Here I am, again! Disclaimer Still Applies!
Inside the... Hellish facility, the ODE units were busily working, removing old pieces of debris from the last battle there and resetting the production lines. The irrecoverable wrecks of the destroyed units were being hauled by a few Valsion CF units, ready to enter in the reprocessing furnaces and be reborn as new units. Nothing was lost to time, and the new units would carry on the legacy of their ancestors.
Outside, in a wide radius around the facility, more Valsions and Bartools recovered scraps of metal from space junk. Being in space had some positive effects: the amount of space junk and remains from the Aerogater invasion and the Inspector Wars made recycling a profitable job. ODE, despite being the robot equivalent of a hive mind, did not ignore the importance of smart logistics.
'Soon, very soon,' the collective mind whispered, while a part of it reported the transportation of a certain something that was very special. Their numbers were growing each hour. Humans could not meet their unbeatable growth, and they were already deemed useless in a new order. Refusing the blessing of unity, refusing evolution itself.
'Fools. We are ODE. We are perfection.'
Slowly, the conveyor belts and the robots form the assembly line restarted their pre-programmed movements. Grabbing a plate, fitting it into the reactor assembly, bolting the two pieces together, sending the part to the next step in the line. Rinse, repeat. Over and over again, with mechanical precision. Soon, the first unit from Hellgate came out from the assembly line, taking its place working with the other units in the retrieval of raw materials. This particular unit approached a wrecked Albatross-class battleship with several holes from missiles and a huge gaping hole in the place its Cracker Engine should be, and activated its beam saber at the lowest output, using it as a blowtorch to cut a section of the armored plating.
After a few minutes, the unit had already cut a sizable square. Carefully, he lifted it from the underlying superstructure of the ship, revealing a room peppered with shrapnel... and still keeping the mutilated corpses of the crewmen caught in the explosion. Said corpses slowly floated out, while the units paid no attention to the gruesome scene and acting like there was nothing there, ramming the remains with absolute indifference. Such was the Way of the Machine.
After making sure all processes were running adequately, the Overmind once again turned to its plans. The weapon those pesky humans created was brought down, depriving them of a powerful new unit. Besides, both the virus and the rifle have proven to be a success, infecting the test units without a hitch and severely damaging the enemy unit. Those weapons were already being mass-produced at Hellgate as well.
With any luck, it could hack into the EFA computer mainframe and infect several mechs in the different installations. Ah, what an ironical fate, to be destroyed by the very weapons they sponsored... it was sad that he couldn't get the mechs at their very source, or even try to infect their elite units, though. That would surely be a boost to its firepower.
Then again, the Overmind is the Machine, and it does not long for something it cannot obtain. One day, those very robots will just be more scrap for the furnaces.
EFA Izu Base, Japan
"Captain Enfield, this is Izu Base. Landing successful. Welcome to Japan. Commander Laker is waiting for you."
"Thank you for your assistance Izu Base, Captain Enfield out." the young commander answered, before turning off the comm and turning her head to her XO, Sean Webley. "Well, here we are again, I guess we managed to meet them sooner than we thought. It is too bad that the circumstances aren't the best..."
The gray-haired man nodded. "Indeed, Captain. I wished I could see them again somewhere else, preferably in the good company of a bottle of sake... Instead, we are once more fighting for our lives. Still, time waits for no-one, and we have a briefing to attend... and to check out on Lieutenant Kyosuke. I'm sure he must need some visits, being far from the Riese for so long."
"We should be on our way, then," the Captain said, rising form her seat and walking resolutely to the door. "The faster we get to the briefing, the faster we get out of it."
Izu Base, outside
"Hurry up Tasuku, If you make me wait, you'll regret that!" shouted the resident hothead of the Hiryu Kai, Katina Tarask.
"Yes ma'am!" Tasuku replied hurrying to get off the ship before his superior decided to punish him yet again... something that was already a given in his daily routine.
"Tasuku is exactly like Giganscudo..." remarked Leona, observing the scene unfolding in front of her eyes, while Russel, in his generic expression, observed Katina's reactions rather... generically.
"What," Tasuku asked, finally reaching the group, "tough and strong?"
"No," replied the blonde, "slow..."
"Ouch, that was cold, Leona." he retorted with a hurt look.
"... but reliable nonetheless." she finished.
For a split second, the Octo Squad wiseguy seemed at a loss for words, before grinning "Oh, thanks Leona. Good to see my charms aren't entirely lost on my girlfriend."
"Charms, what charms?" was said girlfriend's only reply, much to the chagrin of Tasuku and laughter of Katina. "I guess that makes 78 for Leona."
"Actually," Russel corrected "it's 79 for Leona."
"Huh, since when you keep track, Russel?" inquired the astonished leader of Octo Squad.
"Since last time you complained about losing track of them?"
"WHAT? Are you implying I forget things?" the angry blonde replied.
"Well... It's not like that..." her fellow pilot managed to stammer.
"Face it Russel, every day that goes, you look more and more like my personal secretary."
"Hmmm..." mused Tasuku, "I wonder how Russel would like with square rimmed glasses."
Katina gave a sharp laugh. "Better than you, little Gan-Duro, now shut up and move or become the next bucket of paint for my Gespenst. The red is fading way too fast to me."
"Argh... Yes ma'am!" the former mechanic whimpered.
"That's more like it. Now look sharp, we're meeting with the rest of the folks again. Take your chance to relax, thing's will get serious from now on."
Izu Base, Intelligence Office.
The room, save for a single projector and two persons, was completely empty. On the view-screen, footage of the last battle against the ODE-infected Huckebeins, together with the last AI transmissions before all communication were cut off, were being played.
"Hmm," mused one of the watchers, his purple hair quickly denouncing him as Gilliam Yeager, "the infection was near instantaneous. There was no chance at all for the AI to even report the infection, let alone fight it."
"Indeed," replied his companion, "but the most worrying fact are how easily they got those new weapons. That makes it sound like they knew this would happen sooner or later. Could it be this was all a set up?"
The Major stood silent for a few moments, analyzing the situation, before replying to his companion. "No, I don't think that's the case, Viletta. It looks like it was a coincidence. Perhaps we stumbled in a tiny nest of bees and got stung for it."
"The question is: how many bee nests will we find lying around?" wondered the Captain, turning her head to look at the former Aggressor.
"Ah, that is the core of the question. It is a valid strategy, to create small cells to keep Bartolls for future use. I wouldn't say that this new ODE is unable to make such planning. That is a problem for us. We simply lack the manpower to do an effective search-and-destroy mission." answered Gilliam, frowning at the prospect of dealing with possible terror tactics.
"The most obvious approach would be trying to find something that may denounce their locations..." started Viletta, letting the Intelligence Officer finish the idea.
"... so we can locate them and ask the nearby EFA bases to wipe them out, while our ships would clean up the others." Major Yeager finished. "Well, that's the best course of action for now. I'll have a word with Commander Laker before we leave Izu."
Both pilots seemed to spend some minutes in absolute silence, until Viletta made a strange question. "Do you think we're getting too soft?"
Gilliam raised an eyebrow. It was... unusual for the blue-haired Captain to show such insecurity, even with him. "What is troubling you, Captain?"
"Well, we failed to purge Hellgate and now we're paying the price. It does not help our case that some supporters of the Graien administration still see us on an... unfavorable light." She took a deep breath. "In short, they might start pressuring the EFA to reduce their support for out teams, and we both know that Commander Laker can't do a thing if the order comes from the President"
"On the other hand," answered Gilliam "they did receive our memo requesting the destruction of Hellgate as soon as possible. They can talk, but we can justify our actions. We're not to blame here, operation Harpe left the EFA in an even worse state than before."
The Captain sighed. "I guess you're right. Still, these past events are giving me the mother of all headaches."
"Hey," said Gilliam, resting a hand on her arm, "I understand. We're not exactly on our best, especially after the test. Still, better days will come. About your headache... how about we get a drink tonight or something, to rest our minds from all this stuff?" he shook his head, "God knows how I need some rest too."
She seemed to think before a few seconds before nodding. "I'd... appreciate that."
Hagane, Kyosuke's Room
"Hmm, so the parts for the Vanguard are arriving tomorrow, huh?" the pilot of the most unbalanced PT in the world sat on his bed, grimacing slightly from the effort. Although the wounds were mostly healed, he couldn't push himself too hard. "You think things will go smoothly this time?"
"Well, I hope so." replied Ryoto. The young genius dropped by to update Kyosuke on the Vanguard Project. For the past weeks, the wounded pilot was a valuable help in analyzing and prediction the behaviors of the Gespenst according to the placement of its payload. "Miss Mao decided to send Dr. Radom and Dr. Hamill along with the parts to help on things. We'll take a couple of weeks before it is assembled, and we'll take that time to check out for any improvements we might have overlooked."
"Good." Kyosuke looked at the window, watching a group of seagulls flying around. "Any news about ODE?" he asked, turning his head to face the brown-haired pilot.
"Major Gilliam and Captain Villeta are analyzing the footage... again. They're at it for a week already. They're almost done, though."
"Good-" whatever Kyosuke was preparing to say was interrupted by the entrance of a certain blond sniper. "Hello! Oh, you've got visitors. What would Rio think about it?"
"What?" asked Ryoto, obviously confused.
"Oh, you know, you and Kyosuke in a room, alone... good thing that I'm not jealous," she winked at him.
"What?" the poor kid took some moments to understand what Excellen meant. "NO! Nothing like that! I was just here to update Kyosuke!" He exclaimed, his face showing his embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Kyosuke was pinching his nose at his girlfriend's antics. "Excellen, you really need to work on your jokes."
"Oh, but they're still enough to embarrass Bullet!" she replied in mock indignation. "Besides, it could be truth, and you could be having a torrid affair with Ryoto here. Not that I'd mind about joining in." The poor boy, hearing this, managed to keep his composure long enough to leave the room with polite farewells. As soon as the door closed behind him, he decided to start running, lest the blond pilot decided to drag him into the bedroom and do something that could kill him with a nosebleed.
"Excellen... did you really need to do that? You know that only Tasuku and Arado are able to stand you without running."
The blond grinned "I know. That's what makes all this so fun! Anyway, what was Ryoto doing here?"
"Talking about the latest news. At least he tried, until you came."
"Oops. Sorry about that Kyosuke, I know you don't want to be kept off the loop while you're stuck in here. May I inform you about the latest gossips fresh from Izu Base?"
"Sorry, Excellen, not interested." the recovering pilot said as he rested his head on a pillow.
Grinning, she sat down on the bed. "My turn is over, so do you want someone to keep you company?"
"As long as you don't come up with gossips or made up torrid affairs..."
She grinned, leaning over him for a kiss and resting her head on the good part of his chest, holding his hand. "I swear it. No shipping, slash, Mpreg or something like that here."
"Excellen, you're breaking the fourth wall."
She giggled. "I know."
Somewhere inside the Hagane...
"Was that Ryoto running?" asked an intrigued Hikari. "Why would he run away like he was being pursued by hell's demons?"
Shinji shrugged. "I have no idea, but at this pace he will only stop at the other side of the ship."
Tetsuya blinked twice, trying to process what he just saw. "He was blushing. Why would he be running and blushing? Did he caught Rio in the showers or something?"
In a rare moment where coincidence had a sense of humor, Rio arrived from a nearby corridor behind the group. "Who caught me in the showers?"
"Ryoto did." answered Tetsuya, without really thinking about it. He regretted his decision when Rio let out a shrieking "WHAT?", threatening to stomp after her boyfriend if Shinji and Hikari were not there to stop her.
"It's not like that! We just saw Ryoto running at full tilt and blushing, and wondered what was wrong with him." the freckled girl explained, trying to calm down the fuming girl.
"Oh, I remember him telling me that he was going to see Lieutenant Kyosuke to give him some updates. And Excellen just finished her shift... ah, okay."
Shinji was confused. "What?"
Rio, visibly calmer now, raised an eyebrow at the former pilot's confusion. "Don't you remember how she is sometimes? Now imagine her walking on those two in a room."
This time, Shinji was the one blushing at the implications. "I... I understand. I'd run away from that too."
"Well, good for you. Excellen might tie you to the Heat Horn like she wanted to do to Tasuku."
The boy looked frightened at the mention of Alteisen's weapon and the... creative threats of the blonde sniper "Tied to the Heat Horn?"
"Yeah, she said that once. Still, it is better than Lieutenant Katina, threatening to paint her Gespenst with Tasuku's blood."
"Okay, I think Shinji got the point," interrupted Tetsuya, trying very hard not to burst laughing at Shinji's desperate face. "after all, we'll be meeting with Katina shortly." A loud thud filled the corridor, as the poor kid fainted. "Then again, maybe that will have to wait for a bit. Would you mind giving me a hand to take him to the infirmary, Rio?"
Kurogane, Undisclosed Location.
"So, old friend, how did things go with the test?" asked a gray-haired man, entering the bridge of the ship.
"Not good at all. Kyosuke was wounded, but they managed to assure us that he'll be all right," replied the man whose idea of a disguise was composed by a name change and some sunglasses. "I'm sending a message to Gilliam to keep me informed and call us if they need our help. How did your little trip go, Sanger?"
"Could have been worse, El. There are several old DC bases that got too damaged to use, but I managed to find out three or four spots that can hold the Kurogane and allow us easy access for supplies." The man answered, handing Elzam a data disk. "That should take some pressure off Laker's shoulders, having the Kurogane stopped there for repairs is always a risk for him. "
"That much is true. Besides, from what I can see here, some of the suppliers are nearby one of our bases. Laker can just ask them to make a 'detour' and drop some at the base."
Sanger rubbed his chin in thought. "Yeah, it is the best thing to do logistics-wise. So, what to do? Keep shadowing them or reclaim that base?"
"Both." Elzam was amused at his friend's intrigued expression. "I'm thinking about sending Yuuki and Carla there along with a small team. They can join us again once the base is reclaimed. It's not like we have the necessary equipment here to put the base at 100%, anyway."
"You're right, El. We need to be close to keep an eye on anything Gilliam might say, too. Besides, Yuuki and Carla need to get some experience on leadership outside combat."
Elzam nodded. "Agreed. Well, shall we?" He turned to the navigation officer. "Set path 35 East, speed 120. Ask Yuuki and Carla to come here too, please."
The navigation officer nodded, turning to his console to input the commands. Silently, the whole ship turned as it faced the direction of the seas near Izu Base...
Another Chapter! I'm still alive... Although I must admit this chaper was a royal pain in the ass to write...
Oh well. Keep in tune for a new story that may or may not appear soon!