"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzche

Phase 10: Ghosts and Angels

Uzumi City Ruins – Orb Mainland
May 16th, CE 101

Another thunderclap sounded through the air, signaling the growing fury of the storm along with the wind's great howl. Ryoko knew she didn't have long, but at the same time her head was still spinning from the images that flashed before her, and she still didn't have her answers. In fact, she had come here thinking that there would be some kind of explanation, but all she found was more unanswered questions inside her.

Many a time did she yell out her questions to the open air, but each time only the sounds of thunder and the flashes of lightning answered her, not that she was expecting someone or something to just give her an explanation like that. At last managing to calm herself down after sometime, as well as making the images stop running through her head, she had the Noir press forward and continue to scan over the desolate ruins, with nothing escaping its gaze. If the celestials chose not to answer her questions, then she was going to figure them out herself, and this ruined city was a good place to start looking for said answers.

By now she had come to what looked like the center of the city if the remaining buildings were any indication. Ryoko found it strange how this particular area didn't seem too damaged; sure, everything was in ruins, but the buildings were largely intact despite being rocked over by a nuclear blast some time ago, and the streets didn't seem to be affected either. She noticed that one of the buildings had a large television screen on it, cracked and shattered in a million places, but still intact. Judging by the architecture, it was a government building of sorts, perhaps the meeting place for the five ruling families that ran Orb. Ryoko would have loved to get out and check the building on the inside, but she knew she would need a radiation suit for that to happen.

Again, she found herself wondering just what force came and attacked Orb. Was it even a military power from this planet? Or could it have been something beyond normal understanding? Sure, any established Earth nation had the ability to use nuclear weapons, even after the destruction of the Alliance, but the more Ryoko looked around the more she saw that there really was an actual battle and that the nuclear attack likely came during or after the fact. If it actually was the Atlantic Federation or someone along that line, then why did they bother with an actual invasion force rather than just nuking the island from the beginning?

Of course, it also bothered her how anyone could fight against the vaunted Orb Defense Force and still manage to do this kind of damage. She could only imagine how powerful the attackers would have been if they could have gone up against the legendary Freedom and Justice tag team, along with all the other aces that flew under Orb's flag. That said, Ryoko wondered if Satan himself and his legions were somehow involved in the massacre.

But aside from those ponderings however, Ryoko did not find any of the clues that she was searching for, which she partially expected but was still disappointed. There's nothing here. she thought with a scowl.

For no more than a brief second after she thought that, a small blip appeared on her barely functioning radar and a proximity warning sounded. Ryoko had the Noir turn toward the direction of the blip, but she could see nothing on her monitor. She thought she caught a shadow moving about through the ruins, but then she lost it and couldn't find it again.

What the…? she thought, narrowing her gaze. And then, along the sound of a nearby thunderclap, realization entered her mind as she caught sight of a piece of debris falling to the ground behind her.

She was not alone.

Morgenroete Ruins - Onogoro Island

"Looks like the storm's picking up fast." Gabriel's static-broken voice announced as he looked over his sensor readings, his face shown on a small video window on the Verde Buster's side monitor. "We're going to have to pack it in soon Virgil, before we get blown out to sea."

Virgil looked over his own sensors and found himself drawn to the same conclusion, annoying as it was to leave so much treasure lying around. But then they could always gather it up after the storm had past, assuming any of it survived. "Yeah, you're right Gabriel. No sense in sticking around to be gone with the wind." He couldn't help but smile at his little pun. "What's your position now?"

"Just a few meters from yours in one of the hangars. Can't tell where Kurtz and the wonder twins are, or the psycho-bitch for that matter." Gabriel replied a little grimly.

Virgil's eyes narrowed at Gabriel's exclamation. "Now that you mention it, it has been a while since I heard from her too…"

"You think she got lost?" Gabriel inquired.

Rather than answer, Virgil keyed in the frequency for the Strike Noir on his radio. "Verde Buster to Strike Noir, check in please." No answer. "Repeat, Verde Buster to Strike Noir, check in. Ryoko, do you read?"

"Virgil!" Virgil heard the voice of Kenneth Hughes practically scream over the radio channel. At the same time, he caught sight of the elder Hughes' Windam charging down toward the position of the Verde Buster. "We've got a serious problem Virgil! The Nagato chick took off on us!"

Virgil did not like where this was going. "Please tell me she got tired of being out here and went back to the ship Kenneth…"

"Hah, I wouldn't be this panicked if it were that easy." Kenneth exclaimed. He took a gulp of air before he continued with the next line. "It looked she was heading toward the mainland."

"Is she fucking crazy!? Even she should know better than that!" Gabriel admonished. Since Kenneth was communicating over broadband, it was easy for him to listen in.

"I don't get it either! All of a sudden she stopped whatever she was doing and stared at the mountains for a bit, then she took off and flew over them. She was acting and talking weirder than usual too." Kenneth explained hurriedly.

Virgil said nothing to this, as he found himself thinking. Could she have remembered…? His eyes turned to gaze at the mountains behind the installation, where just beyond the Orb mainland lay. Impossible, she would have been too young at the time. And Aizen was supposed to have taken those secrets to his grave. Just what is going on here…?

"And just why didn't you try to stop her Kenny?" Gabriel demanded, once again using Kenneth's much hated nickname out of spite.

"Do I look suicidal to you Gabriel!? There's no way I could…" Kenneth stammered haphazardly.

"Enough." Virgil said only once in a tone that was far more serious than usual, which was enough to silence both at once. "How long ago did this happen Kenneth?"

"About ten minutes ago. I swear I would have told you earlier, but she threatened to squash me with the Strike Noir's hand if I did!" Kenneth justified.

"Great, that means she's already on the mainland and out of radio range." Gabriel groaned, knowing what was going to happen next. "Virgil, don't tell me we…"

"…got no choice. You and I are going after her." Virgil finished for Gabriel, then looked back at Kenneth. "Tell Kurtz and your brother to pull back to the Odyssey for the time being. If anyone asks, tell them we went looking for the underground factory site that's supposed to be here."

"What if the Captain asks?" Kenneth wondered.

Virgil thought about that for a moment. "Alright, you can tell him the truth. He'll understand. But no one else, understood?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever. Good luck with the search and rescue!" Kenneth called out, before turning around and putting his Windam into a run.

Immediately, both Virgil and Gabriel activated the thrusters on their Gundams and began to jet across the ground at high speed. However, even with the mobility of their Gundams, Gabriel was still concerned. "You realize it's going to take a bit of time to get over those mountains Virgil."

"I doubt she'll get too far ahead of us." Virgil replied knowingly, but still found himself frowning on the inside. I'd better ask May to retune these machines to fly once we get back. We're too limited on the ground.

"And how are we going to find her anyway? The radiation's going to make our sensors all but useless." Gabriel explained. His lips turned up into a sneer. "I swear if we do actually find her, I might shoot her cockpit out just for giving us this much trouble…"

"I hope you're not being literal with that statement Gabriel." Virgil shot back.

Gabriel said nothing at first, instead settling on turning his sneer toward the Verde Buster and holding it for a second or two. "Nevermind that." he simply put, then concentrating back on the heading of his mobile suit.

Drawing the two "Derringers" from their respective hip mounts, Ryoko had the Noir remain standing where it was despite the great temptation to move away. Although this plan gave her trackers an opening shot at her, at the very least it might be able to draw out her attacker with that said shot; the trick was to dodge it before it did any damage and then counterattack just as quickly. Having the support of her sensors would have given her even less of a disadvantage, but even when the radiation induced static cleared for just the briefest of moments they told her nothing. Perhaps these hunters were using some form of stealth?

There are at least two of them. That much I know. Ryoko thought, her eyes shifting from one side of her monitor to the other. Unlike her radar, infared and sonar, which were all distorted by the aforementioned radiation, her optical sensors were functioning properly, but even with their night mode activated, the darkness caused by the storm limited them greatly.

One of the few things working for her in this situation was she had been here before, to some degree. There had been one occasion like this back when she was trying to make ends meet in the middle of the Australian Outback. She had been tracking a group of raiders that had intercepted a convoy carrying vital medical supplies for the little town of Stirling. Alone and in an almost ancient Strike Dagger, she tracked them to their canyon hideout in Barossa Valley, where somehow along the line they had detected her and set up an ambush for her on the surrounding cliffs.

Needless to say, it had taken nothing less than Ryoko's great piloting skill to have gotten out of that melee alive, especially since one of the raiders was using a monstrous GOUF Ignited left over from when ZAFT had been running things on the continent. She ended up losing the Strike Dagger not long after that too from the battle damage; in fact, it practically fell apart after the long walk home. Fortunately for her though, she and her grandfather had found the Strike Noir not long after.

But among other things that situation had given her was the ability to 'sense' her surroundings without her eyes or her hearing. She didn't know what to call it, or whether it was something bizarre like telepathy or if it was just gut instinct or battlefield intuition, but ever since that battle Ryoko had been able to 'see' things occur in her mind that she wouldn't have been able to detect coming with her five standard senses.

That being described, she was able to 'see' that she was surrounded by a group of enemy mobile suits, whose number she could not determine. She could also practically 'hear' one of the enemy pilots wondering aloud "What the fuck is that thing doing? Taking a piss break?" while another one countered with "I say we bag the son of a bitch now and be done with it!"

And she could also 'feel' one of them pull back the trigger.

Immediately her computer rang out a warning on the incoming beam, and Ryoko kicked the Noir into gear, jetting off the ground as the beam hit the spot where she had been standing. A split second later she spun around and brought both "Derringers" to the area where she had 'felt' the beam come from and fired two simultaneous shots. She didn't see her target, but that didn't mean it wasn't there, and even if she missed the target itself, the resulting collapse of the building it had been near would have finished it off anyway.

Two more open fired soon after, trying to catch her in a crossfire, but Ryoko had the Noir lunge forward and in gun kata style aimed the "Derringers" in either direction and open fired. Like before though, she scored no shots, and Ryoko realized that while she could evade their attacks she was still at a huge disadvantage in not being able to land hers. And she was unable to escape either; while she had a chance of surviving the fight, albeit a small one, it would have been nothing less than suicide if she went to a higher altitude, where she'd be swept away by the hurricane.

Going for cover, she charged down the main street, firing random shots in order to buy herself some time. However, she was forced to change her course when she saw a glint of metal streak straight at her. Jumping back, she at first thought the projectile was a "Stiletto" explosive, like the ones that the Blu Duel and the Windams use, but when it impacted, she noticed it didn't explode. Taking a brief glance at it, it looked like someone had thrown or shot a long metal stake at her, as weird as it appeared. She narrowly dodged another pair of those strange darts, this time going airborne but staying low; maybe weaving around the buildings would help her.

"Now what the fuck is going on!? I thought this place was supposed to be deserted!" snarled Gabriel as the Blu Duel skated across the water surface toward the Orb mainland. In the distance, he could pick up flashes of light through his monitors, obviously from beam weapons exchange.

"I can think of only two choices: ghosts or bad guys." Virgil thought aloud, as the Verde Buster matched speed with its comrade. He frowned in annoyance at the flashes. "But since this is the land of the living, I'm going to assume them to be the latter…"

"Don't know don't care. But I would bet my video game collection that she's somehow involved." Gabriel replied with distaste.

As much as Virgil hated to think about it, he couldn't find any way to disagree with his partner. Knowing that, his grip tightened around the controls. "Move in double time Gabriel. At this rate we'll miss the show."

Immediately, both mobile suits doubled their speed and shot across faster than any other kind of mobile suit could.

Battleship Odyssey – Onogoro Island

"Is that all?" Lee finally spoke after what had seemed like a while, eyes narrowed into an inquisitive glance. He had just listened to Kenneth Hughes' report on the recent turn of events.

It took a moment for Kenneth to gain enough composure inside him to speak up. "Just one more thing sir: Virgil and Gabriel took off after her. I haven't heard from them since, but he said you would understand."

Lee nodded, but deep in the back in his mind he felt some disturbance at how he had missed this variable before. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes at that frustration. I can't believe I forgot about Ryoko entirely when I ordered us to Onogoro. He then looked back up at Kenneth and waved him off. "Alright, that's all I needed to know. You're dismissed."

"Ah, right." Kenneth acknowledged, quickly turning to head out the door. However, once he reached it, the door slid open to reveal Lynsie Schneider, who nearly jumped in surprise at the sight of the elder Hughes brother standing there. Kenneth smiled an ugly, toothy mimicry of Virgil's grin at her. "Well hello Lyn. I was wondering when you were going to leave the bridge. How about you and me…"

"Not now Hughes." Lyn snapped, hurriedly passing by him while at the same time stamping on his foot with her heel, hard. The thin man yelped in pain, giving Lyn the opportunity to shove him out the door and let it close behind her. After a few muttered curses, the sounds of Hughes' boots thumping away came through.

With that out of the way, Lyn came up to Lee's desk and handed over the datapad she had been carrying. "This is the inventory of what our mobile suits found out there sir."

Lee looked up at her with some confusion. "Shouldn't May be delivering this Lyn?"

"She forwards her apologies, but she's having some problems with her mechanics and asked me to go in her place." Lyn explained.

The look on Lee's face spoke much of his belief in that explanation. "Or you ordered her transmit the data to the bridge computer terminal so you could make the delivery yourself."

Lyn opened her mouth to respond, but she closed it when she couldn't find one, instead rolling her eyes in mild embarrassment. "With all due respect sir, I was just worried about you. You haven't left your office ever since we came here, which is unusual in the least."

The captain leaned forward at that. "Well, as you can see I am fine. I just do not feel I should be out there right now."

"On the bridge sir, or do you mean our current location in general?" Lyn inquired.

Lee allowed himself to frown at that. "The last time I was here, Lynsie, was over fifteen years ago. Back then it was full of life and beauty, and there were people here who I had considered family. Maybe I'm being a coward, but even in this cave, I don't want to see Orb any other way than I remember."

A moment of silence past between them before Lyn answered. "I think I can understand that sir."

Lee gave her a single nod. "Don't worry about it. Is there anything else you wanted?"

"No sir." Lyn quickly replied.

"Oh, so there is." Lee noticed. "You should know better than to lie to your captain Lynsie."

Lyn sighed; she had been hoping that the aforementioned captain wouldn't have seen through her. "I just want to know sir…" she started. "What really destroyed Orb?"

"Hmm?" Lee looked up with a more serious expression. "What makes you think I know?"

"Because you know, sir." Lyn answered straight forward. "You, Virgil and Doctor Winter do, that much I can summarize. But I know better than to ask the other two."

Lee shook his head. "Heh, I suppose so." He replied. "Yes, I can answer your question Lynsie, but I wonder, would you believe me?"

"Sir, again with due respect, I am your second-in-command and I also consider myself your friend. I know I am not as close to you as Virgil or Doctor Winter are, for obvious reasons, but I'd like to think I know you well enough that I know when to take what you say seriously and when not to." Lyn stated.

Lee took the moment to analyze her, from her gaze to the determination that was emanating from her. It was clear that she really wanted to know the truth, but Lee still wasn't sure if she'd believe it. However, he doubted she would back off the subject unless he ordered her to, which he would not do. "Very well Lynsie."

The green-haired XO took a seat on the nearby couch, awaiting the Captain's explanation. After she got comfortable, Lee finally answered. "I trust you are aware of the stories surrounding this place, the one that speaks of 'angels' reigning 'judgment' upon the land and some such."

"That folk tale?" Lyn had to hold herself back from glaring at Lee, as despite what she said earlier she couldn't help but feel the captain was not answering her seriously. "That so-called explanation was made entirely up by drunkards and religious fanatics! Surely you're not telling me…"

"It couldn't be closer to the truth Lyn." Lee answered, cutting her off in midsentence. "What you see out there was indeed done by angels, just not the kind you're used to."

Lyn was still not quite sure. "I don't follow sir."

The captain leaned forward on his desk and made sure his gaze met hers. "When I say 'angels', you and everyone else automatically think of winged celestial beings created by God to carry out his will over Heaven and Earth. However, these particular angels, which there are nine of, are quite different: instead of being created by God, they were created by men, and rather than answer up to His Will, they only answer to their own. They are anything but heavenly beings, yet they think of themselves as nothing short.

"Throughout this entire age, no, perhaps even beyond that, they have existed." Lee continued. There was a noticeable bit of what could only be 'hate' welling up in his voice. "From their domain, they manipulate this world and its people like Fate itself, utilizing causality as if it were just another tool in their trade. It was from their handiwork that Orb and everything that made it, like its people, its culture and its ideals, were ripped from the land, but don't think it was the only travesty they committed. Almost every disaster and cataclysmic event in history can be traced back to their so-called Will, along with the countless innocents that were lost along the way."

Again, Lee took a moment to analyze Lyn. It was clear to him that she didn't believe him; she wanted to, if only because she trusted him with her life and nothing less, but the logical portion of her brain was still wrestling with Lee's words. Lee sighed inwardly at that, but he had not expected anything more. "You may not believe me Lynsie, but that is the only truth that exists. In time perhaps, maybe you will come to see that as such."

Lyn blinked. "What's that supposed to mean, sir?"

"Sorry, that one I will not answer quite yet, but you'll understand soon enough." Lee said. "Now tell me, was that the explanation you were expecting?"

Lyn hesitated before she could answer. "No sir, it wasn't. But I suppose it's better that it came from you rather than anyone else."

"Hm." Lee nodded, pushing up his glasses the way Winter did. "Very well then. You may return to your duties Lyn."

The captain purposely waited for Lyn to turn around and start back for the door before he spoke up again. "One more thing." Lyn stopped. "What I told you is confidential. You are not to utter it to any other human being that is on this ship or off it. Is that clear Lynsie?"

One could almost visibly see Lyn groan out loud, still wondering if Captain Lee was being serious or if he was simply antagonizing her. "What about Virgil and Doctor Winter…?"

"You can bring it up to them, but don't expect them to answer. Just as you thought before." Lee said.

"…I'll keep that in mind sir. Thank you for your time." was all Lynsie Schneider said before exiting, leaving Captain Lee once again alone in his office.

Just what am I fighting here!?

The world shook as another neon beam fired from seemingly nowhere blasted into the ground where the Strike Noir would have been standing had Ryoko not been moving. Ryoko swung her machine around, side dashing to dodge another blast, and then fired back toward that direction with her beam pistols. But her own shots hit the side of a building and nothing more.

Ryoko cried out when one of the blasts actually slammed into her suit's back; the VPS armor limited the damage but it was still enough for the Noir's computer to send a warning. She knew she couldn't keep this up; eventually these things, for lack of better description, would either corner her and finish her off or her suit would run out of energy and she would end up undefended. And no matter how many times she had fired back at whatever was shooting at her, she had not hit a single target, at best only keeping them at a distance. Either way, if something didn't happen soon, she was dead.

This must be what fighting ghosts feels like. Ryoko scowled once more, trying her best to come up with a solution that would save her ass. If she could only take to the sky and fly back to Onogoro…

Then for the first time in the entire fight, her sensors beeped a warning as a pair of mobile suits were detected, through the static, closing from the distance. At first Ryoko took them as new enemies, but after the static on her display cleared so that her eyes could read the data, she realized that the two incoming were the Verde Buster and Blu Duel.

"Hey bitch… Do you copy?" Gabriel's voice echoed through the radio.

Ryoko couldn't tell if she was annoyed or relieved she was to hear that voice. "I'm being pinned down. Could use some assistance!" she practically howled as she again fired back at whatever was shooting at her.

A few moments later, she saw the two Gundams enter the area, weapons ready. That seemed to stop the fighting for the moment, as no other shot was fired from the shadows. It was best to assume that the enemy was regrouping, not apparently sure how to deal with these two new intruders, but only for the moment.

"Hey Ryoko. Been having fun without us?" Virgil chided as he brought the Verde Buster next to the Strike Noir. Up close, he could see the various scratches and smudges that were over the Strike Noir's armor.

"More than I wanted." Ryoko admitted in her heavy breathing.

"Just who did you piss off this time!?" Gabriel snapped, the Blu Duel's head shifting in every direction to try and find a target.

"I don't know! I made no provocation." Ryoko barked back to Gabriel out of annoyance, but more at the whole situation than Gabriel himself. "I haven't even seen them; I think they're using active stealth."

Gabriel looked up at the mention of 'stealth', then had the Blu Duel turn toward the Verde Buster. "Hey Virgil, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Got to be Mirage Colloid." Virgil agreed.

"What?" Ryoko wondered out loud.

"It's a device that generates a special reflective particle that bends light. Basically turns things invisible to both sensors and the naked eye." Virgil explained, having the Verde Buster march a little away from the other two, still scanning around. "However, the catch is a Mirage Colloid drains a lot of power, makes you invisible to your allies as well and it's not impervious to every kind of detection method."

Upon that mention, the Verde Buster's red faceguard folded up and onto its forehead, while a strange green eyepiece folded out from the side and over the right camera eye. At the same time, data began to enter into Virgil's sensor display, which didn't seem to be affected by the radiation. Red specks soon appeared on the display.

This was one of the Verde Buster's special features, the Special Weapons Targeting Sensor or SWTS. It was a high powered sensor unit that could detect targets more precisely than a standard radar system, and even stealth designed units like MC-equipped suits were not able to hide from it, but only over a short detection range. Plus, it could be used in coordination with the Verde Buster's weapons to increase their accuracy tremendously.

"Well well, looks like a group of Assassin Windams." Virgil said with a smile at guessing right. "This could be tricky even if we do know where they are."

Developed toward the end of the Second Bloody Valentine War, the GAT-04+AQM/E-W9R2 Assassin Windam was to be the Earth Alliance's mainstay stealth attack mobile suit, and it had been all the way to the EA's fragmentation. Though basically a standard Windam equipped with special equipment, the back mounted Assassin striker came with additional fin like thrusters, similar to the kind used on the original Blitz Gundam, as well as a built in Mirage Colloid. Also, Assassin Windams used the same "Trikeros" shield as that particular prototype on it right arm, and were also equipped with the "Hakenfaust" rocket anchor on its left. Fortunately, though it was meant to replace the special forces N Dagger N, it wasn't equipped with a nuclear reactor like that unit was.

That all taken in, Virgil knew that even one of these mobile suits was not to be taken lightly, and unless the radiation was affecting his sensors, there were at least fourteen of them in the general area. And those were only the ones that were within range; Virgil wouldn't have been surprised if there were more of them.

"Ryoko, you have two hiding in that ruined building at your right. When I give the signal, both you and Gabriel turn and level them." Virgil ordered.

"What are you planning Virgil?" Ryoko asked.

"I'm going to shoot another one. If this works, they'll realize we can detect them and so have no choice but to attack us directly, without their Colloids. But we have to make it apparent to them for that." Virgil continued to explain.

Deciding to be dramatic, Virgil picked one of the Windams that was hiding on the opposite side of a building. He switched over to the left shoulder mounted "Jaeger" beam cannon and then dropped his crosshairs on the spot where his target was standing, even though the building was between them. "Who ya gonna call?" Virgil exclaimed with a smirk, before hitting the trigger.

Instantly, a beam shot out from the Verde Buster's left shoulder mounted beam cannon, flew straight into the building that was between it and the target, and then out the other side where it blasted through the opposing mobile suit's center torso, dividing the top half from the bottom half before both ends exploded. Virgil wasn't able to see the explosion himself, but he heard it and the mobile suit's sensor silhouette faded off from the display in response. At the same time, Gabriel and Ryoko fired their own beam pistol shots into the nearby building Virgil pointed out, destroying their own targets.

Seeing that their main advantage had been compromised, the enemy did just as Virgil said they would, dropping their Mirage Colloids one by one and moving out in the open. Ryoko stared in aghast as she saw the group of black and green painted mobile suits leap out from their hiding places and onto the street like giant mechanical ninjas, but she was aware enough that she saw one of them level its "Trikeros" shield mounted beam gun at her and Gabriel. The two immediately jumped away before the shot landed, and Virgil likewise was forced to move when another one shot a trio of lancer darts at his machine.

"Finally, we can fight them in the open." Ryoko observed with excitement as she quickly aimed her "Derringers" and shot back at the Assassin Windams. The enemy machines raised their shields, faster than even Ryoko had expected, and deflected the shots while the ones that she hadn't been aiming for leaped forward with their shield beam sabers ignited.

Ryoko jumped away and attempted to switch her beam pistols out for her "Fragarach" beam blades, but the Windams were too fast and soon closed the gap between them and the Noir.

However, much to her surprise and shock, Ryoko watched as the Blu Duel jumped in front of her machine with its own beam sabers ignited, parrying both Windams. "You're too slow, idiot!" he blurted out as he clashed both blades between the two.

Despite the effort Gabriel gave however, the two Windams were faster with their blades and they quickly placed the Blu Duel pilot on the defensive. He attempted to take one out by making a railgun shot from his "Scorpion", but the target Windam quickly leaped over the shot and made a solid kick against the Blu Duel's head. Gabriel gritted his teeth as he felt his suit get rocked back.

However, just as the Blu Duel stumbled back, a third Windam entered out of the shadows with its beam saber raised, jetting out for the Gundam's exposed torso. It would definitely have slashed the Blu Duel open at the side, had Ryoko not leaped out and fired scattering beam shots that made the Assassin Windam move back from its attack.

"Now who's moving slow?" Ryoko couldn't help but shoot back at Gabriel. She didn't have time to look, but she could tell that Gabriel leered at her in response. She attempted to finish off her target Windam, but the machine leaped back and reactivated its Mirage Colloid, disappearing in the shadows once more. "Damn it, they're fast!"

"Keep your focus you two." Virgil ordered. He noticed what Ryoko had just said however, but he didn't say anything as he was two focused on trying to kill the two Windams that had appeared in front of him. With an almost predatory ferocity, the two Windams moved into the attack like a pair of wolves, closing the gap faster than Virgil was able to shoot them, while slashing their beam sabers at the Verde Buster. Virgil had to extend both of his bayonet blades to hold them off. "There should be eleven more of these things. Keep that in mind!"

The Strike Noir joined the Blu Duel and Verde Buster in the melee by replacing one of its beam pistols with a "Fragarach" blade, but even Ryoko was having a hard time beating back the enemy. The Windams were moving fast in an attempt to surround the Gundams, and it didn't help when the other missing five leaped out from a nearby building and joined the melee. Almost outnumbered three to one and about to be overwhelmed, Ryoko spun the Noir around and let loose the volley of beam shots from her "Derringer" beam pistol, forcing the Windams to scatter, although the blasts managed to catch and destroy two of them. "Two down!"

"Good." Virgil replied as he leveled both beam rifles and fired twin shots. One of his targets managed to evade the shot by thruster jumping to the side, but the other one wasn't so lucky and caught a green burst of energy straight through its chest. Its internal battery detonated not long later. "Three down, eight to go."

"Will these bastards go down already!!" Gabriel roared as he slashed and hacked at his adversaries to scatter them further. Thinking fast, he replaced his left side beam saber and folded down the "Walther" beam pistol, firing a spray of beam shots that again forced two of the Windams to hide behind their shields, unable to outright avoid the fire. Seeing the opportunity, Gabriel charged at them and slashed a large horizontal slash that would have and should have split them at the hips. However, both mobile suits managed to back off in time and only suffered damaging gashes to their shields.

These aren't run of the mill marauders like we've been fighting. Ryoko thought as she cut off the "Hakenfaust" that had latched onto her left arm. She quickly raised her right beam blade in time to parry another slash at her. Gritting her teeth, she held the blade in place, trying to overcome the opposing Windam through the raw strength of her machine. However, the Windam knocked her sword away and knocked the Strike Noir back, firing one of its lancer darts in the process. Ryoko just barely managed to avoid it and replied in return with a barrage from her CIWS. The way they move is different…

Beside her, the Blu Duel rocketed up into the air to avoid an incoming "Stiletto", only for a beam shot to impact on its leg, knocking the Gundam off balance and causing it to fall on its back. Sensing a moment of weakness, one of the Assassin Windams burst up at the fallen Duel, beam saber poised to impale it straight down the middle, but before it could do that, Gabriel activated his back rocket thrusters and made the Gundam rise up. He then shoulder tackled the Windam while at the same time pumped three shots from his beam gun into its cockpit, flying back just as the Windam exploded.

"Four." He said off-handedly, just as one of the remaining seven Windams came flying at him with its own saber raised. He raised his shield to deflect the blow, but the Windam pressed forward with its rockets and pushed back against the Blu Duel.

On the other end, Virgil parried another slash at his cockpit with his bayonets, even as the Windam he was fighting went into a flurry of slashes. Where the hell is Ed when you need him the most? he thought as deflected another attack and then made a slash of his own, which was easily absorbed by the Windam's shield. Virgil then watched as another pair of Windams sprinted in on either side of him to come to their comrade's aid, firing their lancer darts to catch the Verde Buster in a crossfire. Quickly, he kicked on his ground thrusters and made the Verde Buster skate backwards from the lancer darts, then quickly taking aim with his beam rifles and firing. Virgil had expected to catch both Windams with back shots, so it surprised him when he saw both of them spin around so fast that they were literally blurs, with one managing to deflect the beam rifle shot with its shield while the other tried to outmaneuver it, but ended up losing its right arm in the process.

Virgil raised an eyebrow at that. The only people that can move that fast are aces and Alliances special forces. Could they be…?

His thoughts were interrupted when the one missing an arm launched a "Hakenfaust" at him, which Virgil deftly avoided by skirting to the side. He then countered by firing another shot, this one nailing the Windam in the cockpit and destroying the enemy machine. That made him smile, even as he had to skate back further to avoid beam shots from the other two. Whether they're marauders, soldiers or ghosts, cannon fodder is cannon fodder. "Five."

"That means two of these things for each of us." Ryoko muttered outloud as she deflected blows from the two Windams that were attacking her with her "Fragarachs". She pushed forward and slashed and hacked at each of the Windams, moving off one for a moment one for a moment to concentrate her fury on the other then switching back. However, while their defenses wavered during each of her attacks, she still couldn't deliver the killing blow to either of her opponents. Knowing this, she jumped into the air took low level flight as another clash of thunder and lightning echoed above her, with the Windams giving chase not far behind. We'll be at this all night. These guys are just that good. she thought, gritting her teeth in frustration.

That was when she remembered the Noir's main advantage. "Virgil, Gabriel. When I say so, move back as fast as you can."

"Huh?" Gabriel admonished as he fired a railgun shot that ended up getting deflected by his target Windam, although the shot did knock it back greatly. "What the hell are you going to do…?"

"Not now Gabriel." Virgil replied sharply while he fired more shots at his own pair of targets. "Say 'when' Ryoko."

"Roger." Ryoko said, as she had the Noir gain more altitude. It was risky, as the winds had really picked up now, but she went further into the sky, with the Assassin Windams giving chase. She wasn't sure if those striker packs gave them flight capability, but it wouldn't matter in a second.

When she reached the appropriate altitude, she switched over to the Noir's "Huckebein" beam cannons, which folded over the Gundam's wings, then yelled out. "Now!"

A moment later, a pair of wide neon green bursts of energy streaked down from the sky, vaporizing her pursuers before impacting on the Earth below, where they destroyed another enemy, one of Gabriel's attackers. The other three managed to avoid the blast before it slammed, but two of them were quickly gunned down by Virgil using both of his shoulder cannons.

The remaining one, seeing now it was up against three Gundam type mobile suits alone, tried to activate its Mirage Colloid and escape, but Gabriel had the Blu Duel fly up and slash the Windam at the legs before that could happen. Now back against the ground, Gabriel stamped his Gundam's foot over the mobile suit's chest, he then reversed the grip on his beam saber with the blade pointing downward, eerily hovering over the cockpit area.

"Say goodnight asshole!" he howled as he impaled the mobile suit for the final time, then jetted back just as it exploded.

"Did we get them all?" Ryoko breathed as she lowered the Strike Noir back to ground level. Despite having asked that question, she kept her Gundam's weapons active and the hand manipulators close to the beam pistols, ready to draw them again at a moment's notice. There could always have been more where those came from.

Coming down to the Verde Buster, she saw the tan and green mobile suit's head turn over the landscape, as if the suit itself were trying to see if there was anything else out there. "I'd say we did." Virgil replied, shrugging. "I'm not detecting anything else here besides ruins and scraps. We should head back to the ship."

The Verde Buster turned around at that and started to march away. However, he stopped when he noticed that the Strike Noir wasn't following him. "Something wrong with your mobile suit Ryoko? We got to get back before the storm hits."

"I know. It's just…" Ryoko spurted, trying her best to find the right words to say in spite of her jumbled up emotions. Taking a deep breath, she finally answered. "…I'm sorry."

"Hm?" Virgil had the Verde Buster's head turn back to face the black Gundam.

"Yes, you heard right. I'm sorry for forcing you to come out here just to find me." Ryoko admitted, now getting flustered. "For what it's worth, I didn't want to bring this kind of trouble on you or Gabriel."

"Heh." Virgil let out, sounding rather amused at seeing the coordinator like this. "Although I will be wanting to hear why you came here in the first place, I didn't consider it too much trouble. Just don't do it again." He turned back to where he was going. "Now let's get Gabriel and… Well, speak of the devil."

At that moment, the Blu Duel came marching up from where it had finished off its last opponent. Just like the other two Gundams, its armor was blotched with burn marks and a dent or two, but otherwise it seemed to be working perfectly. However, the way it stalked out from the shadows combined with the fact its pilot wasn't saying anything to his comrades gave one the feeling that something was off here.

Concerned, Virgil was the one who asked first. "Hey Gabriel, you still alive over there?"

Ignoring that question, the Blu Duel turned toward the Strike Noir, flashing its green camera eyes as it did. Before Ryoko realized what was happening, the mobile suit swiftly reached to its left shoulder housing, withdrew a single "Stiletto", and threw it straight at the Noir. Ryoko's eyes widened as she saw the blade come shooting at her, aiming to take off her Gundam's head with a single blow.

Only it didn't.

The "Stiletto" streaked past the Noir's head, barely missing it by centimeters, and instead exploded against a different target. Ryoko and Virgil both turned around to just see another Assassin Windam appear, its Mirage Colloid disabled by the explosion and its head vaporized. The enemy mobile suit stumbled back a little bit before it landed on its back against the ground, disabled and out of the fight.

"Shit!" Ryoko yelled, looking back at Virgil in fury. She immediately drew her beam pistol and aimed at the headless mobile suit to keep it from getting up. "Where the hell did he come from!?"

"My apologies. I only saw the shadow move for a split second." Gabriel replied dryly, moving over toward the Windam and aiming his own beam gun at it. He could tell Ryoko was glaring at him through the monitor, but he ignored it. "I didn't have time to warn you."

Ryoko opened her mouth to verbally tear the natural a new one, but when it dawned on her that the boy who made it a point to hate her for what she was just saved her life, she closed it and turned to an expression of puzzlement. That was the second time he came to defend her, the first during the battle itself. Why…? She thought.

Meanwhile, Virgil came over to the fallen mobile suit, moving between the Noir and the Duel as he did. He then picked up his right "Gewehr" composite beam rifle and extended the bayonet blade, which he pointed down over the mobile suit's cockpit. That done, he began to speak over the Gundam's external megaphone. "Alright, we'll start with the basics. Tell us who you are and why you attacked us like that, and we might just let you leave here alive."

There was no answer. In fact, the mobile suit didn't even twitch.

It took only a moment after he had spoken for Virgil to realize why. "Ah shit… Withdraw, now!"

Knowing better than to ask why, Gabriel and Ryoko followed their respected comrade's lead and flew away from the disabled Windam in different directions. Sure enough, the Windam started to glow in the darkness, before it exploded with a thunderous clap that rivaled the storm above.

Ryoko was the first to look back to where the Windam had been, now only a small crater in its place. "Kamikaze… That guy was serious…"

Gabriel, on the other hand, looked toward Virgil in confusion. "How did you know he was going to do that?"

"When he didn't answer my question with any kind of retort." Virgil replied, with a dead serious expression over his face. "We were lucky; he made it obvious. Had that been a second later we all would have been in trouble."

"Jesus…" Gabriel swore as he looked back at the crater. "Ambush tactics. Unmarked stealth equipped mobile suits. Skilled pilots willing to blow themselves up instead of being interrogated… Just what were we fighting out here?"

"I don't know." Ryoko answered. Her voice was eerily even. "But whatever they were, they were definitely a cut above what we usually fight. I hope for our sake we don't run into things like this again."

Neither Virgil nor Gabriel said anything to that, although Virgil looked a little more disturbed than the other two. He already had an idea of what they had just fought against, but he didn't want to believe it himself. Putting aside that thought, he focused on the task at hand.

"Let's get back to the ship."

Battleship Odyssey – Onogoro Island
One Hour Later

Things had calmed down again, almost to an uncomfortable level to Gabriel. Once again, he found himself on the ship's observation deck collecting his thoughts and just listening to the silence. Even though all he could see from the deck was the inside of the dark, cavern hangar that the Odyssey had placed itself in, Gabriel still felt at ease here, which was what he needed the most after a fight like that.

Ever since that fight had ended, the ship had felt more tense and on edge. The news that there had been another force on Orb besides the Odyssey itself did not go very well with the Captain, and Virgil himself seemed to be disturbed by it too, though either of them tried their best not to show it. At the moment no one else knew about the battle, and the Captain made it a point that none of them were to tell anyone, but that still didn't stop people from feeling that something was wrong, or at least more wrong than before. For better or worse, it was going to be a long three days hidden away in this little cave.

Gabriel had to admit that he felt a little disturbed himself. He could see the image of that enemy pilot, knowing that he was cornered, but all too willing to throw his life away just to take the three of them with him. In Gabriel's lifetime, he had never come across an adversary that would have done something so drastic, aside from the occasional nutjob that had nothing to lose. The Blu Duel pilot tried to think of that pilot as just that, a nutjob, but he just couldn't place him in that category. He wasn't even sure if he could have classified them as Marauders.

The sound of the door opening behind interrupted his thoughts for a moment. He knew who was there, but he chose not to face her right now. Gabriel just didn't feel up to it.

Silently and steadily, Ryoko walked up to where Gabriel was standing and came up right next to him. Gabriel could see that she was feeling on edge like everybody else just from her posture and the dead expression she wore on her face. At the same time, he noticed her mouth opening, as if to ask him a question, but then she closed it before anything could come out.

Sighing, he decided to just cut to the chase. "What do you want now?"

"Nothing." Ryoko snapped back, as she glared at him from the corner of her eye. "I just don't get you. That's all."

"What's not to get?" Gabriel stated back.

"You've made it perfectly clear multiple times that you hate me and would love nothing more than to see me dead." Ryoko said, only now turning to face him. "But then out there… Why did you save my life?"

"Why?" Gabriel answered back, as if he were shocked by the question. "Because you're part of my team."

"But you hate me." Ryoko repeated.

"That doesn't matter, you're still part of my team." Gabriel said, looking at her with disbelief on his face. "Why are you even bringing this up?"

Ryoko raised her left eyebrow. "So basically you saved me because I work with you on the same side?"

"Pretty much." Gabriel replied, sighing again. Fighting back his own hate, he looked at her with an honest-but-stern face. "I'll let you in on a little story of mine. Before I came onboard this ship, I worked with another group of Marauders; no one special, just a bunch of random combat junkies who liked guns and currency. My last job with them took me to the Amazon in South America, where we fought on the behalf of some wannabe warlord who wanted to take over the region."

Gabriel intentionally paused on that to let it sink in. "One day, my group and I walked right into an ambush. Everyone was pinned down, nobody was sure where to shoot at, basically just one big clusterfuck. I and two others ended up getting split off from the group and forced into a clearing for cover…"

"Is there a point to this story or are you just trying to win me over?" Ryoko snidely exclaimed.

"Let me finish." Gabriel said bluntly, then continuing. "The two I was with were bitter enemies. I don't know why they hated each other; maybe they fell in love with the same girl or one stole the other's cookies and milk, I don't know or care. To make a long story short, one of them saw an opportunity in that clusterfuck. When the other guy wasn't looking, the asshole came around and shoved a beam saber through the guy's back."

The boy snarled a little, as if he had to relive that memory. He noticed a look of sympathy from Ryoko, but didn't know whether to accept it or just feel disgusted. So he continued. "The man even laughed as he did it, said the other guy should have been expecting that. I'll tell you, I doubt I will ever get as angry as I did then when I heard him laugh. It pissed me off so much that I gunned the bastard down where he stood."

After saying that, he turned around so that he could lean against the glass viewport. "Not long after I ran out on that group and came across Virgil in the deeper part of the jungle, and after a string of events, that's how I ended up on this ship."

Ryoko said nothing, but she could tell he was telling the truth. "Hm."

Cracking his neck offhandedly, Gabriel returned to his stern expression and looked her deep in the eye. "I told you that story so you would know how perfectly clear I am when I say this: as long as you're on this ship, on this team, you can trust me to watch your back and make sure you survive. Yeah, I hate you. I hate what you are and I hate the fact we breathe the same air, but one of the few things I hate more than your kind are betrayers. Whether you believe me or not, however, is up to you."

He watched as the coordinator eyed him for the moment, trying to pick up any traces of dishonesty on his face and his eyes, but he knew she wouldn't find any because he had said the truth and nothing less. After that moment past, she gave a solemn nod. "Alright, I'll take that to heart."

Without any other words, she turned and began to walk out. However, before she could make it to the door, Gabriel stopped her. "Now it's your turn."

She stopped, and looked back at him.

"Just for the sake of curiosity, why did you go to the mainland in the first place? What exactly were you looking for out there?" Gabriel asked almost demandingly.

At first, Ryoko thought about just ignoring that question, but then decided against that because Gabriel had bared his soul to her already. The least she could do is tell him the truth as well. "Nothing." She answered. "Just thought I saw a ghost or two. Nothing else."

Gabriel looked perplexed at that, but only for a moment. His expression changed back to neutral soon enough, and he turned back to face the window. "I see."

With nothing else, Ryoko casually walked out of the room and left Gabriel alone once again. What she didn't notice on the way out though, was that Gabriel had turned to look back at her as she exited.

It had been exactly thirty seven minutes and twenty six seconds since Virgil had entered into the Odyssey's mess and asked for a late dinner. In all that time he had not once touched his food or even felt the slightest bit hungry; not that year old macaroni and cheese was appetizing. Instead, it sat in front of the pilot, its cheesy aroma floating into the air like stink off of a pig. At times he would play with it with his dinner fork, but he never once took a bite, neither did he take a drink from the glass of water sitting at the side. His mind was too far elsewhere.

No doubt those were Earth Alliance Special Forces that we fought against tonight. Or something like them at the least. Virgil thought but refused to say aloud as he swished around the macaroni noodles. In his mind's eye could still see the black-and-green colored Assassin Windams, all of which purposely had no markings of any kind, and all of their smooth ninja-style movements and attacks play out. Even the kamikaze attack was an old Alliance SpecOps trick, as those soldiers were trained to avoid capture at all costs and fight to the bitter end. If it was, then how could they still exist after all this time? Especially when it's been, what, seventeen years after the EA collapsed? It doesn't add up.

It was then he realized the irony of that question, which made him smirk at himself. Then again, I'm not exactly one to talk in that area…

So intent was he in his thoughts that he failed to notice Lyn enter in the mess until she walked right past him. However, when he did look at her, Virgil immediately noticed that Lyn was peeved about something; granted, she seemed to always be peeved about something, but this time something was really grating on her nerves. "You look troubled young Schneider…"

"Drop it now." Lyn stated up front before the pilot could finish. She immediately went up to the counter and grabbed a cup of coffee. "I'm not in the mood."

"You never are, but I still like you all the same." Virgil inquired mischievously. He then went back to sitting there thinking and playing with his food, pretending that Lyn hadn't come in at all.

Lyn rolled her eyes. "Just tell me something Virgil…"

He looked back up at her curiously.

"When are you and the Captain really going to cut me in on the loop?" Lyn demanded.

"Loop? What loop?"

"You know what I'm talking about."

When Virgil realized what she meant, his expression turned serious but for a split-second, remembering that little 'chat' between her and the Captain that he had been told about earlier. But before Lyn would have been able to notice, his smile returned and he gave her a look of mock-puzzlement. "I honestly don't have any idea what you mean Lynsie."

Lyn sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Forget it, just forget it." she said before she stormed out of the mess in a fit of frustration.

The Verde Buster pilot watched her leave for a second, then turned back and shook his head. "Women. Can't live with them. Period."

After that was said, he finally took a bite of his macaroni and cheese, instantly gagging.

"…Shadow One reporting in. Confirmed Targets Alpha through Charlie: GAT-X1022 Blu Duel, GAT-X103AP Verde Buster and GAT-X105E Strike Noir identified and logged in. Pilot ID also a match on the Verde Buster; it is definitely the Demon of Victoria. Don't know how he survived this long…"

"Roger. The entire unit was wiped out. All three appear to be quite powerful. I guess was a good reason for your sending us here..."

"Yes, I have located Target Delta: Ulysses-class battleship Odyssey. It's currently within the Archangel hold of Onogoro Island. I request permission to launch a strike on all targets, with available resources… Very well, I will stand down as ordered."

"Also confirmed, the Odyssey's ultimate destination is the Americas. I've downloaded their navigation database and logs on my mobile suit's computer. I'm quite sure you would love to go over them personally, Your Excellency…"

"…Very well. We will return to the mainland immediately. Hopefully there's still a war to fight over there. Shadow One out."