(Archangel's Amazing Adventures, Section 5, Chapter 1: Slightly Above Zero Luck)

This is what I get for thinking it would be a nice time to stop and stretch, the lady with the pink hair thought in frustration. She didn't even have to hear it, she could feel the horse run away from them. It would be a perfectly natural reaction, of course, given the horse would be severely frightened by whatever it was that just landed nearby.

"You alright?" her Familiar asked after a moment.

"You can get off me now," Louise answered dryly.

"Oh, sorry. I didn't know what that was supposed to be, so I reacted," the plebian answered with a nervous chuckle.

"What could that thing have been, though?" Louise asked nobody in particular, staring in the direction it landed. Fresh off the 'Staff of Destruction' incident, she played a hunch. "Was it something from your world?"

"That?" Saito asked in mild shock. "No, never seen it," he admitted, even though something in his memory was raising a bit of a flag about it.

"Should we investigate? This could be serious," Louise asked herself, wondering against all her imagination what it could be.

"It landed a bit of a ways off the road," Saito said helpfully. "We could get to it quickly, and get back to the road before nightfall for sure."

-x-

(20 minutes later)

Saito was correct — the object landed not far from the road. It had landed and skidded somewhat, but outside of the flattened forest (and a destroyed lumberjack's house that had no lumberjack in it), there was plenty of cover to approach it.

Which was a good thing, because Saito still could not tell what it was, but he could easily tell it was some kind of machine of war. A very big machine of war.

"What is this thing? It's bigger than Albion's warships!" Louise half-shouted.

"Quiet," Saito said. "Men approach." He waved a finger toward the opposite end of the object — ship, he guessed after a moment, since it looked like one from sci-fi anime, toward the wings that had cleaved trees off just below their canopies, leaving a large amount of tree still in the ground.

Louise did indeed quiet down, if for no other reason than dread fascination. The approaching guys moved in a group, and as they approached Louise could tell some were ladies, not guys. All were carrying some kind of object that she could not recognize, but several also wore swords — a sure sign of them being some form of military, the way they all carried at least some weapon.

One raised a long black tube and rested it on his shoulder, then did something to it to cause it to emit a bright light. Louise wondered why they would do that until she realized the area they were looking at was in shadow.

"That's the strangest wand," Louise noted. "I wonder if it can do anything else?"

"That's not a wand, it's a flashlight," Saito said. He had been to an open house at the Tokyo PD, considering it as a possible career path, and he had marveled at the power of the PD's flashlights, manufactured by the American Surefire corporation in Japan. What the guy was holding was nearly identical.

"Ain't this sweeter than shit!" one of the guys shouted loud enough that Saito had no problem hearing them.

"Looks like Newman's definition of 'four point landing' means 'four points of impact'," another of the guys said.

"That's about what we got," the first guy said. "This isn't the worst thing he could have broke, but it's still going to be a bitch to fix. These engine nacelles are designed to withstand thermonuclear ass-flames, how he managed to fracture four of them is beyond me."

"Impact trauma breaks many things, Murdoch-sensei," a different voice said.

"Time to give the Captain the bad news." A guy pulled something from his belt, adjusted something on top of it, and brought it close to his face. "Bridge, Murdoch, priority traffic," the guy said. Something was said in return, but neither Mage nor Familiar could understand it. "It's definitely not good, Captain, but it's not 'we're dead in the water' bad. I can fix it, but it should take me right around twelve hours to do all four engine nacelles that were damaged. I'll need material, manpower, and time to make it happen, though, otherwise the main engines will destroy themselves the first time hot-shot guns 'em." Again, something was said from the distance, but could not be heard. "For starters, wake up Kira and Nicol, and have them get their machines ready. I'll need that much right off the bat."

"Just on a side bet, fifty coin says this isn't our homeworld," one of the ladies in this group said to one of the older guys.

"I can tell you that already, honey, no radio or N-Jammers here. That means, by default, we are charlie-foxtrotted once more."

"What are they saying?" Louise asked.

"I'm not sure, they're speaking in English, but it's weird. It's not the English I know from classes, it's something different," Saito said quietly. "My best guess, something on their ship is broken."

"That… is a ship?" Louise asked, shocked.

"It must be… and it looks familiar," Saito said. "I feel like I've seen it before."

"All right guys, while we get set up to repair the engine nacelles, I want to go over every inch of the hull, verify we haven't busted anything else mission critical," the man apparently named Murdoch said. "And, we're wearing trees like a mouse wears splinters in its ass after someone kicks it across a rough wood floor. While the ship doesn't care if it has a couple extra tons of wood shoved up its rear, it is a bit unsightly and has no camouflage value when the ship is in flight. Take some of the power loaders and Magitek units to remove the trees. Good to go?"

"Yes sir!" Seven or eight of the other persons shouted. They departed toward the opposite end of the ship, though the guy with the flashlight and radio remained.

After a moment, he looked up to the sky. "Whatever God or Gods decided this trip would be somehow funny, fuck you. Just, fuck you. And the horse that rode you last night."

"What did he just say?" Louise asked.

"Uh, I don't think I want to repeat it. It was pretty dirty," Saito said nervously.

-x-x-x-

(6 hours after landing)

"This is cookbook repair," Murdoch explained. "The magnetic fusion nozzles fix themselves when a breach like this occurs; turn the magnetic system on, the mag forces literally yank the separated material back into place and alignment. All we have to do then is use thermite paste in the cracks and spacers to weld everything together and we're good to go. The problem is getting everything aligned and ready to apply the magnetic force before we turn it on, otherwise the nozzle rips itself apart into a dozen pieces."

"Then we're really out of luck," Mu acknowledged. "I mean, just at a guess, I'm pretty sure there are no space naval shipwrights on this planet. Getting a used fusion engine nacelle...not likely."

"I follow," Murrue acknowledged. "Take your time, Murdoch. I have patrols out and the Mobile Suits are on rotating hot-pad standby. If we have to, we can take the ship into combat with four out of the nine engine nacelles locked out. I won't like it, but it is doable."

"I'll get 'em fixed, Captain. Should be another four or five hours." Murdoch was off the bridge moments thereafter.

"Well, all things considered, there will probably not be much in the way of technological threat to the ship. So as long as we stay away from any villages we should just have a two week charge cycle and we jump out again," Commander Chevalier noted. "Unless you want to hang around, Captain?"

"Not particularly. We haven't been jumped yet, so I say we lay low, then get out of Dodge as soon as possible." The impetus of their dismantling of Romefeller was the repeated assaults of the Oz / Romefeller groups without any manner of clear explanation or even a challenge to the ship before attacking. Given that circumstance, Murrue (to say nothing of her crew) was ready to beat their asses for salvage rights and chewing gum. It just so happened that there were parties willing to pay slightly better than the chewing gum, so...

"Fair enough," Mu acknowledged. "Without air recon, we have an idea that going due west should be —"

"Conn, sensors, low-altitude air contact detected," Sai Argyle noted from the CIC pit.

"Details?" Murrue asked.

"Outside of LOS but approaching slow. It's small, best guess without a LOS scan of it would be a two-man rotary transport."

"CPA? And time to arrival?" Mu asked next, considering matters.

"CPA on present course guesstimate… 500 meters astern, give or take. Time to arrival, 90 minutes on present course and speed."

"Understood," Murrue said. "Secret's up. Time to prepare the welcome mat." Murrue reached down to her chair's growler phone. "Chief Ryback, please call the bridge on channel 9, repeat, Chief Ryback, please call bridge on channel 9."

Murrue hung up, but held her hand over the phone. Ryback never took more than 15 seconds to answer a summon, and this time as always he did not disappoint. "Bridge," Murrue answered the phone when it rang four seconds after her call.

"Ryback's Madhouse, you rang boss-lady?" Chief Ryback said.

"We have possible air incoming. May be an air-mobile recon job. I want you to deploy some of the guys to the south with man-pack SAMs and be prepared to deal with them on the ground or in the air. Since we can't confirm they are hostile, you are to use discretion. Capture if possible, or at least be somewhat nice if they try saying 'hello', follow?"

"Galley rogers your orders, Captain. I'll get the boys on it within the next ten."

"This is the hard part about this," Murrue grumped. "New world, new circumstances. It'll be a long and nightmarish story when we finally get to tell it, and all the more so when we get to tell it on our world."

"Wonder what this world is like," Mu asked. "No technology, but the terrain is wrong to be Cephiro or Gaia."

"True," Murrue said before she sat down in her command chair. "Not enough info yet. We need to know more, but we can't risk being tracked before we have proper mobility."

"Why is it things never start out on a good footing for us?" Newman asked nobody in particular.

"You heard Murdoch. There is your present betting. Divine meddling, 12-1 odds," Mu answered the non-directed question, though his odds were predicated on the present betting pool amongst the crew for the final answer on what was causing this nightmare.

"Okay, if it is divine meddling, how do we break the cycle?" Newman followed up.

"We do not, unless you know someone who has achieved divine ascension?" Murrue requested in retort, though unduly sharply. She realized it after a moment. "My apologies. That was a legitimate question, and an inappropriate answer."

Murrue's magic glove lit up, the ruby gem shining brightly. An answer exists, but it is not the answer expected, the Rune God Rayearth said. 'Tis not the work of divine meddling; were it so, we Rune Gods would have already sensed it, and dealt with the offending deities as is appropriate. Something else, something within the ship, does cause the faintest echo of presence, nary enough that it can be localized, but enough that we know it is there and likely is interfering with thine jump pattern.

"Ghosts?" Kuzzey asked from the radio station.

Again, Murrue's glove lit up briefly. Thine question is ambiguous; the name Ghost belongs to more than one being. In either case, we do not believe so; any Ghost known to us would be easily tracked. This being, if a being at all, is not so easily understood.

"Wonderful," Murrue grumped. "Now I may or may not have something skulking around my ship, interfering with the jump engine."

"If it wasn't for uneven luck, we would be out of luck," Mu said sardonically.

Murrue simply raised an eyebrow at his comment, but said nothing more.

-x-x-x-

(60 minutes later)

It was not often in Tristania that anything happened capable of causing most of the country to tremor. So, when something did happen and the ground quaked, questions were always asked.

It was far less often that anything appeared from a massive discharge of ball lightning, was large enough that Princess Henrietta could see it halfway across the country from her royal quarters, and when it impacted the ground it caused the aforementioned quake. Like everyone else in the small nation that saw it, she had no clue what it was, or even if it could be harmful. Naturally, these things had to be investigated; it could be a trick by certain shadowy organizations…

And, in classic fashion of problem solving, she had some 'low key' individuals she could call on to investigate a problem such as this. While her first choice would have been the Captain of the Mage-Knights, he was presently doing recon in another country for rumors of certain organizations on the move. Her second choice, Louise and her familiar, were on assignment in a port city for possible corruption / abuse of plebians issues. Third choice, such as it was, came down to a certain Chevalier who had also recently participated in the 'Staff of Destruction' incident and aided the capture of The Sandy Foquet.

Getting the assignment to them was not difficult — the Chevalier and one of her friends, a transfer student from a different nation, had brought the headmaster of the Magic Academy over for consultation on the strange occurrence. He had the same immediate plan: get someone close, try to find out what it truly was that had caused the quake. So, Tabitha and Kirche set out to figure out what was going on on dragonback.

"It's big… and white and blue," Kirche said. "No clue what it is from up here."

"Ship," Tabitha answered succinctly. "We land."

"A ship? What kind of ship would be that big and painted white?" Kirche asked. "Albion?"

"Wrong style," Tabitha answered again in her usual terse style.

"Okay, any idea whose it is?" Kirche asked just before Tabitha's Familiar Sylphid backwinged in for a landing on a nearby road.

After Kirche had cleared the Familiar and moved in toward the forest, Tabitha looked back toward the Familiar. "Stay here."

-x-

"Ryback, Jonesy," the sauce chef said very quietly into his radio. "Two tangos coming your way. Should be four in the treeline now."

"The flying thing?" Ryback asked after a moment.

"Sitting in the middle of the road."

"Roger, keep me posted if anything else changes. Newman is on the back deck with his 'pocket monster', though he reports limited visibility to the teams. Call 'em if you need 'em. Out."

Jonesy fell silent for a minute, watching the two teens as they headed into the treeline between the road and the Archangel. So far as he could tell, it wasn't particularly surprising that some form of recon had come looking for them, but a miniature dragon was not on his list of expectations for that recon. More to the point, the dragon was literally air temperature, meaning the thermal-seeking Stinger Surface-to-Air Missile he had would not lock onto it even when skylit. He could not have shot them down even if he had been ordered to, at least not without a highly-improbable dead-fire shot against them when they landed. (Jonesy figured, if going by technicalities of orders, he could pass such an asinine SAM shot off as mission accomplished, but if he had been ordered to wax them after they landed, the Thompson SMG would have done the job a lot easier and less messily.)

Given his last meal was sometime before the ship had begun final preparations to leave AC-era Earth, Jonesy decided a MRE was in order. Each of the Kitchen Commandos had their own personalized MOLLE LBV, but all of them had two pouches in common: an IFAK (First aid kit) and a Sustainment Pouch (two MREs and two bottles of water). It was the latter he delved into, silently, so as to not disturb the mini-dragon.

It was only after he started heating his chili mac that he realized something was looming over him. A surreptitious glance upward answered the 'what' of such a problem: the dragon had smelled the food, and come sniffing.

"What? This is my first chow in half a day, amigo." The dragon kept sniffing. "Okay, but the only thing you're getting is the trail mix." Jonesy tore open the trail mix pouch and held it up toward the dragon's snout. The offering didn't last more than four seconds of sniffing before it was gone from his hand. "Damn, dude, you're not supposed to eat the mylar pouch, but okay."

Jonesy had no idea that he had just inadvertently made a friend for life.

-x-

"Kirche, Tabitha?" Louise asked, shocked when she realized who was coming up behind them.

"This is it?" Kirche asked after a moment. "Bigger than it looked from above. And what are those fools doing?" Kirche was referring to a group of ship's personnel that were standing off to the side, doing some form of erratic dance that appeared to have not even a ritualistic purpose.

"No idea, but I believe it goes with the nonsensical music."

Saito stifled a giggle. He knew what they were doing, an interpretive dance based on the currently-playing song 'Barbie Girl' which he had heard many years prior on the internet. He also didn't think it had any manner of relevance to whatever they were doing to the engines of the ship, but he also suspected that at least part of the personnel involved in this repair job were not exactly sane.

"Highly strange people," Louise said. "And unusual machines. What did you call them?" Louise asked.

"Gundams," Saito said. "They're a weapon of a fiction series from my homeland. A frightening weapon, but they're not fiction right now."

"So real, it's almost not," Kirche said after a minute of ignoring the dancers and strictly observing the ship. "And you said it was fiction in your world?"

"Yeah," Saito said warily. "I know it's Gundam, I just can't place which series."

"Okay, how do you stop something like that?" Kirche asked after another machine stomped up, this one carrying several large bars of some metal. "The Staff of Destruction?"

"Eh, kinda, kinda not," Saito answered. "The Staff of Destruction is designed to stop things like that, but it's not big enough, and you'd need a lot more than the zero we have right now."

"What do you mean by that?" Louise asked, misinterpreting his comment to mean that Saito was referring to her.

"I didn't mean that, I meant that we don't even have the Staff of Destruction — it only had one shot, remember?" The Familiar said in a rush, in an attempt to avoid a flogging for his inadvertent impolitic phrasing.

"He means you would need an actual anti-tank guided missile," A guy's voice said from behind them. All four heads whipped around to the speaker, a guy in strange clothing with white-blue hair (stranger than Saito's) and a lady in obviously-magicked partial armor. "Light anti-tank weapons aren't very effective against Mobile Suits, they don't cause enough damage and they tend to draw a lot of attention to the shooter. Bad news the whole way around. Now, were I you, I wouldn't worry about the big machines, I would worry about the guy on the ship you haven't seen yet, but is watching you."

"Wha — how did you get behind us?" Kirche asked after a moment. The guy simply shook his head, indication that he wasn't about to answer that question.

Saito had froze up, knowing from his history lessons what he was looking at. They both were carrying submachine guns, the same kind of SMG that was used by the Americans and British against the Imperial Japanese during WW2. He remembered the name 'tommy gun' pertaining to them, but somehow seeing one in person had convinced him that the name he knew was not the actual name of it.

Tabitha had focused on the last part of what the guy said, and was looking at the ship. She, however, could not see what she was looking for, a man that had been watching them. "Can't see him."

"The guy watching us?" Louise asked. "We've been watching for hours, there's nobody there except the workers."

"Oh ye of little faith," the lady said. She reached up to part of her gear harness and touched something that made a barely-audible click. "Newman, Hikaru, three blue flashes in five seconds, please."

"Eyes up, toward the top of the rear of the ship," Yzak said. After a couple moment's pause, something almost unnoticeable at range gave off three blue flashes, then when the third flash was done, Saito had even more reason to dread what he was looking at.

"A sniper?" Saito asked, almost breathlessly. "You're military, aren't you?"

"A what?" Louise asked, completely unfamiliar with the term and slightly worried why it would cause a near-panic reaction in her familiar.

"A sniper, a hunter of men," Saito said almost in a rush, inadvertently using his father's derogatory term for snipers. "They kill from long range, often times out of sight, and usually without being heard."

"Newman's been watching you two for several hours now. You don't want to know what he thinks about you, lady," Yzak waved his finger at Louise, which caused a reaction that was four parts dread (from being spied upon) and two parts anger (for being 'apprised' unfavorably by a plebian).

"On your question, yes, we are military," The lady said. Tabitha guessed her name was Hikaru, going by the guy calling the sniper Newman, and with the sniper being unseen for hours, that meant he could have observed all their actions and mannerisms for a while. "We are mercenaries, quite a way from home and trying to go home. We landed here by accident, wherever 'here' is."

"And you broke something," Saito said. "Does that mean you're stuck here?"

"Huh?" Hikaru asked. "Why would we be stuck here? It's just a basic engine repair."

One of their radios crackled. "Yzak, Ryback, declare status at first available, over," Saito understood, but not the three Mages. (1).

Yzak leaned away from the group slightly, and depressed a similar toggle switch as to what Hikaru used. "Ryback, Forward Team, report status as soft contact, four tangos, no present expectation of action. Stand by for further," he answered, which was clearly understandable to everyone.

"Yzak, Pytor, if you require support, we stand ready," someone else commented. Again, Saito was the only one to understand the comment.

"Roger that," Yzak answered. "Not likely at this time, over."

"Yzak, Captain Ramius. If they are not here to cause damage, why don't you invite them in? I can explain to them directly if they are willing."

"Aye, Captain. I'll relay the request, wait one," Yzak said, then let off the talk switch.

"She wants to talk to us directly?" Saito asked.

"Who?" Louise asked.

"The Captain of their ship," Saito said. "I feel like I recognize her voice from somewhere," he mused, which caused both Louise and Yzak to red-flag for two entirely separate reasons.

"Your call," Yzak said warily. "We're not going to force you into the ship, and we're not going to harm you unless you provoke it. Captain is offering hospitality, if you are willing to take a leap of faith for it."

-x-

All things considered, it was not much of a leap of faith. Kirche and Tabitha had been ordered by the Princess to inspect the object, and getting an invite from the ship's captain simply fulfilled that request to an extent well beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

And, inasfar as anyone could dream about something like this, Saito was the closest of anyone in the four-person party. Gundam series tended to have gratuitous inside-ship scenes of one type or another, including a shootout inside the main ship of the Original Gundam, but this ship was different from what he remembered of the various Gundam works. He could tell it wasn't Wing, one of the more popular series, mainly because Wing didn't feature an in-atmosphere ship and these pilots weren't pretty-boys to the degree he remembered. Hell, one of the MS pilots on this ship was an old guy with green facial tattoos, which didn't register in his recollection of any of the Gundam series. It wasn't Original Gundam, the ship wasn't blocky and squared-off enough. He felt it was a Gundam series, but he just couldn't place it…

"This… really is a ship, isn't it?" Kirche asked for not the first time since she entered the hull.

"It is," Hikaru answered this time, sympathy in voice. She had been just as stunned by the realization of the ship when she first set foot in it, lo those many years ago.

Louise blanched again when Yzak's radio went off. "Maintenance Control, Athrun, requesting availability on a rate-five arc welder, x-rays are showing a possible void in the number six engine nacelle patch."

"Athrun, I have a tech bringing one out to you, ETA 3 minutes," the Maintenance Controller answered immediately.

"Athrun? Did he just say his name was Athrun?" Saito asked.

"Yeah, why?"

"I recognize that name," Saito said with a hint of worry to his voice.

"Huh?" Yzak stopped at an intersection to look back at the Familiar. "What's that about? I'm pretty sure you're not from anywhere we've been."

"That's the thing, I recognize it, but I'm not sure where from," Saito said. "Sorry, forget I said anything."

"When was the last time you had anything to drink? Water, fruit juice, similar," Yzak prompted him.

"Erm, yesterday?" Saito answered meekly after he thought about it.

"Huh," Yzak groused. After a moment, he unbuckled a pouch on the side of his MOLLE Plate Carrier (2) and pulled a large bottle of green-yellow liquid out of it. "Drink up, kid. Dehydration is probably making you delirious."

Saito was not about to argue the point with the very serious guy that had ordered him to drink up, so he popped the top on the bottle and took a swig. He immediately recognized it as the lemon-lime gatorade he used to drink when he was doing youth sports clubs in school, but it was significantly less sweet than the gatorade he had fond memories for. Despite tasting somewhat like sucking on a lemon, with a background hint of cheap bottled water for good effect, it was a surprisingly enjoyable drink to Saito. He even offered a drink to Louise, who refused.

"How far are we going into the ship?"

"Captain's Stateroom is two corridors farther portside," Yzak said. "We'll be there in twenty seconds."

"All metal," Tabitha said, looking down a different corridor than they were taking to get to the stateroom. "How does it fly?"

"Lots of engine power," Yzak answered. He had done the math on the matter in years past, and the necessary engine force to accelerate the Archangel as it was needed was on the order of megatons. Given what he had seen of this world and its citizens, there was no earthly way to explain that in a way that would be understandable.

"We're here," Hikaru said to forestall any delving into a topic she was sure even she wouldn't understand (even being from late-90s Tokyo). The Magic Knight rang the intercom for the Stateroom. "Yzak, Hikaru, and four to see the Captain."

"Enter," the Captain answered. Hikaru popped another button, which caused the door to slide into the wall. Louise was a bit wary about that, doors going into the wall instead of swinging open, but she also realized that could be a bit handy on a ship with cramped spaces.

Inside the room, each of the four new entrants had a different reaction. Kirche was simply amazed by the collection of odds-and-ends memorabilia they had acquired on their journey. Some of the real rare ones, like a 'Fire Rod from Thamasa' and 'Cannon slug, Clan Wolf Warship', put things in perspective for her. The kinds of adventures they had had were off the charts, and well outside any fiction she had ever read.

Tabitha was stunned by the shelves upon shelves of books in the room. Both sides of the not-small stateroom were lined with bookcases, and those cases were full and had books stacked in front of books, even. All were secured by metal bars, ostensibly to prevent them from falling off the shelf when the ship was in flight, she figured.

Louise was interested in the furniture, oddly enough, though the guy in the room was notable for reminding her (somewhat) of her fianceé when he was younger. The furniture was significant, a heavy wood that was extremely well kept and chairs that would have commanded position in a royal court were they available to Tristania. If these military fellows were mercenaries, they were extremely well paid mercenaries, which made them extremely effective mercenaries. Never mind the incongruence of a Magic Knight fighting alongside a machine of war such as a Gundam.

For Saito, stepping into the Stateroom was both a trip back in time and a trip back to his recent past. The complete experience was something similar to movies about ship staterooms in the 17th century, back when he had any interest in such things. The Captain was something different, a throwback to his recent past, and one part of her was enough to jog his memory immediately. He had had enough to afford the first DVD of the Gundam SEED series, and the significant leap of having the captain of the series' main ship be a lady (and a well-endowed one at that) was a novel concept to Saito. Seeing said Captain in real life, just as drop-dead hot as she was in the series, only made it all too real. Nevermind the fact that the other officer in the room was numerically likely to be her boyfriend by the end of the series, and probably already was in the here-and-now.

Of course, it didn't take Louise long to realize where Saito's mind was. Rather than use the riding crop, she drove the heel of her left foot into the top of his right foot. "Stupid dog," she hissed at him low.

"Need a moment, you two?" the Captain asked, which confirmed Saito's line of thinking. Hearing her directly, it was obvious he was now standing in front of Captain Murrue Ramius.

"Oh, no, no, we're good," Saito said hurriedly.

"Please, have a seat. May I order you any refreshments?" The Captain offered.

"Tea, if you have any?" Kirche requested without reserve. She knew what had happened between Saito, Louise, and the Captain, though the latter appeared to let it slide.

"The same, thank you," Tabitha followed suit.

"Coffee?" Louise asked.

"I'm good, thanks," Saito said, still sipping on the gatorade.

"I'll pass the refreshment requests on to the galley," Commander La Flaga said. It had taken Saito several seconds to dredge up his name from his memories, but it wasn't a hard call. The renewed frame of reference also put the other names into perspective, Yzak, Athrun, Newman, but so far he had not heard from Kira and he could not remember any Hikaru from what he had seen of Gundam SEED on network television or the DVD.

Once the Commander exited the room, the Captain sat down behind her desk. "Okay, where do we begin? Or, another way, where do you want to begin?"

Kirche decided the aggressive posture was the way to go. "We understand about the ship, Hikaru and Yzak were very good at explaining that. What do you intend to do?"

"Once we repair the engines, we're more or less open," Captain Ramius answered. "I have two weeks before I can jump out, and I don't really have any idea about the area or the political climate. I was thinking about just heading out to sea and go fishing for a couple weeks, but if you know any groups that have need of special operations mercenaries, we are available."

That caused Kirche, Tabitha, and Louise to share a quick look, and all for different reasons. Louise had the next critical question: "What do you mean? Special Operations?"

Murrue nodded. "We do jobs that normal military forces can't do. Classic example, the last world we were on, a princess asked us to recover a combat unit and a special machine that she could not get relief forces to. So, she sent us; we took the ship around most of the enemy forces' heavy formations, recovered the combat team and the machine, and returned on a different route while sabotaging some of their military supply bases along the way. We can also do standard combat actions, and we specialize in direct assault operations."

"That's… interesting," Kirche noted.

"Fees?" Tabitha asked tersely. She realized that not only was this an intelligence coup per her mission from the Princess, but this was also possibly the single largest military boon to happen to Tristania in recorded history. A magic-and-infantry force would likely have no idea how to respond to a massive flying warship made entirely of high technology that scared a Familiar who knew about technology. Even if the ship punched below the weight that Saito probably thought it could hit at, the fear alone would be a massive weapon.

"Negotiable, of course. We usually take primary payment in salvage rights, such as it is," Captain Ramius answered. "Given our world-hopping quest, material is often more valuable to the ship than coin or credit."

"So, you really are from a different world?" Kirche asked. "Could you take someone else home to their world?"

"Could? Maybe. No guarantee of being able to find any specific homeworld. This was our third jump and fifth world overall, and we are no closer to home than when this quest began."

"Oh," Saito deflated after his silent hope was shot down aborning.

They were interrupted briefly by an entrant. "I bring coffee and tea. Who ordered what?" a guy in a chef's uniform asked. To Saito, the presence of a pistol belt and significantly-large pistol was a telltale sign that this was no ordinary cook.

"Tea for Tabitha and myself," Kirche indicated who among the four was involved.

"Keep the bottles," the more-than-a-cook said after he handed them out, though was not completely understood by the students. "And yours is the coffee?" he handed the coffee bottle to Louise. "You need a refill on that gatorade, kid?"

"Certainly," Saito said immediately, since he did understand the cook.

"Captain?" the cook asked next.

She shook her head briefly. "Still have half the coffee from your last run, I'm good."

"I'll bring you up another Nalgene with gatorade, kid." The cook was out the door after a few moments.

"Anything else come to mind to discuss?" the Captain asked artfully after a moment of silence.

"If you were to take a contract, is the two weeks a requirement?" Kirche asked after considering it, but more for considering it for her home country than Tristania.

"We can be flexible if needed," Captain Ramius said. The bulk of her last escapade were 'flexibility' in one word, first the whole 'screw justice, seek vengeance' campaign against Romefeller, and now she was in a land she was beginning to suspect of having more problems per square mile than the norm of nation-states. "If we have to remain for a couple more weeks beyond our charge time to execute a contract, it is what we do to complete the duty."

"I believe that is the sum of our concerns," Louise said. "How fast must you know of a request for contract before you head out to sea?"

"We were planning on heading out to sea immediately, but if you know anyone in need of our services, we will depart at daybreak unless we are forced to evacuate the area," the Captain said, then gauged something about the pointedness of the questions. "I am guessing you know someone who might want to call on us?"

"Maybe," Tabitha said cryptically. Being a Chevalier, she had reason to suspect that Tristania's military forces were in need of a boost should anything go wrong — particularly the possibility of Reconquista taking proper hold in Albion and turning their military outward. Alternately, if they were not lying about their 'special operations' abilities, Princess Henrietta may have other possible missions for them.

"Very well, if they are so inclined, after the morrow we will take out to sea due west and drop anchor just past the horizon, should someone be inclined to speak to us about a contract," Captain Ramius decided. "If you have no further request or concern, I shall trouble you no further. Yzak, Hikaru, please see these four back to the road by utility vehicle."

"Aye, Captain," Yzak answered immediately.

On the way out the door, Saito was greeted by the cook, who had not one but two Nalgene bottles of Gatorade for him. "For the road, kid," the cook said as they moved past.

-x-

"We are now one level above the keel of the ship," Hikaru said in the prose of a proper tour guide. "Aft of this staircase, it is all engine and power systems. Forward of here, this deck is all cargo."

"That is a lot of freight," Louise said, looking at the large storage rooms if one was going by the dimensions of the ship's corridors being the outside of those storage rooms.

"Takes a lot of material to keep a ship operating for months, years at a time," Yzak gauged. "Takes even more material to fight a ship of this size." They approached a pair of exceedingly large doors, which Yzak opened by way of a control on the side of the door.

"And this is the Hangar, where we keep our major Mobile Forces and get access to the utility vehicles," Hikaru said. "You do not want to hang around here for any length of time, unless you want to be put to work."

Saito was overwhelmed by the sheer sight of it. From what he remembered of Gundam SEED, the Archangel Hangar was less than half this size and had literally half the mobile forces capacity in the show. More to the point, he also knew enough of the SEED series to know that he was looking at a hellish mashup of some kind. First, the predominant machines were all ZAFT — Duel, Buster, and a pair of the GuAIZ. Second, there were Gundam Wing units in the hangar — Mercurius, Vayeate, and something else that was obviously AC-era but he did not recognize. Third, a series of kinda-blocky not-so-mobile-suits occupied a series of cubicles as well, and they looked like they were the kind of no-nonsense assbeating machines that an American 'mecha designer would come up with. No cultural grace, that country, but extremely lethal.

The other part of the tour-de-force of the hangar was the personnel and service equipment. Everything from people hanging from gantries to small exoskeletons to miniature cargo vehicles moving around large stacks of munitions and barrels of chemical, the hangar was indeed a busy place. Orders were being shouted in four different languages (at least), making for very confusing aural abuse, machines were being worked on nonstop, and material was being moved at an insane pace — how things did not collapse or collide, Saito could not even begin to guess.

"This way, quickly!" Hikaru waved them over to a staircase against the wall, that led further down in the ship. Louise, Saito, Tabitha, and Kirche were quick to follow, mainly given the threat of being put to labor for which they had no earthly clue what to do or how to do it. "This is the Hangar Undercroft, where we store the utility vehicles — mostly HMMVW transports and fighting vehicles, with some freight haulers and a pair of Dragon Wagons for moving Mobile Suits long-distance."

"These are all light-duty service vehicles?" Kirche asked. "I would be afraid of these things were I not told what they are for."

"Actually, you should be afraid of at least those two," and Yzak waved at two segregated utility vehicles that were outfitted quite differently from the others. "If you see those, be somewhere else. They are the personal rides of our Commando section, some seriously bad dudes in a unit full of professionally bad dudes."

"We'll do the number three HMMVW," Hikaru said. "Yzak, you drive or do the fifty?"

"I'll let you drive today, I want to do some sightseeing," the Duel Pilot answered. "Everybody in!" Yzak opened one of the rear doors to admit the students (and the Familiar). "Saito, you're riding shotgun. And if needed, there is an actual shotgun to use." When Saito opened the passenger door, he saw what Yzak was referring to, a Mossberg 500 Tactical in a saddle holster on the inside of the door.

"Okay then," Saito said before he slid into the vehicle. Louise, Tabitha and Kirche piled into the back seat while Yzak went up top and dropped down into the machine gun cupola.

"Excuse me, Louise? There's a green box next to your foot, can you pass it up here?" Yzak requested.

Louise reached down and picked it up. "Jeez, this is heavy, what is it?" She asked after barely heaving it to where Yzak could pull it up to himself.

"Ammunition for the fifty-caliber machinegun," Yzak explained. Saito was not totally surprised to hear the rattle of an ammo belt, the slam of the weapon's top cover, and thereafter the double-clank of the weapon's bolt. Those sounds, though, did send a chill down his spine like few other sounds would. "Ready to roll, Hikaru."

"It's stunning how well you work together," Kirche pointed out.

"It's a necessity," Hikaru admitted. "I went from Tokyo schoolgirl to reluctant hero to Magic Knight to full-time mercenary Magic Knight in the space of four years. You learn a lot of things like that, the kinds of things schools will never teach you." Hikaru tapped on the column of equipment that separated herself and Saito. "Erm, damnit, radio's on the other side. Saito, can you turn the radio on, dial it to channel 1-A-3, and pass me the handset?"

"Okay?" Saito half-questioned his own ability to do something like that. In all reality, it took him no more than twenty seconds to power the stack of equipment, dial the radio over to the needed channel, and then pass over the telephone-style handset to Hikaru. Thankfully for Hikaru, she did not look back and did not see the rather venomous look that Louise shot her for it.

Hikaru keyed the mike after someone else finished chatting about trees and toothpicks in the arse, which made no sense to Saito. "Bridge from Utility three, bridge from utility three, request clearance for movement, over."

"Utility three, bridge, you are cleared for priority movement. Vehicle Ramp 2 should be open at this time."

Hikaru moved the vehicle forward a few yards, looking toward the front of the ship. "Bridge, Utility Three, negative on ramp 2 being open, it is either closed or blocked. Do we have an alternate, over?"

"Standby one," the voice on the other side of the radio said. To Saito, it sounded like an older teen or a lady in her early twenties doing the speaking. After a few moments, light began to enter the semi-dark vehicle bay from above, highlighting a ramp of some kind. "Utility Three, Ramp three is now opening, can you confirm?"

"Aye, Mir, ramp three is opening. Thank you!" Hikaru set down the handset, put both hands on the wheel, and advanced the HMMVW to the bottom of the ramp.

When the door finished opening, Hikaru honked three times, then gunned the engine to go up the ramp. After she reached the hangar level, it was only a few yards drive before they were on a down ramp and out onto the grass in front of the ship.

"This is — wow! And no horses!" Kirche half-gushed.

"Technology, gotta love it," Saito said with obvious cheer to voice.

Louise was looking out the window, briefly, but her attention came back inside the crew compartment after a moment. It was only in full daylight that she realized something shocking about the vehicle, and it was resting between her legs against the back of Saito's seat. "You have Staves of Destruction! Two — four — no, seven of them!" She looked up at Hikaru, who could see her in the rearview mirror easily. "How did you get these?"

"Get what?" Louise held one of them up. "What did you call that?"

"Staff of Destruction," Tabitha answered for Louise. She had also been shocked to see not one, but seven of them, all in easy reach of the passengers.

"The proper name for those is the M79 Light Antitank Weapon," Hikaru explained. "We used to be on a world where they were manufactured. The ship's arsenal and cargo storage has some 800 of the things, and the individual crewmembers have some of their own they bought with personal funds."

"That is a lot," Kirche said. "Why so many?"

"They are very useful for blowing big holes in armored or hard objects," Hikaru said.

"Okay then," Kirche responded.

"Fast," Tabitha said, indicating the fact that they were already passing the rear end of the ship.

"The road isn't far," Hikaru noted. "Should be about a minute or so from here."

The driver's estimate was a bit off — two minutes drive — but still far shorter and faster than by foot. When they arrived, Hikaru saw something she wasn't expecting. "That Dragonet (3) is yours?"

"Yes," Tabitha admitted.

"Pull the red handle to open the doors, so you can get out," Hikaru said after she realized Louise did not know how to operate the door.

"If we don't see you again, good fortunes and good luck to you all," Yzak said after the four piled out of the HMMVW.

"Thank you!" Kirche waved at the Duel pilot, in a matter of flirtation that wasn't even lost on him.

"Think you may have just made a friend, Yzak," Hikaru noted after they were well out of earshot.

"I wonder where she is going with that thought. I am not hanging around this planet, I have a feeling something is really screwed up here."

"And your first hint was?" Hikaru asked, but only in a semi-sarcastic tone.

"The suspicion the girl with the blue hair had for practically everything. She's been screwed over in the past, pretty hard. Happens on every planet, somewhere, I know, but I don't think this is an isolated incident. Call it a gut feeling, but there's some pretty deep shit in these lands."

"Well, maybe we can clean up some of the mud-holes while we're here," Hikaru groused while both gunner and driver watched the four mount up for the trip home. "Maybe, if someone decides to hire us out."

"Maybe," Yzak acknowledged. After the dragonet was sufficiently out of range: "All right, Jonesy, you can come out now."

"Dragon ate me out of my ration pack," Jonesy admitted after he traipsed out of the forest line with his Stinger SAM slung over his shoulders.

"And part of mine," 'Beak' admitted as he came out of a different patch of forest with his own man-pack SAM. "He ate the whole freaking thing, except for the heater. Wrappers and all. Hope his handler doesn't freak out when that midget dragon starts shitting out bits of mylar packaging."

-x-x-x-

(Next day, 0500 hours)

"Been a while since I enjoyed the rain for what it is," Arnold Newman said wistfully.

"Been a while since we haven't been in active combat, either," Commander La Flaga said. "We did have a couple skirmishes on AC-era Terra when in the rain, driving Baltic rains at that."

"This is the kind of wistful spring shower that doesn't risk flash floods and mudslides, just makes you think," Fuu said from the radio seat. She didn't normally hang around the bridge, but in this case she was spelling Kuzzey from his mostly-useless position for now. Nobody else on planet had radio they could hear. Her thinking brought her to an idle question. "Hey, Miriallia, where were you planning on going to college after your secondary schooling?"

"Didn't intend college," Mir answered immediately. "I was going to do the Oceania Academy of Journalism, in Brisbane."

"Brisbane? Australia?" Fuu asked. "I always wanted to visit Australia, and England, especially London."

"Was Australia. The Wars before the beginning of the Cosmic Era pretty much ended Australia and the nations around it as separate countries. Except for the Orb Union, that area was all Oceania Union. It was a friendly country, too, until the Bloody Valentine war forced it to take sides."

"It sided with ZAFT, and for good reason," Mu said. "Outside of the PLANT colonies, the largest concentration of Coordinators was Oceania. Once ZAFT dropped Carpentaria down and assembled the base on land, the Earth Alliance lost dominance in the Indian and South Pacific oceans. Oceania, Equatorial and Orb were free to hold their own policies as they wanted, so long as it didn't involve attacking the ZAFT outpost Carpentaria."

"Such a different, and scary, history," Fuu commented. "And I thought the looming specter of Chinese aggression and North Korean instability were bad."

"You were in Secondary School, in the 90's, right?" Mu asked.

"I was," Fuu admitted. "1993 to be exact."

"You'll live to see North Korea burn out and be subsumed by the South," Mu said. "Around 2020, Kim Jong Un will develop a case of terminal stupidity, piss on South Korea, and get his ass handed to him. China won't throw in, because even after America bled some in the early Teens, they still didn't want another asskicking like 1950s Korean War. It's the classic old formula of war: can China throw enough manpower at the US / South Korea alliance to win? Apparently the Chinese decided they couldn't, so they didn't bother, and it took one of China's major thorns out of their arse, so no problem as far as they were concerned."

"I thought China and North Korea...really?" Fuu asked, shocked.

"On paper, yes, allies," Mu said. "In private, the Chinese despised the North Koreans for being the annoying drunk at an otherwise civil house party. Kim Jong-Il may have made North Korea a nuclear power, but he singularly failed to make them a politically or diplomatically stable state. His son came along, with all the vices of daddy and less than half the brains, and suddenly you have a recipe for self-destruction. General Howard Minks, the United States CENTCOM of 2020, called the North Korean effort 'like watching a guy run up to a row of spearmen, pick one at random, and simply stab himself to death on the pikeman's spear for no apparent reason.' Some days, it is the dumb ones that run the show."

"I wish all our missions were that simple," Newman said with a chuckle.

"Not to break up the history lesson, but we've got incoming," Kira said from the CIC pit under the radio and gunner positions. "Slow moving aerial contact, roughly 100 minutes out. Might be the same mini-dragon that visited us yesterday."

"Warn Yzak to keep his eyes up," Mu said. "We'll know here in about an hour what we're dealing with. I'll wake the Captain up at that time."

-x-

"There it is," Guiche said. "It's every bit as big as you described it, Kirche," he said.

"We are not here for sightseeing," Kirche said directly.

"That is different," Tabitha noted.

"What is that?" Kirche noted. "Some kind of trap?"

"Landing guide," Tabitha guessed (not incorrectly). On the foredeck of the ship, a series of concentric circles lit up in an alternating pattern, pointing down to a central point on the foredeck.

"How long until we land?" Kirche asked.

"Minutes," Tabitha answered quickly and succinctly.

"The form of this ship...subtle in its beauty, but frightening in scale and sleekness," he said pretentiously.

"It's a ship of war, Guiche," Kirche said half-sarcastically. "Crewed by some very serious soldiers, both magical and — what was it that Saito said? Tech — techno — techna —"

"Technologic," Tabitha answered.

"Yeah, that's it," Kirche said. "There are fiction series in Saito's world, of wars of immense lethality and destructiveness. This is a ship from one of those fictions, and it isn't a pretty story it is from. Their real-life tale is worse. Watch your step."

"Almost there," Tabitha declared after Sylphid flew over the road where she previously landed.

"I don't see many obvious cannons on it," Guiche guessed. He did not realize that the various 'lumps' on the flanks of the ship's upper surfaces were various weapons, nor did he realize the tail assemblies were weapons in their own right, and he certainly had no idea of the main guns in the front of the ship.

"It has concealed guns, like a typical merchant or transport ship would have to ward off pirates," Kirche guessed. She was right on form, but not on reason.

"Land there, in the center," Tabitha said to Sylphid. After a few more downstrokes of the wings, said Dragon came to rest on the metal foredeck of the ship. After the landing, the circular lights shut off and a secondary box lit up, which box also framed one of the massive machines of war as it kneeled in the lit area.

"Absolutely amazing," Guiche said, looking around the metal behemoth's exterior. "Why so big, though? Nothing Albion has is half this size!"

"Necessity," Tabitha said tersely. Sylphid approached the blue machine slowly, then stopped next to it in the blue square.

A buzzer announced a warning in a trio of duo-tone bleats, then the very deck highlighted by the square began sinking into the bowels of the ship. Even Tabitha was a bit leery of such a transfer, but when she saw the inside of the hangar (just as chaotic as the last time), she eased up a bit. Though certainly possible to run a trap inside the ship, it would have made much more sense to simply eliminate them outside the ship — less mess to clean up, if it came to that.

Tabitha berated herself silently for her paranoia on the subject, but she reminded herself that the past several years of her life were plenty of cause for paranoia. Still and all, there was no effective reason for her to worry about the denizens of the ship — they were not from this world, they had no ties to anyone or any political group, and they likely had no reason to entrap or eliminate an envoy.

"This is… this… beyond all expectation," Guiche said solemnly. "All these machines, and they even have magic! I can't begin to guess what kind of frightful nightmares they would have in place for an actual enemy."

"It keeps us alive," a voice said from the direction of the war machine they shared the platform with. Tabitha was quick to recognize Yzak from their meeting yesterday as he lowered from his machine. "And it keeps us moving. If we stop, we lose by default. I take it you are here to speak to the Captain?"

"We bring a contract from Princess Henrietta De Tristain for the ship. I am to discuss the particulars with the Captain," Kirche noted.

"And the lady with the pink hair?" Yzak asked.

"They had a separate assignment," Kirche said in a tone that told him that was a subject best left alone.

"I hear you," Yzak acknowledged. "Once we reach the ground, we'll go from there to the Stateroom."

"Is this ship really available for bid?" Guiche asked after a moment. "How much, to, say, hire the ship for a night?"

"Joyriding in a warship? That gets real expensive," Yzak answered. "Not sure if it's been established officially, but the operating cost for this ship was calculated at 14,200 gold coin per hour of operations time, not including munitions expenditures, at least as per Figaro coinage was concerned when we were on that planet. Don't think it has become any cheaper since then, so hope your pockets run deep."

Tabitha was not surprised by the complete look of dismay on Guiche's face. She had not really considered the fiduciary impact of running a ship like this, but the hard number was unsurprising to her. Machines of war, the ship itself, the crew of hundreds, food, water, munitions, fuels, support forces, every little bit of operations equalled expenses, and every little bit of expense added up over time. Apparently Guiche had not considered any aspect of running such a ship, or the consideration of operating any ship for an extended length of time, so he would be surprised. With that one declaration, the thought of 'joyriding' the warship was dead, and likely with it his intention to 'impress' Montmorency. Not that Tabitha expected any such luck on such a quest.

"Okay, okay, that's a bit much," Guiche backtracked. The platform had stopped, and Yzak began leading them toward one of the internal hatches that led into the maze of corridors inside the ship. "Exactly how far do we have to go?"

"We just entered the inside, Guiche, show some patience," Kirche cautioned him. "It'll be a bit of a hike, and up four levels."

"Wow," Guiche answered coldly. He was not looking forward to the trek through unfamiliar territory.

Up one level, the group was blocked temporarily by Yzak at an intersection. "What gives?" Guiche asked.

"Elementals on patrol," the pilot answered. Much as he surmised, five large things (what looked like Golems, not Elementals) stomped by loud and noisy. "Follow close. This is no place to be dawdling," Yzak waved them forward and to the right (toward the rear of the ship).

"If I remember correctly, isn't the stateroom forward of the Bridge access?" Kirche requested. "We seem to be going backward."

"Close," Yzak acknowledged. "The Stateroom is actually roughly below the conning tower. We need to get to the central ladder to get up to the top secured area, and then into the conning tower base area."

"I apologize, but isn't this unduly complicated?" Guiche asked bluntly.

"It's made that way for a reason," Yzak answered somewhat archly. "It was made to foil people like me. If a boarding party got inside the ship, it is easier to repel or eliminate boarders if they don't have easy access to critical facilities such as the CIC or engines. Follow?"

"Um, yes?" Guiche asked, unsure how to answer such a direct question.

"Here," and Yzak fairly sprinted up the ladder to the next level. "Next ladder is a corridor to port."

"If I was a naval infantryman, I wouldn't want to even try to take this ship," Guiche said in exasperation. "You can get lost on one deck and never realize it!"

"Welcome to the Archangel," Yzak said with savage sarcasm to voice.

"Down ladder! Make a hole!" Someone said before Yzak could put one foot on the steps. He stopped the line in time for an older guy with a gruff beard to descend the ladder way too quickly to be safe. "Captain's up top in the Stateroom, Yzak."

"Thanks, Commander Chevalier," Yzak acknowledged.

"Who was that?" Kirche asked. "He kinda had a look about him…"

"Commander Chevalier, Morgan Chevalier, Earth Alliance specialist. He's a good guy, and extremely lethal in a Mobile Suit," Yzak answered the extremely unusual bent of her question. "Come on," the pilot said before he vaulted up the ladder to the top level.

"Ah, this looks familiar," Kirche noted,especially with the red stripe on the walls.

"Almost there." Yzak, counter-intuitively, headed back for the rear of the ship, then took the second right corridor to head toward the centerline of the ship. When he made it to the next intersection, he turned right again, and crossed through a personnel hatch and stopped at a mechanical doorway that was open. "Captain, I have three representatives of Princess Henrietta De Tristain to speak to you, I did pronounce that correctly?" Yzak asked Tabitha.

"Yes," the wind mage answered quickly.

"Enter," Captain Ramius said. "Welcome back, Tabitha, Kirche, and greetings to the new entrant," she prompted Guiche.

"Guiche De Gramont, milady," Guiche introduced himself with a slight bow. He guessed the Captain was in the neighborhood of 30, certainly just as hot as any other lady in that age bracket he had encountered and better than most, and was altogether imposing as the head honcho of a warship full of very scary people.

"Thank you. Please, have a seat. Refreshments?"

"Please," Kirche said. "Guiche is a tea drinker, normally," she indicated the 'greenhorn' in their group.

"When I heard you were coming in, I had the mess hall send up a pitcher," Murrue admitted as she poured each a naval mug of tea. "So, if you are here, that is on two likely reasons. Either you are here to order us out of the country, or request a contract. Given you're not looking steeled, I would guess you're delivering a business offer."

"Good guess," Kirche said heartily. "Guiche?"

"Here," and he handed over an envelope. "We'll wait for you to read through."

Murrue broke the seal, pulled the document, and read it over. In comparison to the contract Murrue had operated under for the Federated Commonwealth against the Clans, this one was short, plainly-worded and very much to the point. It was also, by exigency, a technically simple request for the Archangel.

"This is an interesting request," Murrue said neutrally. "Going by the context, Albion would be the large floating island somewhat northwest of here?" It had not taken Sai long to discern that the object in question was not some kind of machine, it was a floating island that was visible on sensors.

"It is," Tabitha answered.

"That would explain why the Princess is leveraging our flight capabilities. She is also correct to assume we have the necessary recon capabilities — I have a pretty good idea how to make that work right now. So, once we take station off the island, we launch recon assets, map out troop concentrations and attempt to discern strong points, assembly areas, intentions, then return to Tristania and report directly to the Princess. I think we can do this quickly and efficiently."

"Excellent," Kirche said quickly. "So you are willing to accept, even on such a short contract fee?"

"I was guessing Tristania as a nation is much smaller than Albion, and in all reality is probably a small state?" Miriallia had already confirmed that information by her telepathy, but she also had found out that there were other telepaths on this world, and she quickly broke off such spying to prevent discovery.

"Correct on both points, milady," Guiche noted. "Tristania's territory is roughly a third of the size of Albion."

Murrue nodded thoughtfully. "That means, by technically, from a central point in Tristania territory, this ship can provide fire support to anywhere in the country as needed, without moving."

"Fire support?" Kirche asked, unsure of the term.

"It is something better seen than described," Murrue said with a kindly smile, mainly because such a reality would be too frightening to most people. "Anyway, back on topic, I do accept the contract as is written. Now, given I intend to do this recon as two-unit overhead and the ship off island, which of you three shall volunteer to go with the reconnaissance units?"

"Pardon?" Kirche asked.

Murrue blinked at her rebuke. "You were not told?"

"Told what?" Kirche followed up quickly.

"The Princess has specifically assigned you three as liaisons to our recon operation," Captain Ramius said. "As I intend to send two units, I figured two of you out and about, with the third observing the take from the bridge."

"I will observe the operation from the bridge," Tabitha volunteered.

"Well, that is where we start from. Please follow me," Murrue said after she stood up.

-x-

"Captain on deck!" A guy shouted as soon as the Captain entered the bridge.

Tabitha was surprised that there were any windows on the ship, and more surprised at the commanding view of the forest valley from them. Such a shock did not last long, however, as she quickly became entranced by the goings-on in the bridge, especially below and behind the two stations facing the sides of the bridge.

"Conn, CIC, no contacts within 60 flying minutes of the ship at this time. Only recognized contact is a small formation of slow-movers, northbound from the major city," a lady said from under the Captain's chair.

"Sensors, Conn, aye," the guy in the main chair said. "Captain, how goes?" he asked after Murrue came parallel to the chair.

"We're now gainfully employed. Read." Murrue handed over the contract to the guy in the chair.

"Nice, we can do this and have the take prepared before nightfall, if we get moving soon," he said with a smile.

"That's what I was thinking. I have the conn," Murrue said formally.

"Roger that, Captain has the Conn." he stood up and provided the chair to the Captain. "If you three want, we have jumpseats over here you can use for the time being." He indicated three seats on the port side of the bridge, in front of the Captain but against the exterior area.

"Thank you," Kirche said. All three took the aforementioned seats.

"Newman, signal for engines and begin powering up the levitator. No takeoff or maneuver orders at this time," Captain Ramius ordered.

"Aye, Captain," Newman answered immediately. After he threw several switches on his console, he picked up a phone and said something undecipherable to the three representatives.

The Captain was next to pick up the phone. "Attention all hands, this is the Captain speaking. We have established positive contact with the reigning government over our landing spot, the Kingdom of Tristania, and they have seen fit to hire our services out as mercenaries." She paused for a few while the crew cheered, a sound loud enough that they could be heard even on the bridge, without any kind of amplification. "At present, our contract duties are reconnaissance of a nation that can be best described as in a state of undefined rebellion against its lawful government. We will be executing this recon detail immediately on preparation of the ship for flight operations. Pilots Tolle Koenig, Kira Yamato, report to the bridge immediately for sortie briefing. That is all."

CLANG, something caused the hull to ring with an impact echo. "What was that?" The guy that prior had the Captain's chair asked.

"Sounded like something fell over in the hangar, maybe?" Murrue picked up her communication device from the armrest of her chair, but stopped after another CLANG occurred.

"Conn, CIC, hull damage indicator, port side, number two missile hatch!" the same lady that announced clear skies earlier said.

"Chandratta, get me a camera picture!" Murrue looked over her right shoulder at the soldier in the side-to-side seat. After a moment of diddling with the panel in front of him, he pointed to the front screen, of which all three representatives looked as well

Kirche was the first to put voice to the sight. "A stone golem! It's Sandy Foquet! How did — we locked her up!"

"Who?"

"A criminal and thief," Guiche said. "A dangerous one."

"Right," Murrue said before a fourth punch landed on the ship. "Chandratta, we've been here before. Do it again."

"Aye," the same guy responded. Tabitha barely noticed a line on a display panel across from her went from red to yellow, with an advancing bar of yellow that finally terminated and went green. The front main screen changed view, something closer to the ground than the original camera view, which was followed by a shift of view as the perspective rotated around, first looking to the sky, then back toward the ground and finally at The Sandy Foquet and her golem, which had now resorted to kicking the hull of the ship to less effect than punching the missile tubes.

"You have good aimpoint and background clearance?" Captain Ramius asked. The crewman said something that none of the reps understood, but the confidence in his answer was unmistakable. "Valiant, fire at will," Murrue ordered.

The next thing said, they did understand. "Three, two, one, fire," he said. The main screen flashed briefly white-orange (4), then when the view was restored, all that was visible was assorted chunks of golem flying in a myriad of directions. Only the right foot of the rock / sand golem remained where it had initially been, the remainder was pulverized by the attack and distributed over a wide area. Sandy Foquet had been on the shoulder of the golem, and now she couldn't be identified so far as Kirche or Tabitha could identify.

"Did she…?" Kirche asked against the knot in her stomach.

"She was standing on the shoulder of that golem. If she did survive, it would be a second-order miracle: first for surviving the transit of the coilgun slug, second for landing intact and alive after being thrown several hundred meters," the commander said.

"Found her," Captain Ramius noted. "Outside edge of the Valiant boresight viewing area." After a moment, the viewscreen adjusted away from the ship and down a bit, to center on what the Captain was referring to.

"That's a kill," the lady behind and below the Captain said. "Should I have her remains checked for an identifiable?"

"Aye, have the Mechanics check her, and have them take a cratering charge out and an exoskeleton so they can bury her as is appropriate," Captain Ramius said.

"Did we just fire the Valiant, Captain?" a guy said as he entered the bridge. To Guiche, he looked very sloppily dressed and disheveled, almost as if he had been asleep until just recently.

"Yeah, we had a Golem attacking the side of the ship," The Captain responded.

"Shades of Cephiro, all over again. First hostile action on that planet was the same thing," the guy said. Despite the rather unkempt appearance, Kirche already knew this was a guy she would be hitting on.

"Aye, brings back a few memories, and not all of them pleasant," the Commander said. "So, where's Tolle?"

"Not a clue, he should have beat me here. I was asleep, he's supposed to be on +5 standby," Kira Yamato admitted.

"I'm here," Tolle said after he entered the bridge. "I was down in the hangar seeing to my machine. What gives, Captain?"

"We have a recon job to see to. You two have the best machines for the job — the Strike Freedom and the Skygrasper. Tolle, I want you to fit ground-penetrating radar pods and go in high, do a full map of the floating island of Albion. Kira, you run in lower for a pass to map out troop concentrations, then land and do a sonar map and up-close inspection. Sound good?"

"Can do," Tolle answered immediately. "Do I carry any white ones (5) on the rails?"

"Air-to-air only, you're on a recon job, you're not out to destroy things. Fit the Skygrasper with the Aile pack for extra speed. Kira, are you going to take any packs?"

Kira scratched his head. Hikaru and he had gone to a lot of effort to build the necessary adaptor frames for the Strike Freedom MP to use the Strike Packs. "I think, given this is all about recon, I'll take the IWSP pack to increase my maneuverability in case someone decides to try to turn-and-burn me while I'm mapping out their forces. It'll also give me firepower in case I need to cut my way out, but I don't see that happening. Even if their worst is triple the fastest we've seen on radar so far, I can outrun 'em at quarter power."

"Yeah, you may want to set a mechanical stop for that, as well," Commander La Flaga said pensively. "You'll have a ride-along for the detail." The Commander waved a finger at Kirche and Guiche.

-x-x-x-

(Same day, 1130 Hours Zulu (Tristania) time)
(35 Miles north of Albion Island, near sea level)

"Guiche, you're going to ride along with Tolle in the second seat of the Skygrasper. Kirche, you're with me in the Strike Freedom. This will allow you two to see what we're looking at, though it will all be electronic. The only time you're going to have eyes-on contact with the rebellion is if something goes horribly wrong."

"Got it," Kirche said evenly. She was mildly disappointed she wouldn't get to see the machines in action, but she was very thrilled to be alone with the pilot for what would probably be several hours.

"Will I be able to speak to Tolle?" Guiche asked. "I can't normally understand him."

"That could be a problem, give me a second to make an arrangement," Kira picked up a tablet he had set in his locker and typed on it for several seconds. "Okay, the arrangement is made. The Strike Freedom's translation system will allow you two to speak while you're talking into your intercom system. There will be a slight delay, though."

"Is it supposed to be like this? I mean, I like my clothing revealing, but this is a bit much," Kirche admitted, though Kira could clearly note that she sounded less embarrassed than her phrasing would indicate. He also noted that she went a long way to filling out the female pilot's suit to its extent, and he figured he had initially chosen her normal suit too large.

"Only thing you're missing is the helmet. Good thing we had a few spare female normal suits handy," Kira said with relief.

"Okay, I think I have mine set as well," Guiche said.

"Helmets on, both of you," Kira said. After a moment, they both put their helmets on, and Tolle assisted with the locking lugs to make sure they were sealed and ready. "Say something, Guiche."

"If this is the way of doing battle in your world, I think I'll stick to magic. Far less stringent clothing arrangements."

"I heard, and man do I agree some days," Tolle said evenly with his own helmet on. "Just wait until you see us in ground action, when you're wearing 90, 100 pounds of body armor, weapons, ammo, medical and mission gear. That's when things get real serious."

Guiche gaped at Tolle's statement. "100 pounds of gear? How can any man fight in that? Even Knight's Armor and a greatsword doesn't exceed 60 pounds!"

"Come on, we have a plane to catch," Tolle smacked Guiche on the shoulder in a friendly fashion. "By the by, when was the last meal you had, and what was it?"

"Just before sunrise, and it was a regular breakfast," Guiche said. "Eggs and ham. Why?"

"Ah," Tolle nodded thoughtfully about what Guiche said, then reached into a bin next to the hangar-side door. He came out with two paper bags of some unusual kind. Guiche noted that the inside of the bags appeared to be coated with some kind of wax? "You'll probably need these."

"What are these for?" Guiche asked innocently.

"In case you feel the need to lose your breakfast, use these bags so you don't barf all over the backseat controls, or Murdoch will have both of our heads on pikes before nightfall," Koenig explained with a surfeit of gravity to voice.

"Understood," Guiche half-squeaked. He followed the pilot out into the hangar, where they took a steep staircase down to the floor level and across the floor to a waiting steel bird (presumably the Skygrasper).

"Murdoch, ladder on the back seat, I'll secure him," Tolle said casually.

"Got it," Murdoch moved the ladder over to the rear of the compartment.

"Up the ladder, and slide into the seat," Tolle instructed him. Guiche was a bit hesitant about it, but after a fashion did manage to get himself inside the craft without issue. Tolle followed him up the ladder and secured him into the five-point harness. "Okay, you're now locked in. If we have to ditch, you grab the knob on the center of the harness latch and twist. Don't unbuckle yourself unless we eject or we land; if we're on the move, you need to be locked down or you can injure yourself while we maneuver, follow?"

"I think I do," Guiche said.

"Now, if we do eject, you're going to have a bitch of a day, but since we're doing recon at very high altitude, I don't think that will happen. If we do eject, you have gear on the back of your seat for survival; we'll worry about that if or when it happens. Now, on to more pressing problems, such as takeoff. First, these two handles," and Tolle tapped some handles on the back of the pilot's chair, "these are your Jesus Handles. When we line up for the catapult shot, you grab a hold of these handles and you do not let go until I say so. After that, you're free to let go, but don't screw with too much on the control panels. We're here for recon work, so I don't need you overriding the radar settings. I'll make sure you can see what we're doing, follow?"

"I think I get it," Guiche said in a rush. It was all so confusing, and to think Saito grew up in this kind of environment…

"Okay, at this point, it's game on for us. Hold tight, time for me to get in and get ready to fly."

"Erm, fly? As in — " and he pointed across the hangar to Sylphid, who was hanging out with some of the mechanics.

"Oh yes, but much more intense than riding on that," Tolle said as he was climbing up the ladder to the pilot's seat.

"I don't think I will be letting go of these Jesus Handles," Guiche said. "By the by, why are they called Jesus Handles?"

"Because if you don't have a religion right now, by the time we get to the end of the catapult, you will," Tolle played the joke for all that it was worth.

-x-

"This is certainly different," Kirche said. "A golem that is hollow inside, so the master can control it from inside," she guessed.

"A bit more than that, but close enough," Kira admitted. "Do you know how to harness yourself in?"

"I saw what Guiche did, so…" Kirche picked up the harness latch, centered it on her stomach, and attached the four other belts into place. "Is this correct?"

"Yes," Kira said. "This thing has inertial compensators in it, so you won't notice much on catapult. Once I get locked in, we're ready to go."

"Thank you for consenting to having me along," Kirche said.

"Not a problem," Kira said. "I don't get a lot of ride-alongs, the secondary seat is primarily for use of a weapon system that was never installed on this machine," he said. "In this case, you can do real-time intelligence analysis while we're doing mapping for the Princess. Ai, please set up the rear monitors for reconnaissance analysis."

"Stand by," the artificial intelligence entity in the Strike Freedom answered. After a moment, Kirche's multi-function monitors all lit up, each with a different display. "Set and ready. As soon as we have visuals, we can start narrowing down what we need to look at."

"Is that… the voice of this machine?" Kirche asked in shock.

"It is," Kira noted. "Bridge, Strike Freedom, ready to deploy."

"Strike Freedom, this is CIC, move to port-side catapult and standby for launch," Miriallia answered.

"Roger that, moving now," Kira answered. "Deckhands, this is Strike Freedom, moving to launch position port-side. All personnel stand clear!" Kira gave them the customary ten seconds, then advanced his throttle to step into the taxiway. After he advanced two paces, he turned left to move down in front of the other machines, and then turned right to move up to the catapult.

"How do we — ah," Kirche cut her question short when the launch bay doors began opening.

"Final chance, if you don't want to do this, now is the time to speak up," Kira offered.

"No way I would miss this! The Princess asked us to observe, and I want to see this!" Kirche replied heatedly.

"Okay, welcome to the big leagues," Kira answered pensively. "Control, Kira on Strike Freedom, requesting cat-shot."

"Kira, Control, you are cleared for cat-shot," the new operator answered. "Catapult active, full charge, launch readiness in three, two, one — "

"Kira Yamato, Strike Freedom, launching!" Kira drove his throttle to the mechanical stop, which when combined with the magnetic catapult was still a new and very unsettling feeling to Kirche. She screeched, but only temporarily before her body caught up to the inertia that had been slammed into it in such a sudden fashion.

After they were in open air, Kirche breathed easily for a few moments, then sighed. "Sorry about yelling like that, Kira. I wasn't expecting that, even after you warned me."

"No worries, everyone gets the first experience of being shot out of a cannon once in their lifetime," Kira said in a half-tease. "At the least, you can rest assured Guiche will get it worse."

"What? Oh," Kirche giggled. "Poor Guiche, he's such a ground-bound guy, this is probably going to be terrifying to him!"

"And now we wait for Tolle and Guiche to join us," Kira said.

"Wow, this is amazing!" Kirche apparently missed his comment. "And we're moving so fast! Not even a Wind Dragon could keep up with us!"

"And to think I haven't even cracked the throttle yet," Kira noted. "Albion is on your left monitor right now, and we're too far out for any of them to see us properly."

"Oh, wow, there's the transport dock tree, even! Now, when do we begin our search?"

"Here in a moment," Kira answered. "Tolle, Kira, ready to go?"

"I am, yes," Tolle answered heartily. "Just another day in the unfriendly skies for me. My passenger, though, is another story," he admitted. In the background, Kira and Kirche could easily hear the muted sound of barfing.

"Disgusting," Kirche said. "Not unexpected, though. I almost lost my breakfast there."

"Okay, Kira, what's the gameplan here?" Tolle asked as he brought the Skygrasper level with the Strike Freedom.

"We'll start with four fast-passes, medium and high altitude, to get our first-run idea of what we're looking at. Once we do that, you'll take up orbit at 21,000 meters AGL while I go in close for some minute examination. By the time we're done, we should have position on every soldier, support team, and outhouse on the island."

"I'm game," Koenig answered immediately. "And, if you need fire support, I can tip over and drop down on them at mach 2 or so, hit 'em so fast that they're dead before their buddies hear the sound of my shots."

"Roger that," Kira answered. "Ai, set up the waypoints for the Skygrasper and myself, please," Kira requested.

"Uploading now," the AI system in the Strike Freedom answered. "Tolle, as a demo for your ride-along, I have set your approach waypoint ballistic. Your scans are the critical ones for mapping and surveying purposes."

"Understood, AI, and thank you. I like cracking the throttle in this thing every once in a while."

"Time to go ballistic ourselves," Kira said. He adjusted his system settings, then ran the throttle forward to half-power. Kirche noted they turned in on the island, began climbing at a frightening pace, and accelerating all at the same time. She did take solace that she wasn't in the Skygrasper, which had gone from level flight to completely vertical until it no longer appeared on the monitors.

"If you ever needed to scare a confession out of someone, this would be a very efficient way to get it," Kirche admitted.

-x-

"If you needed a confession from a spy or traitor, a run or two like that would scare it out of them," Guiche admitted with his own dose of worry to voice.

"Eh, that's not the worst thing I've ever done while flying, not by a longshot," Tolle said nonchalantly. "We're at the level we need to be. I have your left-hand monitor locked onto Albion, so we can see it while I take passes over the island with the ground-penetrating radar systems."

"Wait, that tiny speck is Albion? We are that far above it?" Guiche asked.

"Here, check out the window on your left," Tolle said, before he rolled the plane left. "That is Albion, the green and brown chunk among the blue. And before you say it, yes, we can get good readings from up here. The machine is doing all the work, I am just flying it."

"Okay, I'll take your word for it," Guiche admitted that he didn't have any way of verifying at this point.

"You'll see the radar picture as the pods generate it on your center screen, the large one," Tolle said succinctly. "We're entering the scan pattern now. Keep an eye on your center screen."

"Got it, and — whoa, that is fast," Guiche noted as first the island outline was drawn into the screen, then as a glowing dot advanced along a blue line, the terrain and buildings began to fill into the picture. All told, the first pass over the island took forty seconds at slightly more than the speed of sound. "This — amazing! So much detail, and not a real hint of work on our part!"

"Like I said, it's the machine doing the heavy lifting. We're rolling in for the second pass, stand by," Tolle said. The blue dot showed up on the screen, intersected the blue line, and with it the second strip of land began filling in.

"There, now we can see the imperial fortress of Albion," Guiche said. "To the right, roughly in the center of the strip."

"Is that a good thing?" Tolle asked. "Rolling in for third pass."

"We will need to inspect it further, it has been in rebel hands for months," Guiche said.

"Roger that." He depressed the radio toggle. "Kira, Tolle, Guiche has identified a point of interest we'll need to look at real hard, the Imperial Castle. Once I get done with the primary sweep, I'll loop back on it and hit it three or four times for good measure."

"Got it," Kira answered heartily. "We do that right, we could give the Prince detailed engineering schematics of his own fortress accurate down to the millimeter."

"Engineering art, gotta love it," Tolle acknowledged. "Completed third pass, rolling to fourth pass."

"I'm liking your take, Tolle," Kira admitted. "Gives me an idea how to do my search."

"Fourth pass beginning now. Not a sign of a contact up here, kinda lonely after we were scrapping it against Romefeller."

"Different world, different players, different threat picture," Kira admitted. "I'm not so much worried about air threats this time around as I am worried about the ground picture. The infantry is no threat to us, but they have a lot of wizards — and some of them might be hell on our systems."

"I hear you," Tolle admitted. "Fourth pass is clean, moving now for HVT direct sweeps."

-x-

"By the by, how big is this millimeter?" Kirche asked idly as Kira swept the Strike Freedom around for another pass over the island.

"Ai, on her right-side MFD (6), please," Kira requested.

"Got it," the AI answered. Said screen went black, then a single thin vertical line showed up on it. "The green line on that display is exactly one millimeter wide."

"That thin? Wow, that's not much thicker than a hair," Kirche said. "I might have to start learning more about technology so I can relate to Saito better."

"Saito? The guy in blue clothes with the sword?" Kira asked as he began weaving over the floating island so his sensor systems could get accurate reads on everything.

"That is him, but I think I'm liking this a bit more," Kirche noted. "Alone, with you, flying over hostile territory…"

"I wouldn't get any wrong ideas, were I you," Kira cautioned her. "I am already seeing someone. Hikaru Shidou, the Magic Knight to the Rune God Rayearth."

"Wait — Rune God Rayearth? You mean, your Magic Knights are directly contracted to a God?"

"Yes," Kira admitted. "Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu, each to a different Rune God. And each of the Magic Knights has sub-Knights attached to them." Kira held his left hand up, prominently displaying the Magic Glove that he wore over the glove on his flight suit. "I am tied to Hikaru, both as magic apprentice Knight and we are dating."

"Oh, wow," Kirche said. "Is it working for you?"

"Working for me? Well, yes, it is," Kira had to think about the answer.

"I think your voice tells a different story," Kirche prompted him.

"Talk about hot at first sight," Kira groused. "I think you're reading a bit into it."

"My passion runs hot day and night, Kira," Kirche said in a voice best described as perverse.

"Somehow, I'm just not seeing this ending well," Kira said in a last-ditch effort to derail the pervert in his backseat. "You do realize I'll be gone in a month, maybe less?"

"I'm not afraid to follow you to the ends of the universe," Kirche made her next play. "If I can take flying like this, I can take it all!"

"I don't even think Flay talked like that to you, Kira," Tolle said, which abruptly reminded both of them that their radios were still live.

"She did not," Miriallia acknowledged. "Flay was always scared — she hid in Kira's arms to get away from the battles on Cephiro, and later in the Inner Sphere. At least this one isn't afraid to put up when the going gets rough."

"Bad choice of phrase, Mir," Tolle admitted. "I hope Hikaru isn't listening."

"I am," Hikaru said. "I'm on foredeck standby, remember?"

"Oh crap," Kira gaped. He had allowed himself to forget the present watch rotation.

"I do find it hilarious, though," Hikaru said. "I wasn't expecting Kirche to use the recon job as a means to corner one of the pilots. Flying recon sweeps is not something you'd want to try to do while making out."

"I agree," Kira said hastily. "Okay, I have the pattern completed, looks like I have good numbers on troops and locations. Command, no real secure or remote location to set down for a sonar scan, recommendations?"

"Strike Freedom, acknowledge no clear location," Dorothy answered immediately. "Abort sonar scan phase, stealth is paramount for this operation. Skygrasper and Strike Freedom are cleared to return to the ship."

"Roger that, returning to ship," Kira acknowledged.

-x-x-x-

(4 Hours Later)
(Onboard the Archangel)

"So, this is where we get to see what became of our spy job?" Guiche asked. "I am wondering what this will amount to."

"This, specifically," Kira tapped a panel on the wall, which lit up with a map of Albion. Terrain was done in black lines, 'allied' formations and lines in blue, and the enemy formations or positions in red. "But, the map shown here is not the specific map we will be giving to the Princess. Time to put an official use to Gomer's Folly."

"Gomer's Folly?" Kirche asked after a moment, completely unaware what it could be.

"Oh, this," Kira walked over to a strange, long but flat device sitting against the wall of the briefing room. "This is a large engineering plotter. Supposed to be used for schematics and diagrams, also useful for large-scale maps. The only thing it has been used for so far? A life-size high-resolution porno banner that didn't remain intact for more than 20 minutes. The female hangar mechanics made sure it was torched before anything else happened."

"It lasted 20 minutes? That's surprising," Tolle said.

"Guys," Kirche sighed.

The door opened. "Printed the map yet?" Murrue asked just after she stepped in. Commander La Flaga and Tabitha were next into the door, followed by Miriallia and Hikaru.

"Just getting ready to," Kira admitted. He reached up to the screen, and swiped the picture over toward the printer. After a few moments, the printer began buzzing, then started rolling out a printed copy of the screen glyph. Kira and Tolle strung the printed sheet out over the briefing room tables until it stopped feeding, then the page was detached from the plotter and the two pilots finished flaring it out over the tables.

"Nice, very nice," Murrue approved of the printout. "Gomer may have made this purchase solely for ulterior motives, but it makes an excellent high-resolution map."

"Well, we've got four tons of paper rolls for it, might as well make good use of the thing," Mu La Flaga slapped the side of it.

"Interesting," Tabitha said, looking closely over the map. "These areas… allied held?"

"Yes, according to the Princess' rough idea of where the Prince is holding ground," Murrue said. It was a separate addendum to the initial contract that Henrietta listed the areas that were expected to still be Albion Loyalist, but the information was easily collated into the recon map to give a rough idea of where allies and enemies were.

"Winnable," Tabitha said curtly. "Hold here," she indicated an area of the map that was well-sited with high ground and looked excellent for defensive fortifications.

"What do you think, Mu?" Murrue asked after a moment. "And you, Kira."

"Hold here, site a couple Gundams on this ridge with plunging fire into this valley, maybe some Marines, we could chew through a lot of enemy forces before anything started threatening us," Kira noted. "Add the Archangel to the mix with on-call fire support, it's game over for anyone foolish enough to try."

"One problem, though," Mu said pensively. "Old Murphy's Laws of military operations. Fortify your front," Mu indicated the pass in question. "Get your rear shot up." He pointed to a lowland valley to the east of the defensive terrain. "We could hold this pass with a platoon of Marines, two Gundams, and support call from the Archangel, but we'd have to spread the rest of our forces throughout this lowland to prevent a repeat of Thermopylae. And that's not even counting the possibility of an enemy air-mobile attack across the ridges we would be defending."

"We have the Skygrasper for air-mobile defense," Kira countered. "And, remember we'd be working with the Prince if it came to that. He's holding his own so far, he's only losing by the numbers. We specialize in skewing the odds, sir."

"Kid's got a point," Mu said approvingly. "Well, if the Princess has a follow-up contract in the works, we have an idea how to make it work."

Murrue's radio popped. "Captain, Conn, approaching Tristania naval territory," the officer on the other end of the radio link said.

"Roger that, continue approach march to Tristania Castle," Murrue ordered. "Okay, Mu, time to put some brainpower into action. Print out a second copy of this map, wrap up the first for presentation for completion of the contract, and start drawing up some generalized plans for retaking Albion, one county at a time if needed."

"Upper brain workout, sounds fun. Can I bring in some extra brains to game out a couple possibles?"

"STX? Make it fast, we won't be long to the destination," Murrue recommended.

"Here," Kira presented a box to the Captain. "Hold this while Tolle and I roll up the map." Kira waved the other recon pilot over to the opposite side of the map — 3 meters wide by 8 meters long — and the two pilots carefully began rolling it up to prevent wrinkles or creases. After almost a minute of careful paper-handling, the two pilots banded it together with rubber bands and dropped it in the box Murrue was holding. Tolle had the last bit of it, a 'classified' tape that he ran down the length of the long, thin box's flap so as to seal it.

"Classified?" Guiche asked, pronouncing the unfamiliar word phonetically with surprising accuracy.

"Means 'restricted to persons who need to know, and nobody else' in our procedures. Mishandling classified intel is grounds for serious brig time, or turning it over to enemy parties will get the offending party shot."

"Oh," Guiche barely squeaked.

-x-x-x-

(Same day, 1330 Hours Zulu (Tristania) time)
(Royal Palace of Tristania)

"This is definitely a different style of living from what I used to live," Kira admitted. "It's quiet, though. Far cry from even Heliopolis."

"Your homeland," Kirche said. It wasn't a question, but an observation.

"Not really," Kira admitted. "I moved to Heliopolis to avoid a brewing war. My homeland was the moon, a city called Copernicus," he oversimplified the matter. Orb was his homeland, technically, because of the Yamato bloodline, but he had been in Lunar Prep School for the bulk of his life. Heliopolis was a new chapter in his life, and a short one. The war put paid to that avoidance pretty quickly. "Your homeland?"

"I don't really talk about it much," Kirche admitted. "I was kicked out of a different magic academy, and landed here. It's a long story."

"Got it," Kira answered. "Okay, approaching the castle perimeter, looks like clear courtyard on the inside."

"Stand by, Kira," Murrue cautioned over the radio. "Wait for us to move before you enter the courtyard."

"Clear," Kira said. He set one of the monitors to track the ground vehicles, of which the Chef's Crew was out in full force with all three of the Magic Knights, Mu, Murrue, Miriallia, and the Strike Freedom was doing escort. Nothing like looking the part on these matters, Murrue had figured.

After a few moments of conversing with the guard, they cleared out of the way for the patrol vehicles to move forward. Kira tapped the jump jets hard enough to safely clear the perimeter wall, then paced the vehicles a step behind as they rolled forward into a stone cul-de-sac to the right of the main approach path. Kira stopped at the edge of the parking space and knelt the Strike Freedom down. "Ai, anything I need to worry about at this time?"

"The guards look ready to crap lead bricks right now." Almost as if on cue, all of them jolted in fear; Kira guessed the Gundam had flashed its eyes, which was usually a precursor to death and destruction. "Don't poke the natives, they are certainly restless."

"Roger that," Kira answered immediately. He swung aside the primary monitor and popped the hatch open for egress on the pilot's zip-line. "Okay, I'll get on first, then you put your foot in the stirrup, grab tight around my waist, and we ride down. Follow?"

"I hear you," Kirche said, suddenly a bit surprised that getting off the machine in the field required that much personal contact.

Kira sighed. "Don't get any wrong ideas, please," Kira requested.

The ride down the zip-like was a bit closer than Kira wanted to be to anyone at the present time, though he had to admit that the lady in his arms was no Flay Allster. So far as he could tell, Kirche was chasing him for the purpose of being a pervert. Flay had chased him down for the purpose of manipulating him into some manner of living weapon. Worlds apart in purpose, worlds apart in origin, and in all due consideration Kira could fault neither for their actions. Not that he intended this latest one to go anywhere.

The group at the patrol vehicles waited for Kira and Kirche to approach, though thankfully there was no ribbing involved. Kira stopped briefly, adjusted his dress uniform as best as possible, and nodded twice. "Ready to go, Captain."

"Mu, Kira, you two have the 'take'. Let's go." Murrue let one of the commandos go first, not so much as a decoy but as a vanguard. She was expecting something in terms of firepower from her subordinates, but she wasn't expecting them to show up in nice, clean, parade-ready field gear and with shined up Thompsons for the fun factor.

The main thing with putting one of the Commandos forward, with Guiche to operate as announcer, was to make sure everyone involved knew that the Archangel Team was a serious player in this most dangerous game, even if only temporarily. On man to man comparison, Warrant Officer Jonesy was easily a foot larger than the door guards and substantially heavier, most of it muscle. Augmented by the plate carrier and MOLLE add-ons, he looked almost frighteningly alien to anyone unwashed in the arts of CQB warfare. These guards were no different from expectation; they maintained professional decorum, but Murrue could tell they were ready to drop a professional deuce right where they stood.

"Guard Lieutenant, I bring the mercenary unit Archangel Team to turn in the proceeds of a contract for the Princess," Guiche said in his most level voice. He wasn't doing it for fear, but because he was at the royal palace and was trying to be completely serious about being in the presence of the Princess.

"Understood," the guard lieutenant answered. He waved to a messenger boy, who ran into the palace structure (presumably to find someone of rank to see to this new party)

"Thinking something, Mu?" Captain Ramius asked after a moment.

"Yeah, I was thinking, we might want to do a hyper-accurate map of Tristania, in case we are contracted to defend it. I wouldn't want to do a recon job like that with the expectation of having to turn around and use it in an hour."

"Any idea where to start defending this area? Beyond the whole 'we can range to any part of the country' schtick."

"Hard to say," Mu answered the Captain's open-ended comment. "Depends on where they're coming from. If it is south, the Magic Academy is a good strong point. East or North are best defended from here, the palace. From the west, there are no real good options; we'd have to grind an attacker in an open field engagement, try to hit them with maneuver or armor."

"Not a good set of options," a new voice declared. "You are Captain Ramius?" He asked Mu.

"No, she is," Mu pointed out the Captain. "Commander Mu La Flaga, Archangel Team mobile forces contingent," the Commander introduced himself.

"Ah, my apologies, Commander, Captain," the guy answered for his minor gaffe. Mu guessed him in the neighborhood of 40, and certainly the cultured gentleman just on appearance and mannerism. How deep and how far those mannerisms went still remained to be seen, but Mu figured better than fifty-fifty he would be the quintessential gentleman. "I am Viscount Jean-Jacques Frances de Wardes, captain of the Tristania Griffon Knights. A pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise," Murrue answered, already sensing something was off about this guy. "Murrue Ramius, Captain of the interplanetary warship Archangel and overall commander of the Archangel Team mercenary unit. We are here to report our contract is completed and we have the requested items for the Princess."

"This quickly?" the Viscount asked. "Truly impressive. For myself to map Albion's forces, I would have taken a week. How did you accomplish this?"

"Very fast and accurate automated mapping systems, and excellent strategic minds in the crew," Murrue half-answered. She would trust the contracting party (Princess Henrietta), but not this guy. On the latter half of her declaration, she nodded to a knot of the pilots who were hanging with Kirche, but her indication left ample room for guessing as to who she meant (in reality, all of them). "That long box is the 'take' from the contract, the compiled map of the requested theater."

"May I see it?" the Viscount asked.

"Sorry, no can do, Viscount de Wardes," Commander La Flaga countered. "Only the Princess is allowed to break that seal. Her orders by way of the Contract."

"Ah," he nodded thoughtfully. "Regardless, I expect I will be plotting strategy for some weeks over those documents. For now, though, the Princess is waiting, though even she admits she was not expecting your return this quickly."

"We operate fast," Mu said pensively.

"Follow me, please." The Viscount waved the entourage toward the primary entrance. "Will you require anything for displaying or demonstrating?" Jean-Jacques asked after they crossed through the main entryway and into the assembly chamber.

"A long table or sufficient blank wall area to hang the map," Kira noted. "A large table that seats twelve to a side would do."

"Best we do so in the main dining room, then," Jean-Jacques Frances De Wardes nodded thoughtfully, then changed course to a side room from the main assembly area. Through a set of double doors, the team came to the main dining hall, two large tables with forty or fifty chairs, and a raised platform with a circular table for a dozen chairs or so. Strikingly, the decor of the room was not hugely stylish, nor was the dining sets (excepting the monarch's chair, and that could have stood some improvement). That much told Murrue that this was a more practical nation, not one that spent lavish amounts on material or party expenses.

"Where do you want us to set up?" Mu asked.

"This table," he indicated the nearer of the two dining tables. "I shall inform the princess that you are waiting."

Kira and Mu set the box down, with the security label facing the outside edge of the table so the Princess could open it easily. "Isn't this the box you had a bangalore torpedo (7) in?" Mu asked Chief Ryback after the Viscount was out of earshot.

"Aye, two, actually," Ryback confirmed. "Used them as demonstration for the Marines on how to clear delaying measures quickly."

"How'd they do?" Mu asked idly.

"Not bad, but not up to Sapper standard, much less my guys. They'll breach it if needed, but it might take them time and casualties to make it work. If available, I'd recommend calling for missile or MS support."

"I hear that," Commander La Flaga answered with a nod.

The door to the dining room opened again, and this time the numbers involved were a bit more than just the Viscount. Two guards, the Viscount, a lady with a crown and small scepter (presumably the Princess), and two more guards entered the room immediately. "Presenting Her Royal Highness, Princess Henrietta De Tristain," the Viscount said.

Though nobody had prior discussed it, and even without Murrue's considering it, the present Archangel Team staff all came to attention and saluted in NATO / Earth Alliance fashion. Murrue had been a bit surprised by the otherwise spontaneous reaction, but still joined in smartly and was silently thankful that her unit sometimes acted like a proper military formation.

The exact gesture was a bit unknown to the Princess, but the nature of it apparently was not. "As you were, Archangel Team," the Princess answered their gesture, hoping she was understood. "Kirche, Tabitha, Guiche, I would like to thank you three for seeing to this mission. Do you have anything to report of this task?"

"Highness, if you ever need to cross the landscape in a huge rush, these are the persons to see to it," Guiche answered immediately. "I believe I covered more distance before noon meal than most people will walk in several months."

"They are the real deal," Tabitha said. "Their methods are stunning, even for a simple recon as this, Highness."

"I agree with both of the aforementioned, Highness," Kirche said with gravity.

"Thank you for the report. Please remain," she half-dismissed the students. After a moment of gauging the assorted Mercenaries in the room, she snap-decided on who was the Captain. "You are… Captain Ramius?"

"I am, Highness," Murrue said to the significantly-smaller Princess.

"I know you are simply passing through on your journey home, but I would like to thank you nonetheless for coming to our assistance. Circumstances have become dire on the island of Albion, and we suspect that if the revolution is completed the new government may turn their attention to us."

Matches what I expected, Kira thought but did not say.

"And, in such cases, you need to know what you are dealing with," Murrue completed the logic loop of their own involvement with the reconnaissance job. "We have done what reconnaissance we could do from overpass observation. My intent was to put a unit on the ground to verify our numbers from the overhead recon, but as the map shall demonstrate, that was not a feasible option per the contract requirement of deniability."

"Expected, and thank you nonetheless." The mercs made way for the Princess to approach the table, with the Viscount and a personal attendant close in. "This is it?"

"Aye, Highness," Chief Ryback answered by rote reaction.

Princess Henrietta took a few moments to regard the soldier in straight black… armor, she guessed. Compared to most Nobles, this guy was the kind of solid nightmare trooper that might more readily be found in a dungeon, torturing prisoners, rather than a front-line trooper. He was not the only one in the crew, but curiously two of the black-armor clad were wearing chef's hats and not any kind of helm or formalized headgear.

She took a few moments more to gauge what kind of reaction a quick question would get her. After a short process, she decided it was probably safe to ask a question. "If I may, you are?" she prompted him.

"Master Chief Petty Officer Casey Ryback, Princess. Force commander, Archangel Team Special Operations Group," he replied almost immediately.

"Their commander for assassins, infiltrators, and the like," Viscount De Wardes clarified.

"Among other duties, yes sir," Ryback acknowledged.

"Do you have a knife I may borrow momentarily?" she asked calmly.

"Aye, milady," Ryback passed up two obvious ones on his belt, and instead pulled something from an unusual sheath on his left shoulder facing down. When he presented it to the Princess, it looked like nothing so much as a metal chunk painted black with a red-striped button. "Press the striped button to release the blade."

"Oh, this?" She pressed the button, and everyone in the vicinity (except Ryback) jolted when it swung open with a rather audible clicking noise. "Oh, that is interesting." After a moment of examining the curious blade, she turned it against the seal on the map box and easily cut through the 'classified' tape. The tape did not last long, even three meters of it. "Is it meant to close?"

"Aye, the toggle is on the back of the blade, Highness." She quickly found and snapped closed the blade. "Keep it if you want it, milady."

"Do you not need it back?" Princess Henrietta asked, even though she would take up the offer.

"We machine those for the crew in our down time. Sort of a general-use knife for most of the crew, but combat-worthy if needed, Highness."

"I see," Henrietta said, though she really didn't understand what he meant completely. She vowed to see at a later time if she could board the Archangel to verify the tales she had heard so far, and see what he meant by 'machine' the knives. The knife went into a concealed pocket on her dress, and her hands turned to the lid of the map box.

"I see now why you requested a large table," the Viscount said. "This map is entirely larger than the professional cartographer maps of the nation!"

"George, please assist in spreading this out," Henrietta passed the roll to the attendant, who began unfurling the rolled map down the length of the table with the assistance of the Viscount and Kira. Once spread and seated to the table, Henrietta simple stared at it for a few moments, before: "Amazing. The level of detail on this is far in excess of any requirement I may have posited."

"This also tells a dire tale, if I am understanding these icons correctly," Jean-Jacques noted. "By this map, the Prince has been confined to the southern fifth of the island, but his position is not untenable."

"Indeed, and we have options to bolster his defenses. This will take some time to study, still, but we have most of what we need right here." Princess Henrietta looked up from the map, to the Captain. "Your ship is provisioned for a wait, correct?"

"On internal supplies, yes ma'am. If we need to hold in place for a significant length of time, we would look into local supplies and provisions."

Henrietta nodded twice, contemplatively. "As much as I would love to move you into an operational role right now, we need more information. For that, I will have an operation for your unit in a week or so. You can do transport and escort missions?"


Author's Chapter Afterword:

There were a few who guessed this was where we were going. There were a few who recommended it to me in chapter reviews past. Welcome to Zero No Tsukaima.

I won't say much in Afterword tonight. There really isn't much to say, except that you have not thus far seen much of the trademark Saito-Louise belligerent sexual tension you would expect. Expect that to change significantly in the next couple chapters; Saito and Louise are on the edge of realizing their feelings, and now Saito has some new potential role models to literally train the metrosexual tendencies out of himself. Yzak, in particular, I recommend you keep an eye out for his interactions with Saito. They will change the game.

Speaking of the game, you probably have guessed the contracts thus far begun will change the outcome of things to a significant degree. Now, first off, don't expect the Archangel to flatten Albion's invasion force immediately. Given the warship from Hell is now involved, Albion will be playing harder on their side, so there will still be an air game involved. Things could get messy, like Germany messy, especially since the Albion counter to the warship from Hell would be magic. But, there are critical events between then and now — those will be gamer breakers, just the same.

And, as to Kirche vis a vis Kira, well, Kirche is advised by the author to watch her step, or she will have to deal with Hikaru on less-than-pleasant terms. That could also get very messy. Stay tuned for further.

That is pretty much the measure of it at this time.

NEXT UP: The Archangel is sent on another low-level mission, this time a simple transport operation, that turns out to be no measure of simple.


Review Replies: 23 Reviews during this chapter cycle! Thank you all for the feedback, and the fun guesswork! I swear to you all, the next section transition will be exceedingly blatant about where they landed!

Knives 91: Wail out a bitchin' air guitar solo, amigo, you got that prediction perfectly right. (Yes, for the record, I just did Torgue's Carnival of Carnage. It was awesome. Shit blew up. Lootsplosion. 'nuff said.)

Infinite Freedom: Guiche may get his ass beat, but not likely by Kira or Nicol. Yzak is certainly an option, as would be some of the other salty dogs of the crew. Now, what is this sj1t with Cupid taking a contract?

Mordalfus Grea: You know Murphy well. So true you are.

CHM01: Sorry, when I wrote that reply, I was not entirely conscious at the time and did not even see my own parallel. My bad.

Also, on the Strike Freedom, keep in mind this is a mass-production version, not the original 'stock' Strike Freedom. It was initially deployed with a jump engine pack, not the Wings of Freedom. No DRAGOONs, which is why in this chapter Kira says the back seat was designed mostly for the use of a weapon system that was never installed.

C0dy 88: You thinks correctly on most of those counts, but keep in mind my dice rule all. Circumstances will change.

Victor M Sarks: Code Grease is considered a possible, but keep in mind I am alternating tech-fantasy-tech-fantasy. Outside of C.C., Geass is tech. (The 'Code Grease' is in homage to Pizza Hut. The show is decent. I have literally squeezed grease out of Pizza Hut pizzas before. 'nuff said.)

Mega 1987: Your ranting is easily likened to a shotgun, and at distance, occasionally a shotgun will put a pellet on target.

Nightwolf 1875: Hope this chapter reached your expectation of sj1t and fan colliding.

Spiner (ANON Review): Shadowrun… Now that is a name I have not heard since FASA went tango-uniform some years ago. Wow. Might have to consider the voracity of that kind of plan, or hell, even a D&D campaign might be a kickass side quest.

Hellhound D. O. W.: Not quite, but not a bad guess. You are right about Catherine finding Trowa, but with the major plotline disruption of the Archangel, Trowa figured his only way out of the morass of amnesia was total immersion.

Nagato 21: Nope, can't say I have seen VOTOMS, but that is one of the classics of Anime. I may have to dig it out.

Flawless Cowboy 2552 (Round 1): You posit a damn good justification for the Archangel visitng Gundam 00.

On the MS present runtimes, barring mechanical failures, the Gundams and Omnimechs have a field operational time of 5 days without refuel. The Toroidal Fusion Reactors in use in the machines are plenty powerful enough to keep them going long time.

And thanks for the thought about Halo. I love that series. Plasma, being highly-excited matter, versus positrons, that could get messy.

Devil Dog: You REALLY don't want to know where the Scientists could take that thought, especially after some of the upcoming series they shall be visiting.

Trayvs: the rest breaks are my favorite human dimension of this series. War is cold and hard; even I sometimes like a soft and squishy moment, as hard as that may be to believe.

Harry Potter? I LOL'd hard when I read that. Voldemort plastered by the Lohengrin comes to mind. Messy.

Dark Phoenix Jake: Hope this narrows down your guessing at the field :)

Perseus 12: Thank you, and welcome to the next section of the series!

Dustin (Repeat Anon Reviewer): Welcome back and I hope this is ample to peg your epic meter, because if you know FoZ you know pretty much where this is going in a hurry :)

On the Mai-Otome / Mai-Hime info, thanks for the clarification. I am not versed in that series, but it sounds like my level of destruction. I may have to do that.

Curious Guy (Anon Review / Chap 14): Primarily, Jade Falcons are known for bending their own rules from time to time. They aren't the straightest arrows among the Clans, per se. Just read up on Vandervahn Chistu and you'll get an idea what I mean. Second, Clanners are known to use the various Trials on outside parties from time to time, though some Trial forms less than others. I may have missed it, but I don't recall anyone saying that some Trials were denied to use on outside parties, though logically some Trials would not apply (Abjuration or Absorption, for example, do not apply to outside parties).

Bleach 5700 (Anon Review): Xenogears is also a hot recommend, but not there at this time, amigo. I am patterning tech-fantasy-tech-fantasy, and this is part of the Foxtrot group, so…

Nick 2009 09 (Anon Review): Hope this chapter meets your expectations of a good locale!

Flawless Cowboy 2552 (Round 2): Damn good theory, amigo. Thanks!

Flawless Cowboy 2552 (Round 3): I was actually surprised by the vehemence of those who liked the SEED / MKR crossover element, so I am hoping this gets some mileage with the FoZ fandom. At the minimum, it will be an interesting exercise in rewriting a book of history, which is always a fun task. Anticipative fiction is a challenge, but an excellent read when done right.

I am considering the note for the front chapter at this time, and thank you for the suggestion.

Oh, eventually Saito will spill the beans about SEED being a fiction work from his homeland, and the Archangel is destined to meet a rather crazy guy down the road who will also know SEED as fiction.

THANK YOU ALL FOR THE REVIEWS! There is a certain sound to throwing a can of gasoline on the fire, and the 23 reviews above are it! This is the fuel that keeps good authors going! Keep 'em coming, as shall I!


The Gripe Sheet:

No gripes from the prior chapter. Much thanks to Necroblade, Takeshi Yamato, and Sieben Nightwing for the assistance!


Footnotes:

(1): Limitation of using the Magic Knights' Gauntlets for translation. So long as it comes from the person wearing the glove, anyone can understand written or spoken foreign languages due to the integral enchantments inside the glove making it understandable intrinsically to anyone who hears. A radio, however, is not subject to that bonus and as such only Saito can understand the English and Japanese in use over the radio band.

(2): Plate Carriers are special MOLLE vests designed to both carry a load of pouches and carry ballistic plates designed to stop incoming ordinance on the inside of the vest. The plates are modular, which allow the operator to change out the plates for the expected level of threat or maneuver requirements he or she would need.

(3): Dragonet is a small or baby Dragon.

(4): Electromagnetic gun physics lesson: as the gun discharges in atmosphere, the air around the projectile is 'struck' by the moving projectile so hard that it briefly flashes to plasma and creates what looks to a layman to be a muzzle blast. This effect is called a Plasma Flash.

(5): White Ones is reference to the normal paint on missiles being white for combat, where blue weapons symbolizes practice shots or inert training equipment.

(6): Multi-Function Display, a small screen that can be changed over to alternate system views.

(7): Bangalore Torpedo is a kind of explosive charge fitted into a modular metal pipe that could be connected to other torpedoes to create a long tube charge. It is commonly used for clearing obstructions and defensive countermeasures such as barbed wire or landmines.