hardenberg returned the embrace, knowing that it would go further than that when von Kahlden kissed his throat, his need tangible through a pheromonal signature anyone could have detected.
He wanted nothing more than to shove von Kahlden away. This was different from the other times. He had relied on his friendship with Rudolf whenever their Times arose, knowing he could trust von Kahlden to not go spreading stupid tales around, just as he would not. In their society, where the bio-scholars relied on same-sex relationships forming as a means to prevent a bastard race from being bred, it had been a logical choice between the two in the midst of instinct and hormones. But they had never indulged outside of their Times; Rudolf had never asked that of him, until now, and Markus von Hardenberg did not desire his friend.
But he was also at a loss how to turn him away. He let off a growl, low in his throat, when their lips finally met in a vicious kiss, but von Kahlden only growled back and grasped at him harder, fingers moving over von Hardenberg's uniform fastenings adeptly.
And against his judgment, von Hardenberg allowed himself to be led to the bed, to try and drown their miseries in each other. To call it "lovemaking" would have been a stretch of the imagination. It was too brutal for that descriptor, as it usually was with von Kahlden, ever since their first time in his estate's bell tower; a mating of predators, not of lovers, bestial in its sensuality, and terrible in its ecstasy.
And when it was over, and they lay together in a sodden mass of bruises and blood and sweat, von Kahlden held him close, and laughed as he wept his fury away. All von Hardenberg could do was withdraw from his friend's warmth; he would have to grow used to that sensation, too.
Hours later, they were in the hangar bay, in a scene not far removed from von Hardenberg's last time here.
"Well," sighed von Kahlden, almost mournfully, "I guess this is 'Tschuess' and all that."
"Only until next time." In spite of himself, von Hardenberg felt uncomfortable. He acknowledged that he was going to miss his old friend. "Be careful down there, Rudi."
"You be just as careful up here, though I doubt any of those bastardized Earthenoid peasants could possibly realize just what they're up against." Von Kahlden grinned at him and stuck out a hand. "Thank you, Markus."
"For what?" replied von Hardenberg, clasping his fellow Elector-Prince's hand and giving it a crushing squeeze.
The other man dragged him into a final embrace. "For what you did back there," he whispered in von Hardenberg's ear, "and for this." He crushed his lips, almost painfully, against von Hardenberg's, a final kiss farewell, one monster to another.
With a final, hard shove, von Kahlden broke away from his friend, spun on a booted heel with a very-von Kahlden flourish, and, laughing at the universe, he walked towards his shuttle gate. "Gah to, Markus!!" he yelled as he strode away, the old war cry of Frederick the Great's Pomeranian cuirassiers.
Von Hardenberg watched him for a few moments, silent, lips aching bitterly, before turning on his own heel and departing. Never again, Rudolf. That love I must extend to another. He did not look back this time, either.
Von Kahlden did.
Side 5, L1, Earth Sphere
January 15, 0079
The spinning cylinder of Side 5's 1 Bunch, named "Ruum" by the Zahn Concern that administrated the L1-based cluster of space colonies. It would have been a tapestry of human ingenuity had it not been for the raging battle taking place not a hundred thousand meters from it.
The dazzling horror of another thermonuclear fireball forced von Hardenberg to kick his MS-06C Zaku II's thrusters up to port, to avoid the worst of the debris hurled towards his mobile suit by the blast's inevitable concussion. He took advantage of the sudden course alteration, and the resulting confusion on everyone's part, and launched another bazooka shell from his 280mm, hoping that the snapshot would strike the Salamis-class cruiser he'd aimed at.
The Archduchy of Zeon had finally come to claim its freedom with fire and steel where words had availed them nothing. Weary of the Earth Federation's lies, the Zavis had prepared quite the display for their Earthenoid "owners" in the form of the largest blitzkrieg Humankind had ever brought to bear on itself. Waiting until just after the celebrations of New Year 0079 came to a close, the Zeon had lashed out with all its military might at the Earth. Caught unawares, the Federation had suffered for their presumptions: Sides 1, 2, and 4 were assaulted with GG-type non-persistent nerve gas, massacring whole colony populations for the crime of allowing the Federation to stage military forces within their walls; Side 2's Island Iffish colony was flung headlong into Terra's atmosphere, a sixty-kilometer kinetic shock missile that turned Sydney, Australia into an ocean-filled crater. Billions perished in the first forty-eight hours of the wrath of Zeon, as the decades of hatred that Space had accumulated for their Earth overlords was unleashed in a firestorm of orgiastic atrocity.
The Zavis called it "vengeance". Von Hardenberg called it "tactically sound".
In the following days, the Zeon Starfleet had gathered itself together and begun a search-and-destroy campaign against the remaining Federation Naval assets. After several pitched battles, where the slow Federation starships were outmatched by the maneuverability and firepower of the Zaku mobile suit, it had finally come down to this battle: the Zeon 1st Combined Fleet had engaged the remaining strength of the Earth Federation Navy, and Zeon Lieutenant j.g. Markus von Hardenberg found himself in the middle of an anything-goes brouhaha to decide who would dominate Space for the remainder of the War.
A Federation Sabrefish starfighter raced past his mobile suit, unleasing a pair of missiles into the starboard flank of the Musai-class cruiser Anhalt-Dessau; the projectiles penetrated the flurry of mega-particle and antiaircraft fire the light cruiser was putting out in all directions, exploding in the midst of the antiaircraft batteries and reducing the fire from that flank significantly. Five seconds later, the ship blew itself apart, but von Hardenberg had already moved on, hunting his prey.
"Jicco Two-Seven-One!" he barked into his almost-useless radio, coming alongside the ponderous missile boat. "Launch your goddamn payload now!"
Astoundingly, someone heard him. "At what?? We've got no lock-on for the missiles to track to!" wailed whomever was on that ship.
"Just fire the damn missiles! There are enough Feddies out there that they're bound to hit some-!" An energy bolt transfixed the Jicco even as he spoke, and the shriek of hopeless fear from the dead ship was cut off as fast as von Hardenberg's own statement was. He slammed the throttle on the Zaku, arcing "up" and away from the explosion that shortly followed.
"Cattle trash!" he hissed in the confines of his cockpit, at both the Zeon dead in the Jicco and the Federals that had killed them, his Zaku throwing away the empty 280mm bazooka and unslinging his 120mm autocannon. He was far ahead of their phase line now; a melee had begun as the two fleets had closed on each other. Tactically, the nukes had taken horrible tolls on both sides, and now each was interested only in getting in close, to keep their foes from continuing the nuclear barrage for fear of killing their own forces. Von Hardenberg had lost his own ship, the Chivvay-class Magnar, in the first volley of fighter-launched antiship missiles. He had been out here for a few hours now, and he'd lost track of his ammunition stores, the time, and how many he had since killed. . .and watched die.
Too damn many Feds, too many nukes!! he cursed, his 120mm chattering oxygenated high-explosive rounds as he zigged-and-zagged his way towards the main concentration of Federation warships, evading hasty missile fire and trying to swat at any fighters with ideas of pursuing him. He noted that other Zakus had also begun a headlong charge towards the Federal ships, leaving their motherships to fend for themselves.
It was the wise thing to do: every time a Zeon cruiser died, it took three Zakus with it.
He brought the thrusters on the mobile suit's backpack to full burn, trying to close the distance before the Federation picket ships bracketed him and turned him into stellar debris. Three other Zakus angled in off his flanks, also at maximum speed. Two of them snuffed out when their paths unfortunately intersected those of high-energy beams or missiles, but von Hardenberg's suit remained untouched by the fury of the Federation.
"CHARGE!!!" he roared over the open channel, hoping to rally the remaining Zakus into action. The mobile suits were what gave the Zeon their advantage against the Federation's massive Navy; it was by God time to use them. Markus von Hardenberg was tired of being a moving target for Federation guns and fighters; his bloodlust was an inferno in his veins, his need to kill his prey consuming his Will.
He let it.
The battle was well and truly joined now. The bigger Federation vessels were committing themselves to evasive maneuvers to escape the punishment the Zeon mega-particle cannons and antiship missile clouds were dispensing upon them, but all their jinking was futile against the mobile suits that survived the screen of antiaircraft fire and penetrated the picket line of smaller ships.
He clicked on the radio to broadcast to whomever was out there that could hear him. "All Zeon units, commence attack! Engage their heavies as primary targets! Use nukes if you have them, but kill them with everything you can!"
More Zakus had survived the run than he'd believed. The nimbler mobile suits descended on the Federation battleships and heavy cruisers like stormcrows on a fresh corpse. Where they passed, Feddies died: the big ships were unable to escape the mobile suits' firepower and unable to swat them from the sky at such short range. Von Hardenberg emptied his 120mm into the forward guns of a Magellan-class battleship, then withdrew to reload. He watched in satisfaction as the atmosphere of the wounded battleship began to vent itself into the Darkness Without End. Fitting. Let all too weak to dwell in Space choke and die in its embrace.
His mobile suit's human-style hands slid a fresh drum of 120mm into the feed chamber of the autocannon, and von Hardenberg gave a tiny kick to the thrusters, to propel him back towards his wounded quarry. Another nuclear firework detonated off to the right of him, but he paid it no heed; it was too far away to harm him, even with concussion. He pointed the autocannon at the beleaguered Federal battleship and fired.
"Was im Hoelle--?" he sputtered, incredulous. Misfire! He made the Zaku ratchet the forward assist, then tried to fire again.
And again, nothing.
"VERDAMMT!!" he shrieked at the jammed or damaged weapon. In a fury, he reversed the huge gun, grasped it by its muzzle, and flung it at the passing Federation ship. When it bounced off of the warship's armored hull, leaving behind a dent, he lost all patience.
I WILL NOT BE CHEATED OF MY KILL!! He wasn't certain if he'd screamed it out loud or just in his head, but it did not matter, because suddenly, his Zaku was on the big battleship, crawling across its hull like a climber scaling a cliff. The Zaku's fingers tore into the Magellan's armor where they could; the ship was built tough, but it had its weak spots: airlock doors, hull seals, compartment dividers, and other sundry appendages. In his madness, he began to tear the ship to pieces.
His Zaku was atop the primary bridge structure, its clenched fists hammering on the conning tower like an enraged giant on a tiny castle turret, when he noticed that the derelict ship he was bludgeoning had blindly moved into the middle of the war zone. Death crisscrossed Space to caress its victims with fire and shrapnel and atmospheric breaches, and here he was, sitting astride a crippled battleship, unharmed.
Von Hardenberg looked about him, the Zaku's red mono-eye scanning this way and that, and he saw Insanity for what it was.
Half of their fleets were gone; the remainder were still fighting it out. The Federals were beginning to retreat before the Zeon onslaught, but whatever victory the Spacenoids would reap from this was Hell-bought and soul-paid. There were still more Federation ships afloat than Zeon, and some idiot on the Zeon side was urging their remaining ships forward, to stupidly pursue a wounded foe. Von Hardenberg keyed his comm, but all he got was static as a reply from his own people.
He noted that the Federation was putting up one hell of a rearguard action; a scant few ships had stayed behind, led by a battleship, to face the might of the Zeon Starfleet and buy their comrades time to escape. The rest of the Federation Navy was on their way back. . .and heading towards him!
Time to leave now, Graf von Hardenberg! his brain warned him. With a burst of power, the Zaku's legs tore themselves free of the innards of the Magellan he had savaged, just in time to see a pair of Federation Salamis open fire on the ship he just departed. Their cannons ripped into the Magellan, reducing the bigger warship to a burning hulk.
"You FOOLS!!" he laughed at them. There may still have been survivors deep within the battleship's hull; they had killed those survivors just trying to kill him! How could they be so crude? So wasteful? These lower-gene lifeforms are fit for nothing but slavery and extinction!
His Zaku unlimbered its heat hawk, the curious axe-like melee weapon all of them had been issued, and he dove at the fratricidal Salamis. A shot took off his Zaku's left leg at the knee, sending the suit spinning, but his forward momentum still enabled him to reach his prey. He grabbed one of the Federation cruiser's turrets and brought the heat hawk down on its hull in a sideways chop. After that, he just kept hacking at the ship, ignoring the second Salamis as it left its doomed comrade to save itself.
And still the little ship fought him. It used its aft turrets to try and blast him off of the hull, cutting through its own superstructure to get at him. Federation soldiers in Normal Suits egressed from airlocks, trying to cripple his suit with man-portable antitank rockets.
"You're all UNWORTHY!!" he roared at them, even as he swept them away with the blade of the heat hawk, sinking the axehead into the Salamis time and again, the bodies the heated axe passed through not slowing it for a microsecond. "Yield before your superiors, gene-slime! Your blooms have withered on their stems!"
One last survivor leapt towards his suit, a flat plate in his hands. That one von Hardenberg grabbed with an indifferent mobile suit hand and flung into open space, hoping he would plummet into a nuclear blast.
A limpet mine! That one had a stinking LIMPET MINE! More of the Salamis' crew was disembarking, trying to extricate him from the ship. Some of them were even shooting rifles at his mobile suit, trying to hit some vulnerable portion and do him harm.
"Why won't you die?" he raged at the ship, gripping the heat hawk's handle in both hands and bringing it savagely down into the bulkhead over and over again until he had almost cut his way through the ship. The Salamis finally cracked in half, and his Zaku fell out of the bottom of the halved cruiser.
As his suit lazily "sank" away from its latest kill, heat hawk mangled from the abuse he had forced it to wreak on the Salamis, von Hardenberg's breathing began to slow. He was angry, more angry than he could remember being in a long time. This was no pitched battle; it was a slaughter, and both sides had perpetuated it. The Federation was in full withdrawal now, all save one battleship that was advancing towards a large group of Zeon ships.
"Evade," he murmured, watching in awe as the Zeon ships lit the oncoming Federation battleship up, but otherwise were doing nothing about the obvious danger. "Evade!" he said, louder this time.
They weren't listening, and they weren't aware.
The Federation battleship was unleashing everything it had at the Zeon. Von Hardenberg could see the flurry of gunfire and torpedoes that preceded it. The Zakus that were in its path were just speckles in the distance, but they were there, trying to kill the Federation ship that was killing them.
"EVADE!" cried out von Hardenberg to the Zeon ships. They did not pay attention. The Federation warship detonated in a nuclear fireball, one giant doomsday weapon that caught the forward Zeon force right in the face. Von Hardenberg had no idea how many Zeon ships were lost to the blast, but even one was too many to lose now.
And he was done with his rage. Weaponless, he allowed his Zaku to drift, and contented himself to watch the Federation withdraw without further incident or molestation. We have failed. Failed to gain our strategic victory, failed to capture the colony for the second Drop, failed to bring this War to an early conclusion. And his heart became as stone.
Later, the Musai-class cruiser Lorica tracked his Zaku's weak IFF signature and pulled him into the safety of its hold. The ship's Captain, the Chaplain, and the Medical Officer were all there, waiting to pull out yet another battle-weary and psyche-battered mobile suit pilot, as von Hardenberg heard was the case some dozen previous times for that vessel alone. The atrocity of the Battle of Ruum had dealt just as much damage to the minds of the witnesses as to the fleets.
Not so Markus von Hardenberg. When they opened his cockpit hatch, he climbed out on his own, walked forward on his own, and said to the assembled in a perfect monotone, cold as ice: "I will kill them all for what they have wrought here today. Earth itself will bleed for the crime of being born."
Granada, Luna, Principality of Zeon
May 23, 0079
The Musai-class cruiser Cherusci had barely established hard dock and equalized its atmosphere when Fleet Lieutenant Markus von Hardenberg, mobile suit pilot, mashed the button to open the outer airlock doors and admit him into Granada's immense hangar. When the doors whisked themselves open at his command, his nostrils detected an all-too familiar smell.
"Still wooing women into stupors with your little bouquets?" came a familiar voice from somewhere past his visual range.
Von Hardenberg would have known that voice anywhere. "Still playing a clarinet, or have you finally graduated to the skin flute you loved playing more?"
"Oh, ho!!" laughed the voice. "Time in the Fleet's loosened your tongue as well as your backside, hasn't it, Markus?"
"If you can't handle the counterfire, best hit with the first shot or stay quiet, Dabbschaedl." Knowing what was coming, especially for deigning to use the old Palatine dialect's word for "idiot" on a Berliner, he stepped forward so that he broke the plane of the airlock doorframe.
Captain of Mobile Infantry Rudolf von Kahlden stood there, a smile on his face, and the two appraised each other knowingly.
Von Kahlden had actually gotten tanned since he had last seen him, and had grown a sand-colored mustache, trimmed neatly, on top of it all. Unlike von Hardenberg's imperial purple-gold-black squadron uniform, von Kahlden was in the sand-and-gold Asian sector field uniform of the 1st Terrestrial, the patch on his right shoulder the red fox and shield of the Reinickendorf district of Berlin. All he needed was an old Australian field hat and he could have been something out of a World War Two picture of the North African front.
"What in the seven Hells are you doing up in Space, Rudi?" asked von Hardenberg when he got within three steps of his old friend.
"Slumming for troops," responded von Kahlden. "You look well enough for a Fleet Hurensohn. Kind of pale, though."
"I don't get out much," said von Hardenberg. "Ruum cost us too much for a lot of shore leave. . .unlike lazy groundpounders who halt their offensives whenever they choose to take naps."
Von Kahlden's face degenerated into something outraged. "'Naps'?? Come on down to my unit and see who gets to sleep well at night! I can assure you it isn't my people!"
"Undoubtedly," said von Hardenberg, deadpan. "Most aces are so mistreated."
Von Kahlden gaped at him, speechless, then laughed out loud. "So you did hear, you shit!"
Von Hardenberg grinned a little; he kept expecting Rudolf's ever-present need to hold him, kiss him. "Of course I heard, Dummkopf. We get all the news up here. Fleet scuttlebutt's the best source of information around, after all."
Von Kahlden aimed a slap at his old friend, who casually brushed it aside, but made no further move to touch him. "You probably knew before I did, then!"
Curious; maybe he's grown out of it down there. "Most likely. Aces like to keep track of other aces, after all." Von Hardenberg winked at him. "It's about time you caught up, slacker. I owe you a drink, and you owe me a story or two."
"Deal." Side by side, they left the hangar area, still not touching, but content enough to just be in each other's presence for the little time they had left.
Cherusci wasn't set to depart Granada again for another two days; he had left von Kahlden to his mission over an hour ago, and von Hardenberg was content to spend his time in one of Granada's many bars that catered to the Zeon military machine, hoping the flowers he had carefully managed to smuggle aboard and raise from cut stems over the course of the year would survive his absence a few hours longer; he had one for each of the Fifteen, each a gene-alter like they were.
Rudolf had not been lying: he had come to Granada to appeal for more soldiers for the Asian front. The Federals had ground down their offensive to a stalemate, as they had with the North American forces in Mexico. In spite of brilliant ploys and stratagems, the advantage the Zeon had gained in Space and with Operation British had been shorn away by the sheer weight of Federation numbers and material. Von Kahlden had doomsaid many possibilities, most of which hinged on the notion of a Federation counteroffensive in Europe despite Dietrich and Reinhardt's relentless advance, a serious push into Asia and China from multiple fronts, and the ignorance and stupidity of Colonel M'Quve and General Kerane, neither of whom von Kahlden even considered to be soldiers. Kerane had sent von Kahlden back into Space for two reasons: to use his newest ace as his mouthpiece to Rear Admiral Kishiria Zavi, and to get said ace out of his hair for a time. Rudolf had made quite a name for himself, commanding a special ops unit that made a habit of ignoring High Command's directives and still accomplishing their mission. Such grandstanding was totally von Kahlden, and guaranteed to piss off someone like Yuri Kerane.
In other words, 'Firefox' von Kahlden was the wrong person to send to speak with Lady Kishiria. She might be amused by his flamboyance, but not his forthrightness of opinion. Von Hardenberg knew his friend was doomed to failure, and would return to Terra empty-handed. Besides, Fleet scuttlebutt already said that Giren Zavi was pressuring Kishiria to commit her power to finishing off North America and the Federation HQ at Jaburo. Asia would have to fend for itself, as would von Kahlden on the line.
Every time he contemplated the idea of the Gouf driver's sudden demise, alone and abandoned after being flung into one useless battle after another, the scotch would help carry the burden of the shame he felt for being up here instead of down on the frontline with his own F-type Zaku II. Pitched battles in Space had been few and far between for months now, after Ruum, while Rudolf had bemoaned an almost constant state of combat on the line in Asia. Von Hardenberg had the temerity to wonder if anyone would drink to his memory if he died in this idiot War. He tapped his finger on his empty glass, a signal for the bartender to give him a twelfth, even though the Lunarian liquor was almost as distasteful as the music that was playing.
The faux wooden stools on either side of him were empty, which was the Lieutenant's preference, so when someone tossed a gunny sack down at the legs of the stool next to him, he was mildly annoyed that his space was about to be violated at this moment in time. His first instinct was to tell whomever it was to go screw; his full Lieutenancy was new, but his ace status and the mobile suit pilot's MOS patch on his collar were still something to be reckoned with. His second instinct was to look before running off at the mouth. He obeyed the second, and his jaw hinged open in stunned amazement.
"Buy a girl a drink, soldier?" Marine 2nd Lieutenant Isolda Raake beamed at him, and in his mind's eye the past and the present collided. She flung herself into his lap before he could speak, and attached her lips to his with a fury that even he was hard pressed to match.
The bar erupted into hoots and howls as the patrons watched the two Zeon officers' reunion. After nearly two minutes, they finally broke apart, but von Hardenberg did not relinquish his hold around her. "Mein Gott, how is this---?" He stared up at her incredulously, practically dumbfounded, but kept his wits enough to note the MOS patch on her brown jacket: starfighter pilot.
"Shhh," she quieted him, placing fingers that were deceptively gentle on his lips. "That doesn't matter now, Markus." She kissed him again. "My ship's just arrived. How long have you got left?"
He blinked once, checked his wrist chrono, then blinked again. "About forty hours or so."
"Perfect." Her smile was radiant, more radiant than anything he had ever seen. "Forget the drink; pay the bar and let's get the hell out of here."
"It truly is amazing," commented von Hardenberg absently, as he stroked the smooth skin on Isolda's back with practiced fingers; every so often, he would change the direction of the circular motions over a particularly tense spot, reveling in the reaction it got every time.
They could not have moved faster to get to the temporary billets near the dockway, about two levels above them. Once he had keyed open the door, things had gone from almost casual neutrality into an almost bestial carnality in the space of the time it took the door to close behind them. Frenzied was as close an adjective he could find to describe it, the desperate mating of two souls apart for far too long. . .and it hadn't stopped until this point. He took great satisfaction in that every single sound and every thrashing twitch he had elicited from her in the throes of their mating were definitely not faked. . .his nose did not lie.
Isolda purred contentedly and snuggled closer to him. "What is?" she murmured into the heat of his chest, the dark hair tickling her face a little. One of her hands was tracing the lines of scars on his ribcage from the Hoellepanther's claws.
She had told a different story than what had happened to von Schauernberg, making him out to be the hero and downplaying her own role; he had been aghast when he heard what she had done for his honor, and from that moment on, they had been practically inseparable whenever she had come visiting on a "tour". Not even von Kahlden had ever heard the true tale; that he, superior, had required the aid of her, a norm, to survive.
That she had been there on the hunt at all was a fluke. That she had come out of it as his very own shieldmaiden had changed their relationship totally, so much so that his father had threatened to disown him over her. She knew too much, and yet so little, about him that he almost felt guilty that he could not tell her who and what he really was.
"I've not seen nor heard from you in almost half a year, and yet here you are with me again, and it's as though you never left." His fingers found another spot of tightened muscle, and he rubbed it out with the gentleness of someone who knew how strong he really was. When their relationship had become more intimate than hushed kisses in dark corners, he had discovered to his delight that one of her favorite things was being massaged: he was a natural reflexologist. The system worked.
"You might be able to do this for hours at a time, love," she pointed out, nails idly stroking his skin, watching the skin muscles twitch at her touch involuntarily, another of his strange talents, "but I don't think the bed could handle us on a daily basis."
He laughed at that, realizing all too well that they were so entangled in the devastated bedsheets that it would probably take a plasma torch to free them. "I'm up for finding out."
With a disappointed moan, she levered herself up and began to extricate herself from their snare. "You're always 'up', Markus, but you've got a ship to catch and less than a day to do it."
Von Hardenberg grimaced, taking in her form as she rose with approval. Marine training had definitely improved upon her design, without taking away from his favorite of her features. . .her freckles. "Mmmm, just what I've been looking forward to: another two months out on a sardine-can Musai, bereft of my one love in life."
"Who's that?" she teased. "Rudolf?"
"Wench," he smiled at her gibe. Only in Rudolf's mind. "So tell me how you came to be in my lap at that exact moment, that awesome event that led to this. . .awesome event."
She pulled on a terrycloth robe to ward against Granada's ever-present chill, long enough to make her way towards the poor excuse for the latrine; he almost wept as she covered up.
"Coppelia was already coming in for re-supply," she called out between gargles and sounds of brushing. "I saw the docking manifest and it turned out Cherusci was in port. I figured you'd be in one place or another."
He listened to her in the bathroom for a long moment, marveling at her ability to sound beautiful even when brushing her teeth. "A stroke of luck, then."
The sound of water stopped. "Something like that. Not that it would have been hard to track down 'Hell on Wheels' Hardenberg in a town like Granada." She came back in, and then shot him a look of annoyance. "You're still in bed?"
"I'm not ready to be anywhere else just yet, nor am I in a hurry." He was actually blushing that she had heard about his ace nickname so soon.
She grabbed one of his arms and gave it a tug. "Get. . .up, Lieutenant von Hardenberg! Don't you have plants to grow?"
He abided her pulling for a moment, genuinely amused that she remembered his hobby. "Like you, they're capable of surviving without me for extended periods of time."
"Not with your breath in the morning," she retorted.
"Truly advanced people don't get morning breath, Isolda," he commented, even though he knew that was bullshit, "and I'd prefer it if you called me 'sir'."
That took the cake with her. Never one to let males dominate her, she crouched low, still grasping his arm, levered it over her shoulder, and almost effortlessly flung him out of the bed with a sort of rolling motion that was little strength and all leverage.
Von Hardenberg's naked form slammed onto the frigid floor with a thud. He let out his breath with an oomph that was more surprise than pain. He looked up at her grinning face.
"That was for the snide comment on all us poor, un-advanced people, sir." She drug the sir out in mocking parody.
He scowled. "I chose the wrong flower for you. I see the Marines have taught you some tricks after all."
"You'd be amazed, lover boy," she smirked back at him. "And I'm sure whatever you chose was a good idea at the time. Now get moving before you miss your ship or your teeth rot off. I'll make coffee."
He didn't have the heart to tell her that God hadn't yet designed the plaque that could wear away at his teeth. Totally unconcerned by his nakedness, nor by Granada's chill, he reached up, snagged one of her ankles with his hand, and pulled her off of her feet. He grabbed her into his embrace once more as she landed on him, kissing her with a passion his vocabulary lacked words for but he could express with this gesture. She knew him well enough to understand that his true displays of affection were physical, not vocal.
He inhaled her scent deeply, as though she were more necessary than oxygen. He knew that steps would have to be taken to ensure that she never discovered how much power she really had over him.
Ten minutes later, he was showered and shaved (and tooth-brushed) and dressed and drinking what amounted to coffee in the billets. In actuality, it tasted really wretched, but at least it got the neurons firing. They kept stealing little glances at each other as they traded off pieces of the Luna Times. He let her have the crossword, and she gave up the comics; equity was achieved.
And he found that the idea had some appeal after all.
For the first time in a long while, Markus von Hardenberg had nothing to complain about. He came to this revelation while indulging in his old hobby: his garden. Zeon soldiers who resided in Granada as their home base of origin were allotted several cubic meters of lawn for their own personal use. Most officers tended to leave their plots barren, or overgrown with whatever would actually grow in the gritty soil. Von Hardenberg's was a riotous collage of colors, testament to his talent of caretaking. His garden had been meticulously chosen from his own experimental seed pods, the same way he had chosen the flowers he grew on Cherusci. Unlike the potted plants, these were open-air, deep-rooted varieties that wouldn't choke each other out and would survive long periods on their own with minimal watering and artificial lighting. When everyone else's gardens withered and died from neglect, his thrived.
Evolution in action, just like himself.
The plot was actually several blocks away from the billets, but well within walking distance. He had said his farewells to Isolda already, since Coppelia was here on a quick hop and not an extended dock like Cherusci was. On the other hand, according to Isolda her task force was sticking close to home for a while, so he would be seeing quite a bit more of her in the meantime.
That was fine and dandy by him.
He was inspecting his garden with a critical eye, looking for any unforeseen mutations or crossbreeds, even as his mind wandered constantly to Isolda, when a rustle drew his attention away from his task. Von Kahlden carefully maneuvered his way between the bushes towards him, an odd look on his face.
"Hallo, Rudi," greeted von Hardenberg, quirking an eyebrow. "How did your meeting go?"
Von Kahlden brushed a hand through the air in a dramatic gesture of nonchalance. "Empty promises, empty words. High Command's not in the least interested in what's really happening in Asia, only in what M'Quve's telling them, and that's all smoke and shadows. They're being spoon-fed shit and told it's ambrosia."
"You had to know it would turn out like that. Politicians hate the truth." Von Hardenberg stood, brushing soil from his gloves before removing them.
"Ja," admitted von Kahlden wearily, "I knew. But I did hope that truth would win the day in any case."
"You look like you've been through Hell, Rudi," chided von Hardenberg, "why don't you go and get some rest?"
"No rest for the wicked, old friend. My ship leaves later today." Von Kahlden made a move to lay a hand on von Hardenberg's shoulder.
. . .and von Hardenberg shied away from the touch. The look that moved across von Kahlden's face was one of confusion, disbelief, and. . .anger. "Wh—what the fuck is that, Markus? Think I've come back with some kind of disease or something?"
"No. It's just that---" von Hardenberg was at a loss for what to say. He had avoided being touched almost unconsciously, since he knew what von Kahlden probably wanted to do before he left again. "It's not so easy as that anymore, Rudi. . .there are complications now."
Von Kahlden took a step forward, eyes ablaze. "'Complications'? What kind of 'complications' could come between you and---" his voice trailed off as his nostrils flared once, twice.
Von Hardenberg knew the gig was up now. "She came in just after you left. . ."
"Where is she, Markus?" Von Kahlden had gone cold, a state that von Hardenberg had never seen him in before. "Still in your quarters?"
"Until her ship departs, yes," responded von Hardenberg. "Why do you care?"
"After all this time---" snarled von Kahlden, but his voice was a monotone, "you still obsess over a cattle whore."
Von Hardenberg clenched his fists. "Watch your tongue, Berliner, before you find it nailed to your door."
"---and now---" continued von Kahlden relentlessly, "---you've fucked her, so she becomes an addiction. How pathetic that your Line would be so easily attracted to bastardy!"
"Rudolf---" warned von Hardenberg.
"Well, I know a sure cure for this error in your judgment, Markus. I love you too much to let you fall like some peasant because your Will is weak." With one last glare, von Kahlden turned on a heel and stormed away.
"Where are you going, Rudolf?" yelled von Hardenberg at his friend's back.
"You'll thank me for this later, Markus!" retorted von Kahlden, voice growing more distant.
Von Hardenberg stood in his garden, puzzled by all of this. Rudolf had known for years that he'd cared for Isolda. . .why this reaction? Jealousy, perhaps, came to mind readily enough, or maybe he's just mad that I didn't tell him when he arrived. It's not as though I knew she was here.
". . . When you let him know, be mindful; if you hurt him, he'll kill you."
Wilhelm, he thought, coming to the realization. You were wrong, Willi. . .he won't kill ME! Throwing his gloves down, he ran out of the garden, racing after von Kahlden.
He tore through the streets of Granada with all his speed. He could follow von Kahlden's scent easily enough, but he did not need to use his nose to know exactly where von Kahlden was heading. Rudolf was a relatively simple person once you dug through the complexity of his antics. . .a perceived threat was a real threat to him, and Isolda represented a threat to something Rudolf cared for.
Threats were to be exterminated. It was their Way.
He had not caught up to von Kahlden before reaching his barracks building. He threw open the door and sprinted up the stairs, lungs heaving from the run. He had covered a mile in about three minutes, and was barely winded. He practically leapt up the last stairwell, just in time to see von Kahlden reach for the door handle.
With a roar, von Hardenberg charged. Von Kahlden whirled around just as von Hardenberg tackled him, and they plowed through the door, which exploded off of its hinges in several pieces as they passed through it with a crash.
"Don't you DARE, Rudolf!!" screamed von Hardenberg in his friend's face, pinning him down on the floor of his quarters.
But von Kahlden was not one to be deterred so easily. He yanked an arm from underneath von Hardenberg's knee and slammed his fist across von Hardenberg's face, knocking him off to land on the floor. The Elector-Prince of Berlin hopped to his feet, face a mask of implacability, as a shocked Isolda came out of the bedroom, pistol in hand.
As von Hardenberg came to his feet, von Kahlden had already closed the distance. Not perceiving the danger, Isolda had not shot him. He was Rudolf, their friend, not her would-be executioner. He slapped the pistol out of her hand and grabbed her by the throat.
She fought back, but her kicks seemed to faze von Kahlden no more than if she were flailing against a mobile suit. He raised her into the air and began to squeeze. . .
. . .and then dropped her as von Hardenberg punched him in the kidneys once, twice, three times. Von Kahlden bellowed in pain, then lashed backwards with an elbow, catching von Hardenberg right over the eyes. Pain burst to life in von Hardenberg's temples, and his hand lashed out, fingers outstretched, stabbing von Kahlden on a spot just behind his ear, stunning the other man for a moment.
But only for a moment. Von Kahlden turned his attention fully to von Hardenberg, attacking with a veritable barrage of hands, elbows, feet, knees, anything that could be used to strike with and cause damage to a human body. Von Hardenberg went defensive, using his own speed to deflect or evade von Kahlden's blows, then seeking openings for counterattack.
"What's the matter, Rudolf?" sneered von Hardenberg as his left arm lashed out to block one of von Kahlden's fists, while his right snapped out and smacked von Kahlden across the eyes. "You losing your nerve to fight me?"
Von Kahlden's immediate response was a whip-fast chop to von Hardenberg's neck, but in actuality his arm moved fast enough that what appeared to be one strike was really three to the same location. "You losing your mind, Markus?" he snapped in reply.
"What kind---" he kicked at von Kahlden, who blocked it with an upraised leg of his own, "of question is that?"
Von Kahlden's smile was pure predator. "It means, Eikel, that you---" von Kahlden danced within von Hardenberg's swing range, and they locked together, "---get to watch me execute her just to save you!"
Von Hardenberg was a little taller, but also heavier than von Kahlden. He used both as leverage, and shoved von Kahlden back and away. "You'll have to go through me first."
The two faced each other, and then their knives were out. This had just reached the level of a blood duel.
"You're an imbecile, Hardenberg!!" roared von Kahlden, face a mask of fury. "You're a damned junkie for a commoner offworld slut!"
"Who I fuck is MY business, not yours!" threw back von Hardenberg, knife extended. He knew von Kahlden was better than he was with a blade.
Von Kahlden closed on him, blade slashing. Von Hardenberg evaded, stabbing at von Kahlden's face with a jab that also missed. The blades whisked at each other, scoring off each other with tinny rasps and the whipping sound of parting air, faster than the eye could see. Von Kahlden ducked beneath another jab and cut upwards, then grabbed von Hardenberg's knife arm and tried for a slash. Von Hardenberg intercepted it with his own free hand, then bent his arm and drove his elbow into von Kahlden's eye. They struggled for a moment, their strength matched.
"The only way," von Kahlden said, sweat dripping from his hair as they leaned in close, faces inches apart, "to cure your addiction is for her to die, Markus! You know the rules!"
"Fuck the rules," snarled von Hardenberg back, "and fuck you, you hypocrite! Since when have you ever given a damn for the rules?"
Von Kahlden redoubled his efforts, trying to free his knife hand, and he smashed a knee into von Hardenberg's midsection. He tried again, but von Hardenberg twisted and it glanced off his ribcage. Von Kahlden dropped his knife, then used his newly-freed hand to grasp von Hardenberg's other arm, and drove his forehead into von Hardenberg's face, and he dropped his own knife.
Von Hardenberg staggered back, stunned. Isolda dove at von Kahlden with a cleaver in her hand, and von Kahlden almost casually lashed out with a booted foot and kicked her across the room. She slammed against the far wall and slid to the floor, gasping for air, but doing the smart thing and staying down. Von Hardenberg grabbed von Kahlden with both hands and slammed him into the wall, which dutifully caved in. Von Kahlden grabbed von Hardenberg's face and brought his own towards it, sinking his teeth into the other man's flesh, just above the cheek.
Von Hardenberg shrieked and tore his face away from von Kahlden, a piece of his skin ripping loose. In pain and enraged, he bashed von Kahlden's head against the wall, then swung him downward until his skull cracked against the floor, kicking him away. Von Kahlden rolled to his feet again, grabbed one of the wooden stools and jabbed it into von Hardenberg's gut. When he bent over with the blow, von Kahlden brought it across von Hardenberg's neck and shoulders, which it promptly shattered on.
Von Kahlden took a broken stool leg in both hands, and proceeded to bludgeon von Hardenberg with it. "YES, I skirt around the rules! YES, I've broken my fair share!" he screamed at his friend as he hit him. "But I have never betrayed my heritage with a lesser species!!"
Von Hardenberg's hand shot forward, catching the makeshift bat on its latest downstroke. "I've betrayed nothing except your expectations! I LOVE HER!"
"You insensate INSECT!!!" raged von Kahlden at those words. "Do you have any CONCEPT of the COST???" Reaching down, von Kahlden grabbed von Hardenberg and picked him up, then threw him through the table, which broke.
"Do you love her because it's moral? Because it's right? YOU ARE BLOOD ROYAL!! You can't AFFORD morality!!" shrieked von Kahlden, kicking von Hardenberg in the gut.
Von Hardenberg grabbed von Kahlden's leg with one arm, then took hold of a broken table leg and drove the broken end into the meaty portion of von Kahlden's thigh. After a roar of pain, von Kahlden suddenly let go with a bark of laughter, as though the chunk of wood sticking out of his leg was no bother, and smashed a fist across von Hardenberg's face so hard that von Hardenberg slid across several feet of floor space, rug and all.
Von Hardenberg staggered up to his feet, head ringing. Dammit! He's gotten stronger! "I choose what I can and cannot afford, not the bio-scholars and NOT YOU!!"
"You've made yourself her SLAVE!" accused von Kahlden. If the stake through his leg was impeding him, he was not showing it.
Von Hardenberg threw himself at von Kahlden in a burst of speed. "YOU would rather I be YOURS, you LIAR!!" The force of his impact drove them both through the wall of the apartment and into the hallway outside, chunks of plaster, sheetrock, and wood paneling raining around them.
Von Kahlden pushed back, and they exploded back into the apartment. Von Hardenberg caught two wall studs with his shoulderblades as he passed through the wall; they shattered, but they still hurt like hell. He hit the ground hard, pain subsuming his concentration long enough for von Kahlden to launch himself through the air, roll as he hit the ground, and come up with his knife in his hand. Von Hardenberg had just gotten to his feet when von Kahlden kicked him right in the sternum with his boot.
Von Hardenberg knew he was in trouble, as his mind registered that his feet had left the ground, and he smacked into the far wall hard enough to make him not only see but name stars. Then von Kahlden was all over him, and he felt something cold press up against his skin beneath his neck.
Von Kahlden breathed heavily, his knife blade underneath von Hardenberg's throat, his other arm pinning him to the wall. "I---I cannot believe it---ends like this!" he whispered, voice a hoarse rasp.
"Finish it," spat von Hardenberg. He was amazed at how von Kahlden's hand-to-hand skills had improved. It made sense, though: von Kahlden spent his time on the frontline of the Terra campaign, not in a starship hull. Von Hardenberg cursed himself for letting his skills dwindle.
Von Kahlden's eyes met his and held them. "I should. You've forgotten who you are and where you came from!"
"I know who I am," replied von Hardenberg, "and I know who you are, too. So stop bleating like a heartsick girl and kill me, regicide!"
Von Kahlden's eyes widened. "If you think it's going to be so easy for me, you never knew me at all!"
"Oh?" von Hardenberg laughed, a choked little grunt of a laugh. "Is that where you'll draw your line? That where you'll obey the rules? You've played the rebel for so long, I thought you'd applaud my decision even as you realized I'm through slaking your lusts!"
Von Kahlden pressed the knife's edge harder against von Hardenberg's throat. The hand that held it trembled. "As much as I've hated the constraints of our births, it was never just lust with you, Markus, and even I won't cast away my wolf's skin to live with sheep as their equal!"
"God damn you! Let me live my life as a human being!"
"YOU'RE NOT A HUMAN BEING!!" bayed von Kahlden.
Von Hardenberg said nothing to that, and von Kahlden's eyes began to brim with tears. The knife edge withdrew slowly from his throat, and the palpable aura of tension and Power that had filled the room during their fight began to abate.
"Rudolf---" began von Hardenberg, voice calmer.
With a cry of rage, von Kahlden grabbed von Hardenberg's hand, slammed it against the wall, splayed his hand over it so that they were palm-to-palm, and then drove his knife through the back of his own hand, through von Hardenberg's hand, and into the wall itself, stapling them together.
"I won't let you pay the price that von Schauernberg paid!" Von Kahlden pushed the knife in deeper until the hilt reached the top of his own hand. "I won't see you break like he did!!"
Von Hardenberg howled in pain, their blood running together down their arms. He clawed for the knife's handle, but von Kahlden interlaced the fingers of his own free hand with von Hardenberg's, stopping him. Von Hardenberg struggled against him, and von Kahlden drove a knee into his midsection. Von Hardenberg gasped as the wind left him, and he stopped trying to reach the knife, slumping against von Kahlden as his strength failed him.
Von Hardenberg gritted his teeth. Wilhelm von Schauernberg's wife Elise had died birthing their child, which had also perished despite everything the bio-scholars had told them. His friend had never recovered, and the Elector-Prince of Nordrhein-Westfalen had become a shade of his former self, dark and insane with grief. Von Kahlden had hit below the belt with his comment.
"You can't afford to be human," said von Kahlden calmly, not done with his ranting yet. "Neither can I. We are the same, Markus, bound to the same purpose, the same goal, the same Throne. We are one, whether you accept that or not. The norms cannot understand us, our desires, that's why we keep them to ourselves, between ourselves, and for ourselves. You think it's an accident that normals who get too close to us die, or become addicted to our Wills? Equity impels universal suffrage, to make comfort and stupidity the mean, while maintaining a mildness towards the unscrupulous and the weak. It's degradation, Markus, just like they taught us. Equity is just weakness of the will; we are masters of those who worship at the altar of democracy, decadence, and the undiscipline of morality."
"Your preaching is as tiresome as you are, Rudolf," snapped von Hardenberg, drooling blood down von Kahlden's back. Oh, the knife hurt. He could feel their joined hands, slick with blood that was already clotting. It would be agony removing the blade now. Why can't I hate him? Even now, I can't hate him!
Von Kahlden shrugged a shoulder, then grabbed von Hardenberg by the top of his head, slamming him back against the wall. He grasped von Hardenberg's bloodied face in his hand, fingers on either side of his jawline.
"You know what I'm talking about," grinned von Kahlden, teeth bloodstained, "when we go into battle. You've felt it, haven't you? All your so-called 'humanity' slides away, and all you can concentrate on is killing your enemy. Don't you revel in letting all those little dreams of being 'the same' as them vanish like dust, and there is only you and the destruction that you and you alone can wield without fear, without hesitation? I know I've felt it; it's kept me alive in situations where the lesser ones die."
"Yes," admitted von Hardenberg. The machine recognized itself, too. "I feel it."
"Did you feel it fighting me?" He slowly released von Hardenberg's face, moving his hand into his battered friend's hair and running his bloody fingers through the matted mass.
"No." He closed his eyes. Rudolf has blood in his mustache.
Von Kahlden smiled tiredly. "Neither did I, so maybe there's hope for us after all." He went serious again. "Realize this: I spare you because I love you even now, and always will. I spare her because I respect your stand, if not your choice. But the price of my. . .mercy. . .is not cheap. You will come to a point where your self, your Will, will figure out that your being with a lesser creature is a castration of your existence. When that happens, I hope you're strong enough to survive it, and astute enough to come back to your senses. I'd hate to have this conversation again, almost as much as I hate losing my friend to her."
Von Kahlden crushed his lips to von Hardenberg's in a kiss, and then yanked the knife free, releasing them from the wall. . .and each other.
"God damn I hurt. I'll see you later, 'Hell on Wheels'," he said, wiping the knife on his devastated uniform and staggering away, limping towards the door. The piece of his furniture still jutted from von Kahlden's left thigh, wobbling as he stepped. The other man paused long enough to pull it out of his leg and drop it on the floor. A trail of red followed him out. He paused again just outside the door jamb, digging through a pocket and pulling out a battered pack of cigarettes. He lit one, breathed out a cloud of smoke, and then was gone before it dissipated; the smell lingered.
"Be sure and write, 'Firefox'," retorted von Hardenberg as he slowly slid down to the floor, not content to let von Kahlden have the last word in. He had never felt such pain before; this was ten times worse than the Hoellepanther. With a gasp and a snarl, he grasped his left hand in his wounded right and popped his dislocated wrist back into place.
Isolda was in the corner, sobbing, her mind overcome from the shock of seeing their battle. Gently, he crawled over to her, gathered her in his arms, and rocked her into a fitful sleep, his blood drying on him unnoticed. His mind was very far away, indeed, and his thoughts dwelled on monstrous things.
Von Kahlden had failed. When she left later that day, his love for her had only grown stronger, and the pain of her leaving was eased only by the machine. They did not speak of what had happened.
The War had spiraled downward from there. Not content to have so many aces under Kishiria's direct control, Giren Zavi had bid his sister surrender one of them up to his own forces. Von Hardenberg, the least audacious of them, had been volunteered to be the one to leave Granada and go to Abowaku to be placed under the authority of the Home Defense Corps. As the Federation's massive might and the end results of its Project V finally came to bear against the Zeon on Terra and in Space, one by one the Elector-Princes fell in battle, trying to ward away a defeat any and all of them could see coming.
One by one, von Hardenberg's flowers were buried in the vacuum of Space, and he grew a little colder every time as the line of them drew closer and closer to the one he dreaded losing the most.
In December of that year, Operations Odessa and Tycoon ended the Zeon presence on Terra. Redoubling their efforts in Space to compensate for the loss of the ground war, ships stayed further and further out in the Void, returning more infrequently to their home ports. He sent news to Isolda from time to time, along with gifts to remind her that he had not forgotten, but the mail link between Markus von Hardenberg in Abowaku and Isolda Raake in Granada broke down shortly thereafter. The last package he had sent her was a bottle of Armani Acqua Di Gio perfume, brutally expensive by anyone's measure, even the de facto owner of 1/15th of the total economic worth of a colony cylinder; he had never bothered to find out if she had received it.
Near Side 5, L1, Earth Sphere
December 8, 0079
Pinpricks of light in the vast darkness of Space, just like every other engagement; death in the form of phosphorus tracers or energy lances reaching out to save or slay, depending on one's point of view. The barrel of the massive 360mm bazooka leveled out, and with a great whump that shook the frame of the MS-09R Rick Dom, it spat its hatred forth into the Void. Lieutenant Commander Markus 'Hell on Wheels' von Hardenberg crowed aloud as the huge round plowed into the deck of the Magellan-class Federation battleship amidships. A blossom of burning vapor and debris erupted from the great tear that opened up on the ship's skin, and the massive warship recoiled as though in shock that something could hurt it like this. Von Hardenberg repaid the human-like reaction of the Federation ship with another round from his mobile suit's bazooka before kicking on the Rick Dom's boosters and flitting away from the sporadic counterfire from the wounded ship's batteries.
The second round cracked the vessel in half; a lucky strike on his part, cracking its spine like that. He watched with satisfaction as the Magellan blew itself apart. Its death caused its Salamis escorts to intensify their firepower against the Zeon suits who hounded them. Von Hardenberg passed one of his fellow Rick Dom pilots, and he raised his bazooka "upward" in a thank-you salute for the assistance against the Magellan. The other suit acknowledged with a raised bazooka of its own, then skirted away to hunt for more prey.
This small force of Federation ships had been part of the last reconnaissance-in-force engagement the enemy had sent to test the defenses of the Solomon sector; von Hardenberg's latest assignment, the Musai-class cruiser Locris, had been on course back to Side 3 from patrolling the transit lane between Abowaku and Granada when the chance to perhaps intercept the remains of the Federation RIF arose. Locris had arrived with expedience after a full burn around Luna, and then simply waited in the myriad of radar signatures around the L1 point. Three other ships had joined them in their hunter's perch, and now they had unleashed their hate on the depleted Federation forces.
Despite having had this suit for almost a month now, von Hardenberg had to admit he was still impressed. Zimmad had done so well with the Dom series of mobile suits; it was faster in a straightline and more nimble than his old Zaku IIF on the jink, and the power of the bazooka was astonishing. He acknowledged a certain jealousy of Kishiria's Chimaera Ace Corps in far-away Granada for their even-newer toys, but he would gladly make do with the Rick Dom. He flashed past a Salamis faster than he would have ever dared in a Zaku, twisting the suit until it was facing the now-incoming Federation cruiser. The Salamis brought its primary turrets forward to bear on the single mobile suit in its way, and von Hardenberg smiled, then laughed aloud.
He charged forward, head-on for the prow of the Salamis, then kicked the starboard thrusters to full, overpowering the port stabilizers and putting the Rick Dom into a wide counterclockwise spiral flight pattern, giving the Feddie gun crews a fifty-fifty chance at best to anticipate his choice of direction; by the time it was evident which way he was going to go, he was moving too fast for them to bring the guns on line to hit him. He used the inertia of the vector spin to swoop from one side of the Salamis to the other, using his favorite of the Rick Dom's newest weapons to spray 90mm bursts into one turret after another, ruining the cruiser's ability to do him harm. Coming around to the rear of the ship, he unlimbered the 360mm bazooka again and planted four rounds into the Salamis' engine block. The helpless cruiser simply came apart in a shower of flame, another victim of his most effective antiship maneuver; other Zeon pilots had called it the 'Hades Twist': it'd peel you like an onion before it stuck you in the ass.
For all the amusement he was having flying rings around Federation garbage scows, he was a tad disappointed. None of those new Feddie mobile suits were with this little piece of that RIF, or if there were, they weren't making themselves known. Aside from the single Magellan and several Salamis, this force consisted primarily of Public missile boats: easy pickings provided they didn't survive long enough to fire on Locris with a barrage of antiship missiles. . .most had none to fire anyway, having used them to probe Solomon's iron ring of defenses.
"Ajax One to flight," he spoke into his helmet commlink, "ignore the unarmed Publics: they're no challenge, and you'll just be wasting bazooka shells. Concentrate on the Salamis, and watch out for fighters from your six. They may have a carrier out here that we aren't aware of."
"Negative, Ajax One," cut in Locris' communications officer. "All suits, return to ship immediately. Cease pursuit and stand down."
Von Hardenberg brought his Rick Dom to a halt in space, the great red mono-eye staring balefully at the fleeing thruster flares of the remaining Federal ships. "Ajax One to Locris: why have we been recalled before the end of our mission, over?"
"It's something important, Ajax One. Important enough that it's got Lady Kishiria's seal on it, and it's addressed to you personally. Get your people back together and dock ASAP. We make full burn for Side 3 in less than an hour. The others will finish off these Feddie scum."
Von Hardenberg pumped the control for the maneuvering thrusters, spinning the Rick Dom 180 degrees. "You heard them, Ajax Flight: return to home." He resisted the urge to take one last shot at the departing Federation ships, but for all his marksmanship skill he was no Brenev Auggs, and whatever this message was, it had to be of great import indeed to get a ship under Giren Zavi's Home Defense Corps to call off a successful sortie in the middle of its consummation, even for such a person as Kishiria Zavi. Intrigued, he waited, playing guardian and lookout, until the other three Rick Doms were locked down before he finalized his own approach to Locris' hangar.
He glided through the innards of the Musai to the bridge, after making certain his people were in tip-top shape and that the mechanics gave the suits the usual end-of-mission once-over inspection with rearm/reload orders on the side. He did not bother to change out of his flight suit; they had learned by now that this ace had his quirks. The doorway slid open at the touch of his palm on the control panel, and his booted feet made contact with the Velcro floor with the ease of someone who had been doing this for a long time.
He was about to make his arrival announcement, as per protocol, when Locris' Captain shushed him before he could begin. "The tape's in my ready room, Lieutenant Commander. You've my permission to utilize it."
"Affirmative, sir," replied von Hardenberg, and he made his way to the door on the left side of the bridge. From the uneasy silence and the smell of nerves on edge, he concluded that whatever this was, it was "bad". Most of the bridge crew were expending effort not to meet his gaze. Even the Captain had seemed. . .sympathetic, almost pitying. They know something I don't, something I'm not going to enjoy.
Before the door closed, he heard the Captain comment: "Good job out there, 'Hell on Wheels'."
Berthold Brecht had once said: "He who laughs has not yet heard the bad news." For Markus von Hardenberg, he had just received enough to ensure that he would never laugh again in the form of a black hardcase and a message disc. He played the disc first.
The message had come in under Kishiria's chop all right, but the voice on the recording was solely that of Major Johnny 'Crimson Lightning' Ridden. After the third sentence from the usually taciturn ace, von Hardenberg had no longer been listening; he was too stunned to care. He had had to replay it twice before he could bring himself to listen to his old comrade's words.
". . .Africa's been totally overrun; nothing left there but scattered remains of units. As for Asia. . .Markus, I regret to inform you of the death of Major Rudolf von Kahlden in the line of duty. I know he was your friend, and I'm truly sorry for your loss. . ."
He was standing in the Musai's hangar bay, magnetic boots attaching him and his Normal Suit to the deck, preventing the gaping maw that was Space from swallowing him. In his hands, he had a flowerpot, enshrouded in clear plastic: a plethora of bright red-orange blossoms were in full bloom; firework sundrops, specially bred for the oxygen-heavy atmosphere aboard a starship, the ones he had grown for von Kahlden. He had been dreading this moment for two days already, but had not even shed a tear. He refused to grieve; Rudolf would have laughed at him for weeping tears over him. The knife scar on his hand burned, as though his blood recognized the severing of their bond.
". . .in the end, he and his Gouf special operations platoon held the line to allow General Kerane to set his final gambit and evacuate what he could to Southeast Asia. . ."
"Verflucht nochmal, Rudi! You BASTARD! How dare you sacrifice yourself for HIM! Warum?!? WHY!?!" For the hundredth time, he cursed his friend, his voice echoing hollowly in his helmet, where only he could hear. He was unable to understand how von Kahlden could have come to such an end, and no amount of logic or reason was able to explain it well enough for him to forgive von Kahlden's stupidity. For these feelings, he despised himself even as he despised von Kahlden's needless sacrifice. Rudolf had made a career of disobeying the brave but pompous General Yuri Kerane's orders: for him to follow the one that would kill him and his men was like a sort of freakish nightmare come to life.
". . .in the end, 'Firefox' von Kahlden was a true soldier of Zeon, a cunning warrior, and a testament to the fighting spirit of our people. If I were ever to doubt your judgment in whom to associate with, you would do well to remind me that you counted such a man as one worthy of your trust, and I wish I would also be numbered among them. . ."
Von Hardenberg could have easily spent another two days drunk instead of having to do this, as he had the previous two; he had kicked the ship's Chaplain out of his quarters when the poor man had come to check on his mental well-being. Even his fellow mobile suit flightmates weren't spared, his only concession to their questions about his drinking being an ancient German proverb: 'In wine there is wisdom. In beer there is strength. In water there is bacteria.' How von Hardenberg had smuggled the schnapps on board the notoriously dry Locris was still a mystery, but he had not run out of his supply yet; he hoped that the proverb would expand itself to add the hard liquor as containing comfort, even if every drink he took extended his future time in the brig.
He had loved von Kahlden more than he had assumed that he did, after all.
He stared down at the flowerpot in his gloved hands, at the brightness of the blooms in their plastic sheaths; water was already crystallizing within the wrappings. He raised the pot until it tapped on the duraplast of his helmet's face, and he closed his eyes, remembering its scent from a year of sustaining the blooms in Space, wishing he could smell them once more. But the memory was too painful, and without a further word, he cast the flowerpot out of Locris, watching as it spun out and away into the Void.
Steeling his mind and heart, he turned away as the hangar doors closed. He spoke no words of passing for Rudolf von Kahlden, and still he shed no tears.
Within the package Kishiria had given him was a hard plastic case, containing the pieces of von Kahlden's prized clarinet, all in perfect working order. He had it sent to New Koenigsberg, unable to bear its presence with him on Locris.
Locris departed Side 3 for Abowaku the next day, exorcised of his demons as much as a man like him could be, but he took the liberty of sending a message, pleading with Isolda to transfer out of the Mobile Assault Corps and stay in Granada, terrified beyond words about what her death might do to him if Rudolf's passing was capable of generating this atrocious lapse in his dignity. Despite New Koenigsberg's barring of women in combat arms, he had never begrudged her decision, though he had confessed he had not understood her rationale. This time, though, with von Kahlden's death so close to him, he dared to ask this of her, but he could not bring himself to force her, even though he knew he could. He trusted that because she loved him, she would understand his logic and his trepidation, and that would be sufficient.
He believed she had obeyed him.
ZSS Locris, Solomon sector, Principality of Zeon
December 24, 0079
The stench was appalling, even more so than the screams of the wounded that echoed through the packed ship. They reeked of terror, of grief, of wounds that bled and burns that wept; they reeked of defeat. Locris was far too small for the amount of people it was now carrying, and the air was already becoming stale, the CO2 scrubbers unable to keep up with the density of emissions from so many human lungs. Markus von Hardenberg picked his way through the halls, trying not to step on anyone: the entire ship was like this, Zeon soldiers from Solomon crammed wall-to-wall and along the corridors.
As he maneuvered carefully around the refugees that Locris had managed to find adrift in Space or via IFF trace, he looked upon them all and tried not to lament. No one had believed Solomon would fall so soon. Admiral Dozul Zavi had commanded the entire Space Assault Corps, with a bevy of ace mobile suit pilots of awesome caliber, and the mobile armor Byg Zam on top of those. Kishiria had sent what reinforcements she could, but the distance between Granada and Solomon had been too vast for her meager offerings to reach in the time the Federation had allotted.
Giren had only sent forces after the fact.
Now, Dozul Zavi was very dead, along with most of his soldiers, victims of a Federation superweapon that did not violate the stipulations of the Antarctic Treaty. Leave it to the Feddies to conceive of a way to kill as horrendously as possible the maximum number of people and NOT call it an atrocity. . . According to those he had spoken with who were out of critical condition, whatever they had used on Solomon and its defenders, it had burned; entire warships flaring to ash in an instant, the giant asteroid's rock surface boiling from the heat of it. In less than a day, fortress Solomon had been conquered, at a staggering loss of military assets.
While the Mobile Assault Corps forces had arrived too late to save Solomon, they had come just in time to help with those unfortunate enough to survive the Solar System attack; and the Home Defense Corps was ready and able to meet them halfway to upload the casualties and survivors and take them back to Abowaku.
Von Hardenberg paused every now and again, when a Zeon soldier was aware enough or strong enough to grasp at his uniform as he passed. He let them whisper, plead, curse, whatever they wanted to say to him. Most begged for water, some for him to deliver word to their relatives, loved ones, comrades. Others asked about fellow soldiers, whether or not "So-and-So" made it out in time. Some asked if they were going to die; the hardest ones were those who wanted a mirror. Each and every time, von Hardenberg had to look horror in the face, and he did so without flinching, but not so close that they could see themselves in his eyes; that would have been too cruel even for him.
Locris transported almost strictly victims of the Federation superweapon. The Ship's Medical Officer was known to be particularly good at burn treatments, and while the Musai was ill-equipped to harbor so many, the "Doc" was at least able to triage them with some degree of knowledge as to whether or not they would even live.
A day ago, he would have stopped to check on people; now, he just stayed out of their reach, and deafened himself to their pleas. The machine had no time for those who could no longer fight. Only the well mattered now; the ones who could still go in the Darkness Without End and kill Feddies. All others were irrelevant, their continued existence a burden. Von Hardenberg would much rather have been somewhere else, but Locris' Captain wanted a presence of command down there, as a "reassurance"; the Chaplain had to sleep sometime, after all.
Unable to disobey his orders, he chose instead to ignore the purpose of the mission. He would be there, but not in any form of merciful or compassionate air. That was no longer within him to grant.
"OUT OF THE WAY!!" came a scream from behind him, and von Hardenberg spun around, flattening himself as close to the wall as he could to get out of the way. Two medical staff were rushing down the hall with a gurney, a screaming man writhing on its surface. They did not care who they stepped on or rolled over in their haste.
The Ship's Medical Officer intercepted them, almost right in front of von Hardenberg. "What the Hell is this??" he yelled over the man's terrible shrieks of agony.
"They found him in one of the mobile suit wrecks!" hollered one of the medical personnel. "He must've been like this for two days, trapped in a goddamn wreck!"
"Mother of God!" gasped the Medical Officer. "How'd he survive?"
Von Hardenberg's gaze was drawn to the screaming man. Almost nothing was left of the man's face or uniform; the burns were too severe. He shivered in spite of himself. Two days like this?? What a Will this one has!! Impossible for a human norm. A NewType, perhaps, but. . .
. . .something about the voice was intimately familiar.
"We've given him the maximum dosage of painkillers we can," continued one of the medical staff, "but it's like it's not even reaching him! His vitals are off the charts, and his system's going to crash if we don't stabilize him!"
"Get him into the OR, NOW!" yelled the Medical Officer. "Prep for shock/trauma and---"
"CONRAD?!?" exclaimed von Hardenberg in shock. He had grabbed the man's chart without the medical people even noticing, and his eyes were wide as plates at the name. God and Emperor, NO! Not like this! It was now no wonder the man had not responded to the standard dosage of painkillers and lived on like this for two days: Conrad von Kaentzer was not a normal patient. "Lieber Gott, doctor! Save this man!"
The orderlies hustled the shrieking form on the gurney down the hallway and into the emergency bay. The Medical Officer looked at von Hardenberg. "You know him?"
"Yes," confirmed von Hardenberg, mind churning with trepidation and fear. The Elector-Prince of Thueringen, reduced to a charcoal briquette? Intolerable!
The Medical Officer sighed. "Listen, Lieutenant, I'll do what I can, but by all right he should be---"
"Save him, doctor," said von Hardenberg, the threat apparent in his voice. "Go to him and save him. Please."
"Wait here. I'll do what I can." The Medical Officer ran towards the door, yelling orders as he went.
Von Hardenberg paused for a moment, listening to the hallway's sounds but not really hearing any of them. He cannot die! He must not die! Violating the Medical Officer's orders, he stomped down the hallway, shoving open the door into sickbay and hanging an abrupt left for the critical care section.
The Medical Officer had anticipated him. The door was locked. Von Hardenberg snarled his displeasure, and then moved to the big Neo-Lexan observation window to watch. From what he'd read of the chart, Conrad von Kaentzer's mobile suit had been struck by the Federation superweapon, resulting in a total loss of the suit itself and critical burns over ninety percent of von Kaentzer's body surface. Over the forty-four hours he had been within the remains of his suit, infection had set in and spread, overpowering even a New Koenigsberg Elite's autoimmune system in its veracity.
The chances were slim, indeed, for the ruined Elector-Prince. Von Hardenberg's face was like stone, but inside he was a mass of confused emotion. Mein Gott, don't make me have to write this letter, too! I—I can't handle this one! Von Kaentzer had been the holier one of the Fifteen, his Faith that the cause of Zeon was blessed by God Himself absolute in its depths; much like Dietrich's creature de la Somme had possessed. Others had made mock of his Lutheran upbringing and influence, but Conrad had steadfastly held on to his beliefs in spite of everything around him. For him to perish so awfully was proof enough for von Hardenberg to drive anyone to atheism.
As if God heard him and decided to be petty, things went insane in the OR. They were cutting von Kaentzer's uniform off of him piece by scorched piece when the machines that had been minding the life status of the patient suddenly all went red. The room was sound-proofed, but von Hardenberg could feel the noise within those walls through the glass. He pressed his hands up against the window, staring at von Kaentzer, as though he could will strength to his friend, even through the barrier.
Von Kaentzer was convulsing so violently that the medical staff was trying to restrain him with the straps on the operating table. The thrashing form on the table strained, then broke the restraints. Von Hardenberg could see his friend screaming, the doctors frantically trying to hold him still enough for the Medical Officer to plunge the needle he was holding into his spasming patient.
"Conrad. . ." von Hardenberg watched, impotently, as von Kaentzer threw the medical staff off of him in his death throes. They flung themselves back onto him, and the Medical Officer stuck him in a thigh with the needle, depressing the plunger.
But it was too late.
Through the Neo-Lexan, von Hardenberg felt von Kaentzer die. He slammed his fists on the glass, trying to reach his old friend, and he saw the exact moment. One of the medical staff moved away, and von Kaentzer reared up from the table, bending like a bow until it seemed his spine would snap. His mouth unhinged in an agonizing shriek of torment; von Hardenberg saw the blackened stumps of teeth and seared gums, saw von Kaentzer's flash-sealed eyelids tear themselves open and the liquid that was once his eyes come boiling out of the sockets, and saw the places where his limbs had been torched black and encrusted with the ash that was once his flesh rip open, and blood and worse spill over the table and down onto the floor.
Like a puppet whose strings had been cut, Conrad von Kaentzer's lifeless form slumped to the table, a charred husk of what was once a ruler of men. Von Hardenberg stared at it for a long moment, then turned and walked away.
A true pity. I shall have to be rid of yet another bloom.
Solomon had fallen to the Federation, and all Abowaku prepared for the worst, since it appeared that the enemy was bypassing Pezun and making straight for the Archduchy in the hopes of ending the War. Giren Zavi recalled his fleets, ordered that Kishiria render unto Caesar where she had not rendered unto Dozul, and engaged in the final preparations for his Solar Ray plan that would save them from the staggering numerical might of the Federation, and the power of their Project V.
In the time he had left after the devastating but futile Solar Ray attack, Giren transferred nearly all his most powerful aces to the supercarrier Doroa, even as Kishiria sent the majority of her forces to bolster the line. One week after Solomon's fall, the Federation brought down the axe upon the last Zeon stronghold before Side 3 itself.
Abowaku, Side 3, Principality of Zeon
December 31, 0079
So much death, so much carnage; the entire Zavi family slain except for dead Dozul's infant daughter Mineva, gone to distant Axis. The former EFF turncoat ace Thomas Kurtz, the 'Red Comet' Char Aznable, Johnny 'Crimson Lightning' Ridden: all KIA or MIA. Hundreds upon hundreds dead in the conflagration that had descended on the field sectors warded by the massive asteroid fortress; rookies, barely more than children, sent to die in Gelgoog mobile suits, hoping that the tide would turn against the massive Federation Navy and their horde of GMs.
This was the end of all things.
Ammunition expended, Markus von Hardenberg fought like a possessed demon. Smashing the harvested shield his Rick Dom held in its hands across the face of the GM that was menacing him, he took the flat plane of the shield and drove it into the Federation suit's main camera. Reeling, it slashed blindly with its beam saber, but von Hardenberg ducked, grabbed the GM's saber arm, and bent the elbow joint until the limb ruptured its own lines. The saber slipped from the deadened grasp of the GM's hand, and von Hardenberg planted a huge foot in the Feddie's torso and triggered the thrusters, boosting away from the now-impotent enemy suit. The machine was dissatisfied; he did not kill the GM in the end.
This is a disaster! he raged as he took a second to scan the area. The Federation was too many; Abowaku would fall. Even the great supercarrier Doroa was burning now, and the N-field forces had crumbled under the assault; the Federals were landing troops on Abowaku itself now, storming the asteroid fortress. He cruised past a burning Musai, trying to find a Zeon ship to re-arm from. The pickings were scant; every ship he saw was being hounded by Federation warships and suits, their fire turning Space into a vista of light and death.
We have lost. Zeon is finished.
The machine despaired with him, though its motive was not for loss of land and nation, but rather knowledge that this would probably spell the end of his career. Moving from debris field to debris field, trying to evade the rest of the Federals' notice. I must escape. I must live. I must continue on.
He would return to New Koenigsberg in defeat, but at least he would return: too many sons, both Elite and commoner alike, would not be.
A cluster of Zeon warships, screened by mobile suits, was formed up a few thousand meters distant. Mood brightened by the discovery, he brought his Rick Dom to flank speed and headed for them. They would have ammunition, support, reinforcements, and once he was armed again, it would. . .
. . .the fleet was leaving.
Von Hardenberg's jaw hinged open in disbelief. They're RUNNING! They're abandoning us! His Rick Dom's hand lashed out, snaring an adrift Zaku's 120mm that might have a few rounds left in it, and he drove his suit towards the fleeing Zeon ships. That's a Gwazine battleship! Fleeing!
Enraged, he flew on until he was past the screen mobile suits, many of whom signaled greeting to him as he passed. He ignored them, concentrating on getting to whatever craven was withdrawing his force from the fight, crippling further Zeon's ability to kill its enemies. He swung to within a hundred meters of the Gwazine, and his battle computer identified it as Gwadan, commanded by Captain Aiguille Delaz.
That makes no sense! Captain Delaz is a Zavi loyalist, and a fanatic! For him to run from this fight is illogical! "Gwadan, this is Lieutenant von Hardenberg," he hailed on open channel, even as his Rick Dom brought the 120mm up and pointed it at the bow of the huge warship, "your retreat from your sector is unauthorized and an act of treason. Explain your actions now or I will execute you here and now!"
"Lieutenant," came a voice over the radio, "this is Captain Delaz. Lower your weapon, soldier; this fight is over, and so is this war. It is time to go now."
"You aren't going anywhere except to Hell, traitor," hissed von Hardenberg, teeth grinding in his anger. He noticed that his threat warning system was going berserk; Delaz's force was aware of his threat now, and was bringing their firepower to bear towards him. Any one of their guns could turn his suit into a funeral pyre. The machine did not care; if they failed to hit him with their first shot, he would empty the 120mm into Gwadan's bridge before the second shot killed him.
"Kishiria betrayed us, German," came another voice, this one from an orange Gelgoog, "she killed Admiral Giren!"
"What??" protested von Hardenberg. A regicide commands Abowaku?? The Gelgoog bore the sigil of Captain Ming Chow, an ace pilot and not one to give up his grudges lightly.
"It is true, Lieutenant," came Delaz's voice again.
"You have quite a few seeds with you, Captain," said von Hardenberg warily. "What do you plan to sow with them?"
"A garden of thorns, Lieutenant Hardenberg. I refuse to take commands from an assassin, and you should not either. We must survive to fight another day, Lieutenant, to repay this treason and the Federation both! Come with us to Granada, and join my forces. Bring your hatred and your skill and find common cause with us, for the sake of a Zeon we can be proud of again!"
Von Hardenberg's Rick Dom glanced from Chow's Gelgoog, to Gwadan, to the assembled ships and suits, and back towards the conflagration that was Abowaku. Then, slowly, he lowered the 120mm.
I will play your game, Captain, but so help me, if you go back on your promise I will see you dead. "You swear that your intent is to continue the fight, to uphold the cause of Space?"
"It is, and I do," replied Delaz, voice filled with conviction.
The Gelgoog Cannon nodded its own head, but it did not take its massive beam rifle from the Rick Dom; an ace pilot was a dangerous thing to have angry at you.
"Then I, too, will go with you. Where can I land?" He threw the 120mm away. "My gun is empty, and that's a crime." Actually, he had no idea whether it was empty or not. . .but that did not matter now. He would soon have one that was full.
Delaz actually laughed. "You're a bold man, Lieutenant, to face down my guns with an empty autocannon! Dock on Kaziklu Bey for the time being. We make course for Granada, all speed!"
Unnoticed by the Federation's single-minded purpose of seizing Abowaku, the Delaz Fleet slipped away from the battle, to sow its seed of thorns for the future.
Granada had proven singularly unpopular, even to the point where Captain Chow had returned to Delaz's fold after a brief hiatus on the Lunar surface. Dissatisfied with the fear of the Federation that seeped from Granada's population and made them quail from any crusade to reclaim Space, the Delaz Fleet took flight and made for L1. Jury-rigging a living space from the shattered colonies of the area, as well as using the debris field as a cloak, the newly-renamed Garden of Thorns became their new base of operations.
Von Hardenberg noted with satisfaction that Delaz's escape from the battle had indeed gone unnoticed by the Federation: his own name was listed as MIA, as was Gato's. . .and Isolda Raake of the Zeon Marines.
Garden of Thorns, L1, Earth Sphere
May 18, 0080
He stared at the flower with a sense of dejection. Such a timeless thing, a blossom crafted from his own hands, mind, and will, nurtured into self-sufficient life. A tragedy, some would have called what he was about to do. He called it "just". He had tried without success to find word of Isolda's fate, some inkling as to whether or not she had survived Abowaku, or if she had even been at the battle. Silence was the answer to his queries, and there were too many unidentifiable KIAs from Abowaku for him to harbor any vain hopes.
Still, it is a sad affair, isn't it? He had spent countless hours with all of his breeds of bloom, but there remained only two from what was once an on-ship garden of sixteen totally unique species. One was Isolda's, the other was his own. The one clutched in his hands as he stood in the confines of the airlock was his.
He took his eyes off of the flower, a startling jade bromeliad whose hue was a mixture of brightest emerald and cerulean blue, and stared into the depths of the colorless black void, speckled with its bright stars, that lay just outside the sealed door.
"I would not condescend to pray to a God that is an inferior reason," he said aloud, to the inky vacuum, "for He had never heeded my prayers from time long ago, and has taken from me that which in His universe has ever mattered most to me. I swore over a year ago that each of us to fall would have their flower received into the Darkness Without End, and until this moment I have held to that promise. In that instance, I truly am a better being than God is, since His word is so easily broken.
"The universe has glutted itself on the blood of its rightful rulers, my friends, my kindred, and my love. By my wish, I am refusing to grant God's rapacious universe any more of what is mine. May He be damned for what He has stolen from me since the War began. I abjure Him this one. I do not bequeath her to Him, for He does not deserve to have her. I do.
"Darkness Without End, implacable and eternal Void, instead I choose to give you a tithe, a worthy sacrifice enough to appease any power. I give you not Isolda's flower, which I cherish; I instead grant you mine own, along with the promise that as long as I draw breath from God's stinking hole of a universe, I will fill His creations with despair most profound. Surely will you feast, Great Void, on the offerings I will give to you. My oath binds me to exist to destroy all that God has seen fit to give his allegiance to, including the very Earth Federation itself. I, Markus von Hardenberg, do so swear this before the eye of God and the face of Darkness."
He placed the flowerpot on the floor of the airlock, and then strode the three steps back into the Garden of Thorns, closing the door behind him. Without looking backwards, or even changing expression, he pressed the OPEN/OUTER button on the console control panel. He knew that the Void would accept his sacrifice; he was Elite. He had every faith the pot was consumed.
"Take and eat, in remembrance of me," he said, closing the outer door and walking away.
Captain, now Admiral, Delaz recognized that a very different fire burned within von Hardenberg's breast, different even than the one that smoldered within his devout follower Anavel Gato, and granted him his wish in the form of Operation Stardust. While von Hardenberg cared nothing for Gato's and Delaz's devotion to the dead Giren Zavi's ideals, he also did not fault them for their shortsightedness; they each had to deal with the loss of their war in their own way. Their crusade was a small thing in comparison to the horrors he wanted to inflict, and to the duty he himself was bound to.
After a time, others began to flock to the banner that Delaz represented. Malcontents not able or willing to reach their brethren in faraway Axis base, secretly they began to gather in the blasted ruins of L1; they all had their reasons. After the Archduchy of Zeon formally became the Republic of Zeon, von Hardenberg knew that he would never return home until the Federation lay at his feet; he was the last of the Fifteen, as long as Dietrich von Mellenthin was imprisoned, and the responsibility to his forebears now lay upon him to complete what the Chosen One could not. Terra would fall to the might of its superiors, only now it would be the House of the Rhineland–Palatinate that would control the destiny of the future of Mankind. The Will of the Ordnung would come to pass, and all would bend the knee or perish in fire, ruled unfit to survive. Delaz would be the vehicle that would propel that future, whether he knew it or not. For the next three years, the Sons of Delaz went forth from the Garden of Thorns, and where they struck, the soldiers of the Federation died.
Garden of Thorns, L1, Earth Sphere
October 31, 0083
"I still don't like it," said one of the assembled mobile suit pilots as they watched the small group of ships find docking berths in the mass of debris that made up the home base of operations for the Delaz Fleet. The remains of the Sides of L1 had been the place where their guerilla sorties against the hated Earth Federation had all originated, but none considered it home in the sense that they wanted to stay here any longer than necessary. A Dra-C patrol skimmed past the newcomers, their yellow mono-eyes scanning tirelessly for signs of trouble.
The pilots' group numbered four, all veterans of the One-Year War against the hated Earth Federation, all willing to fight and die to see Operation Stardust through. Their uniforms were not the standard Zeon green-and-gold, but instead a dark imperial purple, gold, and black, a match for the color schemes on their Rick Doms; dark-clad men for dark-cloaked times. They were the 14th Mobile Suit Squadron, assigned to the Musai-class cruiser Belladonna: their flight name was 'Nightshade', chosen by their equally-deadly squadron commander.
At the sound of the comment, one of the other pilots turned to look at the speaker. "What the fuck are you talking about, Sanderson? That's more firepower for us to use!"
Sanderson glared at the incoming ships. "Yeah? Recognize those markings, Ortiz? Those're Marine tags. Kishiria's old crew, you know, the same assholes who didn't come to Abowaku?"
Ortiz crossed his arms. "So what's your point?"
"So," pointed Sanderson spitefully at the Musai that was beginning offload procedures, "they're untrustworthy, scheming cowards, just like their old boss was, and now we gotta put up with Kishiria's leftovers and their fucking stench!"
One of the others, noticing that there was about to be a fight, sidled up between the two arguing pilots, trying to separate them without looking like he was trying to separate them. "Hey, guys, chill that shit out!" he hissed. "The Commander was one of Kishiria's once too, you know!"
"Very astute you should point that out, Mister Falcone," said von Hardenberg amicably. The set of his body told the world he was less than amused, despite the inflection of his voice.
The Musai had begun disgorging personnel into the pressurized compartment used for offloading crew. Falcone winced, having forgotten just how good von Hardenberg's hearing was. "Sorry, sir," he mumbled.
Not yet you aren't, but you WILL be later. . . Von Hardenberg casually leaned on the rail of the observation deck, watching as groups of Delaz's Zeon rushed to greet the newcomers at the gate in welcome. "No offense taken at this time, Falcone. Not all of Kishiria's people survived Abowaku, and like it or not, they also weren't the only ones to run from it."
Those words stung deeply into everyone present to hear them. The Zeon Commander wanted to laugh at them. Dwell on your failures, then. Let them break you down. Compared to what I've lost, Abowaku was a side bet. Below, there was a burst of noise as the crew of the ships of the Cima Fleet greeted their brothers and sisters in arms of the Delaz Fleet, united against the old enemy yet again.
Von Hardenberg smiled sadly, turning his eyes away from the gathering to face the other pilots, all of whom were in his flight command. "Gentlemen, enough of this rude speech already; shall we go and say 'Guten Tag' to our newest allies in our quest for finality? Or has 'Nightshade' Flight lost all its sense of manners?"
The first thing von Hardenberg noticed about Cima Garahau's notorious Marines was that they were a singularly undisciplined mob, which fit the bill for all the stories he had ever heard about them. The second thing was that they were all just as arrogant as their leader was. While the Marines seemed fairly pleased to be there, most still reacted like the rest of the Zeon around them were like some form of infestation that just happened to be living where they wanted to be. As if the Garden of Thorns had been built for them to own.
As the group started to disperse into the growing crowd, von Hardenberg found himself alone, sharp eyes skimming the faces with a casual sort of indifference. This was simply being polite, not any sort of prerequisite function of his rank or position. He shook hands with those who acknowledged him, saluted anyone who saluted him, and moved on without really bothering to remember names or faces. The Marines would have their own parts to play in Stardust, probably quite diverse and separate from the Delaz Fleet; that suited von Hardenberg just fine. If the Marines had become so lax as to not even adhere to uniform regulations, then they were probably pretty bad in the hygiene department, too. As a test, he sniffed at the air around him.
What's that? his mind asked as it caught a hint of something in the air, something new and yet extraordinarily familiar to him. He paused in the midst of the crowd, which flowed around him without noticing that he was standing stock-still, inhaling deep breaths of the recycled atmosphere, head tilted back and eyes closed. Perfume, female otolaryngological-type, its bottle recently opened for an occasion, scent marker too new for it to be an old bottle; floral, sweet pea, and jasmine. . .Acqua Di Gio, an Armani brand. . .
Von Hardenberg spun around, eyes now wide open, and his predator's gaze searched the sea of heads (most of whom were shorter than his own) for the scent's source. An Armani was not cheap, especially in Space, so someone was either very affluent or extraordinarily loved. The smell had triggered a deep-seated memory in his own psyche, a gift he himself had once given to someone who had fit the latter criteria. . .
His quest was interrupted by a commotion on the other side of the crowd, as a scuffle began between one of the Marines and one of the Fleet over some nonsense. Von Hardenberg began moving towards the scene, the rubbernecking crowd moving out of his way like he was a bulldozer, when he caught a voice raised above the tumult of all the people. It was answered by another bull's voice, followed by what sounded like a rather nasty slap sound, the kind only being belted by a female could generate.
She was wearing a Marine-style uniform, crimson and black with a Lieutenant Commander's pips, but his mind did not register that because it was too busy zeroing in on her too-familiar face. For all his genes, all his training, and every other edge in evolution given to him by the society that had created him, his very reflexes failed as his heart skipped three beats again, his jaw dropped open, his eyes bugged out of his head, and a strange hot-cold sweat broke out on his flesh. No one who knew him thought it possible for the veteran to react to anything like this.
My God, my God, how can this BE?? Is it possible. . .? was what his mind screamed at him. His mouth simply said aloud: "Isolda!"
She turned to face him, not recognizing him at first. For what seemed like an eternity, they just stared at each other, jaws agape, as if trying to comprehend the logic of each other's existences; for von Hardenberg, it was like seeing a ghost.
Then she was in his arms, and he knew better.
She did not faint, and that was testament yet again to her strength. She was kissing him all over his face, whispering his name fiercely, shedding silent tears, and he picked her up off of the ground with ease, so content to be here with her, now, when everything had said it was impossible, that he did not give a damn what it looked like to anyone else. He never did see the expressions of incredulous amazement on the faces of his 'Nightshades', even as applause began to break out in the crowd, which had ground to a screeching halt to watch this reunion. Even the Marine that Isolda had slapped was clapping, a sheepish expression on his palm-reddened face.
He carried her through the crowd, to the elevator, never stopping returning her kisses, never releasing her from his iron grasp, until the elevator doors closed on the world outside. With one last painfully gentle kiss, he lowered her boots to the floor.
She held his face in her hands, and his long-dead eyes met hers. "How?" he gasped, now that he could display his humanity in her presence without fear of another seeing him at his weakest.
She stroked his hard face in her hands. "I could ask you the same thing, love." Even with tears streaming down her face, making her voice catch, her smile was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. He wanted to laugh for true joy at the sight.
He grasped her hands in his own, pressing his lips to her fingers the way he always used to. "The---the Federation said you were dead, Isolda. I believed them." He kissed her hands again. "Space save me, I believed them all."
"They said you were dead, too," she replied, kissing him again. "I'd lost all hope of ever seeing you again."
The elevator chimed dully, and the doors opened. Holding hands, they walked out, and did not stop until they had reached his quarters and closed the door behind them, again shutting out the world that had lied to them.
". . .that was essentially how it happened," admitted von Hardenberg to her. They were in her quarters this time, for once fully dressed, just content to be in the same space together. He was finalizing the pruning on her flower, a masterpiece of botanical crossbreeding and his most beloved creation he had crafted from the morning glory blossom, a bicolor in black with a golden core; the original was still on Locris, but he had spliced part of the original and transplanted it to a new pot for her. "Once Doroa was sunk, and Admiral Delaz began the pullout, I simply hitched a ride away from Abowaku. I was originally intending to return to Side 3 and the Home Defense Corps with Sakai, but after. . ."
She looked up from the brilliant-hued flower at him, expectant. This was one of those rare times when they knew that they would have no chance for physical intimacy, so they would have to be content with talking. They had much to catch up on, anyway, though for his part, von Hardenberg dreaded these little talks.
". . .After I heard about your death," he still had trouble saying it when it applied to her, "all I cared about was revenge. Revenge for you, for Rudolf, for the others. . .Gott mit uns, Conrad died in front of me. . ." He paused as the hand that held the scalpel he was using to shape leaves began to shake, and he waited for it to stop before continuing. "I became. . .something else, Isolda."
A sudden wave of an even more potent concern washed over her eyes; it was so drastic a change that he looked up from the flower. She took his hand in hers. "More like Gato?"
Her tone spoke of worry, and he shook his head, hoping to banish it. "No. More like Chow. So consumed with hatred that it devoured my humanity, my reasoning, and that which made me who and what I am and turned me into a machine." There, he had warned her. Now she would know.
"And how about now?" His admission had done nothing to assuage her concern, and he wondered at the motive behind it. He gave her hand a squeeze.
"I'm better now that you're here. You make an excellent restorative, Isolda. . .but the machine is still alive." He put the scalpel down on the table. "It's as much a part of me as my flesh now, lying underneath it like a second skin. I need it too much to be rid of it now, not when it's kept me alive to kill them for so long."
"I'm worried, Markus," she said. "This isn't normal. Captain Chow is a sociopath; maybe you should get help. . .see someone."
He snapped his head around without even thinking and glared at her. Something slipped past his defenses, and it burst forth with a voice of its own. "Was? You want me to 'get help'? Who exactly can 'help' me, Isolda? Some God-trodden Chaplain with no will of their own? A secret-scrabbling psychologist, whose mind I could pick apart like an eggshell with half of my temporal lobe bludgeoned by the onset of a stroke? Wherein lies that 'help', little girl?"
The human instinct was an eternal thing, no matter the layers of civilization thrown atop it. One of the most basic was the human reaction to kill that which frightened it; if killing it was not an option, then the next step in the chain was to flee from it. Isolda had only ever seen Markus von Hardenberg angry once before, and it had not been directed at her. Now, as he aimed his predator's viciousness at her, it triggered the second instinct, an unconscious reaction borne of reflex to survive when threatened with probable death. She tried to pull her hand away from his, to distance them. . .and found that his grip was an unbreakable iron clamp.
He could feel the bones in her hand grind together, so close to breaking it was almost intoxicating. He wanted to hurt her, to dominate, and his rational consciousness struggled to keep the Beast contained, shrieking for him to stop. Just a little more force, a little more pressure, before the almost orgasmic crunch that would be her hand, and the sweetness of the scream that he knew would follow. It was what he thirsted for, the beast he had been slaking with Federation deaths for three years; the same beast wanted to hear her scream. Desperately, she was yanking her arm, clawing at the skin on his hand with her nails, trying to force him to relinquish his hold. Futile, all of it, just like all lesser humans to rail against that which they could not defeat.
"I will see us all dead before I crawl to cattle to find my own mental well-being!" he snarled, amused now by her struggling. How dare she insinuate that he, a truly superior being, needed to stoop so low as to grovel to an inferior for peace? "And you will finally learn the price of defiance, woman!"
The need was so vast, it was like sexual arousal. . .only more so. The machine had awoken.
At the brink of the moment, just before the bones in her hand broke, she surprised him again. Her free hand reached past them, took hold of the flowerpot, and swung. He, totally confident in her inability to harm him physically, was caught off guard, never believing that she could move that fast. The flowerpot shattered as she brought it across his face. Reflexively, he let go of her hand, and was shocked to taste blood in his mouth. . .he had bitten himself.
"'CATTLE'??" she screamed at him, backing away from the table, and him, quickly. "Is that all I am to you? Who the hell do you think you are??"
Slowly, he brushed at the side of his head, then looked down at his fingers. He saw black soil there, and petals of what was once the clone of the rarest flower in the universe, all moistened and thick with his own blood. The pot's shards had cut him. He closed his fingers into a fist. "You hit me!" he gawked at her, incredulous.
"And you deserved it!!" He didn't know where it had come from, but she had a pistol pointed at his head. She was shaking her head, tears of frustration, anger, pain, and fear leaking down her face, but her eyes did not move from him. "I thought I knew you, Markus! I never dreamed you would hurt me! I loved you!"
He blinked, wiping mud off his face. His other hand held the scalpel from his pruning, a fact he had not realized this entire time, and he put it surreptitiously down. "'Love'? A haphazard frame of reference for a person, and typically the last bastion of an inferior reasoning."
"God damn you, Markus!" She slapped the door button with her free hand, opening it. "Get out! NOW!"
He quirked an eyebrow at her, knowing he could prevent her from pulling that trigger, but totally enraptured by how she looked at this very moment. The combination of fright and strength of purpose was a beautiful sight to him. "Or?"
"Or so help me you shot yourself in the head right in front of me! 'War-related stress' sound about right to you?" She was deadly serious, and that made her even more stunning.
Very slowly, he stood up. The rational part of him was screaming to take that popgun away from her and beat her to death with the butt of it. . .he told it No. He had wronged her, and honor demanded that he abide by her wishes. "Isolda, I will go. . .but this is not over, not by far. After Stardust, there will be an accounting. . .and I may even lose." His voice was sad, but steady.
She must have been expecting an unconditional apology, which he would never grant. "I hate how you see Life!"
As he reached the door, he turned his head towards her. He was well within arm's reach, the barrel of the pistol right in front of his face, unwavering. "I hate how Life makes itself seen. And your barrel's dirty."
"Just. . .go."
And he went, and did not look back.
Konpei Island (Solomon) Sector, L5, Earth Sphere
November 10, 0083
The light of the green flare that bathed over the Zeon mobile suits was like the radiance of God descending upon them, and von Hardenberg knew it was time to bring forth the judgment of the Crown upon those who would not suffer the Yoke.
The stolen GP-02 Gundam unit piloted by Anavel Gato broke off from the formation, along with its two Rick Dom II escorts, and angled away from the rest of the Delaz Fleet mobile suits to navigate its way through the harrowing shoal zone surrounding Konpei Island, once known as Solomon. The "delivery" Gato had to make would be the means through which Stardust would achieve its success; von Hardenberg hoped and prayed that it would be a sight to remember forever.
To the left of Belladonna's four 'Nightshade' Rick Doms, Captain Ming Chow's flight group, a mix of Rick Doms and Zakus, kicked on their boosters and arced around in a high-speed 'dive' for the flickers of light to their ten o'clock. The Feddies had been mixing it up with all kinds of things out here, their pickets hard pressed to cover all the angles to protect their naval review from the Delaz Fleet. Their battles up to his point hadn't even been with Delaz Fleet suits or ships, but instead with fanatics who had come flocking out of the woodwork, to lend their support to Stardust any way they could. In ones and twos, they descended on implacable Solomon and its sentinels, to strike their blows against the might of the Federation Starfleet.
They made for useful distractions with their deaths, and that was all von Hardenberg needed them for. "Nightshade Flight, Shade One. Break from main group and proceed to Ramos sector; engage and destroy all Federation assets until ammunition expended or withdrawal order given. Operate under own prerogative, and good hunting."
His voice was an emotionless monotone, as the mask that he had worn in battle for the last three years slipped over him again. There would be no civilians here; he could kill as indiscriminately as he wished to, butchering Federation soldiers in an orgy of vengeance. So be it.
"Acknowledged, One. Three out." That was Falcone. As he was the first to respond, von Hardenberg chose him to be his wing. In a brouhaha like the one they were about to enter, the lone mobile suit was a short-lived mobile suit, even for an ace.
"Three, you're with me. Two and Four, swing to three o'clock and cover the starboard. We'll swing to port and meet in the middle. Flank speed, Nightshades." He pushed a lever to its maximum on the right side of his cockpit, and the Rick Dom's thrusters roared to life. Dividing into two sets, other Delaz Fleet suits already maneuvering into the battle zone and starting their attack runs on Konpei Island's defenses, von Hardenberg's flight struck like lightning.
A defense satellite took a potshot at Falcone's Rick Dom as they augured towards a manned defense station. Falcone responded by obliterating the satellite with his 360mm bazooka. Skirting past the debris, von Hardenberg saw that the Federation had already begun to muster its GMs into the fray. Fast reaction time, he thought admirably, killing these will be truly satisfying.
His first victim actually charged at him, that silly little 90mm spraying tracers wildly around him. He stopped his Rick Dom in mid-flight and let the wild shots simply pass around him. Idiot. With a simplicity he found almost wasteful, he leveled his MMP-80 and riddled the GM with his own 90mm shells. It spiraled away, bouncing off of some post-War debris, a dead wreck now, and he returned to his flight pattern from his pause, just in time to see another GM flash past in front of him, making a run on some Zakus and a Gattle. He dove after it, his thrusters enabling him to catch the overconfident GM before it could strike. He punched a 90mm round into its backpack thruster unit, and smiled as the GM whirled around in time to realize it was dead. Von Hardenberg danced his machine in a left jink and shot the GM twice more, head and chest, one round apiece. He flew past the Zakus.
"Learn to watch your sixes, fools," he snarled over the open channel, even as his Rick Dom waggled in a passing salute as he headed towards more fighting, where Falcone undoubtedly was. A glimmer from 'above' drew his suit's red mono-eye towards it.
Oh, more have come to dance. The Federation had responded, probably to whatever bleating that defense post was spewing in the Minovsky particle-strewn shoal zone. What looked like several companies of GMs and those peculiar Guncannon mixes were closing on them fast. "Gentlemen," he said on the open channel to the mixed units around him, "twelve o'clock and high! Make them suffer!"
"That's. . .that's a LOT of Feddie suits, sir," stammered Falcone.
"Then I suggest killing them all very quickly." Von Hardenberg's Rick Dom squealed a bit in protest as he changed its course aspect drastically, forcing the thrusters to turn the suit in a tighter maneuver than it wanted to go in. Then, he charged ahead, followed by Falcone and a company or so of the fanatics. The GMs fanned out to give each other space, and von Hardenberg rocketed through their formation, even as they began picking targets and commencing fire on the Zeon horde.
He picked one GM as his quarry, and unlimbered the 360mm bazooka. A second GM started plinking away at him, but he did not change his choice of target. One of the things that had killed so many Zaku pilots during the War, when the Federation had finally brought its own mobile suits to the field, was that they were easily distracted, and that meant lacking in target acquisition discipline. They failed to understand that without holding the target in one's mind, there was no way to strike the target with your weapon. Like a shark, you had to concentrate solely on your prey; everything else was probably moving, which meant their chances of blasting you into pieces on a flyby were slim indeed.
This was no exception. With random tracer fire dancing around his suit, von Hardenberg triggered the bazooka once, and the stock-still GM that had been trying to play sniper without a beam weapon blew itself into a cloud of paper clip-sized fragments. He then raised the bazooka, red mono-eye not moving from the spot he had killed the first GM, and triggered it again, and the diving GM that had been trying to hit him caught it on the upper torso, where the junction of the neck and shoulder of the suit unified the frame. It came apart in a burst of fire, and its debris showered down, driven on inertia, onto von Hardenberg's suit like a cleansing rain.
An unguided escape pod, probably from an escort ship or patrol, sailed towards him. He clamped the bazooka down and caught the boxy little craft in his suit's hands. Probably at least two, maybe three Feddies inside, victims of some Zaku probably, waiting for pickup. It would, of course, be transmitting a distress signal.
Time to let the Feddies know how this is going to be, and the hands of his Rick Dom compressed the life pod into a crumpled, flat ruin, stifling out the distress signal even as he snuffed the life from the survivors inside. He tossed the wreckage away contemptuously, more garbage in the endless debris field around Solomon, and then took up the 360mm again.
More, raged the voice in his head, a voice that sounded like fourteen other voices, all very familiar. Von Hardenberg listened, and he wheeled the Rick Dom around, searching for Falcone. He found his 'Nightshade' Flight member holding his own extremely well against a larger number of GMs, using the Rick Dom's mobility on the jink to fly rings around them. Von Hardenberg swelled with pride, as he was proven in his assessment that if shown how enough times, anyone could be a god on a battlefield.
One of the GMs, a red and white one, in the knot that Falcone had besieged chopped off a burst of 90mm fire at the racing Rick Dom, and Falcone slowed down.
"Affenschwantz!!" he barked at Falcone's stupidity. He drove forward at top speed, to save his imbecile low-gene wingman again.
A second GM detached itself from its herd to chase down Falcone, and von Hardenberg recognized providence when he saw it. He blasted his suit through a debris field that had probably once been a Zaku, and even before his sight picture had cleared he fired the bazooka at the lone wolf GM. The round struck the GM on the upper left side, and von Hardenberg knew it was a foregone conclusion, even before Falcone twisted his MMP-80 around and riddled the crippled GM with fire, dismembering the Federation suit.
"Falcone!" snapped von Hardenberg. "Get out of there! On my six, flank speed! Follow me!" The ace saw the rest of the GMs, enraged at the death of one of their own, begin initial maneuver for a combat pursuit. Catch us if you can, Feddie roaches!!
At full burn, his Rick Dom, Falcone's following at close interval, raced towards more convenient prey, even as Sanderson and Ortiz smashed into the flank of the GMs that had begun to chase them, and began to hack away at the confused Federation suits at close range. Zakus descended on the melee to join them in their work.
"Two, One. We're going after the picket. Stay here and kill those cookie-cutter GMs. Tandem tactics. Rendezvous at the designated area on schedule or be left for dead, over." Von Hardenberg began to scan his lane for more prey. There was fire and fighting everywhere around them now, and he felt more alive now than he had since before Solomon fell the first time.
"Roge-o, One," responded Sanderson, as he chopped the gun of a GM in half with his heat saber, then angled away before the GM could unleash its beam saber or its Vulcan guns. "Happy hunting, sir!"
A navy-blue GM cored open a Zaku with a burst from its beam gun, then kicked the dead suit in the head scornfully, but von Hardenberg didn't even waste the ammunition on such a fast-moving target, and a grandstander at that. Someone will kill that one someday, probably with pleasure. He and Falcone soared past without stopping, leaving the mobile suit battle behind.
It did not take von Hardenberg long to find what he was looking for. Killing suits was just fine by him, but what he really wanted was a ship, to remind the Federation just how impotent their Navy would be against Stardust, and just to the 'south' of Ramos sector, he and Falcone discovered quite the catch.
"My, my," he almost purred in delight, "what are we doing out here?" A lone Salamis-type cruiser, minimal mobile suit support. . .all cattle to be slaughtered. "On your seven, Falcone, near A-3. See it?" This unfortunate Salamis was different; a shipkiller design, and singularly unsuited to combating mobile suits. Too bad for them.
"We've got some Zakus cutting in on the action, sir," mentioned Falcone, gesturing with his MMP-80.
Von Hardenberg saw the three Zakus make their attack run, and his eyes narrowed as he saw their run begin with all the élan of veterans, then disrupt as one of them died to a GM's beam gun at close range. The other two Zakus rushed past, making a go at the Salamis; one of them came apart in a fireball as the second sentinel GM, a higher-performance model with modifications he had not seen before, leveled a beam rifle and shot it in the back from an impressive distance.
That one is an ace, mused von Hardenberg, or an extremely well-trained sniper. Either way, he's not to be trifled with. . .unless. . . "Falcone, match bearings with the direction the Zakus used. We shall make their lane of attack our own, and finish what they started. Do NOT engage that first GM; leave him be."
"I've got this fucker dead to rights, sir!!" yelled Falcone as he charged forward. . .towards the sniper GM.
"FOOL!!" raged von Hardenberg, accelerating to try and stop his stupid hotshot wingman's fatal error in judgment. The sniper had discarded its beam rifle and uncased its 90mm, slapping a magazine into the machinegun calmly even as Falcone's Rick Dom shot towards it.
Desperate, von Hardenberg leveled his 360mm and fired twice, trying to catch the sniper GM before Falcone could engage what was clearly a superior pilot. The GM shield-bashed Falcone's onrushing suit, stopping it in its tracks, grabbed hold, and swung the bigger bulk of the Rick Dom right into von Hardenberg's line of fire. Both bazooka rounds struck the 'Nightshade' suit in the back, vaporizing it in a fury of immolation.
Von Hardenberg was already taking advantage of Falcone's 'distraction', not caring a whit that he had just destroyed one of his own men. The sniper was not his intended target, and it was Falcone's own stupidity that had gotten him killed; the machine simply registered that Falcone was expended, and moved on. Von Hardenberg would do more than punish the sniper for using Falcone's suit as a shield. . .he would humiliate him first. He knew better than to assume that the sniper was down for the count with just blast overwash and some Falcone fragments.
The third Zaku, the survivor, had damaged the Salamis with its lighter 280mm bazooka, but had not been able to finish the job and fight off the second GM at the same time. In the ensuing destruction of Falcone's suit, the second GM had removed its attention from the Zaku. Von Hardenberg kicked on his port thrusters, flipping the Rick Dom around the debris field that was Falcone and possibly the sniper and bull-rushed the second GM. He swung the 360mm bazooka to the rear and unlimbered his MMP-80, even as the GM began firing wildly at him.
Undisciplined fire pattern, as well as the last line of defense for their ship. How quaint. The sniper can watch me return the favor it bestowed upon me. He raised the MMP-80 slowly, amused at the tracers that whizzed past his suit, amazed that anyone could miss something this big just because it was moving.
"All too easy, Flachwichser ," he said, knowing that the GM pilot could probably hear him. He triggered the machinegun and punched five rounds into the GM's torso and legs, then simply overpowered his starboard stabilizers with his thruster arrays and began the 'Hades Twist' on the unguarded Salamis. Playtime, sniper Kinder. Watch in despair.
He shot out the mega-particle turret and the forward antiaircraft turrets with his MMP-80. Then he unslung the 360mm, in mid-run, and blew out the weapons amidships with relish, knowing that their pathetic attempts to stop him were as futile now as they were in 0079. 'Hell on Wheels' braked for nothing. As the 'Twist' came to the end of its run, he swung back around, reloaded the bazooka's ten-shell magazine, and dropped two rounds into its engines, terminating the cruiser's propulsion. As the coup de grace, red mono-eye staring balefully at the sniper GM in the distance, he coasted up and over to the conning tower of the Salamis, aimed, and planted another shell into the bridge's forward viewing windows. The brains of the ship spewed into the Darkness Without End on a trail of fire and ash, and the conning tower cracked open, venting internal atmosphere into Space.
As he came to a halt, the universe flared into a white glow, and he shielded his eyes as a brilliant light exploded into luminescence from the far side of Solomon. Gato had succeeded; Stardust would be a reality. Von Hardenberg did not even deign to laugh at what he had always known was inevitable.
The surviving Zaku hovered nearby, its pilot clearly amazed by the triumph of the 'Nightmare of Solomon'. He keyed his communications. "I---I've never seen anything---"
Von Hardenberg's red mono-eye fixed itself on the Zaku II. "I will show you sights that will make this scene pale, if you will follow me."
The Zaku pilot needed little prompting. "I'm with you, then!! SIEG Zeon!!"
"Yes," murmured von Hardenberg, "'sieg Zeon', indeed. Let us be away from this place. Try and keep up if you can."
Together, the Rick Dom and the Zaku left the battlefield for von Hardenberg's rendezvous point with Belladonna. Falcone's death would be paperwork; to his callous mind, it was worth it.
And that was why he knew that Isolda could never have truly loved him; only fools loved monsters.
Delaz Fleet escort, Island Ease colony, Earth Sphere
November 11, 0083
The Zaku that had been right in front of him turned into a fireball as it exploded, and von Hardenberg took advantage of the death of his fellow Zeon suit to kill the Guncannon that had gotten it. The heat saber struck home on the 'Cannon's torso, and with a snarl, he continued the cut until the Federation machine's upper torso separated from the rest of its body, just before it, too, blew apart in a reactor failure.
Von Hardenberg was already moving, allowing the Cima Fleet its glory in clearing the path for Zeon's revenge. These initial pickets from the Federation's Earth Orbital Defense Fleet were the final line of defense the Zeon had to penetrate before the true arrow of Stardust struck Terra in the form of a colony drop, the likes of which had not been attempted since Operation British of 0079. Delaz knew no other method of striking the very surface of the mother planet that would be so potent in the eyes of the Federation; nor would any other metaphor for the hatred that those in Space felt for those on Earth. In that regard, it was genius.
Gato's mobile armor Neue Ziel, a gift from their Axis brethren as a show of support, was a true thing of beauty, an incarnate physical avatar of destruction. Its firepower was such that he had single-handedly killed the small pursuit fleet the Federation had sent at their rear. Now, he was going to kill what lay in front of them. Von Hardenberg remembered one of the many maxims that they had taught him when he was small: 'There is nothing half as terrifying as a true believer.' Anavel Gato was exactly that. Von Hardenberg rocketed back towards the Neue Ziel, which was hovering just off the bow of mighty Gwadan, flagship of Delaz himself. When his Rick Dom II, a more advanced replacement machine he had acquired before Gato's group had rejoined the rest of the Fleet after the Solomon attack on the Naval Review, came within five hundred meters, he slowed to match inertial speeds with the rest of the forces.
After losing all those ships to Gato's nuclear bazooka, the Federation's ability to stop Stardust now rested on some scant few straggler ships, scattered mobile suits, one Gundam-type mobile weapon that was equal to the Neue Ziel but no match for Gato's abilities, and the Earth Orbital Defense Fleet. . .which was stupidly standing off past the point of no return, helpless to do anything but watch as Island Ease's bulk was drawn in by Terra's gravity field. There was no stopping it now.
That Gundam had killed Sanderson and Ortiz with a cluster missile as it had made a desperate dive to stop the colony; Gato had driven it off, crippling it in the process. 'Nightshade' Flight was gone; only he remained, and that was enough. Von Hardenberg had survived Abowaku, and he knew he would survive this as well. Nothing could go wrong anymore; Stardust was inevitable.
He was still on approach vector when without warning or reason that he could determine, Neue Ziel raised one of its giant manipulator arms, and launched its claw-like grappler into the bow windows of Gwadan, venting the bridge to the vacuum of Space.
"Was im Hoelle. . .?!?" Gato had just killed Delaz?? Inconceivable! Yet there it was, right in front of him! He keyed the radio, trying to reach Gato. "Gato, what have you done, you fucking Stimme?!"
Static was his only response, but as Neue Ziel withdrew its claw, and the atmosphere (and personnel) of the battleship were sucked into the Void, he needed no words from Gato to know what needed to be done. Regicides were abomination, and there was only one solution for their disease: termination.
The Rick Dom II reached backwards, loosening the 360mm bazooka, von Hardenberg having every intention of unloading all ten shells at point-blank range into Gato's mobile armor. "That mobile armor will make a pretty casket for you, traitor!"
Another Rick Dom II, this one with an orange stripe painted on the rim of its mono-eye sensor assembly, interposed itself between Neue Ziel and von Hardenberg's Rick Dom II, placing its hands on the other machine's arms.
"Don't! Gato's doing what Admiral Delaz told him to do!" came Ming Chow's voice from his speaker.
"Why??" snapped von Hardenberg, though he did stop the deployment of the bazooka.
"Cima's betrayed us! She shot the Admiral right in front of Gato's eyes!" Chow's suit pointed a finger at the distant shimmering. "See for yourself, German!"
The long-range cameras were just able to pick it up, and von Hardenberg's eyes widened in shock. Chow was right; Musais and Salamis, Magellans and Zanzibars, side by side before a massive cross of synthediamond glass. In front of the array of warships, both Zeon and Federation, Gelgoogs and GMs lay in wait, guarding the one thing in the universe that could stop Stardust from happening.
Von Hardenberg's suit reached out and grasped the lower arm of Chow's. "Danke sehr, Chinaman. You stopped me from doing something truly stupid."
"You wouldn't have won anyway, moron. Go and kill something you've the power to, and stop wasting time." Chow's suit gave his a gentle shove, then took off after Gato's Neue Ziel and the rest of the Zeon mobile troops, to punish the traitors and destroy the Federation's only hope of stopping Stardust. Behind them, the ships of the Delaz Fleet sailed alongside the great silver cylinder that was their revenge given form.
The mobile suits of the Delaz Fleet hit the Cima Fleet/Federal suits head-on, catalyzing into an orgy of hate and destruction. Bitterly, the two fleets came together, even as Neue Ziel flung itself headlong at the Solar System II.
Von Hardenberg emptied the 360mm at ships as he zipped up and around them, blazing away with a furious abandon; a hull hit here, a blasted-out turret there. It was almost impossible to distinguish from friend or foe, but he was looking for one ship in particular. . .Vera Lynn, a Marine Musai. Isolda's ship. He had to keep it alive long enough to get her out of it. Afterwards, Cima Fleet be damned, he could call Stardust a victory, as long as she was with him. They had probably imprisoned her; she would never have betrayed Zeon for whatever madness had possessed Cima Garahou. She had been a starfighter pilot in the War; that there were no Dopps with the Cima Fleet lent credence to his thought that she had transferred to on-ship duty. He would have to storm the ship himself, find her, and bring her out. He flung the empty 360mm bazooka away; he was out of ammunition for it at any rate. He gripped the MMP-80 in one hand, and drew the heat saber from its dorsal mount with the other.
He would skin-dance Vera Lynn, carve her open, and enter through the brand-new access door he would create. He had no fear of killing Isolda by mistake: all Zeon crewers wore Normal Suits while in combat. She would come with him; the alternative was death, and he doubted she would choose such a foolish path. She had no choice in the end anyway, since if she refused he would knock her on her ass and carry her off of that doomed little ship before he blew it apart. Let any who would dare stand in his way!
A pair of Gelgoog Marines, more advanced than his own Rick Dom II, moved to intercept him. The first of them leveled its own MMP-80 at him and triggered a burst. Von Hardenberg evaded to the left and returned fire, the tracers blasting the machinegun from the hands of the Gelgoog. The second one appeared to be missing its own firearm, and launched itself at him with a beam saber unleashed. It slashed horizontally at him, and he leaned the Rick Dom II back as far as it would go just in the nick of time, the beam blade skimming over the torso of his suit. He kicked out with one of the Rick Dom II's feet, smashing the huge thruster-laden boot into the Gelgoog's chest, sending it spinning away. By then the first one had joined in the fray with its own beam sabers alight.
A double-saber style? How Florentine of it. He straightened the torso of the Rick Dom II, then let the Gelgoog come to him. The second one was recovering from the kick and was waiting for an opening. The first brought down its left saber, trying to cut his suit in half. He simply dropped back and rolled the entire Rick Dom II to the left, letting the saber fall parallel to the length of the torso. As it overcompensated for the miss, drawing back the second saber for a thrust at the same time, he chopped downward, severing the left forearm of the Gelgoog.
The arm exploded, blowing the two suits away from each other as the 110mm ammunition in the free-floating forearm detonated from the heat saber's contact. Von Hardenberg struggled to recover his momentum, even as the second Gelgoog charged him. It seemed to be out of 110mm for its forearm cannons, since if it had had any he would have been riddled by now. These two had seen action already, and were hurting on the supply side.
The second Gelgoog tried the same horizontal slash again, perhaps expecting the same dodge on his part. Instead, the Rick Dom II ducked under the blade, but the Gelgoog pilot was better than to fall for a similar trick twice. It snapped free its second blade and slashed upwards; von Hardenberg had to block with his heat saber, at the cost of his only melee weapon.
Verdammt! He was in dire straits now. The Gelgoogs were more than happy to bring this fight too close for him to use his MMP-80 on them without risking a reactor explosion that would kill him too. The first Gelgoog had recovered by now and was closing in fast, twin sabers bright against the darkness.
The second Gelgoog, sensing an opening, stabbed with one saber and slashed with the other. Von Hardenberg evaded the stab by boosting "up" with his thrusters, but the slash caught his Rick Dom II's left leg ankle bell, cutting through the high-tensile steel like it was butter. The fuel cell in the ankle that fed the thruster array at the heel of his foot flared into fire, and that forced the big suit to cartwheel to the right from the inertia of the blast. Von Hardenberg saw his chance.
Even as the second Gelgoog took both its sabers, put its hands together, and swung them both towards his suit, trying for a simultaneous same-direction double-cut, he did not stop the cartwheel motion. The legs and lower torso were lengthier than the upper torso/head assembly of the Rick Dom II, so in essence, he simply "shrank" the target area of the slash by letting his huge legs and lower torso continue their upward-and-around motion. When his suit was "upside-down" in relation to the Gelgoog Marine, the slashes passed "under" the top of his head assembly, and that put the torso-mounted beam scatter gun array right on the mono-eye of the Gelgoog.
He triggered the illumination weapon, hopefully blinding the second Gelgoog's pilot with the scintillating burst of light. The first Gelgoog was boosting up towards him, sabers swinging, to finish him off in mid-maneuver but expecting him to be distracted by the second Gelgoog's attack. He stabbed the second Gelgoog through one of its external fuel tanks with the null remains of his heat saber as his cartwheel came to an end. There wasn't much reaction mass left in the tank, but it was enough for the remains to detonate, sending the second Gelgoog spinning off in a haphazard direction. As it spun away, he blasted at the first Gelgoog Marine with his MMP-80 even as the maneuver came to a halt, the 90mm warshots tearing the Cima Fleet suit apart in a fury of lead.
As the cartwheel ended, he had expected the second Gelgoog to be out of the fight for some moments. He was wrong. It came at him, slashing away at the space between them. He backed away and shot it in the torso. No more games, traitors.
He was just checking on the damage that the now-dead Gelgoogs had done to his suit when the threat warning buzzer sounded, and that was what saved his life. A third Gelgoog Marine dove upon him from "above", its speed extraordinary. In a reflex, he triggered the maneuvering thrusters for a counterclockwise evasive maneuver, but he was missing his left ankle thruster array, and the suit moved too sluggishly.
But it was enough. The yellow beam blade sliced downward and diagonally, even as the Gelgoog's other hand grabbed hold of his Rick Dom II to stop its motion. The beam saber hacked deep into his Rick Dom II, sending the right arm, shoulder, and a good chunk of the starboard upper torso assembly spinning away, even as it burned its way towards his cockpit. Only his reflexes had saved that from being its initial impact point, and only his reflexes saved him now. His suit's left arm spasmed, the trigger of the MMP-80 jerking, and the machinegun sank a half dozen rounds into the flank of the Gelgoog Marine.
The beam saber slipped from the wounded Gelgoog's hand, and after a moment, its capacitor lost its charge, and the blade dissipated. Just as the energy of the weapon scattered, a secondary explosion blew shards of shrapnel through the cockpit of the Rick Dom II, devastating the interior, the consoles, and ripping a fair-sized hunk of tissue and mass from Markus von Hardenberg's body. Another piece shattered his duraplast helmet faceplate, starring it badly. The force of the pressure ripped open the interior cockpit hatch, violating the integrity of the pilot's compartment. The secondary life support system kicked in, sending emergency oxygen into von Hardenberg's flight suit, giving him the ability to breathe for a few hours, provided the emergency tank had not been ruptured and the suit remained intact.
All of that was fine by von Hardenberg: he was unconscious from the pain of his wounds, his blood seeping through the gaping hole in his suit.
The Line, Earth Sphere, Sol System
November 12, 0083
He could feel the Gelgoog pilot's presence on the ruined skin of his mobile suit; every little touch the pilot made sent a miniscule vibration through the heat-thinned walls of his little prison, and the glove he had pressed to the side of the cockpit was transmitting that information to his mind. Close, now, coming to finish him off if he wasn't already dead. Cautious, but impulsive as well; someone who had done things like this before, hunting live targets in iron rooms. A slight metallic tap as something knocked against the metal of the Rick Dom II: a pistol, probably the preferred Marine 10mm caseless. Typically Marine in methodology, which meant they would lead with their gun first.
He had never bothered carrying his sidearm into his cockpit. It seemed so useless to in Space, when ordinarily, the first hit would be a catastrophic kill for a pilot. In fact, by all accounts he should be dead, but he was not a human norm. . .as the idiot who was coming to play with his presumed corpse was about to discover to their expenditure.
He was sensory-deprived. No ability to hear more than himself, no ability to smell more than the interior of his suit; visibility heavily reduced by lack of proper illumination and the starred surface of his faceplate. That left him one option, and that was to opt for the use of the sense of the Eye That Did Not See, an extension of feeling, one that he had been trained to use very young but had never been particularly good at applying.
He closed his eyes and reached out with the hand that wasn't holding his guts in. At first, there was nothing, and he bemoaned all those useless months of sensory deprivation training at Gross-Lichterfelde to condition this sense to the point of conscious use. A waste of time in the end for Markus von Hardenberg, who would rather have been in the Arboretum anyway. . .
Then he thought of Isolda, and it all clicked into place with long-forgotten ease.
A harder vibration told him that the Marine was right outside the remains of the cockpit hatch. He wondered if Fate would fuck him once more, and the Marine would use a shaped-charge breaching detpack to blast open the hatch, killing him in the process without fail. He let his arm go slack, to float in the zero-G vacuum, and glassed his eyes to play dead, breathing very shallowly and praying to a God he'd had little use for to make it so that the Marine didn't have a goddamned detpack. . .
The Marine didn't seem to have one, since he was prying open the damaged hatch door with his hands, and von Hardenberg knew that he had just been given a chance.
First maxim of the Hunt: Know thy prey and its habits. A typical Zeon Marine was trained for close-quarters combat as well as demolitions, infiltration, and holdout tactics against numerically superior foes. It had been they during the War who had enabled the Zeon to hit the Federation garrisons as hard as possible, gassed colonies, and murdered countless civilian collaborators to the Federation. This would be a dangerous one, any way one sliced it.
But not as dangerous as he was. The average Marine's training in hand-to-hand close-quarters combat was the equivalent of the Ninth Level training New Koenigsberg's children received at Gross-Lichterfelde; Sixth Level for an Elector-Prince like himself. The only true danger was the gun.
It had been a long, long time since von Hardenberg had hunted human prey on a personal level; a hand-to-hand contest. He actually licked his bloodstained chops in anticipation, just the tip of his aching tongue touching his swollen lips. He would get to do what few others got the chance to do; be on the losing side, and kill the supposed victor without the use of any arms but his own hands. The ultimate hunt, to be the prey and then the predator, all at once. A true test.
He went limp as the hatch finally swung open, forced by the flight suit-ed figure who shoved it out of the way with a combination of physical strength and the CO2 boost pack that had enabled the Marine to cross the gulf between the Gelgoog Marine and the Rick Dom II with accuracy. After the hatch was clear, the tortured metal groaning as it was held open by its own bent frame, the Marine drew his pistol from the magnetic plate on his hip and entered the cockpit.
Von Hardenberg remained still, eyes open and glassy, the picture of the dead.
The Marine tapped on von Hardenberg's helmet carefully with the barrel of the pistol. Von Hardenberg did not respond to the stimulus in any detectable way.
Growing bolder, the Marine placed the barrel of the pistol on von Hardenberg's arm near the shoulder and gave him a poke, hard.
And von Hardenberg moved, wrapping his own arm around the Marine's, drawing the surprised man in close to put the pistol away from himself and pointing towards the rear of the cockpit. It went off with a muffled BANG anyway, just as von Hardenberg bent his own elbow and snapped the Marine's arm where the junction of the humerus and the elbow met just before the joint itself. The pistol discharged again as the Marine screamed (von Hardenberg could feel its vibration in his bones) in pain, just before he dragged the unfortunate soul into his constrictive embrace and squeezed with all the abandon he would have used on another Elector-Prince.
The gun's no more use to you now, he thought sadistically, I've severed your peripheral nervous system's ability to communicate its intentions to your radial and ulnae nerves, prey.
The Marine thrashed desperately, struggling in vain to free himself from von Hardenberg's arms, trying to inhale. Von Hardenberg hoped he did not black out from blood loss before he could finish the Marine off. The man's struggles became frantic, as the Marine came to the knowledge that there was no easy escape from his clutches. The trapped Marine balled up his fists and began to hit whatever he could of von Hardenberg in his awkward position, kicking with his legs for leverage that he might use to release the ever-tightening grip that von Hardenberg had around his chest. Von Hardenberg simply squeezed harder and harder, and laughed.
Beyond the realm of reason, like a frenzied fox cornered by a dog, the Marine went berserk, slamming his helmet on von Hardenberg's, beside himself in the madness of the doomed. Each thunk of their colliding helmets made von Hardenberg wince in pain, but his grip did not weaken, until finally, von Hardenberg felt something within the Marine give out, and what had been a very close enfolding became something even closer. Their helmets still touching, von Hardenberg heard the choked-off death scream of the Marine, and it was truly a sublime sound to the ear.
Von Hardenberg smiled contentedly: the Marine's rib cage and spine had given out. The man was dead. Still clutching the corpse to himself, he decided that the Marine would no longer require the use of his helmet, which he presumed was in better shape than his own was in. Almost blind, he fumbled with a hand for the connection point on the Marine's flight suit, to free the helmet from the rest of the uniform. The switch would be awkward, but possible if he could re-seal fast enough. After that, he could plunder the Marine's aid pack for enough wrappings to seal the hole in his suit, which was venting oxygen rapidly now.
He grabbed the Marine's dead hand and shoved it into the hole in his torso, screeching from the pain, sweat beading on his skin just long enough to freeze, making him even colder than he was. As he trembled from the pain, before endorphins finally shut it out as something he could bear, his grasping hand found the helmet release and mashed the release button, popping it free of the suit and into his hand.
He had to rest, weariness from the pain fatiguing him all of a sudden. He morbidly wondered what his rescuers would think, finding him here cuddling with the corpse of a Marine, whose fist was embedded in his own body as a makeshift plug for his own entrails. If he didn't end up on someone's "Bad-Ass of the Universe" list for this one, he'd be really mad. He shifted the Marine a little, carefully keeping the dead man's hand in its place, to better facilitate the helmet exchange.
I will LIVE, Federation!! he exulted triumphantly. I will LIVE, and so will Isolda, and together we will bring you to your ruin! Space has granted me my prayer, and denied you yours, and you shall see the face of Hell!! It won't be ME that this ends badly for! Stardust is just the beginning!!
He had paid the greatest price for this boon. His friends, Rudolf, his own humanity, all the blood he had spilt into the depths of the Void. It was only proper that God abase himself; if He had made Man in His own image, and Man had used science to create a version of himself that was truly superior to its original design, then in effect, Man had created a superior God. . .and for that, God had to be thankful to His creation. In the face of the superior being, even God had to bend the knee!
In the shrapnel-starred surface of his faceplate, he noticed that the Marine had auburn hair. And suddenly, in the midst of his triumph, his blood went cold, then sour in his gut. He grabbed the mass of hair in his other hand and maneuvered the Marine's head to where he could see the face.
And he began to scream, as Isolda Raake's unseeing eyes stared back at him.
He screamed like his voice would be able to change the shape of the very universe itself. He cursed God, Man, himself, everything. He shrieked his outrage and his loss to Heaven, Hell, Earth, and Void.
When his voice finally gave out, his vocal cords sundered from the force of it, he simply and soundlessly wept, holding her lifeless form to him gently, wanting so badly to take it all away. It made such sense now; of course she would have transferred to mobile suits: this one was a fighter, and fighters had to be at the forefront of conflict. They had to be. Why he had not suspected it was beyond his scope of perception. It was so obvious, he had overlooked it as even the remotest possibility.
Oh, cruel Fate, how could you do this to me? To her? To US?? Was all of this a waste in the end? He despaired throughout every corner of his being, as wave after wave of lamentation poured from him, an endless ocean of it for him to tap. He would fill all of Space with his tears.
And so, to a corpse he himself had created, he asked for forgiveness. She did not answer, but God did.
In the midst of his grief, he realized that the battle was almost over now. The colony had plunged into Terra's atmosphere, fulfilling Stardust as Delaz had wished. The Federation fleets were finishing off the Delaz Fleet, hunting them down one ship, one suit, at a time. In the faceted view that he had of the outside, he saw that GMs were sifting through the remains of the battlezone, looking for survivors, both Zeon and Federation. If von Hardenberg was to survive, it would be up to the Federation he so despised; when they discovered that their newfound prisoner was 'Hell on Wheels' von Hardenberg, war criminal, they would seal him away in the same place they had locked von Mellenthin away. He could not imagine the deep, dark hole they would have prepared for him, where he could spend an eternity without Isolda, without his friends, without his life.
Life be damned.
One more death, God. Grant me that, and take me from this place. Those who follow will finish the Will of the Ordnung. For me, let there be only oblivion.
His mobile suit, the venerable old Rick Dom II, had some life left in it yet. Through his ruined faceplate, he noted a navy-blue GM picking around the region, dutifully scanning the debris for signs of life. He recognized the GM from Solomon, and he knew God was listening to him and him alone now.
Isolda, Rudolf, wait for me a little longer. I'll be there shortly, once I collect my litter-bearer.
The red mono-eye of the Rick Dom II came to a dim life, and the left arm jerked the MMP-80 up. The great metal finger depressed the 90mm machinegun's trigger, and a staggered line of death reached out from the crippled suit's weapon, to claim the life of the Federation braggart he had bypassed at Solomon.
Markus von Hardenberg laughed in a pleasure that was only skin deep.
In his course, there would be closure after all.