In the Best of All Possible Worlds
Or, Five Times Sergei Smirnov Failed to Save his Son (and One Time he Succeeded)
Silence followed Major Smirnov wherever he went, like a fine, dark mastiff trailing at its master's heels. Its claws scored the flooring in time with his footsteps. His subordinates stiffened as its shadow crossed their paths. When Hank attempted to pry a few feelings out of him, over breakfast, or the latest intelligence report, it snarled and bared fangs until the man showed throat.
Sergei had left his Holly to die, and the whole batallion knew it. The brass said he was hero and a patriot, but even that puffed-up General in his cushy command bunker refused to meet Sergei's eyes during video conferences. They called him the Wild Bear. Something less than a man.
And so it was that Sergei Smirnov passed a peculiarly peaceful four months at the heart of the South Pacific front. Good men died. Bad men, too. Supplies ran low, tempers ran high, and whole villages were ground to dust beneath the heels of their mobile suits. Sergei did his job because he could not be spared. He did it well, because the noise couldn't touch him.
Conversation finally crept in when Sergei and Hank came to the end of their deployment. The two men spent the night in a shabby bar near the airfield, waiting for their transport to arrive. Silence was still there, lurking around the waning mortar fire, but it couldn't hope to keep its vigil forever. Hank Hercule happened to be a damn fine soldier. He'd never been afraid of dogs.
"Will you go on a leave of absence?" Hank held his whiskey up to the lamplight. There was a worrying dark patch at the bottom of his glass. Soon the orbital array would be transmitting so much power to Earth that even dives like this would be able to run their own dishwashers. It was a hell of a thought. Hank wasn't sure when he'd be able to wrap his head around it. Some days he forgot that he didn't have to hand-crank his phone charger any longer.
Holly was missing out on so much.
"Leave of absence?" Sergei said. He sounded as though Hank had just suggested he saw his own leg off. "Why would I go on a leave of absence?"
Screw the dirt, Hank was downing his shot. He'd take his chances with the afterburn. When they'd gone drinking, the three of them, they'd been able to solve all the world's problems in that small stretch of avenue between their dormitory and the pub. Now Sergei was being his obtuse, taciturn self, and Hank didn't know how to bring him out of it on his own, and fuck it, fuck all of it, everything was going to shit right before his eyes.
"What about the boy, Sergei?"
Sergei hunched in on himself. "I... I don't know. I'll figure something out."
Hank shut the hell up just in time for the bartender to pour them another round.
1. The Path of Good Intentions
Sergei wasn't a religious man, but he'd had his aide book the church anyhow. There were customs to follow in mourning. There were ways to do things right. Directions passed down through the centuries, from peasant songs to pdf files, so that the bereaved had a proper procedure to follow when the time came to honor their dead.
Holly hadn't wanted to be married in a church. She'd wrinkled her nose at the dust on the Ikons, and said that she felt silly, dyed green and orange beneath the high stained glass. So they'd said their vows in the gardens outside the Officer's College, a few days after graduation. A man shouldn't interfere with his fiancee's wishes when it came to planning her wedding day. Holly'd wanted the bright sun, and row upon row of their classmates, all decked out in their brand new dress uniforms.
The crowd was the same as it was on the day they were married. So was the sky -- clear blue, bisected by the pale ribbon of the orbital ring. But there was no part of Holly in the coffin they'd lowered into the ground, so Sergei didn't think she'd mind that he'd retreated into the chapel. It smelled like wood polish and weekends with Grandmother. The martyrs in their murals were watching him.
A creak, and the sound of shoes against stone. Sergei turned without thinking. His thoughts were with Holly, but his instincts were still wired to watch for sabotage, or the tell-tale vibrations of approaching mobile armor. His hand drifted to his belt, where there was no gun.
It was just as well. Andrei wasn't a mobile armor. He was a young boy in short pants, looming large and ominous in the crack between heavy oak doors. Instinct could not save Sergei here.
Four unbearable seconds passed. Sergei heard the hinges waver. He considered standing up, considered the possibility that Andrei was about to go, and then-
"Why didn't you save her?"
- ninety pounds of heartbroken eight year-old stalked down the aisle.
Andrei didn't really resemble his mother. His legs were too coltish, and his eyes were too narrow. An expression as closed as Andrei's would never have looked right on Holly's features. She was no blind idealist, like Hank, but she'd always believed in making the best of what she had. Sergei wished that he knew how to be as strong as she was.
You grew your life around someone, and then when they were gone, you found your feelings all sprawled out, with nothing left to hold them up.
The boy stopped still in front of his father. Gilt angels had his back. His fists were clenched, and his cheeks were wet with tears, but he did not make any move to cry, or lash out. Only the fall of his bangs gave away the fact that he was quivering.
"You saved all those other people, didn't you? You're the big hero, right? So why couldn't you save Mom!?"
There was a procedure for this, too. Sergei knew that. Only the steps were all jumbled up together in his mind, alongside all of the missed birthdays and long-distance calls at Christmastime. He had time to figure it out, didn't he? All Sergei needed was an hour, a week, a few months. Days enough for him to figure out whether he ought to pat Andrei on the shoulder, or tell him not to cry.
"Don't you miss her?" Andrei darted forward, and attempted a sloppy right hook. "Say something! Answer me!!"
Sergei grabbed his son's wrist before the child's knuckled could meet his jaw. So small. He'd been so small. How could any human survive at that size? Holly had laughed when Sergei felt too clumsy to hold him, and bought the shoulder sling soon after.
Should Sergei try to hold his son? He might hurt him if he did it the wrong way. Holly had been very clear about that.
Sergei felt a burst of fresh air against the back of his neck, and he wasn't surprised when he heard Hank's heavy footfalls. He pried Sergei's hand away from Andrei's arm, and scooped the child up.
The whole building must have heard Andrei's shouting.
"Uncle Hank. Uncle Hank, I want Mom," Andrei sobbed into Hank's coat.
"Hey, champ, c'mon." Hank said, as soft as you please. "You've had a long day."
Sergei ignored Hank's reproving look, in favor of slumping forward to cradle his head in his hands. It was long past time for him to admit to himself that he couldn't handle this.
"There's a military school," Sergei said. "A research center that specializes in child development, on one of the space colonies. They've informed me that they'd be very happy to see my son there. It might be best if- Your mother wanted you to get a good education."
Sergei Smirnov didn't put a lot of stock in the idea that talent was genetic, but he trusted that his son would be able to handle whatever this institute had to throw at him. They had to have... facilities, for the sort of difficulties Andrei was having. Resources. Personnel who were equipped to improve his situation.
He'd sign the paperwork tomorrow.
2. Nerve and Damage
An explosion tore through the hallway, and Sergei was graced with a few seconds to wonder whether or not he was going to die, before he was knocked to the floor by the force of the blast.
Four, three, two, and one.
And then. It seemed that he was still alive. Sergei could tell by the way his lungs burned, and the fact that his fingers were still clenched, white-knuckled, around the barrel of his shotgun. He'd never spent much time thinking about the afterlife, but he was fairly certain they didn't let firearms through the gates. Battlefields were for the living.
Sergei half crawled to a side corridor, and dragged a sleeve up over his mouth, so that he wouldn't breath in ash or micro-fibres. Hank scuttled in behind him. He, unlike Sergei, had hit the deck before the grenade went off, and hadn't so much as singed his beard.
"That was one of our own," Hank said. He propped himself up against the wall, and worked at reloading his weapon. It was a damn good thing that Hank didn't need to look at his hands to replace his ammo. Sergei couldn't keep watch for approaching hostiles until he stopped seeing spots. "Christ. These kids, Sergei. Can't force a door open without blowing off their own asses, and ours besides."
"They're your men," Sergei rasped. Whorls and knots of scar tissue prevented him from raising an eyebrow.
"If you want to keep pretending that you're not in charge of this coup."
Sergei frowned. "It's not a coup."
"Copy that, 'General'."
Sergei wasn't going to waste his breath arguing about this. Orders were to be followed -- in spirit, if not to the letter. The chain of command must not be sundered. Soldiers who who refused to submit their strength to civilian leadership were little better than the PMC dogs who used to sniff around the AEU Council, licking their crotches and burying bones. Sergei would never participate in a coup d'etat.
Several months ago, Hank Hercule had visited Sergei's command post in Oman, and presented conclusive evidence that the Earth Sphere Federation government had been compromised by genocidal tyrants. Kati Mannequin corroborated most of his old friend's accusations. And any fool with eyes to see knew that A-Laws orbital defense system had vaporized large tracts of the Middle East. He and Hank had argued late into the night, but in the end, Sergei had been forced to concede to his colleagues. Their duty to the people demanded that they take action to cut the puppet strings that bound the current President.
So this was not a coup d'etat. This was a counter-revolution. He was no one's General, no matter what title the news media had decided to inflict upon him. He didn't like crowds enough to want to be a symbol. He was merely a man doing his job.
"Are we in?" Sergei called out.
"Ready to go, General Smirnov!"
Sergei blinked the last bit of glare out of his eyes, just in time to see Hank gesture to the group of troops settled a few yards down the hallway. The soldiers raised their riot shields and charged forwards through the ruined door. Hank nodded at Sergei, short and sharp, and the two old soldiers (not that old, his hindbrain insisted, with Hank watching his six once again, and the smell of gunpowder in the air) followed after them.
Resistence was stiff, but Sergei was confident. These A-Laws were pilots. No less, but no more. They weren't equipped to deal with the sort of men who'd been rousting undesirables from orbital elevators for the last fifteen years.
The next few minutes passed in a blur of shouts and scuffling, punctuated by the steady beat of gunfire. Sergei found himself relieved that Soma was off with her young man instead of under his command. It was a supremely selfish feeling -- the former Lieutenant was a significant military asset, by any definition -- but not one that he could bring himself to regret. He could bear to think of her dying on the front lines, like his Holly, because he could bear most anything after that, but he did not want to be the commander that got her killed in a common firefight.
They were nearing the command center. There was no time for regrets. Someone coughed in a side hallway, and instinct told Sergei to turn. He raised his gun, aimed, and put a bullet through the soldier's head before she could so much as take her sidearm out of its holster. A handful of pills cascaded to the ground. And there, behind-
No. No, that wasn't-
This wasn't right. There was supposed to be time.
Their men were fanning out to hack the security system and secure a staging area. Sergei still felt hazy with adrenalyn. He slung his shotgun over his shoulder, arms aching from recoil, and strode over to the corpse of the young lady whose face he'd just blown off.
Behind her, Sergei saw the body of a tall, lanky officer, with high cheekbones and nut-brown hair. His chest was riddled with bullet holes, dark and clotted, and his coat was bunched, where the woman had grabbed his body to use as shield and camoflage. He was so large, and broad. Sergei couldn't fathom how that had happened.
Andrei still didn't look like his mother. Taking on a pallor of death was not the same as being pale.
Sergei shuddered, and dropped to his knees. Carefully, as though defusing a mine, he ran his fingertips over the body's face, and pressed closed its sightless eyes.
"I was going to find him."
"I know." Hank placed a hand on his shoulder.
Sergei gritted his teeth against a surge of irrational anger. He'd known that this could happen. Except he hadn't. Not really. Andrei had been a Smirnov, a son of Sergei's own blood. The boy was supposed to be smart enough to take care of himself until Sergei could track him down and smack some sense into him. He wasn't supposed to waste his life in a futile attempt to spite his father.
Less than ten meters away, through a thick steel security wall, their enemy sat atop a web of fibre-optic lines, like some great and bloated spider. Sergei stood, and cracked his shotgun open for reloading.
3. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
"It's been two months. I expected to have results by now."
At first glance, the room on the viewscreens appeared to be a standard issue holding cell. Dull grey walls bled into a dull grey ceiling. The thin pallet in the corner was covered by a tissue-like sheet, unsuitable for hanging or asphyxiation. Both the sink and the battered steel toilet were bolted directly into the concrete. Fluorescent tract lighting cut stark shadows into the floor.
The difference was in the details; the pin-sized cameras embedded in the brickwork, and the thick deadbolts that complimented the magnetic door-lock. A nozzle affixed to the air circulation vent (too high to be reached, and narrow enough that a cat couldn't crawl through, let alone a detainee) was jury-rigged to fill the room with sedative gas within five seconds of activation. No one was taking any chances with Subject E-57.
Sergei turned away from the display, in order to stare down the technician who was in charge of the surveillance feeds. "Explain."
"Interrogation has been all but impossible," the technician said. There was no mistaking the dark circles beneath her eyes. These observation posts hadn't been intended for long-term use. The waste bin was overflowing with snack wrappers, and there were cracks in the vinyl of her stiff-backed chair. "The only way to control him is to keep him partially sedated. We've sent ten guards home in body-bags since he got here."
"He thinks he can escape?"
"He tries to take their weapons. His kind wouldn't need weapons to overpower the perimeter guards. Dr. Choi thinks that he's looking for a way to kill himself."
Their prisoner sat motionless on the floor of his cell, staring off into a horizon that existed only within the confines of his skull. According to the technician, he hadn't shifted an inch in the four hours since his last meal (paper plates, styrafoam cups, no cutlery to speak of). The nails on his hands and feet had been forcibly clipped down to the cuticles. His hair was shaggy, his beard stringy and patched. His grey jumpsuit was so mottled with spots and stains that it might as well have been printed in camoflage pattern.
How pathetic. This was what happened when a weapon convinced itself that it was a man. It shouted into the void, to convince itself that it had something worth saying, and it tormented good men, so that it could pretend someone was answering back.
Both Sergei and the technician were mildly surprised when Subject E-57 began swaying to and fro. His visible eye focussed in on the cell door's metal paneling. For a moment, Sergei could see how this broken thing might have been a predator in his previous life. He'd once seen a snake move like that, back in the South Pacific, during the war.
He'd beheaded the beast with a machete, before it could start chasing rats into the supply hangars.
"I'm so sorry," Subject E-57 stuttered. There were tears in his voice, and accusations in the set of his jaw. "I'm so sorry. You know that. You know that I didn't know it was Marie. I wouldn't- I would never hurt her, I-"
He suddenly flung himself back onto his behind, pointing and screaming and tensing to strike. "Shut up! I'm not a killer! You are! It was you!" He collapsed in on himself as quickly as he'd risen, head cradled in his hands. "I wouldn't. I wouldn't. I wouldn't. I wouldn't I-"
Subject E-57 trailed off into dejected mumbling, curled up in a fetal position near the foot of his bed.
Was this shameful display meant to inspire Sergei's pity? Feh. He was sick of looking at this insufferable, self-obsessed little punk. 'Allelujah Haptism' wasn't even a name. No thing without a name was going to stand in the way of his mission.
"Can he tell that I'm watching?" Sergei growled.
The technician shook her head, so that she would not have to meet his eyes. "No," she said. "He talks to himself all the time. The doctor says that he suffers from hallucinations. Subject E-57 is very disturbed."
"Has he said anything useful when he's like this?"
"Not that we know of." The technician swallowed back her nerves. "We don't have any reports of a 'Marie' within Celestial Being's command structure."
Sergei turned his back to the quivering ball of Super Soldier, and fished a phone out of his uniform pocket to check for updates on his ship's restocking. It was the kind of phone they didn't produce anymore -- voice only, to conserve energy, with solar cels pasted to the back of the casing. He didn't understand the fad for pointless face-to-face conversation.
A red light on the side of the handset blinked angrily on and off, reproaching him for not checking his messages. Sergei contemplated deleting them. He might not hear his son's voice for years, if he didn't keep these recordings. It wouldn't be the first time. But he already knew what Andrei had to say.
Andrei would understand one day. He had to. He'd had Andrei barred from the A-Laws for good reason. Assigning him to serve under Hank, in the safety of Africa Tower, was the only way to make sure there would be time to make things right. Surely no one would be foolish enough to bring the war on terror to a space elevator.
"Colonel Smirnov." His new charge popped into the room, derailing his train of thought. "If you're done here, our transport is ready."
Everything about Lieutenant Returner was polished to perfection, as though she'd been created within the pages of a propaganda pamphlet. Her smile was determined, but genuine. Not one hair strayed from the coil near the base of her neck. She was a pilot, mechanic, and systems specialist all in one, and she won the adulation of enlisted men wherever she went. Sergei didn't-
No. It wasn't a matter of liking or disliking. Lieutenant Returner simply made him... restless. She was not prone to taxing the limits of her nanotechnology out of sheer, stubborn pride. She did not imitate his best glare when the ground crew speculated too loudly about the color of her hair. She had better things to do than loiter in his office while he filled out paperwork, paging through his collected works of Dostoyevski as an excuse to share some companionable silence. It was not necessary to show her the thousand subtle tricks behind coaxing good reaction time out of a lumbering Tieren.
Sergei was aware that someone at the top was trying to manipulate him, thinking that his protective instincts would be easily roused by a replacement.
That was not Lieutenant Returner's fault.
"Prepare your Gadess for loading," he told her.
"Yessir! I'll do my best."
Sergei looked down at the technician.
"I'll return in a month. Make progress by then. Dr. Choi is authorized to take all necessary measures with the prisoner."
Sergei slid the phone back into the deep green folds of his uniform. Andrei would wait, as he always did. Until a year or two from now, when the shadowy remnants of Celestial Being had been well and truly crushed.
A light of judgment was rising in the ring around the sky, and here on Earth, the Wild Bear was going hunting.
4. Habitat for Wild Bears
Sergei grimaced as soon as he entered the meeting room.
It was an involuntary reaction, like flinching away from open flame. Sergei didn't intend to make a production of it. He'd never cared about interior design. But this part of headquarters was such an affront to his sense of military decorum that he couldn't stop himself from showing his disapproval.
There were certain furnishings and tchotchkes that a man expected to see in his commanding officer's private meeting room. Swords. Elderly books. Paintings of landscapes. A large antique desk. A model boat in a bottle, perhaps. Red velvet armchairs were not on that list. Neither were high-definition plasma screens shaped like gazebo windows, that gave the illusion of standing amidst a grove of blooming cherry trees.
He hoped that his error hadn't been too visible. His Highness had eyes in impossible places.
Sergei lumbered towards his chair. It was always slow going, now that he had to trim his gait to accommodate the cane. He was not surprised that both Andrei and Hilling Care had arrived before him. They all paused to trade crisp salutes, before Commander Care resumed her traditional badgering of his son. God forbid their superiors make any attempt to behave like professionals.
It was little different than the days when he'd served under Progressive Party officials in the HRL, though Sergei was careful to keep that observation to himself.
"Aw, c'mon Andrei, don't look so glum." Commander Care wagged a finger in Andrei's face. Her hand moved at odd, over-precise angles; she'd long-since stopped caring about moving like a human when it didn't suit her. "You should get laid once in a while. Your army's full of hot young things, on account of you humans breed like rats. Even oldsters like you can pick up when they flash rank insignia, ri~ght? Especially when you've got a sexy lady like me for your wingman!"
"I'll thank you to stop meddling with the composition of my personal staff, Commander Care," Andrei said, flatly.
The great and terrible Hilling Care -- Commander-in-Chief of the Earth Sphere Armada -- dissolved into high, harsh giggles. "I wouldn't touch your 'personal staff'."
Commander Care leaned back in her chair, smirking like the cat that ate the canary. Sergei understood why so many of his subordinates couldn't bear to look at her. The sickly glow of the displays didn't do her any favors. She'd spent twenty-five years in the body of a sixteen year-old, and it showed more than she realized, in the stretch of too-smooth skin across across her cheekbones. Sergei had read, once, about poisonous frogs that advertised their toxicity in the bright neon of their skin, and thought that it was not so different from Commander Care's coloring. Her body was a warning. Test-tube hair and reptile eyes.
It wasn't right. She wasn't right. That was all there was to it.
Sergei suspected that was why her kind bothered to employ his family; to put a time-worn face on their military projects. His Highness liked the idea of having a family of retainers. It might be wrong, to prop them up, but it would be worse to let them run unchecked, without human minds to interpret their edicts, or human hands to do their dirty work. Dictators came and went. Men like him kept the world turning in the mean time.
"You never stop being funny. By the way, my brother's little blonde plaything says hello. His Highness' h-"
Sergei cleared his throat, before she could wind Andrei up any further. Thankfully the final party to their meeting was a woman with impecable timing. "Commander Care. I believe we're ready to be underway."
Soma nodded, from the doorway, and headed towards her own seat. The door hissed shut behind her.
"Reporting for duty," she saluted.
"Great. The gang's all here!" Commander Care clapped her hands. "Gather round, everyo~ne. I've got a treat for you today!"
Commander Care's eyes flashed, the walls dimmed, and a hologram pulled into focus atop the surface of their table. It looked like a set of three-dimensional blueprints. The interior of a colony, set out in wire frame. Only the shape was liking nothing Sergei had seen before -- no round, rotating section, to generate artificial gravity -- and he did not like the look of the large hangar bays on the right.
"A new base design?" Andrei ventured.
"Nope!" Hilling grinned. "It looks like a coupla old ladies got hold of some of those green GN drives. And they're trying to make something of 'em."
"Gundam," Soma breathed.
"Yup. On an asteroid at L4. They've got a bunch of antique Aheads too. And you're gonna go beat them up, since it doesn't look good in the news if we do it for ya." Commander Care pouted. "His Highness never lets me have any fun."
"'Old ladies?'" Sergei inquired.
Commander Care's grin oozed into a shadowy little smirk, as though Sergei should feel self-conscious about having spent fifty years in the service. These Innovators understood youth, but not time.
"'Sumeragi Li Noriega'. Girlfriend of yours?"
Sergei and Andrei frowned the exact same frown.
"I haven't heard of her," Sergei said.
The next six hours resolved into a circular conversation about information security, armaments and tactics. They knew what they had to work with, and they knew what they needed to do, but none of their spies had been able to determine whether or not the insurgents had been sucessful in producing their own Gundams. No one had seen any of the legendary perpetual-energy machines since Celestial Being's last, futile stand against the war hero Alejandro Corner, and the world's reconstruction under the guidance of VEDA.
When Soma furrowed her brow and fidgeted under the table, it was almost like old times, aside from the Admiral's stripes on her uniform, and the smile lines at the corners of her eyes. Sergei was getting too damn old. Nostalgia was a weakness of the elderly.
They left together, once Commander Care was done with them. Sergei was glad of both the fresh air and the company. He wasn't inclined to panic at the news that someone was ressurecting the name of their old enemies -- this was only the lastest in a long line of PR stunts by ineffectual reactionary groups.
"You're both relieved. We'll discuss this more tomorrow," he told them, once they reached the courtyard at the base of the building.
Andrei remained Andrei, unmoved by Sergei's order, while Soma cast off the mantle of her duty, melting from stern frontier officer into a round-edged, middle-aged mother. Soma Marie Smirnov was a complicated woman.
He was so proud of the two of them.
"We should have dinner while I'm in town," Soma suggested, after giving Sergei a quick hug. "It's been too long since I was near headquarters. Your grandchildren will be happy to have us all together."
Sergei nodded, and made the offer before he had a chance to think better of it. "You could join us, son."
Andrei assumed a closed expression. "I have work to do," he said, with a stiff salute. "Good day, sir."
Andrei walked away at a brisk, businesslike pace, the wind flaring out the green skirt of his uniform. Sergei didn't know what to do with him. Sergei's time in this world was running out, and Andrei seemed completely incapable of being happy.
"He doesn't change," Soma noted.
That was probably his father's fault.
Sergei sighed, and offered his daughter his arm.
5. The Angel of the Burning Wheel
The ache started where it always did, with the ridge of scar tissue near the small of his back. It took root at the base of his spine before winding upwards through his chest cavity, branching out along his shoulder blades and wrapping tendrils around his heart. Then came his joints; blossoms of pain at the backs of his knees, and thorns that stabbed into his knuckles.
Sergei would not be able to maintain combat effectiveness for much longer. It was frustrating, but nothing to be ashamed of. Riding point during a mechanized seige was a young man's game.
Sand splashed up against the legs of Sergei's Tieren as he pulled the machine into a ninety-degree turn. Mobility specs flitted across the left status screen -- left hip joint at 85% capacity, right arm blocked from frontal extension, fourth aft videolink incapable of zoom. A quarter of Sergei's cockpit display was blocked by grit caught in the cameras. The brain trust that had decided to pin Celestial Being down in a desert and bat them around until they collapsed hadn't counted on the handicaps of the environment. At this rate, without strict rotation of their forces, the Gundams would be able to massacre them without firing a shot.
In the distance, an explosion, and the screech of straining metal. A swarm of Union Flags bore down on a tall green mecha. Sergei checked his radar to see how well the rest of his squad was keeping up with him. Then he opened up a short-range comm channel to the other unit under his supervision.
"Ensign Peries. Report."
"Sir!" Ensign Peries' voice crackled over the airwaves. "Target has been engaged."
"As planned, sir. The shuttlecock is contained."
Sergei made a quiet noise of approval. "Go off shift and get some rest. We'll implement the capture protocol in six hours."
"But sir, it's well within my capabilities to work through the-"
"That's an order," Sergei said. "I want your mind sharper than his when the time comes to move in."
Sergei heard Ensign Peries' fingers flick over the controls of her Taozi, as she struggled to reign in her natural impulse to charge forward and confront the enemy. He understood her anger. He'd seen the photos of those children -- crushed and broken corpses, strewn throughout high-tech rubble. But he did not want to make her complicit in what he was about to do.
"... copy that, Lieutenant Colonel," Ensign Peries finally said. "Ensign Peries out."
There was no tracking the Tieren Taozi with this many GN particles in the air, but Sergei trusted Ensign Peries to follow his directions. As soon as she was off the comm channel, he switched his transmitter to a broad group frequency, and ordered his squad to fall back. The next shift was already en-route to their sector. Sergei said that he would check in with the new troops before joining them back at base.
Instead, once the men were gone, Sergei rushed his Tierien up and over a large sand dune, and guided it out into the fray. Whole flocks of AEU Enacts were heading towards the northwest sector. It took every ounce of Sergei's skill to keep his Tierien in balance while trying to outpace the slimmer, swifter machines. The bulky mobile suit practically skated over the sand. Sergei's calve muscles knotted and frayed under the strain of steering twenty tonnes of weapons-grade titanium.
Pain led to focus, his best and most familiar companion. Hah! This old body was making Sergei feel young again. For the first time in too many years, he remembered the timbre of Holly's voice, the drape of her uniform, the way she'd screeched with triumph when she completed her first obstacle course in mobile armor. They'd hit the showers, after that, and Sergei had been glad of their heavy training regimen, because it gave him an excuse for the thundering of his heart.
It was alright for Sergei to let himself think about her, now. Finally, finally, he was going to set things right.
A display light blinked, and Sergei caught a coded query signal from the leader of the Enacts he'd just passed. "Allied craft, you appear to be off-course." The woman spoke in soft, lilting English, unsuited for the battlefield. Sergei concluded that she must be French. "Please relay your command group identification. We will tell you where to rendesvous with your superior officer. Over."
Sergei replied with a load of nonsense Chinese, implying that he could not speak the young lady's language. She cursed fluidly in response. They were getting too close to the her designated target for her to bother with some broken, wayward soldier. The best she and her people could do was follow at his six.
A burst of pink light, and half of the Frenchwoman's comrades were seared straight out of the sky. It seemed that they were nearing their destination. Whomever had been tasked with herding this Gundam pilot into place had done a superlative job. Their quarry was nicely tucked within a deep box canyon, away from the killing sand and any stray mortar.
"Andrei." Sergei said, dialing up the same broadcast signal that the young man in the shuttlecock had used to contact him. When he got no answer, he proceeded to fan through the adjacent frequencies, testing them one by one. "Andrei. Andrei. Andrei. Andrei. Andrei." Fuck, this was frustrating. Desperation tightened in his chest. He hadn't intended on snarling, but- "Andrei? Andrei!!"
The hulking red Gundam stopped in its tracks, and turned to stare down Sergei's mobile suit. There was no feeling in its machine-cold eyes, or the masklike grate that passed for a face on its chassis. The ruins of a Flag dropped from its broad, strong claws, raising up a cloud of fine grey dust.
Time for a talk, then. One heavy melee unit to another.
"So you figured it out," his son said. Sergei inhaled sharply at the sound of Andrei's voice coming through the speakers.
The Tieren's controls were warm beneath his hands. He kept his grip firm. A gust of air and a burst of static told him that another two Enacts had been vaporized behind him. That artillery suit must be nearby.
Sergei's exhaled. There wasn't enough time. He could only nurse the wild hope that somehow, over the past decade, he'd atoned enough to be forgiven.
"Andrei, you have to stop," Sergei began. He'd had time to practice this. "You've made this world your enemy. Eventually, you'll die. I only just learned you were still alive, and I-"
"'Andrei' isn't my name any longer."
"It's the name your mother gave you!"
The Gundam -- GN 06 Ophane, by the designation on its arm -- sunk its beam claws into the cliffside. Sergei felt the shale begin to shift. What the hell did Andrei think he was doing? They were both unwieldy enough to get caught in a rockslide.
"She's not here to call me by it, is she?" Andrei snorted. "I wonder why that is."
Sergei was doing this all wrong. It had been ten years since Andrei disappeared; ten years since Sergei'd had cause to act anything like a father.
He'd never been like this as a little boy. He'd always imitated his father. He'd kept his back stiff, and tried not to cry, even when he broke his leg on the playground, trying to steal a pack of crayons back from the kindergarten bully.
"Do you think this is what she wanted?"
Gundam Ophane lowered its arm, and for a moment, it looked as though Andrei might be willing to talk. Then the machine shifted its weight, retracted its claws, and lunged forward to punch Sergei's Tieren in the gut.
"Don't you dare ask me that," Andrei snapped. "Mother desired peace more than anyone else!"
Sergei's Tierien staggered backwards, with only its pilot's skill to keep it on its feet. The machine turned to redirect the force of Andrei's blow towards the canyon wall. His limbs throbbed with the strain of it. Gundam and Tieren wrestled against the stone, turning and returning, wrenching mechanical limbs from their sockets and scraping cameras off against the rocks.
"Andrei." Sergei swallowed. His throat was dry. "I know I've made mistakes, but I am your father, and you will heed what I say. Get down from there right now, and I can arrange-"
Gundam Ophane's right set of claws sank into the Tieren's chest, just above the generator. Sergei's mobile suit shuddered with the shock of it before falling limp and powerless. Ophane shook it once, twice, three times, before tossing it aside like a great metal ragdoll. Impact knocked the breath out of Sergei's chest.
The Tieren's energy systems cut out, one by one, fading to static and then falling to darkness, until all Sergei had left was the sound of his own shallow breathing, and the tinny, distorted voice scratching through the comm line.
"Stay out of my way!!"
So this was the force of Andrei's hatred.
Sergei was selfish enough to hope that it would keep his son alive.
6. The Best of All Possible Worlds
Sergei had expected to die today -- had known that he was being set up from the moment that he'd recieved orders to visit the orbital elevator. It was mostly the view that surprised him.
Pieces of the orbital elevator rained down on the African landscape, plummeting towards the gated European greenbelt and the sprawling shanty-towns that clung to its walls. The greatest army of mobile suits ever assembled was spread out before him, united in a common cause.
Beauty smelled like ozone and tasted like iron.
Sergei's son twisted the lance within the Tieren's innards. Somewhere, in the background, he was screaming impossible things.
Sergei placed his arm on his son's shoulder (they were the same height now, why had he not realized?) and gently nudged him back (enough that he fell away, away, away, 'til it was only Sergei and the sky.)
Blood loss made him giddy, and he had the curious sensation of feeling lighter than his own body. He'd kept his promise, hadn't he? Too little, too late, maybe just enough, if he was very sorry. He could see his Holly now.
The old soldier relaxed, and looked into the light.
Gossip followed Major Smirnov wherever he went, like a high-strung terrier nipping at its master's heels. There was no peace for him in the desert. If it wasn't the civilians, yapping furiously about the who, what, where, and why of their blue-clad benefactor, then it was his own men, barking out theories on his personal life whenever they thought he was out of earshot.
He understood why. Sort of. The crater that had once been Jordan was a dusty, desolate place. Time spent speculating about the infamous Major Smirnov was time that wasn't wasted imagining how much of the grit between everyone's teeth had once been human bone. Andrei felt as though he didn't have the right to mind.
He'd earned the feeling that he was always being watched, and the constant gnawing on his conscience.
The ground crunched beneath the soles of Andrei's boots. Momento Mori had worked its alchemy all too well in this place, fusing the sands into twisted black glass. A sharp piece of rubble caught on his bootlace. He knelt to correct it.
Voices rose in the distance, from the direction of their encampment. Thick burlap and camoflage netting couldn't hope to contain the enthusiastic braying of new recruits. The greenhorns had funny ideas about glory. Most of the men who knew better had been reduced to their component atoms by Ribbons Almark's machinations, or Celestial Being's infinite firepower.
"Fuck, I bet I could take him. Doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, doesn't gamble, doesn't curse. Doesn't even chase pussy. What kind of a man is that?"
A hush fell over the platoon. Andrei stayed crouched in place. Was this man serious? Andrei couldn't make out any hint of a chuckle. He liked to think that he'd know if his few and precious veterans were baiting the fresh meat, yet the alternative was-
"Whoa. Don't go there, man."
"What do you think he's gonna do to you if you fuck with him? You'll be wearing your brains for a hat."
"You really don't know, do ya, rook. Major Smirnov killed his own father for disobeying orders, at the fall of Africa Tower."
"The Wild Bear? Shiiiiit."
"I heard that he fought against Celestial Being right to the end. Only two pilots came out of that shitstorm alive, and the other one? Had a fucking nervous breakdown. They got her locked up in an asylum somewhere."
Enough of this. Andrei wasn't here to eavesdrop on junior officers. He had a job to do. He shouldn't care about the static that surrounded him. His reputation got things done.
He marched over to the soldiers' little klatch without further ado. They were sprawled out in their boxers, in front of an impromptu campfire, like a bunch of schoolgirls at a slumber party. Good Lord.
"Put some pants on," Andrei ordered, in hopes that it would get the men to stop waving their metaphorical dicks around. These men shouldn't speak that way about the Warra- about Mrs. Crossroad. "And get to your suits. We've got intel on a group of hijackers headed towards the Az Zalaf aid caravan. We're going to intercept them before they cause the boys in Bravo Company any problems."
The soldiers scattered into the winds, fleeing in a flurry of tent-flaps.
Andrei still didn't know if he was doing the right thing, the proper penance. Replacing the late Colonel Smirnov was an impossible task.
But he was starting to get the hang of being his father's son.