Lake Victoria training facility
1432hrs local time
The three slate-grey Leos strode heavily through the forest around the base. In the lead Suit, Daniel flicked between sensors, checking his surroundings for any anomalous readings.
"Green lead, this is control," crackled the Leo's radio. "Commence exercise."
He tapped a key. "Control, Green lead. Acknowledged."
Another series of keys, and the cockpit feeds of the other two Cadets in Green team came up on his right screen. After nearly four months of training, he had become used to the controls of the Leo. He'd had to, to keep anywhere near Joachim.
"Alright, Elena, Marcus, you ready?" he said.
Their images nodded at him. "We're set," said Marcus.
"Ready to follow your lead," added Elena.
Daniel let a smile of his own appear. The training group had been pared down to eighteen; Melissa and Damien had dropped out midway through weapons training. Noin had never told them why. Up until then, their exercises had been in randomly assigned groupings, but Noin had started finalising things lately. The group had drifted into their 'packs' of three almost naturally, groups forming of those that got along together and could work with each other at top performance.
Daniel had never seen Marcus and Elena before he came to Lake Victoria. Now, though, after what amounted to nearly half a year of training, they were close friends. Daniel guessed it was just one of those things.
"Ok then," he said. "This might not be live-fire, but it's as close as we're going to get in training, so I want you to treat this like the real thing. Especially since we're going up against the blues today."
The blues, Lake Victoria's top training pack, were led by Joachim. The three were all near the top of the group, with only Sarah and Daniel himself coming between them. Together, they had quickly dominated the training missions, consistently outperforming and outscoring the others. Which was why Daniel was on edge.
It wasn't often that Noin arranged team-on-team missions. Since the Alliance was the only power with the ability to mass-produce combat Mobile Suits, there wasn't much probability of ever going head to head against them. The Lieutenant just used the exercises as a way to keep the Cadets sharp.
"What's the objective, lead?" asked Marcus.
Daniel grinned. Noin had briefed everyone before they had left, but, as usual, Marcus hadn't been paying attention. He preferred to improvise. Daniel would have asked him to straighten up, but he knew that, in a combat situation, having someone used to making things up as they went could be very useful.
"Standard search-and-destroy, three," he said. "Except the blues are searching too. Team that locates and kills the objective with the fewest casualties wins."
"That's it?" said Marcus. "That's all we were given? Ah well, might as well get started."
"Yes, we might," said Elena. "Spread formation, same as usual, lead?"
"For now." Daniel transferred control of the Leo's movement to his left hand. "Keep an eye out, though. Those blues are good." He started the Leo in a steady stride, travelling at around twelve miles per hour. Not as fast as he could go, but fast enough, especially in the dense forest.
"Seems simple enough," said Marcus, his Leo moving up on Daniel's right.
The first warning they had of the blues' presence was when a shot exploded from the trees and into the right knee of Marcus's Leo. The Mobile Suit went down, sensors reading the shot and simulating the damage that would have been sustained, had it been real.
Daniel swore, wrenching his Leo around and bringing up his beam rifle. "Elena, go wide," he ordered. "Flanking tactics. Marcus, you okay in there?"
"Just fine," Marcus replied, although his voice was shakier than usual. His Leo clambered to one knee, hefting its long dobergun up onto its shoulder. The weapon was the most powerful that the Leo could be equipped with as standard, and Marcus showed an almost unhealthy amount of satisfaction whenever he got to shoot things with it.
"Where'd they go?"
Daniel scanned the surroundings, looking for any trace of the blues' grey Leos. Nothing. The shot might as well have come from nowhere. "No idea, three," he replied. "Two, you see anything?"
And then he saw it, a faint flash of blue-striped grey between two trees. He had his beam rifle aimed at it almost instantly, but it vanished. "Two, come around on heading one-thirty-two," he said. "Carefully. As soon as you see anything, open fire. Surprise is the only advantage we'll have here."
"Roger that," she replied.
"Three, can you move?"
There was a pause as Marcus ran a diagnostic. "Right leg's completely useless. Knee's busted. Everything else's fine, though."
Daniel frowned. If Marcus stayed there, he'd be a sitting duck for the blues, armed or not. But how to move him? "Three, do you still have thrusters? Even just retros?"
"Uh, hold on a minute lead… the main thrusters are still running fine. Retros and verniers on everything but the right leg are all working, too. Why, what did you have in mind?"
"Sling that spare arm around my shoulder. Get your thrusters running, and I'll give you a lift."
Marcus grinned. "Roger than, lead. You know, it's always nice to have such a caring, considerate leader on these missions. Nothing like that tyrant back at base…"
This time it was Daniel's turn to grin. "Oh shut up, three. Flattery may get you everywhere, but it won't get you out of mess duty back at base."
Marcus shrugged. "Worth a try."
Daniel's Leo shuddered as Marcus lent his Suit's weight on it. After a moment, Marcus fired his thrusters up, lifting the Leo partway off the ground. The Leo's thrusters were designed for rudimentary zero-gee manoeuvring, rather than flight, but in this case, they took enough weight off Daniel's that he was still able to move.
Daniel swung his Leo's free arm up and grabbed Marcus's Suit, steadying the two together. "Right, sling that dobergun over my other shoulder and we'll get going. Two, you see anything out there?"
Elena's image popped back up on the screen. "None of the blues, lead. I've got some readings that might be the objective, though. Shall I move up to investigate?"
Daniel considered it. If the objective was that easily detected, then it would be the ideal place to set an ambush. The blues had obviously relocated, or Elena would have spotted them by now, and that was the most likely spot for them to have gone to.
"Wait," he said. "Stay alert, and wait for us to get closer. We'll go in from opposite sides, surprise the blues if they're waiting to ambush us."
"Got it. Hurry up lead. I'm jumping at shadows out here."
Daniel transferred what spare power he had available to the Leo's legs, and set off at a lurching walk. Between his beam rifle and Marcus's dobergun, they had enough firepower to take out any one of the blues. Provided, of course, that the blues just stood there. Not very likely.
So Daniel constantly flicked his attention from sensor to sensor, straining to detect the faintest hint of a Mobile Suit. He even filtered out the background noise of the forest, and overlaid a thermal image onto his visual readouts. There was nothing, except for the gradually-approaching signature of Elena's Suit.
"Three," he said.
"How big a bang does that gun make?"
"Very big," grinned Marcus.
"Good. When we get in position, fire it to the right. Maybe it'll distract them some, buy us some time to get in closer to them."
Daniel checked his sensors. "Two, you ready?"
"In five, lead."
"Start approaching the objective in ten, then. We need a few more seconds to get ready."
Daniel turned his attention back to the trees. Elena was on her own for now. He checked the Leo's map. They were about in position. "Three, fire."
Daniel threw his Leo into a jerking run as Marcus swung the dobergun out to the side and fired. A deafening crack-thud shook the undergrowth around them and almost unbalanced the two Mobile Suits. The shot tore between trees, incinerating leaves and branches around it, before smashing into a massive Oak. The tree was annihilated, ripped to splinters by the powerful shot, and a cloud of smoke and flaming woodchips exploded high into the air.
Daniel shook his head, a faint smile on his lips. He had almost forgotten just how powerful that gun was. His sensor showed movement, heading towards Marcus' shot. The blues had taken the bait.
"Two, go go go!" he said, and burst from the treeline into a wide clearing. At the centre of the clearing, there was a small bunker-like construction, a tattered flag flying above it. The objective. There was no sign of the blues.
Elena crashed into the clearing from the opposite side, long-pattern beam rifle held ready. "Lead," she said, "any sign of the blues?"
"None," he replied. "Looks like they took the bait. Two, grab the flag, and let's get back to base."
Elena moved forwards, taking the supporting hand from her beam rifle and reaching down for the flag. "Got it lead. Guess the forest's more disorienting than we expected. I was ready for us to get slaughtered out here."
And then a missile streaked from the forest on a trail of whipping grey smoke. It slammed into the head of Elena's Leo, exploding into a cloud of virulent purple paint. Elena's Suit crashed to the ground.
Daniel thrust the control sticks forwards, forgetting he had Marcus on his back. His Leo staggered a clumsy step forwards, then went down to one knee, spilling Marcus onto the dirt.
Cursing, he brought his rifle up, in time to see one of the blues' Leos stride from the forest, firing steadily from the hip. Its fire stitched Marcus' prone Suit, taking the pilot out of action.
Grating his teeth in frunstration, Daniel wrenched the controls around, bringing his Leo up onto its feet and into a headlong charge at the blue Mobile Suit. The blue reacted a second too slow, and Daniel slammed into him, carrying the two suits into te ground.
Daniel fumbled at the waist of his Leo for the beam sabre stored there, finally pulling it free and activating it with a hiss. All finesse lost, he clumsily hacked it upwards into the blue's midriff, ripping it up to his chest and out. The lights died in the blue's head, and it went limp as its systems simulated the violent fate that it would have suffered if the combat had been real.
He pushed himself to his feet again, just in time to catch a glimpse of another Leo charging at him. Its shoulders bore the blue stripes of the blue team, and it had a beam sabre ignited and ready.
Daniel laughed harshly. Joachim never could turn away the opportunity for a challenge, and there could be no one else in that suit. He brought his own sabre round in a guard position, bracing his Leo's legs on the ground.
Joachim cut his charge short less than two metres from Daniel, stamping one foot into the ground and abruptly changing direction. His Leo went right, and his sabre darted out as he moved, striking for the head of Daniel's Leo.
Daniel barely managed to get his sabre up in time to deflect the blow before Joachim was launching another, this time a low slash at his knees. Daniel stepped backwards hastily and lashed out with his sabre. Joachim parried the strike easily and followed up with a lunge.
Daniel fired the thrusters, and they smashed him into the side of his cockpit as his Leo accelerated leftwards. He blasted clear of Joachim's attack, but the thrusters carried him into the bole of a tree with a scraping, sparking crunch. The tree snapped beneath his weight, and he was pitched onto his side.
Daniel felt his head whip left and crash into the side of his cockpit with a sickening thump, then blackness overtook him.
When it cleared, it was replaced, slowly, by a dull, throbbing ache in his skull. He opened his eyes.
Joachim's Leo was standing over him, beam sabre extended down to his Leo's head. A red light blinked on his controls, and Daniel pressed it, still feeling groggy. Minor concussion, maybe, he thought.
Joachim's face appeared on his screen. The blond pilot gave one of his rare smiles; tight-lipped and superior, but it was still a smile. "That could have been a good trick, Williams, if – if – you pulled it off right. Which you didn't."
"Can't win every time," Daniel croaked, finding his throat to be as dry as the desert.
Joachim's smile broadened slightly. "Oh, we both know that's not true, Williams. Look at Lieutenant Noin; she's never lost a battle yet. Or Lieutenant Zechs. Both of them were trained here, like us. And, one day, I'll be up there with them. Undefeated."
Daniel was trying to think of a reply, when Noin's voice broke in over the radio. "Alright Cadets, that's about enough for now. Faulun, give Williams a hand – it seems that he can manage to damage both himself and his Mobile Suit even in a simulation exercise."
Joachim deactivated his sabre, and extended one of his Leo's blocky hands to Daniel. Daniel blinked a couple of times, trying to get back to alertness, and brought his Leo's hand up to grasp Joachim's. Joachim hauled back on Daniel's Suit, and the two Leos eventually stood side-by-side.
"Can you walk back to base?" asked Joachim.
Daniel mentally slapped himself for not thinking of that sooner, and started a diagnostic. He wouldn't be much good to anyone if he'd managed to break a Leo without any enemy action. He'd seen some of the invoices for the base; the Mobile Suits were horrendously expensive, both to make and to repair.
The diagnostic came back through. "No major damage," he said to Joachim. "Just some motor troubles with the left arm where I hit that tree."
"Good. Let's go." His face disappeared from Daniel's screen.