MSG: In Vain Doth Valour Bleed

Chapter 21

Hameln, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

There he goes again, noted John Roberts as his Gelgoog Marine Commander's mono-eye tracked the red-and-black Titan suit as it cruised over the Weser towards the west. His fixation on this particular suit was, for him, the observation of an enigma in action. The majority of the enemy used Zaku-like mono-eyed mobile suits or an upgraded GM-type. . .this suit, taller than most of the others, was a totally different design, sharing an eerie resemblance to Zeon design philosophy that was combined with a frame that was unlike anything the Marine had seen before. It did not move like the other Titans' suits moved, or like anything the 10th Panzerkaempfer had in their mixed-bag inventory. Roberts did not like having to deal with the unknown, and this suit qualified. He had been casually stalking it for days now, since it was the most active and mobile of the enemy's units that surrounded their position and moved between both the east and west ends of Hameln's cordon every day. When it had first showed up, it had carried a shield; now it seemed to disdain even bothering with one. He supposed it belonged to someone in a command position among the Titans, and it was always a good idea to know whose head you wanted to hunt on the battlefield.

The Titan suit's mono-eye, which had been scanning Hameln as though checking whether or not there was a Zeon mobile suit missing from its usual position, suddenly froze and locked onto Roberts' suit. He watched the enemy suit slow, silently envying the Titan's ability to maintain some semblance of flight in Terra's gravity well, and then come to a complete pause; the beam rifle in its hands snapped up into a ready-fire position, drawing a bead on the Gelgoog.

Too slow, Titan; I've got you dead to rights whenever I want you. Roberts stared at the hovering Titan, his Gelgoog's own MRB-110 beam rifle trained on the strange suit, as it had been the entire time since the enemy had come into his viewing range. He was tired, but he was no slouch and not prone to complacency. The enemy was in a fixed position in the air, an open target; Roberts had situated himself with a building in front of his Gelgoog and two others covering his flanks, his suit's head and shoulders the only visible portions above the rooftops. He knew full well that a building would offer him little coverage from a beam weapon, but it could make the difference between a disabling shot and a killing one. Roberts was in a position to make his every shot a killing one if the Titan wanted to dance that dance with him.

Roberts was suddenly reminded of the briefing de la Somme gave them in Berchtesgaden, when they had first hacked their new suits out of the compression foam-filled cargo containers. He had rambled on about each suit as they broke them out, passing out the technical manuals to each suit's pilot according to the distribution list von Seydlitz had detailed. The ebullient ace had tossed a thick spiral binder at Roberts, and then smirked like the cat who just realized that his claws could fit into the mouse cage. "Now you've got a beam rifle too! Ho! Ho! Ho!" had been the line he had quipped as the Marine's eyes had devoured the cover of the TM: MS-14FS GELGOOG MARINE (COMMAND-TYPE)

Roberts smiled his tiny little smile now at the memory; it was so much easier on a level playing field. Take your best shot any time, Feddie. I'll be waiting.

The Titan suit shifted to the left, a quick little jink spurred by a flicker of its verniers. Roberts automatically corrected his sight picture, the beam rifle scraping across the roof of the building he was using as cover; shingles broke free to clatter on the street several floors below, most shattering into ceramic shards at the feet of the Gelgoog. His gaze flicked over his HUD, but the telltale yellow blinking light that signaled that an enemy had him target-locked failed to appear. The Titan was testing him, but not willing to commit. . .yet. Barely four kilometers separated them; this close, even with the Zaku in the center of town spewing Minovsky radiation across the atmosphere, they were close enough that IR targeting was spotty but very possible.

He could almost sense the frustration emanating from the other pilot as their suits glared at each other, but he remained calm. Behind his Gelgoog, Hameln partied on, blissfully ignorant that Hell was one trigger squeeze away. One shot was all it would take, and more than fireworks would light up the gloomy night sky. It would be an urban slugfest, not the first one he and his Marines had been in since the whole War had begun. They would all die, Roberts was no fool about the chances of the 10th Panzerkaempfer against nearly nine times their number, but it would be such a glorious end. . .finally. An end that had been denied them for nearly a decade, denied them at Metz. If there was any way to go, Roberts could think of no better one than to go down in a battle that would be talked about for centuries, combatting a bigger, badder foe. He had been through too many fights to just fade away without going down in a big one, if he had to go at all. The Titans were the big boys; he would take them all with him if he had to.

But then, Roberts was not ready to die just yet. That was why he and his Marines followed von Mellenthin; Roberts knew the General was not ready to die yet, either. There was more to follow than a dirty end in Hameln, more battles to wage, and Roberts trusted von Mellenthin to have a place for him and his boys in the fight. No peaceful deaths for the Zeon Marines, because that fate was reserved for the useless and old. Roberts did not earn every scar he had by being useless and old. Marines died in their boots, fighting, not in their beds, coughing.

Then, the spell was broken. Roberts was not a man inclined to childish imagination and attaching human characteristics to machines, but he could have sworn the Titan mobile suit actually looked petulant as it kicked on its boosters and veered away, continuing westward to its destination. A big tough guy caught unawares by an unassuming little man in a high-performance suit nearly a decade old. He snorted quietly and watched the dwindling thruster glow until the white spot in his thermals faded into the static.

I hope you took a good, long look, Titan, he glanced over at his chronometer, and his grin grew a little wider, because it's the last you'll be seeing of us until you see us coming for you in Hell.

The chrono beeped twice. Midnight, now the 24th of November. Roberts settled back in his seat. "Time's up," he said quietly.

-----------------

With a bellow of fury, Vladimir Margul threw the remains of the last intact violoncello across the instrument room to shatter against the stone wall, its strings breaking as their tension was released, warbling through the air in a hideous mockery of the notes they held. Enraged, his boots smashed and kicked through the debris he had generated in his wrath; twisted remains of brass, woodwinds, strings, every conceivable instrument to outfit an orchestra, destroyed. Nothing. He'd tossed every room in the cathedral, but there was no sign of the map case or the gold. Where'd they fucking hide that goddamn thing! This was insane. He saw what he saw and knew it had to be in this building, but where? He stomped out of the instrument room, his legs kicking pieces out of his way as he moved into the littered hallway. He had devastated every room he had gone through; he'd even looted the sacramental wine. His hands slapped portraits of saints and ecumenical artwork and scripture from the walls, their frames clattering across the floor to be crushed beneath his boots or torn by the rest of the litter. Turning a corner, he blew through the nave like a bad wind, eyes roaming through the pews again in case he missed it the first time, but there was still no sign of what he sought. He resisted the impulse to start tipping the pews, but there were quite a lot of them and he didn't have that kind of time. That was for play, like all pillage was.

But where was the stupid case? Sweat dripped down his forehead, stinging his eyes as anxiety began to build. This was his chance for salvation, his only chance, and there was no sign of it in a church. The irony did not escape him. Snarling in frustration, he gave one pew a hard push, and the wooden bench dutifully shifted position, the legs squealing across the stone of the floor and its thin carpet covering. Suddenly, the staring eyes of all the murals and stained glass windows were too much for him to take.

Fed up with the futile search, he shoved open the big wooden doors and left the cathedral, nearly slipping on an icy patch on the stairs in his haste to get out of the cold and into the warmth of his Kaempfer. Cursing, he clambered up the numbing, steely hide of the mobile suit and keyed open the hatch, letting the blast of warm air wash over as he climbed inside.

The radio was beeping, and Margul began to sweat again. "How long has it---?" he asked aloud before reaching a beefy hand out to flip the RECEIVE switch. "WHAT?" he snapped.

"Nice of you to acknowledge transmission, Raver One." It was Weissdrake amidst the static wash, and Margul fought the urge to spit. "Out taking a leak?"

"Yeah, on your mom's fucking gravestone, Scarface. What the fuck do you want?" He kneed the hatch control button, and the cockpit sealed with a hermetic-suction sound.

"Just thought you might want to know that Onslaught Two is about to initiate movement to SP. Think you can find it in you to sober up enough to keep eyes on the western hostiles while he makes his move?" While the words might have seemed almost cheery, Weissdrake's voice oozed contempt and displeasure even through the radio; he must have been calling for some time.

Margul glanced at the cockpit chrono as he settled into his chair, kicking on the active sensors with another knee movement. Sure enough, McKenna was about to start this thing off. "Yeah, I got Tinker covered. Tell him to get in gear and not take up too much space with his fat-ass suit."

"I'm sure he'll be charmed that you're so concerned about the space issue. Airborne One, out."

"Fuck off." The retort went unheard, as Weissdrake had already broken contact, but Margul said it nonetheless. He flicked the main camera to IR and brought a secondary online to view eerie-green starlight vision. Carefully, he made the Kaempfer rise up to kneel on one knee. He stowed the shotgun in the backpack storage rack and brought one of his longer-range 360mm bazookas down into the crook of the left elbow at the ready-fire position. Let a Titan twitch wrong; Margul was good enough he could hit with the bazooka at four klicks out using IR and eyeballs. The thumb of the mobile suit flicked off the safety, automatically chambering a shell into the weapon.

The map case all but forgotten, Margul stopped praying for salvation, and he began to hope for somebody to do something stupid.

McKenna's Dom looked almost ridiculous as it high-crawled its way down Sudetenstrasse until it hit the Langer Wall, which sloped downward on the far side into the Weser River; an immense camouflaged turtle that was using the buildings as cover to avoid being seen by the Titans' suits, crawling on its belly using its elbows and knees to move forward. It more resembled swimming than crawling. Amused, Margul watched the suit swing one of its immensely huge legs over the barrier between the street and the river and sort of drag/roll itself over, McKenna deftly maneuvering the suit to keep his 360mm bazooka and his MMP-80 from dragging on the concrete too much. It was too dark to tell, but Margul could swear he saw paint scraped off the belly of the mobile suit as it heaved itself over the wall, managing not to crush it into rubble in the process. Then, with barely a pause, the Marine's Dom slid into the river, weapons and all, until only the head, mono-eye, and heat saber's hilt broke the surface of the water.

The Titans had not moved; McKenna was in the river, and Margul keyed two squelches on his radio as the signal: All Clear.

McKenna's suit began its slow duck-walk on the river bottom, moving northwest towards the covered quay where La Vesta and his suits waited, along with RMS Ruhrort. The big machine was crouching, as the river's level was too shallow to cover that much of the suit when it stood upright. Margul made a mental note of that for when his own time to move to the ship came; his Kaempfer was shorter than most of their other suits, but not by much. He, too, would have to duck-walk.

In five minutes, Roberts' Gelgoog Marine Commander would make its move. Margul hoped the Titans were too stupid to figure out this ploy. In spite of his doubts earlier, Margul began to dare to hope this would work.

Titans Line (West), Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

The Barzam touched down with the briefest flare of its ankle thrusters, slowing the huge machine into a ballerina's tiptoe as it settled back to the ground. A gust of exhaust and dust blew over the two Titans techs that stood to greet the suit, and they shielded their eyes until the mobile suit finished its landing, kneeling down on one knee in a similar fashion to the other suits parked in the laager area just outside 2nd Battalion's TOC; three Hizacks, one of them Captain Nico Palaccio's Hizack Custom, knelt in a line, inactive mono-eyes facing towards Hameln. One of the techs ran to attach a fuel line to the Barzam, while the other waited for the pilot to finish his shutdown procedures and exit the suit. He saluted as the pilot alighted on the ground, riding the line that dangled from the cockpit.

"Welcome back, sir," greeted the tech to Titans Captain Garrett Sajer, who blew past him as though he was not even there and then tossed his flight helmet over his shoulder without so much as a backwards glance. The tech caught it and stared after the Titan officer, who pulled off his gloves as he walked towards the TOC tent and not towards Palaccio's Plans tent, where the battalion CO had his quarters attached.

-----------------------

"What the---? Sarge!" suddenly spoke the once-dormant sonophone tech, getting the attention of an equally-bored NCO.

"What, Caldwell? What?" The sergeant had been dealing with this all night. "You hear another goddamn splash?"

Caldwell, one ear uncovered by a headphone speaker to allow him to hear the world around himself as well as what the sonar probe transmitted, nodded. "Big one this time, Sarge."

"You said that last time, and the time before that. It's the fucking kids tossing rocks."

Caldwell shook his head. "I could swear I heard mechanicals, and no rock sounds that big unless they dropped a bridge into the water."

The sergeant sighed. "Caldwell, what do you think it's more likely to be: a Zeek suit going into the drink because it slipped and fell, or some drunk who just drove off a bridge and took a swim, hm?"

Caldwell stared at the sergeant. "It might be a car, but---"

"There. It's a goddamn car. Those civilians are in that town having a big ol' party and getting fucked up in droves; the Zeeks probably are, too. I'd be surprised if we don't hear that shit all night long, and you already griped earlier about the noise in there jacking with the reception. Lemme make this easy for you: report gunfire, thruster noises, and screams. Everything else is party noise."

"I know you hate when I argue with you, Sarge. . ."

"Yep, I do hate that indeed. Every time you argue, some shitbag officer shows up and makes himself at home."

". . .but I swear there was something else in all that sound."

The sergeant rolled his eyes heavenward. "Dare I have to ask? What'd you hear, Caldwell?"

"Just before the splash, I heard. . .well, I heard something. . ."

"And that 'something' was. . .?"

Caldwell at least had the sense to look abashed. "I---I dunno, Sarge. It was, like. . .fuck it, I don't know what the hell it was. It's like I know I've heard it before, but I can't remember what!"

The sergeant pinched his eyes over the bridge of his nose. "Look at it this way, then. If anything was actually happening, don't you think Charger," he mentioned the high-speed guys from Echo Company with a snort that spoke volumes about his faith in their vigilance, "would call up Battalion and we'd be hearing about it on the squawk-box? The Zeeks ain't doing shit except partying and pissing us off. Forget the mystery sound and stick to the game plan, or you'll drive yourself nuts before the night's over. Get it?"

"Yeah, Sarge, I got it." Caldwell didn't sound convinced, but he shut up and clamped the other headphone onto his head. The sergeant settled back into his chair, giving the substandard equipment a wary glance before closing his eyes again. 54th TTAB did not have its full muster of Type-74s and their ultra-sensitive ground sonar gear; in fact, the only Type-74 the 54th possessed was eight kilometers away in Aerzen, so the line companies had to make do with man-portable rigs like the one they were using, and while they were technically as good as what was in the hovertrucks, the manpacks had a bad tendency to fail to filter out extraneous sounds, and were notoriously hard to isolate single audibles with.

No, the boys with the eyes were the primaries. Sonics just weren't going to be good enough to catch the Zeon, so it was really a matter of logic.

"Got what?" snapped a voice from the far side of the tent flap as it was pulled aside, and Captain Sajer blew in like a bad wind. The sergeant repressed a groan and shot a look at Caldwell, whose ears turned bright red even though he did not turn around.

This was going to be a long night indeed.

Hameln, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

The man called Thaddeus Duhamel was almost frantic. The sheer immensity of the crowd was an obstacle so daunting that there was no physical way to overcome it. His quarry was gone, escaped into the very masses that they plotted to become overlords of. Blind humanity giving succor to its greatest nightmare living amongst them; the irony was unmistakable, and often repeated throughout human history He wanted to scream and rant and lash out at the throng that pressed around him, overwhelming him in sounds and flesh and the stifling heat of humanity. Hands clutched at him, for myriad reasons, and he fought to continue his movement forward, his eyes desperate. His pleas went unheard in the din, and he began to lament his own weaknesses. The urge to fall to his knees was a growing desire in his belly. He cursed himself and refused the desire, doubling his efforts to move---

"Father?" spoke a voice so clearly that he thought he might have finally been found worthy of a visitation. Amazed, he stopped his progress and looked around for the source of the voice. A woman perhaps his age stood behind him, a cold-gnarled hand grasping his sleeve with determined force.

Remembering his role, Duhamel leaned closer, certain she was the one who had called him. "Yes, my child," he spoke loudly, straining to be heard over the roar of the crowd and the cacophony of the music, "how may I help you?" His other hand surreptitiously moved to the pocket where the pistol lay, hot and insistent.

She was on the verge of tears, speaking of sins and needing to confess, pleading with him to make time to hear her now, and Duhamel fought the urge to not break down himself. Her need was innocent, even expected, and Duhamel himself knew the weight that sins bore on the soul, but this was not the time and he was not a priest with the power to absolve her of her sins. His mind sought a way out of this obligation she presumed he held, but all that he could use would involve blowing his cover with the locals or attracting the attention of any of the tyrant heir's followers.

He made his decision. The enemy had eluded him, for now, and his mission was a long-term commitment. He had time enough. The tyrant heir was comfortable here, and would see no reason to leave as long as he and his ilk were granted safe haven.

"Come with me, my child" he told her, quieting her insistent pleas. He kept his voice calm, fatherly, though inside he raged. "I will hear your confession."

He led them towards an alleyway where some semblance of privacy could be found. He explained that his parish was some distance away, and that this was better for the both of them. She agreed, and he could see the gratefulness in her eyes as she looked at him, her face becoming beautiful in her desire to be cleansed. He hoped that when his mission was done, God would not look unfavorably at his granting her absolution when he was the least worthy to pronounce her soul forgiven.

The pistol in his coat still demanded to sing its own praises to Heaven. He hoped it would put in a good word for him as well.

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If escaping from the tent and back into the throng was supposed to be a relief, it was overestimated and of ill comfort. Reinhardt von Seydlitz exerted just enough effort to keep what was troubling him off his face as he devoted his faculties to finding the fastest way out of the crowd. He could scarcely think amidst the terrible roaring in his skull, the crawling sensation underneath his skin, and the trip-hammer thumping of his heart. The smells were all around him, pungent, invasive, and unrelenting in their intensity. He was being overwhelmed by them, consumed by them. Pheromones, sweat, blood, heat, all combining to drive him mad with the response to an internal imperative that threatened to drive him into an atavistic frenzy; escape was his only option, aside from grabbing the nearest human being and tearing them apart to stifle what was fast becoming a monster he was losing the strength to keep contained.

Too long. We have been here too long! Acknowledging the issue did little to cool the inferno inside of him. Marking his pathway with what concentration he could spare to focus on it, he veered away from the tent and made for the edge of the square. He did his best to avoid the stares from the cattle he passed by, knowing that their base instincts, buried under the myriad layers of civilization, dulled senses, and social programming, would respond in kind with what was happening to him. Lust, pure, driving, and implacable; he could see it in their eyes, smell it from their flesh, and hear it reverberating from their bones. He wondered what he looked like to them. His imagination presented to his mind a being made of light, fiery and flowing, the heat from it infecting all around itself. It was nonsense, of course, but it made for an interesting allegory to his current condition, what with him throwing off pheromones at an almost uncontrollable rate towards anything with enough sensitivity to pay attention. Thankfully for all parties involved, von Seydlitz knew virtually every person in the crowd was mostly numb to it with the sheer amount of adrenaline already in their bloodstreams.

His Time was now. He had begun to feel the initial stirrings three days ago; it had escalated into the full-blown imperative yesterday morning. He had known it was coming, of course, as it had every year since puberty. The bio-scholars had played their cards too close to their vests with this generation of Elector-Princes; by design, they were both restricted from who they could mate with by a complex set of genetic parameters and rules of eugenics, yet they were also forced to mate once a year to ensure continued viability even if they had chosen celibacy. While he had never begrudged his birth or his advantages of conscious design, even von Seydlitz had to admit this was about the most coldhearted thing the bio-scholars had done to their creations, since the majority of humanity didn't survive mating with a lust-crazed Elector-Prince; even three generations of passive environmental genetic enhancement did not guarantee one of New Koenigsberg's commoners would come away from the experience walking under their own power.

The fear of a producing bastard race of half-breeds was kept under control by, conversely, a pre-designed lack of control. The irony could have eaten worlds.

The crowd roared in time with the beat of the music, and he fought the urge to fall to his knees as the sound washed over him and through him. He was sweating uncontrollably now, even in the chill air; he was eminently thankful that von Mellenthin had not noticed that he simply had not stopped sweating after their duel ended, or that he had been sweating before it had begun. He did not know what steps von Mellenthin had taken in prison to stave off or slake the urge when his own Times had come, and he did not care to know or even devote enough attention to contemplate the possibilities. He himself had picked his share of the locals of Berchtesgaden throughout their time as refugees, and most years had managed to return them intact enough to avoid investigations of disappearance. One year, after the snows had set in, he had been desperate enough to use Weissdrake, optioning to use his status among their people to demand his submission; he had not regretted the action, though the Commander had been fit for nothing for nearly a month afterwards, but at least the man had survived as von Seydlitz had known he would. Still, it had been a hard, hard thing to accomplish, to maintain even that much control when every cell in his body had shrieked for him to release all inhibitions and---he could not ask that of Weissdrake again, certainly not now.

He shook his head, trying to shut that voice out. He was damned now by what amounted to a gene-driven sudden case of satyriasis. The imperative was becoming too strong. His choices were few and most of them intolerable at this stage in the operation. He could assault a mundane, most likely kill them in the process, and doom the whole unit to destruction when the town screamed that the Ritus Ara had been violated and the Titans finished them off. He could lock himself in his Gouf Custom for a week until the imperative finally wore itself down or he died, whichever came first, but they did not have a week, and the War would not take a pause just because the Elector-Prince of Brandenburg-Preussen was so sex-maddened his skeleton was clawing its way out of his skin.

He burst out of the crowd and almost cried aloud as the urge began to thankfully dissipate, retreating away from the forefront of his thoughts. He forced himself not to stagger into the nearest alleyway as his mind began to crawl back up from the depths of its imperative. There was still time left, he was still in some measure of control. Truth be told, he had been in fairly decent control until his brother decided to drop in on his temporary home and mend fences. While he was grateful that von Mellenthin had finally come to his senses about Nemesis and everything else, the restoration of their relationship had whelped very nasty offspring. He leaned back against the chill of the alley wall, and could not resist rapping the back of his throbbing skull against the cold masonry, in time with his too-fast heartbeat. A horrific crime it was, to be Elite and not even so much as be able to control the speed of one's heartbeat, all because he was being driven into a persistent state of arousal, and the one person on the whole of the planet that was physically safe to mate with was also the one person he could never even dare so much as ask for the favor.

Von Seydlitz curled a fist and hammered it against the alley wall in frustration. He wished with an almost palpable fervency that von Mellenthin had not mentioned Vala's name. Von Seydlitz had not thought about her since the War began, though he remembered being tormented by her memory before Zeon began its blitz in 0079. He had only laid eyes on her once, and that was just before he had lost her. The ultimate Prize, the brightest star in the crown of the future Emperor, the truest essence of what Dietrich von Mellenthin had vied for on the Field of May; she was everything any of them would have massacred whole civilizations to possess, and only one of them could claim her. Vala von Bremen, the child of the Sixteenth House, and the only being in all of New Koenigsberg's history that could be considered to be the ideal NewType that the males of the ruling class strove to become as well. She and von Mellenthin were to have been wed once the War was done and Zeon had won; von Mellenthin had promised her Terra itself as her wedding gift. Von Seydlitz had nearly forgotten her throughout all these years, forgotten that he had helped secure her for his foster brother on the Field, forgotten that he had been the one to fall under von Mellenthin's hammer and fists; he could not deny that he had wanted her as much as the others had, but after he had lost she simply faded into the background, tucked away to become the future Empress as opposed to the beloved Prize he had failed to win.

Dietrich von Mellenthin had not faded into the background, and that was the second problem that von Seydlitz faced.

Hell take you, Dietrich, for being who you are! And Hell take me for wanting you!

This was madness, total and utter madness. He was Master, his Will supreme; his physical body would obey his Will against its own! A thousand reasons that had been hammered into his belief system all his life hardened into a resolute wall of control. He pushed himself off of the wall and stood upright, dominant. This was the essence of what it was to rule, to fight the unending war over life's difficulties and master them, the true free spirit, beyond good and evil, to embrace joys and pain equally and conquer them both as he saw fit. He had to, because there was no way he could ever ask his foster brother to help him with this problem, and he never had, not since his Warding and the ritual that made him part of the von Mellenthin family as if he were born into it.

Von Seydlitz almost groaned out loud at his damnation; he could not touch a local, any of their soldiers, or the one person on the planet it was physically but not legally safe to mate with, to lock this monster back in its box for another year. The predicament was worthy of a cheap drama. He had wanted to scream every time von Mellenthin touched him; he had to have been insane to have initiated the touch in the cathedral during their duel. Mentioning Vala had come extremely close to pushing him over the edge, and had he not managed to wrestle his instincts back into control before the floodgates of his memory opened, he thought he might very well have attacked von Mellenthin and forced the issue right there in the church. . . and then he slammed his skull against the wall again to clear the pictures his imagination was generating, again and again until it was all a haze again.

He was beginning to wish he had taken that drink after all, and followed it ten times over as afterthoughts.

Brushing frost from his face, he stepped further into the alley and crossed to the street on the far end, walking away from the Fest, turning his thoughts to anything that would take his mind from trying to analyze his feelings about all that had occurred. He knew before he tried how impossible that was; this need throbbed behind his eyes, in his veins, and writhed under his flesh. Swallowing a mouthful of coppery-tasting saliva, he began to walk, organizing his thoughts to the matter that should be concerning him: Nemesis.

Von Mellenthin had contacted Vala somehow, knew what she was doing, and knew how he was going to get to her. Von Seydlitz could see an odd logic in the strategy, though he wondered how she was going to accomplish anything while under the constant care of the bio-scholars on New Koenigsberg, her awesome mental abilities kept in check with large doses of psychosedatives and near-seclusion. Von Mellenthin probably had a plan for all that, one whose scope was so long-range that von Seydlitz could not see it among the fog of uncertainty. His brother had always had that gift, to simply know how things were going to work out, weeks, months, even years in advance, all by basing the chances on psychological patterns of predictability. Von Seydlitz envied that of him, and always had, but it had been recognizing that same ability that had made up his mind on the Field, when he could have just as easily betrayed von Mellenthin early on in the melee and changed the fate of Humanity. It could have been himself with Vala.

But it was not, and that was the way things were. Von Seydlitz could rail against it all he wished, it changed nothing. He had more important things to worry about than the what-might-have-beens of his life in the company of Dietrich von Mellenthin.

As he stepped out of the far side of the alleyway, a whirring noise and something zipping past his legs made him pause. About a dozen shrieking children ran past him, laughing as they chased whatever had just crossed in front of him. Von Seydlitz' eyes traced a thin coppery line on the ground in the direction of where the kids had run, and he glanced in the opposite direction to see a panting Antares de la Somme come skidding to a halt, with a remote control in his hand, laughing in joyous glee. Beside him was another child, spooling out wire, equally breathless.

Von Seydlitz took a moment to stare at his foster brother, face impassive even as his gray eyes caught the amber/hazel ones, and he watched the smile slide off of his brother's face as he recognized who it was. De la Somme had snow melting in his hair, which was already well-moistened, probably from a falling snowdrift from a rooftop or a snowball fight. His cheeks were cold-flushed, eyes brightened by the emotions he was feeling, yet fading out. He had not seen Antares for almost half a week, having sealed himself away in his rebellion against von Mellenthin's plan; when they had spoken, it had been through a locked door. Von Seydlitz knew what he had to be thinking; he could see the question in the Commander's eyes, along with what looked suspiciously like a plea.

He had meant to tell de la Somme before now, but had not had the chance. The other man still labored under the knowledge that the children were going to soon be the property of Haman Kahn. The streams of emotion running through de la Somme were almost tangible things in the silence, as impassive grey locked with liquid hazel.

They stared at each other for what seemed a good two minutes. Somewhere down the road, the sounds of the kids coming back echoed through the streets, even as they blended with the ambient echoes from the rave just a block away, dissonance amidst a steady beat. Von Seydlitz wanted to say something, but the words simply would not come. His tongue felt numb, unable to perform its function, but de la Somme looked as though he were going to fall apart from his anxiety. He had to do something, say something, to let his brother know everything was going to be all right after all. . .

Without conscious thought, von Seydlitz managed a tiny grin, just enough to be noticed, and he brought his right hand up to his chest and gave de la Somme a thumbs-up, hoping it would be enough to convey what he was unable to speak aloud at the moment.

De la Somme shoved the remote controller into the hands of the boy with the wire spool, ran to von Seydlitz with barely a skid on the icy cobblestones, and threw himself into his brother's arms.

"Reinhardt, baby," he sobbed, clutching at the taller man, "yer the best! The best!"

Von Seydlitz rubbed his brother's hair affectionately as the younger man wept in relief, and did his best not to let the monster in his blood loose.

--------------------------------

". . .and there, gentlemen, it is." Von Mellenthin drained the last of the Stein and plunked the huge glass down on the wooden table, blue-green eyes never leaving the faces of those seated at the table with him. "Your patience and cooperation in this matter have been welcome and appreciated. In just a short while, I and my troops will be out of your town and the danger will pass you by."

He noted certain doubts emanating from the group, especially from the Buergermeister, which was to be expected. He fired off one of his million-dollar smiles, trying to disarm the tension. "I trust our agreement remains intact?"

"Yes, yes, of course," the Mayor was quick to reply. "We've made all the arrangements with six foster families willing to take them in. The city will take responsibility for the children once you're. . .gone."

Von Mellenthin caught the hesitation, and his eyes bored into the Mayor though his smile remained in place. "Bear in mind," he addressed the group despite his shark's fixation on the one in charge, "that if these children find their way into Federation hands courtesy of the Titans, I'll consider it breach of contract. There is no legal justification for giving these children to their makers, who stomped all over the Charter by designing NewTypes to be used as weapons. They held no respect for the wishes of this great nation or its people by creating these same prepubescent weapons in secret laboratories in the very heart of Deutschland, where no one would dare suspect them to stoop to such blatant subterfuge. Why should the children deserve that fate? Why not give them the chance to live normal lives, to be happy and free? Would any of us here ask any differently?"

A burst of raucous laughter from another table made the Hameln residents turn in reaction; von Mellenthin maintained his stare, as impassive to the distraction as the noise that swelled and ebbed around them all, waiting for the answer. He had to confess that for cattle, these people were made of stronger stuff than most. He remembered Paris, and the mobs that fled pell-mell before the vanguard of the 10th Panzerkaempfer Division; he could remember the panic, the chaos, the screams as the fighting moved into the city. Countless casualties, accidents, the traffic snarls making the roads nigh impassible to anything not on legs or equipped with boosters, buildings burning from heavy caliber weapons' misses or deliberate shots for clearance, the terror of the city a palpable thing that brave and cowardly alike had fled screaming from when their vaunted Federation defenders had crumpled under the brutality of his strategy of systematic armored overwhelm and his mobile suits. Hameln faced the same dangers now and yet few had even attempted to leave. They loved their city too much to abandon it even under the threat of annihilation; the crowd around him affirmed it.

The Mayor turned back to face him. "We," he gestured towards the others, all City Council members, "concur completely with your assessment, General, but what about the Titans? If they catch even the slightest clue that we are harboring these children, they'll execute all of us!"

"Then that's something else you should thank the Federation for!" snapped von Mellenthin, sensing that being ingratiating was not going to bolster the locals' courage for this any; they were willing to face the fires of a battle, but not of black-uniformed death squads in their homes. He leaned forward until his elbows rested on the table. "I admit this puts you all in a predicament. You're damned if the Federation's pet murderers find out about our deal, because they'll spend a day or two hanging your entire population from bridges by their necks. You're also damned if they find out and then lose to me and my men, because I will slaughter you like minks for betraying my trust. You've got about thirty-three percent of a chance to come out of this whole debacle unscathed, meine Freunde, so tread carefully once we're gone." Von Mellenthin's smile morphed into something menacing. "We can always come back, after all, given a strong enough reason. If you doubt my word, it's easy to rectify: find someone from Kassel and ask them."

The Mayor swallowed, and it seemed like the noise around them actually dimmed. "I—"

Von Mellenthin waved a hand though the air, as though brushing it all away. "Ah, never mind me; we're nearly done with this place. Look," he smiled again, all friendly, "as occupations go, Hameln has been a true center of hospitality towards me and my soldiers, and we've repaid you by not sacking this place and running roughshod all over your town. I think we've come to an excellent working relationship and I would hate," he glanced over at Ogun, who gave a brief nod and walked out of the tent, "to spoil that with threats, innuendoes, and worst-case scenarios. Better that we make our departure as quietly as possible and with no setbacks, do we agree?"

The Mayor was sweating, not a surprise considering how warm it was in the tent compared to outside. Von Mellenthin answered for him. "Of course you do, and it's a good decision. I have my people bringing the children to the Rathaus as per the agreement. In the next couple of hours, this will all be a fairy tale you can tell your grandchildren. In the meantime, enjoy your Fest. Here in a few minutes or so, it will be time for the Remembrance." The Zeon General's face lit up with anticipation. "Would there be any objection to me speaking Uhland's poem this year?"

"Well," sputtered the Mayor, "no, General, I have no objection to that. You've certainly earned the right. You know the words?"

Von Mellenthin's grin grew wider. "Does not every German?"

-------------------------------

"So I was digging the rave and all, even though all that thump-thump-thump shit gives me a headache after a while, you know, and then that last disc jockey played this jacked up remix of Tesla's 'Love Will Find A Way', and I just had to get the hell away from the whole thing, 'cause I wasn't ever gonna find a way to love that." De la Somme sighed heavily, as if it had pained him. "So I figured if I went to bed before 'the Move', I'd miss my cue. . ."

Von Seydlitz continued, knowing where this was going. ". . .and you decided to entertain yourself and force yourself to stay awake. . ."

The other pilot nodded and grinned. ". . .and so here I am, out here in the cold and wet, hangin' with kids and playin' with my Peeper." He giggled at the obscenity of the innuendo, and then grunted softly as his hands manipulated the controls. "He really caved just like that? Who'd have thunk it?"

"It was a little more complicated than that, Antares," replied von Seydlitz, boot scuffing a wad of snow back into powder as they strolled, the local kids ahead of them with the Peeper remote car that de la Somme was ardently manipulating to keep away from their grasping hands. He was doing a very good job of it.

"Yeah, I bet. C'mon, spill it, bro. . .did Deet cry?"

"No."

"Did you?"

Von Seydlitz shot him a vile look. "No," the word was laced with scorn.

De la Somme grinned a bit wider. "'S too bad. I'd have really been pissed I missed your jam session and both of you weepin' like little bitches at the same time."

"You are one to talk about weeping," reminded von Seydlitz, chiding him, "you are the penultimate crybaby."

"Hey, I ain't scared to share," retorted de la Somme as he nudged the child who carried the spool of copper wire that linked the controller to the Peeper. "C'mon, let's go over there and catch up before we get too far from everything." He turned his attention back to von Seydlitz and smiled wide. "I'm glad things are gonna go our way this time. Do the kids know?"

"By now, certainly." Von Seydlitz felt a dizzy wave hit him, and he managed to keep his feet by surreptitiously leaning on a cold rail. "Be sure you take into account the time you will require to collect your newest pet before you make your move."

"Erik's not a pet, Reinhardt," de la Somme shot back. Then, he frowned. "You okay? You look like a pair of Vlady's underwear."

Von Seydlitz prayed silently he was not as obvious as he feared he was. "I am fine. Just tired and ready to leave this place behind us."

De la Somme shook his head, letting still-frozen flakes of snow fall out of his hair. A few more deft maneuvers kept the kids away from the Peeper, one of them slipping and falling face-first into a snowdrift, to the delight of the others. "Don't bullshit me, Reinhardt. Are you sick?" The younger man put the controller back in the hands of his assistant and walked over to von Seydlitz. "You don't get sick. . ."

"I get sick; I merely refuse to show it off just to reap cheap sympathies like what you are doing right now." The Colonel stared back, seeing worry on de la Somme's face. Much shorter than von Seydlitz was, the diminutive ace had to get very close to peer up at him, much less reach up to touch him. Von Seydlitz allowed the contact, if only to reassure Antares that he was not running a fever.

Except that de la Somme's hand never reached his forehead. With a gasp, de la Somme took a step back. "Aw, shit, Reinhardt. . .it's that, ain't it?" He stomped his foot in the snow and clapped his hands on his thighs. "Dammit, dammit, dammit, I forgot! I never forget that kind of thing! It's like forgetting someone's birthday---"

"Or your un-birthday. . ." interjected von Seydlitz, trying in vain to head off the rant train at the station.

"---and I really hate that since it's so friggin' callous and shit, and everyone needs a day like that but you and Deet and the other guys always had those other days too and I made it a point to remember them all just in case you got frisky and I had to shoot you with a tranq dart or something and ---"

"Gott im Himmel, shut UP, Antares!" barked von Seydlitz, cutting de la Somme's rant off before it turned into a serious steamroller. "I am fine. It is not much longer now before we will be in a position to do something about it, but now is not the time."

De la Somme was ticking numbers off on his fingers. "You're late. . .couple days, at least. How're you gonna handle this, Reinhardt? Lotion and tissues?"

"I am so glad you find this amusing." The glare von Seydlitz wore could have thawed several city blocks.

"Ooo, I know!" De la Somme was practically alight with glee at the chance to pick on his foster brother, and he stuck a finger into a partially-closed fist and made poking gestures through the hole with it, "you can take it out of Deet in trade!"

Von Seydlitz had to grin a little at that picture. "Just before he takes it back in flesh. You are sick for even suggesting it." Never mind that I had already considered that.

De la Somme stopped stomping around and grew a little graver. "How's. . .how's this work if you, you know, don't. . .?"

The answer was given in the form of a shrug before von Seydlitz actually spoke. "I am not sure. This has never happened before to any of us that I am aware of. The timing for this is. . .very bad."

"No shit."

"Listen," said von Seydlitz, leaning forward with his hands placed just above his knees, still propped on the railing, "this is between you and I and no others. Even Dietrich does not know, and I do not want him to. He will make a decision that we will all regret if he finds out that my Time is upon me."

He saw de la Somme's eyes widen, and a look of worry and desperation flit across them. Von Seydlitz's hand lashed out, fast as lightning, but de la Somme's reflexes were good enough that he managed to jerk away from the first grasp, and von Seydlitz had to grab at him twice to catch hold. He tugged the other pilot closer, gently but inexorably firmly.

"Please, no! No sniffing!" squawked de la Somme cautiously, knowing from experience that now that he was being held it was virtually impossible to fight his way free again.

Von Seydlitz held his stare with his own as strongly as he held de la Somme's arm. "This is my problem, no one else's. If Dietrich finds out, he will force this town to give someone up to me, and the chances of them surviving it once I give in to it are not good. He will risk everything we have done to save me because he will feel obligated. We cannot afford it, Antares!"

De la Somme was trembling; von Seydlitz could feel the shivers through the hold he had on de la Somme. "He'll pay it, Reinhardt! You know he will! He can't afford to lose you more, and he knows it, or he'd never have gone to fix shit with you!"

Von Seydlitz released his brother's arm. "I know that, but Nemesis is worth so much more."

De la Somme shook his head angrily even as he stepped away. "That's a bunch of Geschwalle and you fucking know it. You're the last one of his kind of people, Reinhardt, just you two; the others're dead! He'll make a friggin' exception, I know he will!"

"If we fail we all die, Elite or no. We owe it to both you and Weissdrake to get you home, Antares. It is our duty to fulfill that obligation, and it is one I think more pressing than whether or not I survive my Time. My level of control is tenuous, true, but it is still within my control. While it is, I am still mission capable and intend to remain that way. Respect my wish, Antares," von Seydlitz's face was grave as a tomb, "do not tell Dietrich."

One of the local children ran up with the Peeper vehicle, and de la Somme reached out for it, taking it from the smaller hands. The others were on their way back, racing carefully over the slippery ice on the cobblestones. He rested his gaze back on von Seydlitz. "It's all shit if you die, Reinhardt. We got an obligation too, you know. You get outta control on us even once, I'm 'fessing up to Deet and we'll just see what comes out of it."

Von Seydlitz's level stare became one of not-so-subtle warning. "Make it good, Antares, I know you cannot resist a parting shot."

De la Somme dropped the Peeper and the controller into the snow at his feet abruptly, eyes full of anger. "Okay, how's this for one: I know you're in love with him, you've been in love with him for years, and he doesn't know it and you'd rather die than admit it to him even if it'd save your life."

Von Seydlitz raised an eyebrow. "Go on."

"You can't square the courage to admit it with the fear you have of doin' it because not only is it illegal as all hell, it's also somethin' he can exploit out of you whenever he'd damn well feel like it. You're so scared of losing all your power to him by being in love with him that you'd rather just be dead. And you hate him for that, tell me I'm lyin'! Dammit, Reinhardt," the little man sighed and tilted his head back to look at the sky, "you've gone and fucked things up with gusto this time around."

Von Seydlitz smiled a tiny little smile, the one he reserved only for his brothers. His voice dared not waver: "And how did you come to this conclusion? Tarot cards? Ouija board? Magic Eight-Ball?"

"'Signs point to yes'," chuckled de la Somme. "I dunno. Just thought it sounded good. Am I close? You're screwed if I am, because that means you've spent your whole life cutting yourself apart for a concept you don't even believe in. Besides, he kinda did sic his dog on you when you first met and you stuck around anyway; if that ain't love, what is?"

Von Seydlitz tried not to make it sound grim, and knew he failed. There was no sense in trying to deny it now. "I have always known it was impossible, Antares. Dietrich's loves are very specific and focus-consuming. There would never have been room for. . .another. . .in his priorities. He loves power, loves the War, loves his people, loves Vala," he heard de la Somme's sudden intake of breath and wondered if that was how he had sounded in the cathedral, "and he loves the Ordnung most of all." The smile dropped off of his face slightly. "Ironic, is it not, to be one of fifteen unique beings in the universe, bred for rule and power, and spending a lifetime and a war in the purest faith is not enough to make you worthy in the eyes of the only person you were ever trying to prove that worth to."

He looked at his foster brother's horror-stricken face, and he did not know why the words would not stop but they spilled off his tongue no matter how loud his subconscious shrieked that he was displaying weakness before a subordinate. "I will not force him to choose between me or the Ordnung, not that I have a shadow of a doubt as to how he would choose. Both ways, he loses something of himself in the decision, and I love him too much to allow him the luxury of self-flagellation. He may not admit it, but he needs support sometimes, so long as it is from the shadows. So I remain Elite, and his friend, and do what I can to ensure that he is happy and comes into his kingdom intact. It would have had to end in any event, once we had both married to continue our lines."

"And what're you getting out of this?" accused de la Somme. "What do you love? When do you get to be happy? Weepin' Jesus, Reinhardt! You're sacrificing your entire life to make sure someone else is all hunky-dory, and this is the thanks you get? Why? Because you owe him? Because some rulebook says you should just give up your dreams to make certain someone else achieves some kinda 'higher ideal'? Quit being a sissy and tell him you love him, stupid! Fuck the Ordnung, all you need is love!"

"Is that what you told him when you confessed to being married and having spawned?"

De la Somme's jaw dropped. "I. . ."

". . .have not told him yet," concluded von Seydlitz matter-of-factly. "Mind the hypocrisy, Antares. It is no more becoming on you than it is me, and you have your own prices to pay for happiness. The Ordnung damns you for what you have done as much as it has damned me for what I wish could be done, so discretion is probably in your best interest as well." He gestured with a hand, and his face grew colder than the atmosphere. "This conversation is terminated. Consider the matter classified and speak of it to no one. Dismissed, Kommandant."

Knowing there was no more to be said once von Seydlitz got into that mode, de la Somme waved the kids back the way they came with his free hand, shot him a wan little smile that was more sadness than anything else, picked up the Peeper and its equipment, and then the whole group of them went walking back down the street, leaving von Seydlitz to his own thoughts.

He did not linger long. Time was ticking away, and his movement was scheduled in less than two hours' time. He would have to collect von Mellenthin from the revelry and turn the children over to Hameln before then, so it was best he do so now while he was in enough control to hide the state he was in. He pushed himself off of the railing and to his feet smoothly, brushed off his uniform top, and walked back towards the Fest, taking a different alleyway than the one he had left from.

Gingerly evading obstacles strewn throughout it, as well as maintaining a footing on the icy cobblestones, he saw a hunched shape occupying most of the narrow corridor ahead of him. His ears picked up hushed voices, two distinct ones, even through the noise that was cascading over the stone around him. He presumed they were either drunk or making out, as they were very close to each other, and rather than intrude he decided to simply evade them and move on. As he passed, his hip brushed against one of the shapes, his momentum moving the person aside several inches. He did not ask for pardon or apologize; he was still who he was, and not prone to abasing himself to cattle with no regard for traffic flow.

--------------------------------------

Duhamel felt the bump from behind as he was delivering the final blessing over the woman, who had spent the last thirty minutes detailing a list of sins so vast he was appalled. The push made him stumble a bit, and he had to grasp at the woman to steady himself, his other hand planting against the wall of the alleyway, crossing over her shoulder and moving his face dangerously close to hers. He shot a glare at the back of the man who had pushed him and his heart almost seized as he recognized the uniform and the stride. The tyrant heir's brother! Lord of Hosts, I've not yet failed You! He apologized and finished the blessing and forgiveness hastily, knowing that if she had been Opus Dei she would have probably been hobbled for some of her sins as penance. Then again, he mused as they left the alley and she melted back into the crowd, gratitude apparent on her face, it was not as though he had actually absolved her or anything; God would still punish her in His due course. She had known better and sinned anyway, then had the temerity to take her time to beg forgiveness. Just like the tyrant heir, she too would reap what she sowed; the Lord would take His time forgiving her, as she had taken hers to ask, and her soul would be steeped in sin that much longer. But for Duhamel, his quarry was there, ahead of him, the crowd slowing him as much as it slowed Duhamel's pursuit.

Surely this was a blessing, to have found one of his targets after von Mellenthin had eluded him in the rave. The Lord led all His flock back into His fold, but He also led His shepherds to those that were lost. The pistol's weight was miniscule now; Duhamel had his target, one that would lead him to the ultimate evil to be extinguished. He was not gentle with the crowd this time, he could not afford to be and keep up with von Seydlitz. It was imperative that his eyes remain fixed on the Zeon uniform ahead of himself. The locals he shoved past were not particularly happy at his rudeness, but they also excused him when they saw the collar around his neck. He smiled in spite of everything, amazed how one blessing could negate the discomfiture he had felt at the possibility of failure.

--------------------------------

The crowd was cheering as the Buergermeister took the stage, accepting a hand microphone from the DJ, who took his leave and joined the audience below. Von Mellenthin waited at the bottom of the stairs, content to allow the Mayor his say before he was summoned to perform the reading.

The Mayor, smiling widely, waved the raucous crowd to silence, though it took several minutes to finally quiet the mob. In spite of the time, there were still several thousand citizens and tourists in the square and in the Bier tent. His speech was short and simple, an improvisation almost, thanking both the people of Hameln and those from elsewhere for attending their Fest, commending them for their bravery and fortitude during the current time of crisis and the siege, and that those being remembered today would have been proud of them all, as he was. A fairly neutral cut-and-dry civic speech, similar to ones probably made in years past.

Very well, mused von Mellenthin, I will keep it simple as well, then. The Mayor introduced him, and he ascended the stage to the sound of absolute silence, accepting the microphone from the Mayor's trembling hand as the man scurried off-stage much faster than he had come to it.

Von Mellenthin's keen eyes swept across the sea of faces. "Citizens of Hameln, Saxons all, hear me." The microphone removed any need to raise his voice beyond normal modulation. "Hearken to the words I am about to speak in Remembrance of those who have crossed beyond this place; soldiers, veterans, warriors of conflicts past, present, and future. They met their Fates braving strife, battle, and hatred with the élan, bravery, and valor of those who feared no Fate, and it is their sacrifices that have allowed you to live as you do today, to speak the language of your forefathers, to design your own legacies, and to seek the betterment of yourselves and those who will come after you as you see fit. They died with the blood roaring in their ears, the war cries of their ancestors on their tongues, and with courage singing in their hearts. We gather here today to affirm that we are thankful such gallantry lives on, though the gallant themselves have fallen."

He caught von Seydlitz moving through the crowd, and their eyes met. He gestured with his free hand for the Colonel to join him on stage, and he grinned wolfishly as he continued: "As has been done since the inception of Volkstrauertag back in the Twentieth century, I read now from Ludwig Uhland's pen and mind, scribed in 1809 of the old calendar, 'Der gute Kamerad.'"

Hundreds of voices rose to the night in a cheer, and people clamored for drinks to lift and lighters to hold up like candles for memory of someone lost recently or further in the past. Von Mellenthin nodded as von Seydlitz came up the stairs and stood at the edge of the stage. This was as much for them as it was for anyone else, and the General would have had no one else beside him for this reading. They were, after all, the last two of the Elite, and German, and had their own to Remember.

-----------------------------------------

Duhamel's eyes were wide and his attention rapt as his ultimate target stood on stage, in the open, the perfect setting for a murder. Von Seydlitz had led him straight to his salvation, the fulfillment of his promise to Opus Dei and the Almighty. It was time, finally, for Thaddeus Duhamel to set himself free of the chains that had bound his soul since birth. He would be baptized and cleansed in the twisted and warped blood of Dietrich von Mellenthin, who had succumbed to the hubris of the evil and now stood unprotected before the wrath of the Lord.

His hand reached into his coat and grasped the pistol's grip. His lips began to move, speaking in conversational volume, words the Priest had taught him and made him memorize with every crack of the lash. The Psalm spilled from his tongue as if born of it: "'Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; tear out, O Lord, the fangs of the lions!'"

-------------------------------------

Von Seydlitz smiled a tiny smile back at his brother as the din of the crowd finally died off, and glasses, mugs, and flickers of flame from hundreds and hundreds of lighters illuminated the chill air of the square. Von Mellenthin's voice was even, emotive, and flowed across the consciousness like warm water, the baritone perfect even if the accent was innately Hessian. Von Seydlitz knew the Lied of Uhland as well, and mouthed it in time with von Mellenthin, adding volume when literally thousands of other voices joined in to speak with them.

"'Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,

Einen bessern findst du nit.

Die Trommel schlug zum Streite,

Er ging an meiner Seite

In gleichem Schritt und Tritt.'"

--------------------------------------

Duhamel was not speaking Uhland's poem with the crowd. He walked a different path, the road less traveled, and so he rendered his own Volkstrauertag Remembrance, one that would add Uhland's reader to the Fest's purpose as opposed to him being just another attendee.

The Psalm continued, and the pistol drew from the jacket with the smoothness of justice well earned: "'Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted. Like a slug melting away as it moves along, like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.'"

--------------------------------------

Though his own heritage was as muddied and lost as the history to which it had been consigned by the accident that had orphaned him, Antares de la Somme was more than familiar with Uhland's poem. Decades of living with Germans had left indelible footprints in his psyche, and like Weissdrake, he was also a New Koenigsberger and had the right of citizenship to honor the dead for Volkstrauertag. However, he was also more than acquainted with his own level of emotional control during ceremonies like these that he knew he would break down without a distraction. The Peeper was also in attendance, and he spoke the words as he worked its controls, dodging and weaving the little remote vehicle through the throng, thinking more about it than the meaning behind the words, which he knew would be depressing.

"'Eine Kugel kam geflogen:

Gilt's mir oder gilt es dir?

Ihn hat es weggerissen,

Er liegt vor meinen Füßen

Als wär's ein Stück von mir.'"

-----------------------------------

The pistol was fully exposed now, and Duhamel raised it to eye-level, carefully sighting down the chromed barrel at the stage and trying to steady his hand to make each shot count; he had been warned that one bullet may not be enough. He was practically yelling the Psalms now, but his one voice would never be heard over the voices of the crowd, and as he was nearly in the front row, no one except those to his sides would notice that he was not bearing a lighter or a drink in a toast to the dead.

"'The righteous will be glad when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked!'"

------------------------------------

The sound of the crowd swept over von Mellenthin, and his smile was ear-to-ear. To harness this energy, this harmony of thousands of people into a single purpose! The possibilities were endless. The universe itself would be conquered with the same single-mindedness as was being evidenced right here in this town square on a single world. He longed for it desperately, the union of Space and Earth and all its peoples, bent towards claiming the birthright of all Humanity, led and bred to Power by those entrusted with it. Then, finally, all the dead they remembered and their efforts would finally be vindicated, their sacrifices reaping the fruit from the seeds their deaths sowed. He spread his arms wide before the crowd, disdaining the microphone for the final stanza, and like the crowd, he chose to shout the last of Uhland's lines:

"'Will mir die Hand noch reichen,

Derweil ich eben lad'.

"Kann dir die Hand nicht geben,

Bleib du im ew'gen Leben,

Mein guter Kamerad!"'"

------------------------------------------

The tyrant heir stretched his arms wide, as though he were a false god seeking the supplications of the masses before him, and Duhamel knew that his chance had come. The pistol came level, held in an outstretched hand like the accusing finger of God Himself, his eyes on the sight picture that von Mellenthin stood naked for judgment within. The false priest smiled, and he knew his face was that of a man who had finally found release from a lifetime of pain and burden of sin. His finger began to squeeze, and he wanted it to be done with but yet never end, to remain here in a state of perfect harmony with God's will, doing the Lord's good work in excising this cancer of Man's pride from the world, proving that Man was worth redemption and the sacrifice of the Cross with this rejection of the Devil's newest evil plaything. The finger paused, trembling.

And something bumped into Duhamel's shoe, just before the final pound of pressure could be added to finish the action.

Taken aback by the sudden contact, Duhamel's head swiveled to see what had hit him, and his mouth gaped at the sight of a remote-controlled toy. A short man muscled through the cheering crowd, a spool of wire in one hand and a controller in the other.

"Hey, guy, sorry 'bout that. Been a bitch tryin' to control this thing and the wire at the same time, but I lost my helpers when I came over here and I gotta do the whole thing myself and with the crowd and all it's tough seeing where this sucker goes all the time and---whoa, I'm real sorry, Father, didn't see the collar there for a sec, though I admit I've kinda always wanted to run down a Catholic priest with a car this wasn't exactly what I had in mind, you know? I'm Lutheran-ish myself, so you can understand, can't you, or do I gotta go to Confession first? Don't think I gotta, though, 'cuz if God had a beef with it I'd already know. . ." poured out of the little man in the Zeon uniform's mouth, and with some effort Duhamel tore his eyes away from the soldier and the remote car and back to his target.

Von Mellenthin had closed his arms, but still stood in the pistol's sight, head turned to look at von Seydlitz, who still stood off-stage but was being beckoned on by his grinning General. . .

"---holy shit, Padre, that's a---!" exclaimed the Zeon beside him, and Duhamel found his strength again. He had to act now before the soldier stopped him. His eye narrowed and there was only von Mellenthin, awesome and vile.

"Everything with God," the assassin called Duhamel cried aloud, his voice carrying through the crowd like the trumpets of the angels, "and nothing without Him!"

The pistol sang its chorus five times in unbroken succession; each pull of the trigger was like being born again.

Titans Line (West), Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

"SHIT!" Caldwell jerked upright in his seat as though he had been shocked, hands clapping to the sides of his headphones, pressing them closer to his ears. The other two men in the tent stopped glaring at each other and turned their attention to the sonar tech.

"Well, dammit?" snapped Sajer in annoyance. "What's the issue?"

The sergeant rolled his eyes. "He can't hear you, sir, not with the 'phones on. Give him a second and he'll tell us."

Sajer was having none of that. He walked over and whacked Caldwell on the back of the head with a hand. "Hey, idiot! What's the goddamn fuss about?"

Caldwell popped one of his ears free from the headphones, face red and angry. "Gunfire, sir! Five shots, then a lot of screaming from the crowd! Small-arms caliber, negative return fire! Center of the town!"

Sajer's hand clenched on Caldwell's uniform neck, the fabric tightening. "So help me if you're crying 'wolf' on this, I'll fucking crush you like a peanut shell!"

Caldwell's face turned red, but he did not back down. "If you think you can do this better than I can, be my guest, but I heard gunshots coming from Hameln whether you do anything about it or not! Now get the hell off me, sir!"

Giving a satisfied grunt of approval, Sajer let Caldwell go and was out the door faster than he had come in. The sergeant flung himself at the secure landline to Aerzen, his other hand reaching for the handset for the Battalion FM radio net. When the RTO on the other end of the line picked up in Aerzen, he had to yell to be heard over the roar of Sajer's Barzam as it launched itself towards Hameln.

Hameln, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

There was a heartbeat's worth of time and silence that seemed to last an eternity, as the echo of the final shot petered out, and the crowd held its collective breath for that split second.

The priest's arm was still outstretched, the gleaming chrome of the ancient .45 caliber Luger shining like a beacon in the midst of the crowd, colors from the lights around the square glinting dully off of its body as the last of the shell casings fell to the cobblestones, making a brassy tinkle of sound audible in the great hush for yards around. The smoke from the shots trickled from the barrel into the cold air, vanishing in wisps. Beside the gunman, the vaunted reflexes of Antares de la Somme had failed to kick in, and he stood stock-still, staring with his eyes agog and his mouth open in shock at the smoking weapon in the priest's unwavering grip. The crowd had instinctively backed away from Duhamel and the gun, leaving a large empty space around the two even as they stared, waiting for what would come next though instincts screamed to break and run for safety and away from this man who had just shot at the Zeon on the stage.

Reinhardt von Seydlitz's hand slowly reached up and touched the warmth that splattered his frost-numbed face. Dully, he lifted his fingers from the copper-scented liquid and looked at the redness on the tips. His mind, trained since birth to process data and respond faster than a normal human's, instead fixated on trying to divine the logic as to why there was blood on his face, his senses unable to detect any sign of impact or damage on his person. It is not mine. It cannot be mine. Then who---? As if in a fugue, his eyes turned to Dietrich von Mellenthin, who leaned heavily on the DJ's turntable, the microphone hanging limply from his left hand before falling to the ground with a thump and an electronic whine of feedback, forgotten.

Blood soaked von Mellenthin's uniform top's left sleeve, drenched the hand that was clamped on top of the left shoulder; it turned his blond hair red, and ran down his face in thin streams that followed contours and structure down to the proud chin to drip steadily. It was a puddle on the ground that the microphone came to rest in. His eyes were locked on the man in the crowd who had shot him, green-blue orbs that projected death from within their depths towards that which had dared to wound him. His face was a demon's mask, streaked with rivulets of red and a kaleidoscope of shadows and lights, twisted and monstrous, looking anything but human but was very much alive.

And the General opened his mouth, wider and wider until it seemed to unhinge itself, and roared his rage and pain to every ear in Hameln.

Aerzen, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

Titans Major Golan Tizard strode downstairs into his TOC area, followed by Kenneth Holt, his aide-de-camp, just in time to get his sitrep practically hand-delivered to him both by his on-shift battle captain, Volkyr, and by the static-laced screeching on the 2nd Battalion internal net that was monitored here at Brigade. He paid more attention to the radio than he did Captain Volkyr, whose grasp of the situation was not apt enough to have fully processed the information he needed.

"Crusader Main, this is Saber Main, say again last transmission," prompted the RTO at the desk.

"Saber Main, this is Crusader Main, I say again: reporting audibles on small arms fire inside Hameln center, source unknown, target unknown, casualties unknown. Crusader has all personnel and equipment accounted for. Saber Five Omega is-----" The transmission was interrupted by a static wash, then solidified again. "----ader One has ordered all units to begin preparations for movement into Hameln."

Tizard pushed past Volkyr, who had stopped speaking to also listen, and grabbed the handset from the RTO. "Crusader Main, this is Saber One. Tell Crusader One his movement is countermanded. I say again, negative on movement into Hameln. He is to hold position and await my arrival on station. Put Saber Five Omega on this net."

"Saber One, Crusader Main, unable to establish contact with Saber Five Omega. He is not monitoring battalion net."

Tizard felt heat begin to build behind his eyes. "Crusader Main, what is the location of Saber Five Omega?"

There was a slight pause that confirmed all of Tizard's worst suspicions. Before the answer even came across the net, he gestured towards Holt, who nodded acknowledgement and left the TOC in a hurry. The radio broke squelch. "Saber One, Saber Five Omega is already en route to Hameln with his mobile suit."

The room grew deathly still, as every breath in the TOC caught, waiting for Tizard's reaction. The Major nodded to himself once, and then keyed the net. "This is Saber One, acknowledged. I will handle this matter myself when I arrive on site. Saber One, out." He turned his frost-frigid stare on Volkyr, and passed the handset back to the RTO. "Continue monitoring the situation, but under no circumstance send any more mobile suits towards Hameln, do you understand? This situation is volatile at best, but still within the realm of control."

"Understood, sir," replied Volkyr.

"And try and get Sajer on the line. He might still be monitoring Brigade net. If you manage, make him cease his invasion of Hameln. You probably won't reach him, but try anyway. I'm on my way to Palaccio's command post. Put the Brigade on elevated alert status, but hold position under any and all circumstances. Make them understand, especially Armistead." Tizard smiled thinly, then spun on a booted heel and left the TOC. Outside, his Marasai was already warmed up and activated, Holt having taken care of the pre-flight checks for him. A pair of GM IIs were also standing, a personal guard force for the Brigade CO.

Holt lowered himself down to the ground on the pilot's line and handed Tizard his helmet. "Good luck, sir!" he called out to his boss over the whine of the three mobile suits. Tizard clapped a gloved hand on Holt's shoulder as his thanks and rode the line up to the cockpit, strapping himself in and closing the hatch against the chill outside.

With a beckon towards the GM IIs, the Marasai launched itself on a trail of fire, its escorts following behind.

Hameln, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

There was a scream from somewhere in the crowd as von Mellenthin's furious bestial howl swept over the assembled townspeople, keening through the alleys and through the whole square like a banshee's wail. The pandemonium did not set in until the Dom Tropen rounded the corner, as though investigating what all the yelling was about. Once the suit's mono-eye swept the crowd, panic descended and the real screaming began.

Before Duhamel could squeeze the trigger again, de la Somme became a blur of motion. A knife flashed from out of a sleeve and the ace slashed upward, cutting Duhamel's arm deeply. The fake priest recoiled in pain but managed to swipe at de la Somme with the pistol, which he managed to maintain a grip on in spite of the wound. The much-younger Zeon pilot ducked under the swipe and cartwheeled onto his outstretched hands, the Peeper's controller and the knife dropped without any further regard. A booted foot lashed out and kicked Duhamel in the side of the head, and the Opus Dei assassin staggered back as de la Somme finished the cartwheel and righted himself, knife back in his hand as he had picked it up in the midst of his maneuver.

Duhamel melted into the panicking crowd, using them as cover, gun aimed at his attacker until he vanished into the press of bodies. De la Somme, caught off guard when the would-be killer did not counterattack, recovered and threw himself after him, fighting his way through the crowd, which was emptying from the center in the traditional amoeba-like mass that panic ensued, no matter who got crushed in their paths.

--------------------------------------

Von Mellenthin was in pain, there was no doubt about that. All five shots had hit him in some fashion. One was in his shoulder, a solid hit that felt like someone had inserted a hot coal beneath his skin. Two were primarily flesh wounds, and already the blood was clotting, the wounds sealing themselves with accelerated efficiency. The other two were the deepest, and throbbed with a sort of numb cold in his abdomen, their paths of travel slowed enough by the ligerskin greatcloak that his carbonized bones and denser muscle tissue stopped them before they had drilled straight through him. The shoulder wound was still trickling, but it would seal itself in time as the lighter wounds had. That would be bad: that bullet was also still inside him, as were the two in his guts that he hoped had not punctured anything ultimately vital or processed toxins out of his bloodstream; he would at least have some time that way. Damage assessment would have to wait until after the rounds were removed to be accurate. He clenched and unclenched the hand on his wounded arm, trying to ascertain if there was any nerve damage from the hydrostatic shock that might impede his ability to pilot a mobile suit. He watched dimly as his attacker fled, using the crowd as a shield, a smaller figure that could only be de la Somme in hot pursuit but losing ground to the panicked masses moving towards the side streets and towards the emergency vehicles that were arriving on scene.

"ALIVE!" the General bellowed in fury, Command Voice projecting like a spear towards its intended target, the bullets having at least missed his lungs and diaphragm. "I WANT HIM ALIVE!"

He sensed more than saw von Seydlitz come up beside him, and he accepted the assistance in moving towards the stage steps, fighting a wave of dizziness and nausea that was a shock reaction to the pain. He consciously kicked up his endorphin levels and his adrenalin to act as dampeners against the shock. He had to remain steady and conscious enough to avoid being pawed by cattle doctors, any of whom could be another assassin in hiding. He also had to hide the extent of his wounds from his foster brother, for reasons that varied from needing to remove a cause of concern to fear that von Seydlitz would seize this opportunity and eliminate him as no longer worthy of the Throne. He did not want to dwell on the idea that the locals might decide to save themselves by trying to claim his head for ransom with the Titans if they discovered that he was never going to be easier to capture or kill than right now. In the case of von Seydlitz, a more rational portion of his mind called his prudence as paranoia, but it was a chance he dared not take no matter how remote.

"Stay still, Dietrich," said von Seydlitz calmly amidst the cacophony of the fleeing crowd, voice as steady as ever but hushed as though what he had to say was worth secrecy. "You had one crease your skull on the left side deep enough that I can see the bone; another struck your left temple a glancer, but the damage there seems slight enough. There may be a concussion."

"Irrelevant," grated out von Mellenthin, though he allowed himself to lean a little into von Seydlitz anyway, managing to cover the holes in his uniform where his guts were. "Get me to the command post. I have to cut this damned piece of lead out of my shoulder before the clotting makes it a part of me. The balls of that. . .miserable little insect! I want him, Reinhardt; I want to know who he is and where he came from. Shooting me with that popgun in public! If he's Tizard's, I'll level this town and everything in it as we leave!" He glanced at his wrist chrono, wincing slightly at the movement. "Verdammter bissiger Schweinhund! Not enough time to put him to the Question, is there? No matter, he'll still beg to die before we're done with him!"

Ogun's Dom Tropen, the suit that had caused the masses to scatter so rapidly during the incident, finally stomped its way into the town square, which was emptying rapidly. The locals were dragging their crowd-trampled along with them towards the flashing lights of the emergency services vehicles, and the massive suit entered unimpeded, stepping around the ambulances and smaller moving groups of frightened locals. The Polizei remained outside the town square, wisely. The green mono-eye locked onto the two Zeon officers below it.

"Sir," reported Ogun over the Dom Tropen's loudspeaker, "the town is secure. Tornado One is in pursuit of the assassin on foot. An enemy mobile suit is approaching rapidly from the west on an attack vector, ETA in less than one minute."

Von Mellenthin scowled. "Spasti! It's too soon!" He yanked away from von Seydlitz and pointed up at the Dom Tropen's mono-eye with his good arm. "That suit is not to be allowed access into Hameln! Deal with it, Oberstabsfeld! I'll be there shortly!" He clutched the greatcloak around himself, his good hand using a piece of the cloak to scrub some of the blood off of his face from the nearly-sealed scalp wound. With a sharp jab, he dug two fingers into the hole the bullet left in his uniform top and undershirt, fingertips ripping through his own muscle tissue and meat. With a snarl and grimace of pain he did not bother to try and hide, he probed for, found, and tore the bullet out of his own shoulder, his blood painting his fingers scarlet-crimson along with the lead slug.

He wished fervently the other two were so easily dealt with, but he was accustomed enough with wounds to know better.

He handed the bloody souvenir to von Seydlitz. "Find that piece of shit, Reinhardt. Find him and bring him to me alive. Have him ready before I get back from the border, and keep the others on schedule for movement. We leave as planned, once I defuse this Titan nincompoop and his horde." He closed von Seydlitz's hand over the bullet with his own, his blood drying to rust-hued stickiness in the Colonel's palm. "Find him, Reinhardt. Hunt." The last word was delivered in a growl that was almost a whisper behind clenched teeth. The endorphins were not going to be enough to hide the searing agony in his innards for long.

Von Seydlitz's grey eyes gleamed with a predatory malice, identical to the one in von Mellenthin's own eyes but with a veneer of feverishness he could not have attributed to his new orders. The General gave his foster brother a hard shove. "HUNT, Reinhardt! He is PREY!"

The Colonel dropped the bullet onto the ground and took off running, much faster than de la Somme could run. He would catch up easily. Von Mellenthin laughed in anticipation, hiding the pain beneath his mirth, and was still laughing when he walked away towards where his Zaku Hi-Mo was parked and ready, its med-kit possessing what he would need to continue to function until they could get out of Hameln and somewhere that he could let his guard down long enough to perhaps save his life. Von Seydlitz would not fail. He only hoped he could say the same for himself.

------------------------------------

"Raver One, Tornado Nine. Lion One says to intercept the enemy suit and prevent it from entering Hameln. Stop him on the bridge, Commander, I'm on my way."

"Roger that," responded Margul to Ogun's transmission, mouth watering in anticipation. "I'll make this clown eat the corn out of my shit. Take your sweet-ass time." Roberts' Gelgoog Marine Commander was already in the river and moving, and he was the only available unit up to meet the Titans suit. He rubbed his hands together and brought his Kaempfer to full combat status. Yellow lights indicated how low on thruster propellant he was, but it would make no difference. He had more than enough to deal with one Titan mobile suit.

The enemy suit was already in firing range of his 360mm bazookas, and speeding closer with each passing second. The cameras caught sight of it: that same weird suit that kept moving back and forth all day. This was going to be special, stealing a kill from Roberts. Margul knew how fixated on this particular Titan the Marine had become.

With a harsh bark of laughter, Margul triggered his bazooka once, to get the Titan's attention more than to actually hit the suit, and then he stowed it and brought out the shotgun again. He launched a green flare into the night sky, a warning signal to let the Zeon know that there was an attack; he wondered if it was even noticeable among the rest of the fireworks, but it was done nonetheless. It made him feel better about it, at least.

Close and dirty was how the 'Demon' liked it. He wanted to make sure the Titan knew just how much before he died.

-------------------------------------

A 360mm shell burst in the air just to the front of Sajer's Barzam, doing no damage. So they are paying attention. He was not worried in any event; according to the test results from SpaceCom and his briefing, few things short of beam weaponry could hurt his Barzam and its gundarium armor. Nevertheless, he brought his suit back down to earth, landing just on the near side of the Muensterbruecke bridge. The Zeon side of Hameln lay on the far side. A green flare arced into the air, sizzling.

"So they don't want me coming in, do they?" he huffed, annoyed and exhilarated at once. "Let's see the fuckers try and stop me!"

The Barzam began to walk across the bridge, beam rifle cradled in its hands haphazardly, a mocking testimony to the seeming invincibility the suit represented. He dared the Zeon shooter to take another potshot at him; he would enjoy lighting up the night sky with a burning 10th Panzerkaempfer mobile suit to pay them back for these days of endless waiting and the 103rd's humiliation at Steinbaum. . .but really more for the damned waiting. Cramer had deserved to die.

A single Zeon suit stepped out from behind a building on the far side of the bridge, bristling with weaponry, spikes, and danger. Sajer's eyes flickered over the sidescreen HUD display that identified the enemy suit as one of the late-War minimal-production types, an MS-18E Kaempfer; its payload was primarily conventional weapons. He did not fail to take note of the sigil of the flayed screaming man on the right breast of the suit: an ace's mark. 'Demon' Margul, come out to finally die. Killing you will give me a notch in reputation even Tizard can't compete with! He opened up a broad-spectrum radio channel. "You don't seriously think your outmoded piece of space trash suit can stop this one, do you?"

"Good thing I don't take your dumb ass seriously, shitstain. Back the hell out of Hameln before I skulldrag that wannabe mono-eye down Main Street."

Margul's voice sounded as brutish as his reputation was. Sajer grinned. "You're showing your age, oldtimer. Who's in that relic? You can't be Margul, even the history books say he's as dead as Daikun. Tell you what, because I'm feeling sorry for you, I'll let you take the first shot with that little toy. C'mon, give me the best that you've got, you and your tin-can Kaempfer!"

He continued moving the Barzam forward over the bridge; he was about a quarter of the way across now. A couple of simple commands, and the beam rifle dropped to the Titan suit's side, held in one hand and aimed down towards its feet. "See? I'm wide open. Go ahead, see if you can hurt me and my suit. Bet you can't even scratch this armor." Sajer grinned viciously, voice full of scorn. "Let's go, 'Demon'; make me famous."

"Your funeral, fucktard," was Margul's reply, and the Kaempfer went from a standstill to the very embodiment of fury before Sajer could get his guard back up.

-------------------------------------

The Titan was way too smug to be a veteran, strolling along as though he did not even care that there was a Zeon high-performance suit staring him down from the other side of the bridge and talking out of his ass the entire time. When the dick lowered his rifle and begged to get popped, Margul decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth when he could be kicking it in the ass. His orders were to stop the Titan incursion into the Zeon-occupied Hameln safe zone; the invader would be removed. Normally, he would just shoot the idiot, but since his foe appeared to have come alone, he could take all the time in the world for a piece of one-on-one action.

'. . .Make me famous. . .'. De la Somme's words to him at Steinbaum, when he was going to split that little shit kid that the 'Killing Star' had fallen in love with, coming out of a Titan's ignorant mouth. Margul saw red. This was going to be even better than he thought.

The Kaempfer burned a sizeable bit of its remaining thruster propellant going from full stop to 1.1 Gs of forward velocity right off the mark. Margul felt squashed into his acceleration seat for the four seconds it took to cover the few hundred meters between the two mobile suits. He lurched forward as he cut the acceleration and fired all of his forward-facing thrusters, skidding the Kaempfer to almost a complete stop in front of the enemy, cutting the Titan off from moving any more forward over the bridge and bringing his own suit inside the firing angle of the enemy's rifle, which had just begun to elevate again in response to Margul's move. Now he was too close for the Titan to use it.

The Kaempfer's arms, hands full of mobile suit-sized folding-stock shotgun, smashed into the enemy suit's torso, shoving it backwards with the impact. Margul followed through with the hit and slammed the shotgun down onto the Titan's beam rifle; the force of the blow managed to knock the rifle back down and out of the Barzam's hand, the weapon dropping off the bridge and into the Weser, but it also shattered the shotgun's stock, the pieces falling onto the bridge or over the side. As the Titan suit staggered back another step, reeling from the ferocity of the Kaempfer's assault, Margul grinned and followed it in, staying close enough to touch.

The Titan finally wised up that Margul was serious, or he was just pissed about losing his rifle. Streaks of tracers reached out from the enemy suit's head as the still-unstable Titan's head Vulcans fired at the shorter Kaempfer; Margul had fought enough GMs in the past to anticipate that tactic and the Kaempfer ducked beneath the tracer trail before too many of the high-velocity 60mm rounds punched through his thin-skinned hide, and the Zeon mobile suit crashed its spiked shoulder into its foe's midriff, almost driving it completely off of the bridge and back onto the mainland. The Titan suit stayed on its feet somehow; Margul had to give it credit, because not much stayed upright after a 73-ton shoulder slam. Flipping the shotgun around a finger in a grandiose twirl, the Kaempfer shoved the weapon up into the other suit's face and squeezed the trigger.

The blast enveloped the Barzam's head, snapping it backwards on its neck pivot with the force of the shot, and the bigger suit staggered back even further. Margul sneered at the ease this fight was proving. The Titan had barely put up a struggle and he had already removed its ability to do him harm at range. He could peel the other suit apart at leisure whenever he wanted---

The Titan suit's leg lashed out and front-kicked the Kaempfer in the chest with enough force to make the Zeon suit skid backwards with a squeal of metal on asphalt and stagger-step to avoid falling down. Margul's sneer turned into a grimace as his teeth clacked together painfully, and he growled in disbelief at the main camera picture and the sound of the Titan pilot laughing at him.

The shotgun blast, at point-blank range, had done what seemed to be no appreciable damage to the Titan suit; neither had the smash to the enemy's torso or the shoulder slam. With only the loss of its beam rifle, the Barzam was unharmed by the Kaempfer's attacks. Even the paint seemed unscathed.

Margul brought the reticle for his own twin head Vulcans to bear and fired, feeling the chatter of the 60mms down in the cockpit and in his bones. The twin streams of tracer fire stitched a path through the night that connected the two suits, then broke apart into short-lived fireflies that illuminated random portions of the surrounding landscape as they deflected harmlessly off of the Barzam and whizzed away, flying through the air or splashing into the river's water below. Sparks flew off of the black-and-red suit, but its armor did not yield to the Vulcans' onslaught of shells. Margul ceased his firing after about a hundred rounds from the guns were expended, realizing how futile they were at hurting his enemy.

"Is that the best you can do, 'Demon'?" giggled the enemy pilot evilly. "You made me drop my rifle, but I can still light up your life as I see fit."

Shit, cursed Margul inwardly, what the fuck am I fighting here? This was not the kind of Titan he wanted to negotiate with, especially now that they both knew how invulnerable the Titan's suit was to the Kaempfer's weapons. He was too close to use his heavier-caliber bazookas or his remaining Panzerfaust antiarmor rocket without damaging his own suit or collapsing the bridge. The Titan was out for his blood now, and Margul watched as the enemy suit began to advance towards him in a leisurely stroll identical to the one it was using when it had first arrived on the bridge, hands clenching and unclenching as though it were going to rip the Kaempfer apart limb from limb.

"Before you die," continued the enemy pilot, "tell me how it feels to be totally combat ineffective and cowering in fear, Spacenoid scum. Tell me how it feels to finally know that everything you've done since 0079 has led you to this moment, when you realize that you never stood a chance of ever beating Earth. Tell me!" The Barzam's right hand was suddenly filled with beam saber as the hilt snapped out of its wrist and into the waiting palm. A brilliant pink-red beam flared to life as the saber activated, and the Titan lunged forward, swinging the saber back for an overhead slash.

------------------------------------

"Saber One, this is Saber Main. Still unable to contact Saber Five Omega on this net or any other. Crusader Main reports audibles on heavy caliber weapons fire from Hameln, as well as audibles on close-contact combat, over."

"Acknowledged," replied Tizard as his Marasai and its escorts sped towards 2nd Battalion's line. "It's safe to assume that Saber Five Omega is currently engaged with Zeon forces inside the Hameln cordon. Inform Crusader One that I'll be bypassing his AO and proceeding to Hameln to retrieve our wayward unit, but he is not to proceed any further than his designated AO boundary." He cycled his main camera towards distant Hameln, trying to catch a glimpse of Sajer's Barzam, but even at 50x power there were too many lights to distinguish one from another. "Has Paladin One been given the sitrep?"

"Roger, Saber One, Saber Three has sent Paladin Main all available information, as well as your instructions to Crusader. Paladin One acknowledged all."

Tizard was relieved that Armistead would not jump into the fray in the absence of Palaccio's response to what was obviously a fight inside the cordon. "Excellent. I'm less than a minute from Hameln now, Saber Main, so I'll be offline once I cross the AO boundary. I will most likely be on the ground with someone from the Zeon chain of command trying to salvage this debacle. Saber Three is in nominal command until I come back on the net. Saber One, out."

The Marasai and its pair of GM II escorts cruised over the laager area for 2nd Battalion. Tizard acknowledged Palaccio's Hizack Custom's wave with a salute with his shield as they rocketed over the TOC. His eyes narrowed as Hameln began to grow in his camera's view. He switched his frequency to the internal net for close comms with his escorts. "Lancer Four, Lancer Five, Saber One. Hang back one hundred meters from my lead. Do not, I say again, do not set down anywhere across the river. I will handle Saber Five Omega personally. Acknowledge, over."

"Saber One, Lancer Four," responded the escort team leader, "acknowledge orders. I've got eyes on Saber Five Omega on the south bridge. Looks like he's in a fight, sir. Can't make out what he's engaged with yet."

Tizard zoomed in on the Muensterbruecke. "Saber One, roger. I've got visual as well. Good eyes, Lancer Four. Follow my lead in and remember your orders." Tizard veered southwards towards the flare of Sajer's beam saber, recognizing the Zeon suit as a Kaempfer, probably the on-shift sentinel when Sajer made his approach. There was no sign of any other Zeon unit in the immediate location. I may not be too late after all.

------------------------------------

Sajer had been stunned by the ferocity of the Zeon suit's attack. Margul had been relentless in his assault, brutal in his tactics, and gave no room for even the most basic of counterattacks. Now the Titan pilot labored to control the panting his breathing had become. He had walked into Hameln, risking everything to display a message, and had been rudely awakened to the danger by a primal sort of terror at the intensity of Margul's offensive. The man had seriously been trying to kill him, holding nothing back. The head Vulcans had been an act of desperation on Sajer's part, as the smaller and older mobile suit had viciously manhandled his Barzam back off of the bridge.

This was totally unlike anything Sajer had experienced in his six years of piloting mobile suits. It was definitely not like sparring with Hizacks in a simulated battle. This was real, ugly, noisy, and frightening, and it was in his face, knocking his beam rifle out of his hand as it knocked his confidence to the floor. His training centered on killing a foe at long range whenever possible, with melee fighting as a last-resort measure, and while he was good at it, it still was not something to want to have to do unless necessary; Margul appeared to have come from an entirely different school of mobile suit combat technique. For the first time in his career, Garrett Sajer had experienced what it was like to face death head-on. A small part of his shocked brain wondered if this was how Cramer's 103rd had felt at Steinbaum facing the 10th Panzerkaempfer, or how all those Federation troops had felt during the War when the Zeon Zaku was the God of Battle. Another part of his brain tried desperately to hold his bladder under control while it screamed at him that this might not have been the wisest of ideas on his part, and that this Zeon ace was going to flay him alive like the screaming man on the Kaempfer's right breast because that was what he had been doing for YEARS---

The shotgun blast, amazingly, had been what had snapped Sajer out of the logic loop of terror that had seized his brain and his nerves in its grip. The Barzam's gyro controls on the moveable frame had been what kept the suit from falling backwards after the shotgun unloaded right into its faceplate, and the Kaempfer had backed off from its attack. With his heartbeat thumping in his ears like a runaway train, Sajer managed to reason that Margul believed he had crippled the Barzam. Sajer's quick eye scanned the status diagram on the left HUD, and was amazed by how intact his suit had remained. Even the shotgun blast had failed to harm his Barzam significantly. One of the subcameras in the head was out of commission, and there was some damage to the left Vulcan, but beyond that, nothing Margul had done to him had punched through the gundarium skin.

That was all the incentive Sajer had needed to get back into the fight. Laughing, he had kicked the Zeon suit, making it lose all the ground it had gained. The Barzam was powerful beyond anything the Kaempfer could match except for sheer speed. Oh, it was a nimble little suit, but its weaponry was useless. It could kill GMs and Hizacks, but Garrett Sajer was more invincible than a dragon. He let the 60mms from the Zeon suit's Vulcans bounce harmlessly off of his suit until Margul admitted that they were as effective as pebbles against a tank.

Now, Sajer advanced at a walk again, beam saber unleashed in his Barzam's right hand, and the mono-eye seemed to shrink as it cowered before his might. 'Demon' Margul was about to meet his end on a bridge in Hameln at the hands of a single Titan mobile suit. Sajer wished the ace could see him and the smile he would have on his face at his demise. The saber arced back for a slash that would cut everything off of the Kaempfer from its spiked shoulder assemblies-up with one slice.

The Kaempfer did not back away; Sajer wondered for a millisecond why it did not. The saber swung, aiming to cleave the 'Demon' in two---

The Kaempfer's left arm reached up and caught the Barzam's saber arm in mid-swing, fingers closing over the wrist and halting the slash before the saber's charged-particle blade could connect. Sajer felt his jaw drop open in disbelief. "What the fuck---?"

Margul's suit dropped the shotgun from its right hand, the weapon landing on the bridge, and the right hip assembly on the Zeon suit opened, revealing a beam saber hilt. Sajer realized what was about to happen and activated the second beam saber in his Barzam's left wrist sheath, but he would have to reach across his own suit's torso to strike with the new saber, and the Kaempfer's right hand was already moving. Instead of drawing from the left hip with the right hand as it normally would have, Margul dropped the right hand straight down to the right hip, gripping the beam saber hilt upside-down and yanking it straight up. A yellow beam of plasma and Minovsky particles burst into life as the Kaempfer drew the blade from its hip sheath, and the Zeon machine followed-through with an upwards slash, neatly and cleanly severing the Barzam's right arm at the center of the forearm nearly at the elbow.

-----------------------------------------

Margul heard the enemy pilot shriek in fury as the Titan suit's hand and half its right forearm sailed through the air and landed in the river with gouts of superheated steam and a splash, and he practically howled with laughter. The stupid shit had opened himself up completely.

"Thanks for the favor, pissant!" he growled in glee over the open comm channel. He transferred the beam saber to the left hand as the wounded Titan machine stepped backwards, much like a wounded man would have, clutching its remaining beam saber and holding it across its body to shield its torso. "Still think we're playing fucking charades here, or is there still some asshole in you that I ain't puckered yet?"

"YOU SONOFAWHORE! OH YOU BASTARD! I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU! KILL YOU KILLLLLL----!" screamed the Titan, berserk from rage and damaged pride, voice breaking from the strain of his tirade.

Margul winced from the volume of the Titan's screeching. "Shut the fuck up, sissy! Your cryin's making my dick hard. Do me a fucking favor: take a picture of your cockgobbling face so that after I'm done with your bitch-ass, I can know what being freshly fucked looks like. It'll be one of those souvenirs I've got so many of, just another dead fucking Feddie turd like all the others. You gonna do that for me, queerbait?"

"I'M A TITAN, GOD DAMN YOU! A TITAN"

"What the fuck ever. I eat Titans and shit Feddies, so it really don't make a difference, does it?" Margul activated the left side beam saber, the right hand reaching across to draw it from the hip, and the Kaempfer began to advance, twirling twin yellow beam sabers as it stalked towards the damaged Titan suit. "I'm gonna ask you real nicely, fuckstick, and you got three more limbs left to decide with. . ."

He could hear the Titan pilot whimpering over the speaker, and he laughed his brutish laugh again. The proximity warning alarm suddenly went off, and he looked up to see three more black-and-red mobile suits approaching from behind his enemy, descending fast. "Friends of yours, sweet pea? Too bad they're too late!"

The Kaempfer launched itself towards the wounded Barzam, sabers swinging. The Titan suit backed itself completely off of the bridge and away from the attack, its single saber poised to deflect one of Margul's but powerless to do anything about where the second one would land. Margul actually heard the enemy pilot squeal in fright as the Titan withdrew.

One of the new arrivals, several meters shorter than its wounded cousin and its escorts, touched down right behind the retreating Barzam, wrapping its left arm around the damaged suit in a backwards embrace, bringing the shield it bore around the torso of the Barzam to cover it, while its mono-eyed head and right arm stuck out from beneath the Barzam's right shoulder to shove its beam rifle's muzzle at the advancing Kaempfer. Margul halted his forward movement and actually leapt several meters backwards and away from the new Titans and their friend in a burst of thruster fire, realizing that now he was the one in trouble. The other two Titan suits, GM-types, landed to the left and right of the one that had grabbed the Barzam and had the Zeon suit in a triangular crossfire, with the Kaempfer a sitting duck on the bridge.

"Come on, you fucking fucks!" he snarled into the open channel, both sabers up as the Kaempfer faced down the four Titan suits. "I'll gut-smear all four of you faggots at once! Put the shooters away and fight me fair, chickenshits!"

Salvation from being riddled from three directions came in the form of a sudden jarring crash as Sergeant Major Ogun's Dom Tropen skidded to a halt right behind the Kaempfer, the immense bulk of its 880mm raketen bazooka coming to rest between the right shoulder spikes and the head of Margul's smaller suit; the huge barrel of the 880mm was aimed right at the head of the shorter mono-eyed Titan suit. Nobody and nothing dared move without turning the Mexican standoff into an atrocity, for while the Titans could kill both the Zeon suits with their combined firepower, the chances of either of the Titans in the firing arc of the raketen bazooka surviving a shot at this range were very slim, and it would only take one of the mammoth rocket-propelled munitions to reduce both suits into shavings and debris.

"Having all the fun without me, Commander? You should be ashamed. I just stopped to pick up something a little heavier to greet our guests with." objected Ogun through the skin-touch, the Dom Tropen's left hand pressed against the back of the Kaempfer.

"What the fuck, Ogun? You using me as a shield?"

"What the hell else are officers good for, sir?" responded the Sergeant Major earnestly.

"Eat shit and die, non-com." Still, even though Ogun was 15th Fast Attack through and through, which made him de la Somme's underling, Margul was thankful for the sudden increase in firepower as well as the company. If the new Titan suit was even half as tough as the one he'd been fighting, Margul reckoned on his chances of surviving as being very slim indeed. "This is about to get real fucking fun now. . ."

"Zeon," broke in a new voice over the broadband channel, "this is Titans Major Tizard, CO of the 54th Titans Tactical Armored Brigade. Identify yourselves."

Ogun did the talking, for which Margul was grateful, as he was in no mood to be negotiable with any Titan at the moment. "This is Sergeant Major Ogun of the 15th Fast Attack Battalion, 10th Panzerkaempfer Division. Your presence within the city limits of Hameln is in violation of the Sanctuary provided to us by local authority and by Federation law, as is your unprovoked attack on one of our units. Unless you are intending to defect to our side or offer your guidon to us in surrender, it would behoove you to depart this area at once."

Tizard actually laughed at that, and Margul realized that he had found just the right Titan to make his case towards if the opportunity ever arose. All of a sudden, his gratitude at Ogun's presence evaporated as quickly as the chance to speak with the Titan commander did.

"Not today, Sergeant Major. Indeed, an explanation for my subordinate's behavior is in order. I would prefer to offer it, as well as my apologies for the trouble, to General von Mellenthin personally before I depart."

Before Ogun could respond, another voice broke into the channel, smooth but hard: "Then offer it, Major, but if you intend to beg forgiveness, you should be on your knees." Walking across the bridge from behind the Dom Tropen was von Mellenthin's R1-A Zaku II Hi-Mo, twin MMP-80s locked and loaded, one trained on each of the GM IIs on the far bank of the Weser; no Titan's weapon was covering von Mellenthin.

The General's mobile suit halted about three hundred meters behind its two subordinates' suits, out of the backblast range of the raketen bazooka. "Now that we're all here, I would truly love to hear the explanation for this intrusion, Major. What the hell are you doing in my town?"

-------------------------------------

Tizard clenched his teeth at the tone of the voice that spilled out of his receiver. Like it or not, von Mellenthin was in the right of it, and his cause was seemingly more just than Sajer's had been, considering the state the Barzam was in compared to Vladimir Margul's relatively undamaged Kaempfer. "Merely retrieving my wayward soldier, General. Apparently, there was some kind of disturbance involving gunshots and my young Captain decided to come and investigate. In his haste, he did not bother to inform me of his plan, and the end result is, as you can see, evident. I take it you and yours are all right?"

"Inasmuch as they can be," came von Mellenthin's curt reply. "The disturbance was a local matter that has been dealt with by local authorities. There were gunshots, true, but it has not yet been determined who the target was or the motive behind the attempt. I trust you know nothing about a man with a pistol in a priest's trappings, do you?"

Tizard mulled that over for a brief moment. "I'm afraid not." But I think I have an idea who may.

Von Mellenthin's baritone voice sounded smug. "I thought not. You seem to be a chivalrous man, Major, and sending an assassin as inept as this one would be most rude, would it not? My suggestion would be to take your entourage and leave while my sense of hospitality remains in sway over my outrage at this entire affair."

Tizard grimaced at the rebuke. "Very well, General. Thank you for your understanding. I shall take my leave." The Marasai lowered its beam rifle and released the Barzam, straightening to its full height. The GM IIs did likewise, and Tizard was relieved to see the Zeon Dom Tropen relax its aim with the 880mm bazooka.

"Still," continued von Mellenthin suddenly, "I think it prudent we should avoid such 'misunderstandings' in the future, and I'm certain you do as well. Since it was your soldier that violated the Sanctuary, I think it only fair that you concede to me a ransom for my mercy and generosity. You concur, Major?"

Tizard's palms began to sweat. He had hoped to avoid this. "I. . .do indeed, General. State your danegeld."

Von Mellenthin snickered audibly. "'Danegeld'? You've some education indeed, Major. Yes, danegeld it is. Withdraw your cordon to a radius of twelve kilometers distance from the city limits of Hameln. Have your relocation from this place completed in four hours' time, or I'll ask for your 'wayward soldier's head as penalty for noncompliance, among other more damaging chastisements. Is that reasonable enough, Major?"

In truth, Tizard was seething, but it could have been much worse. "Quite reasonable, indeed, General. Is there anything else?"

"No. You may go now."

"Major?" came Sajer's voice from the radio, obviously furious, "we're not just going to let him do this, are we? He's right there, we can kill him now and end all of this---!"

"Lancers Four and Five, secure Saber Five Omega and take him back to Aerzen. I am not through with him yet by far. Ensure he makes it there intact and without further incident." Tizard's Marasai gestured towards the damaged Barzam with its shield. As Sajer sputtered his protests over the commo channel, the two GM IIs locked down their weapons and grabbed the Barzam, one on each arm, and the three suits launched into the sky, the GM IIs carrying the larger suit between them.

Tizard's main camera swung back towards the bridge to look at von Mellenthin's Zaku Hi-Mo. The Zeon General had stowed one of the MMP-80s, but had one still cradled in the suit's arms. The Zaku moved out of the way as the Dom Tropen led the Kaempfer back over the bridge towards the Zeon side of the river, but the red mono-eye of its main camera never left the Marasai.

"Oh, and Major Tizard?" came von Mellenthin's voice, almost as an offhand. "Train your chimps better. I may not be around to save them from my people next time."

Tizard licked his lips. This really was not enjoyable to have to endure, and he swore inwardly that he would make certain he would never be put in this position again. "I'll do that, General. Have a pleasant morning."

He could feel von Mellenthin's beatific smile through the radio. "I already have, Major. I already have."

------------------------------

Von Mellenthin was grateful that the commo suites differed enough from Federation to Zeon design that visuals of the pilots were extraordinarily difficult to exchange without mutual signal acceptance. He had no idea what his face looked like at this juncture, but he knew it definitely was not as up to par as his voice was. The pain was beyond anything he had encountered before, the two .45 caliber slugs in his belly burning quite nicely in spite of the battery of painkillers and antibiotics he had dumped into himself to bolster his already formidable immune system and trauma tolerances. In the middle of the cinders slow-roasting his innards, he could feel the telltale tingling of the skin around the bullet wounds as the tissue around the punctures worked on closing themselves up with clots to stop unnecessary blood loss; his nerves refused to deaden and lose sensory input. The wound in his shoulder was already sealed, but it still hurt like hell even though he was no longer in danger from it.

The analysis his brain dutifully fed him utilizing the available information was as clinical as a bio-scholar's genetic adjudication. Once the two in his abdomen were closed off, he would be running on borrowed time. If an infection even his superior-than-normal immune system could not defeat did not set in around the bullets, both from the invasion of outside bacteria and pieces of his own uniform, then it would be toxemic shock from blood poisoning as his body tried to break the bullets down and succeeded only in stripping contaminants from their surfaces to run amok through his circulatory system. The toxins would reach his endocrine system, and then overwhelm its ability to pass them, shutting down liver and kidney functions. Death would be slow, agonizing, and conclusive. They had semesters' worth of classes on wounds, trauma, and their effects at Gross-Lichterfelde Academy, all useful tools and information to accentuate the art of killing a foe how you saw fit, where to hurt someone most immediately or where would cause the most long-term damage over time; where to kill them swiftly or at leisure in a manner of your choosing. Power of life and death was a refined science.

He looked patently forward to exacting one such studied method on the assassin priest that had done this to him; while it would prove much more immediately fatal, its psychological effects would make death seem eternal in patience and arrival. It would also solve a problem of a monumentally different nature that he had become aware of not too long ago.

As the Titans Major's mobile suit launched itself back towards their cordon line, he turned his Zaku around and set it on its way back to Hameln's center. "Raver One, Lion One."

"Raver One here."

"Good job handling that situation, Kommandant. You've done extremely well tonight. Prepare to initiate movement in half an hour. Eagle One and myself will follow you afterwards." He used von Seydlitz's new call sign; the Colonel refused to respond to 'Unsullied One' anymore, not after losing Dalyev and Haskell. Von Mellenthin could empathize, since he had given up 'Ghost One' after Metz and changed his call sign accordingly. Margul had kept 'Raver One' instead of choosing a new call sign, something de la Somme had quipped about, declaring Margul's refusal to let go as evidence that Margul would just fail to remember his new moniker anyway.

"Just doing the job, sir."

"Tut, no need for modesty. You had the Federation Pfiffe at your mercy and everyone knew it." It was almost cruel to feed Margul compliments, von Mellenthin deduced, since he was going to keep his promise from so many years ago to de la Somme and let his vindictive foster brother disembowel and fillet Margul sooner or later for his sins. The kid had been patient enough to warrant it, and more than earned it in spite of his doubts.

Margul snorted. "It was a little closer than that, sir," he admitted grudgingly. "The fuckrag couldn't fight for shit, but that suit. . .I've never seen a suit walk away from the kind of asskicking I gave it and not give a damn. It's better 'n anything we've got, General, I shit you not. Beam saber's all that would hurt the fucker. Goddamn armor took a shoulder slam and didn't even buckle."

"It's now minus a hand, so I would say it's not nearly the danger it once was at the moment. Nevertheless, when you're finished with your movement, upload your gun camera footage to every suit in the unit. I want everyone to see your fight and judge the capabilities of that Titan suit for themselves. There may be more of those waiting for us that we simply haven't seen yet. Not at all like those Zaku knockoffs or those GMs, was it?"

"Didn't even move like they do, sir."

May as well have deployed a Gundam, but Margul would have bested it, too. It's more the pilot than the suit. Just like it always has been. A wave of nausea passed over von Mellenthin, and he swallowed it back, feeling a cold sweat forming on his skin against his Will. He stamped it back with another endorphin burst, but he was losing the energy to keep committing his reserves to maintaining readiness around the pain. He needed to finalize his movement and take something that would knock him out completely for several hours, to rebuild his strength until he could get to someplace he could perform some personal surgery of an invasive nature and remove the two unwelcome passengers. "Best we leave them all behind, then, while they uproot and haul their asses to their new boundary. Oberstabsfeld, has Airborne One reported whether or not the interloper has been detained?"

Ogun's voice sounded far too chipper for 0200 hours. "Affirmative. Onslaught Two just called Ghost Main and got confirmation. Eagle One has the detainee in custody and is returning to his TAC," a polite way of saying 'St. Bonificatus Cathedral', "to await your arrival."

"Very well. Make certain the children have been delivered to the Rathaus and that the town has assumed custody, then instruct Ghost Main to pack everything up and move. You go with them. Oberst von Seydlitz and myself will be the last off the ground, once we deal with our would-be hitman."

"Acknowledge all. We'll be waiting, sir."

Von Mellenthin smiled tightly. "We won't dilly-dally too long, so no one fall asleep on the job. I'll see you there. Lion One, out." His smile grew a little wider as his Zaku broke away from the column and moved towards the southern end of the city. "Not long at all. . ."

Aerzen, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

"Saber One, Saber Three; I---" it was a rare occasion that Captain Volkyr was caught off-guard and speechless, but the orders he had just received made him severely doubt the sanity of his commanding officer. "---I'm not certain I heard correctly, but I believe you said to move the cordon?"

"That's right, I said move them. All of them. Widen the perimeter of the cordon to a minimum distance of twelve kilometers from Hameln. I want it done within the next two hours, Saber Three." Tizard's voice was smooth as ever over the radio now that he was out of the Minovsky net. "It's imperative that we reduce the damage done to our public position with the locals after Saber Five Omega's blunder, and this is the ransom for the Zeons' mercy. If we fail to achieve our movement objective by the time given, then it gives the Zeon all the excuse to castigate us with the German press. I will not allow our name in Europe to be sullied in the media as our Space forces have been. Honor is at stake. Make Paladin One and Crusader One divide up their movement times to stagger the coverage while we shift. Saber Main stays in Aerzen. You have one hour to plan, one hour to execute."

"Understood, sir," replied Volkyr into the handset, a headache beginning to form behind his eyes as his Operations-driven head began to try and wrap around the magnitude of moving the entire Brigade around an area of operations almost three times larger in circumference than their original AO and still maintain coverage. "I'll contact Crusader Three and Paladin Three immediately. Where will you be?"

"Leave Crusader to me, I'll be handling things here with Saber Five Omega. Get the rest of Saber moving ASAP. No mistakes, Three, time is crucial."

Hameln, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

Five minutes and nearly twenty 500mg ketoprofen later, von Mellenthin's Zaku Hi-Mo was parked beside von Seydlitz's Gouf Custom in the shadow of the cathedral's steeple, and the General himself stood outside the doors for the second time in the same evening. Taking the ketoprofen was an act of sheer desperation, since it was also a blood thinner and he had lost quite a bit of it already. He had to keep everything exactly as it would be as if he were not walking with two bullets in himself; to show injury or pain in the face of this piece of offal simply would not do, especially as it would also alert von Seydlitz to the severity of his condition and that would not do, either. No, Dietrich von Mellenthin would endure, survive, and overcome, or die in the trying, but he would show no weakness before then. He was beyond suffering a peasant's death, not when there was still time to continue living a lord's life.

With more effort than would normally be required, he pushed the door open, stepping inside the warmer interior of the cathedral and walking through the foyer and into the nave. The scene that greeted him this time was much different than how he had left it, and he quirked an eyebrow as he approached the darkened form of von Seydlitz near the altar. The lights were dimmed so low it was almost impossible to distinguish shadow from darkness.

"Well, Reinhardt?" he queried, surveying the damage, "Are you trying to ruin your eyesight, or is this ambience for atmosphere's sake? 'I wait here at the boundaries of dream All shadow-wrapped'?"

Von Seydlitz raised his head slightly, his arms crossed across his chest. "Who said that line? Goethe?"

"Gaiman. Latter-20th Century English artisan-scribe." Von Mellenthin dodged around the misaligned pew, gracefully stepping around the debris of hymnals and Eucharists. "Did he put up this much of a fight on his own, or was all this mess your own handiwork?"

The Colonel shook his head gravely. "Not I. It was like this when I arrived with this piece of filth in tow." Von Seydlitz nodded his head towards the semi-conscious form of the would-be assassin.

Von Mellenthin stepped up beside his foster brother to survey the tableau. "Hmmm, any notion as to whom would be crude enough to make a battlefield out of your humble lair?"

"Negative. There is no physical evidence as to the identity of the perpetrator or perpetrators, but they were reasonably thorough in their scope. The entire cathedral has been tossed about, as though the guilty were searching for something very specific but had no idea as to its whereabouts". The other man's grey eyes slitted in concentration. "There is a trace scent lingering throughout the building, familiar though unidentifiable. I imagine its endurance was compounded by frustration."

Von Mellenthin smiled; he had noted it, too. "Then I trust they didn't find what they sought?"

"That would seem to be the case," von Seydlitz rested his hand on the bare altar and patted it serenely. "Your prize awaits your attention."

Von Mellenthin rubbed his hands together. "Yes, yes, of course." He walked past von Seydlitz, briefly grasping the Colonel's elbow with a hand in a friendly gesture before coming to a halt in front of the captive. "Not wholly undamaged, I see."

Von Seydlitz had been thorough himself. The false priest was upside-down, naked and trussed like a deer, arms outstretched across the horizontal crossbeam of the massive wooden cross that had stood as the backdrop to the altar. It was easily nine feet across, so von Seydlitz had lashed the assassin's arms to the wood with what looked to be a length of barbed wire, probably originally used to line a Nativity scene to keep people from groping the statues. Following that, von Seydlitz had run another length of wire through the assassin's Achilles tendons and hung him from the support strut that had held the cross originally; with his legs strung together, the assassin appeared to be the new cross, albeit an upside-down one. Rivulets of blood streaked down the man's pain-filled face, but he remained silent.

Von Mellenthin leaned in very close; his face inches from his attempted killer's face, noting the eyelids clenched shut and inhaling the scent of fear. "He's not dead yet, is he?"

"Not that I am aware of. He was quite vigorous up until his capture. His limbs are broken, but he is otherwise unharmed beyond the lacerations." Von Seydlitz did not exaggerate.

"I'm sure he was," hissed von Mellenthin into the false priest's face. The man's eyelids fluttered almost imperceptibly, and the General grabbed the man's face in a hand that more resembled a claw. "Wake thyself, scum. You have much to fucking answer for!"

The priest's eyes blinked open rapidly, trying to focus and clear the blood from the lids. The man could not stop a gasp of shock as he was greeted by the inverted face of von Mellenthin, teeth white in a shark's smile and eyes full of palpable hatred.

"Oh, yes, little holy man, I'm quite hale and hearty still," answered von Mellenthin to the unspoken question, "which means you have unfortunately failed in your mission and have been caught in the act of the attempt. You're going to die in a terrifyingly bad way, so you had might as well answer the questions I pose now and save yourself needlessly suffering any longer than absolutely necessary."

The priest tried to spit, but only succeeded at drooling blood and saliva up his own nose. Von Mellenthin's grip on the man's face tightened until he could feel the cheekbones come within a gram of break pressure, and then backed down. "I knew you would grasp the logic. Let's start with the basics: who are you, who hired or sent you, and why did you even presume to believe you had a hope in heaven or hell of succeeding?"

--------------------------------------

Erik stopped and shuddered suddenly, prompting de la Somme to stop as well, a worried expression pasted all over his face. "Hey, you okay, buddy?"

The boy looked at him, and de la Somme could read the emotions in the green eyes easily; in fact, a blind man could have read them easily. Erik pointed over at the cathedral where the three mobile suits knelt. "In there."

De la Somme followed the finger, and then his face faulted into a grimace. "Yeah, figured that was it." Erik had already been through one rough event tonight, having to part from the rest of his brethren as per von Mellenthin's nebulous plan to cheat Axis of its prize and still get what he wanted from Haman Kahn. Whatever his two foster brothers were doing to the assassin inside, de la Somme wanted no direct part in it. Inasmuch as he was a product of New Koenigsberg, he knew this was something his brothers were far more adept at than he was, and he was on a tighter schedule. He reached out and wrapped an arm around Erik's trembling shoulders. "'S okay, let's just get to the suit, get warm, and go swimming. We'll leave this town and all the bad stuff behind us, even though there was some good stuff, too. The food's gonna be crap for a little while, and we might smell a bit bad when we get to where we gotta go, but it'll all be worth it once we get outta here. Sound good?"

Erik nodded mutely, and then stiffened. A keening wail was barely audible within the rush of the wind around them that blew errant flakes of snow over and around them. Wide-eyed and trembling, Erik whispered harshly: "Do you know what they're doing to him in there?"

The ace met green eyes with his, unflinching. "Yeah, I got a pretty good idea. Can't say I blame 'em, though, the guy did shoot him."

The NewType child bit his lower lip. "I can feel them! I can feel what they're doing to him!" His voice had the plaintive tone that bespoke a horror so profound it could not be put into words. The cold-reddened cheeks suddenly went so pale they were almost transparent. "Oh my god. . ."

De la Somme winced, cursed himself roundly for his choice of parking spaces, and sighed, suddenly feeling more tired now than he had in a long time. Chasing the fake priest had taken a lot of energy out of him, and he had been relieved to see the Foxe twins and von Seydlitz arrive to help him. It had not been so much the length of the chase as having to pursue on the icy cobblestone streets of Hameln, dodge and weave through the fleeing crowds, and keep the priest from putting a bullet into him, all at the same time. Exhausting, it was, but not nearly as taxing as watching the eight-year old suffer the empathic onslaught of the would-be killer's torment. Erik had explained that places of faith also had power of a sort, and it left him open to the feelings generated by the people who frequented them. That was apparently what was happening right now.

De la Somme knelt down, feeling the street try and suck what was left of his body heat out of his knee, and wrapped his arms around Erik, rubbing the boy's back soothingly. "Listen, kiddo, I know this stinks, but we're almost there. Can you hang on for me? Once we're in the Gouf, we're golden, and you can cry, crash out, whatever you wanna do. I'll put some tunes on and everything'll be okay, okay?"

The body he held was immobile; he felt like he was hugging a tree. Erik gave a sniffle, and then spoke through clenched teeth. "How can you love them when they do things like this? How can you love anything that does things like this?"

His own voice a whisper, de la Somme closed his eyes, pained. "No choice, buddy. I don't know any other way to be about this. I can't hate them, not when they saved me, or for being what they are. They're my boss and my family. It's not like they drown kittens every day or nothin'. . .not recently, anyway." Now he was the one trembling, wishing the boy he held was one of his own sons for the millionth time since Heidelberg. "But I gotta admit," he swallowed a lump he did not realize had formed, "this friggin' sucks."

He felt the boy's arms come up around his neck. "Aren't you supposed to be the one comforting me?" asked Erik, voice sounding a little less miserable but not by much.

De la Somme laughed brokenly and picked the boy up into his protesting arms. "Funny how things work sometimes, huh?" He resumed his walk towards the parked Gouf Custom, wondering if the harried soul he carried in his arms was being saved or cursed by leaving Hameln with the Piper instead of staying behind.

They could hear the screaming until the hatch finally, mercifully shut that cruel world out.

------------------------------------

Von Mellenthin pulled a blood-coated finger out of the mess he had made, then pushed the hanging priest with an equally-bloodied hand, making the whole cross-like contraption swing and twist. "I must say, whoever trained you knew their work well, priest. Either you've got more tenacity than a dozen people, or you really don't know your name."

The man moaned piteously, looking vastly worse after a mere five minutes of excruciation. Von Mellenthin casually reached over and stopped the swinging motion, crouching until he was face-to-face with his would-be killer. "As much fun as it would be to shatter your mind, body, and soul, I simply don't have the time to spare, so I'm going to skip the questioning phase and go straight to the part where you die horribly. I hope you'll forgive the rudeness." He extended his arm again, equally casually, and grasped an errant piece of dangling meat on the assassin's leg, pulling it off of the bone with a peeling motion and dropping it on the cathedral floor with a dull wet plop. "Oh, my kingdom for a carrot stripper."

He stepped away from the moaning man, like an artist judging a draft work. Noting the priest's lips moving in a steady pattern, von Mellenthin leaned back in a little closer to listen. "Prayers? They cannot save you any more than they have ever saved anyone from anything."

The priest's lips continued to move in the midst of his agony, breaths barely audible, but von Mellenthin could just make out the words. " La plus jeune avait l'pied léger. Nous irons jouer sur le bord de l'eau. La plus jeune avait l'pied léger. Nous irons jouer sur le bord de l'eau. A bord d'la barque elle a sauté. Nous irons jouer. Sur le bord de l'eau. Nous irons jouer dans l'île. Sur le bord de l'eau. Nous irons jouer dans l'île."

"Oh ho." Von Mellenthin smiled, grabbing the man by what hair remained on his scalp and jerking the entire contraption closer. "Something from your deep, dark past, is it? A little French ditty to take your mind away from your pain?" He leaned closer, whispering. "Do you want to be let in on a little secret? I'll let you in on a secret." The General clamped his iron grip over the false priest's mouth with his free hand, silencing him. "Listen well, before you die: even if there is a god who would care about someone like you, it won't matter. The greatest powers of humanity have caged us, exiled us, tried to starve us out, failed to kill us, and with every generation we've grown stronger. We dominated half this world, built a greater empire than any in history ever had before, and we can do it again and better next time because the sheep you let rule you lack the power to finish the job without having to resort to the same tactics they publicly abhor. They mistakenly fear the opinions of the mob more than they fear Zeon, and that is their fatal error. If you thought the Devil was the source of all evil, imagine the Devil's works in the hands of far more capable Man. Especially Man with no regard for the simpering morality that you've tainted the world with for centuries, willing to take that step no one else would dare for fear of the wrath of a god who long since stopped paying attention."

Von Mellenthin's tongue reached out and licked a spot of blood from the assassin's face. "When your god burns in Hell along with you and your species," he purred, "you will spend eternity lamenting your failure, while my kind puts humanity under its yoke for the lifespan of this universe and any other we choose to occupy. You have seen the beginning of the end for homo sapiens as you know it. In the future I will design and craft from my labors, I will ensure that this moment is studied in history, and all creation will either praise your failure as the greatest moment of all Time, or curse your failure as the final chance to save the old world from the inevitable. There will be no escape from your mind or your pain then." Von Mellenthin straightened, wiping his hands on his trousers. He barely felt the bullets anymore, and he knew the wounds had closed. Time was of the essence now; in mere hours he would be in dire circumstances. He turned his back on the assassin and walked over to von Seydlitz, who watched from his seat on the altar, face typically stony.

"I do not think he really knows his name," commented von Seydlitz, grey eyes burning brightly as he stared at the living wreckage, nostrils flaring at the scents of blood and pain.

"He doesn't, but it's not important anyway. The Titans did not send him and that much is certain. This viper's stink suggests this is Camael Balke's ilk, or someone like him. Meddlesome Vatican scum poking their noses into things that would lop those proboscises off with their own hypocrisies; their time will come, all of them, and I'll take great pleasure in crucifying a Catholic every kilometer of the world until I've circumnavigated the globe with their screams in an unbroken chain. They will learn the price for defying our Will." Von Mellenthin stopped next to his brother and stared at him, smiling in that maddening 'I know something you don't know' way. "You have a problem, Reinhardt."

Von Seydlitz tore his eyes from the ravaged assassin and met von Mellenthin's gaze, quirking an eyebrow. Von Mellenthin reached out and patted von Seydlitz's cheek as he had in the Bier tent. "I didn't forget, you see. I know, and remember."

The sharp intake of breath from the touch was enough to confirm von Mellenthin's suspicions. The General shook his head. "How you've lasted this long is amazing, brother of mine. I know it's your Time, and has been for days now. I'd have gone berserk by this point, but your level of control is truly astounding."

The taller man gritted his teeth. "Antares told you?" he accused.

Von Mellenthin snorted. "No need for that. I have a nose and a very good memory. Between them, I don't forget important dates." The General grinned even more widely. "I'll bet he forgot, though, didn't he?"

The other man's jaw was agape, and von Mellenthin popped the Colonel's chin with the back of his hand, smirking as the mouth clamped shut. "You know, Reinhardt, it wouldn't be prudent to leave you in a condition anything less than your best before we depart for our final victory."

Von Seydlitz cleared his throat and swallowed; von Mellenthin could smell the phermonones roiling off of the Colonel, the man was practically humming with them. "There is. . .some logic to that, yes."

"Yes," agreed von Mellenthin happily, moving so close to von Seydlitz until he was practically nuzzling the taller man's neck, reveling in the torture he knew he was inflicting, "I thought you would see it my way. Then surely by now you must realize how precarious a problem you've been having, what with no one available to mate with, correct?"

"Correct." The word might as well have been grated out of von Seydlitz's jaw. "Our deal has left potentials a bit scarce of late."

Von Mellenthin reached out and put an arm around von Seydlitz's shoulder, feeling the tremendous heat radiating from him. The gesture drew von Seydlitz off of his seat on the altar, and the General slowly turned them until they faced the dangling assassin. The expression on von Mellenthin's face shifted from contented happiness to a visage of hatred, and he tightened his arm around the taller man's neck in a headlock even as his eyes latched onto the assassin and stayed there.

"Don't you see it, Reinhardt?" purred von Mellenthin quietly into his brother's ear. "Don't you see why I had this offal swine brought here alive? Don't you see why I pushed your movement time back? Don't you see that this," he pointed at the false priest with his free hand, smelling von Seydlitz's sweat and burying his face in his brother's hair, "is not a resident of Hameln?"

Von Seydlitz, usually unflappable and resolute, was vibrating against him uncontrollably, and von Mellenthin could literally feel waves of need flowing over himself, coming off of his brother's gene-tortured body. He grinned wolfishly in von Seydlitz's hair, squeezing tighter without worry; by this point, von Seydlitz would not be able to detect his injury or how badly he had been wounded. The stink of the priest's blood would permeate von Seydlitz's heightened senses. He could tell his brother was about to snap from the pressure, and a particularly primal piece of himself wondered how long his proud subordinate would endure before he simply fell apart from the strain. How long could you last, Reinhardt? Dare I haul you away before granting you the release you desperately crave? What lengths would you go to just to keep up the charade of control when it's everything you are just to keep from screaming aloud?

He spoke into the writhing ball of near-frantic desire he held tightly, his voice a bestial growl even as his blue-green eyes stared at the would-be assassin with a hate so pure it was scathing. He made his choice. "Make him suffer, Reinhardt. Use this roach for whatever you need, but be swift. Time is short. One hour, and then make your movement. I will await you there."

The Colonel was practically weeping from the chance at relief. "D-Dietrich. . .?" he stammered quietly.

Von Mellenthin shushed him and released him from the headlock, kissing the top of his burning head and pushing at him with a hand. "Swiftly, Reinhardt. Make a rag of him, expend him, and join me. Tonight, we leave this place to become the trolls beneath the Grimm brothers' bridge, and it would not do to be late! The Gateway awaits us! Leave whatever is left for the Titans to find among the wreckage of this house," he spat on the floor as he walked towards the doors, to leave von Seydlitz to his work, "of God!"

As the doors swung open and the cold air blew in, von Mellenthin stepped outside and into the night. Before the doors closed, he heard von Seydlitz's hungry snarl echo through the cathedral's buttresses and off its walls, and as the great wooden flaps closed with their heavy thuds, he heard the assassin's choked screams begin anew, and the General laughed. He laughed his way all the way down the steps and into the icy courtyard; he laughed as he passed by the horrified faces that had gathered around the cathedral, drawn by the screams and curiosity; he laughed until the streets around rang with the sound of it, until its dissonance returned a sound that was monstrous and inhuman, a howl more than a laugh.

The Zaku Hi-Mo stood, looming over the kneeling form of von Seydlitz's Gouf Custom, patiently awaiting the return of its master. Von Mellenthin's war machine, the lion rampant of Hessen gleaming on its breast, raised a massive steel fist at the steeple of the cathedral, clenched as though declaring war.

"Not Thy will," thundered over the grounds, transmitted by the loudspeaker to half of the city, "but MINE!" The Zaku took a step backwards, spun on a heel in a precise about-face, and walked away from the cathedral as if never turning to face it ever again.

Titans Line (West), Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

"Oh, enough, Garrett," bemoaned Tizard as they walked into 2nd Battalion's TOC tent. "I've already forgiven you, so please stop bleating excuses for your behavior." He glared at the two soldiers who were inside the tent, packing away the most nonessential gear for the shift west. "Leave us alone. You can finish later."

The Titans Captain stammered as the soldiers left, the tent flapping closed behind them. "B-But I thought you---?"

"Stop doing that, too. After tonight, it's become very apparent you aren't good at it. So I'm going to stop forcing you to try." Tizard swung a leg over a plastic folding chair, and in a un-Tizardlike fashion, seated himself so that he straddled the back, arms folded over the chair's back support. "Still, I do have to thank you for proving several points with your one-man assault on the enemy stronghold."

"You do, sir?" Sajer did not try and sit, which scored him one point in his favor.

"Oh, yes, indeed." Tizard smiled wanly. "As much trouble as you've been tonight, you did succeed with some intelligence gathering, and it is for that reason I forgive you. Your miserable performance tonight has revealed several things about our enemy and their disposition, and they are things I will factor in."

He raised a hand and closed all but one of his fingers. "First, we know that in spite of the time that's passed under siege, the photo surveillance of their vigilance is proven accurate, and they aren't dropping their guard." A second finger extended. "Second, we know that the technology the majority of their surviving mobile suits possess is ineffective against our new frontline units, by which I refer to the Barzam and I presume the Marasai as well; in spite of the thrashing your machine received, it took a beam saber to actually do you any kind of real harm, and Zeon came late to the table with beam weaponry during the War," he noted Sajer's wince at the mention, "Third, it's apparent that we are going to have to catch them on open terrain, as storming Hameln will cost us severely in manpower and material given the level of piloting skill they displayed as compared to our own relatively novice abilities; we may have them in numbers and technology, but they possess a diabolical talent for destruction on hemmed-in ground. Defensively they will cost us dearly, and we may not be able to afford the loss of forces in Europe as the line of defense against the Karaba terrorists and AEUG scum, much less, God forbid, Axis, on this end of the Atlantic. Fourth," he smiled amicably, "he's nervous about something."

Sajer frowned in confusion. "Who's nervous?"

"The 'Lion'." Tizard smacked a hand on the back of the chair, long fingers cuffed in black running over the plastic as he stroked the spot he slapped. "It's really elementary, Garrett. Why else would his demand be for us to pull back instead of, say, forcing you to surrender your advanced suit for their use?"

Sajer shook his head, not seeing the logic. "My suit," he rasped, "was already damaged by then. What fucking good would a damaged suit be to them?"

Tizard clucked his tongue. "Because Vladimir Margul, a man historically reputed for being a bloodthirsty butcher, couldn't kill you by himself. By all rights, I should be writing to your next of kin and preparing to eulogize you. The sheer curiosity should have been an unspeakable temptation, but he didn't opt for it. What's more, the option he did take is one he chose only because they're hiding something. Why else would they force us to drop our surveillance net during the movement if they weren't hiding something? No, Garrett, von Mellenthin is up to something devious, and it's something that he couldn't do with us sitting there watching. So he did what he's always done and used you as the excuse to get us to drop our watch, if only for long enough to accomplish whatever it is he's planning."

The Major's fingers drummed restlessly on the chair's back. "Tacitus wrote about a speech the Roman general Germanicus once gave to his men before battling Arminius' union of German tribes at Idisiaviso, where Germanicus is said to have told his men that the German stature was impressive and powerful in a quick attack, but that they could not stand being hurt. The 'Lion' and his pride have been hurt, whether he shows it or not. Steinbaum hurt them, and this siege has hurt them, and now the knowledge that they face an opponent with superior technology that their weapons may not save them from is hurting them. In short," the fingers stopped drumming, "whatever it is he's planning to do, he has to do it soon, before he meets Arminius' fate and is killed by one of his rival chieftains or his unit's morale simply dies out. If his past record holds true, timing is everything for his machinations."

Sajer's face turned downwards. "You think he'll try to break out? Eleven suits against a whole battalion?"

"No, I think he'll run, and he'll do it while we're not watching, which is why I want the movement done in less than four hours. I will not allow the Zeon to slip the net after they've forced us to keep away from the catch for this long." Tizard's tiny little smile remained in place. "I do wonder about this man with a pistol dressed as a priest von Mellenthin referred to. Captain Balke seems to be sticking his hand in where it's not wanted again."

"You think it was him?"

"His contact with the Catholic Church in Germany is a matter of record, though I don't know specifics beyond that he spent some time in their care as a youth. Can't see how much of an impact it made, because he spent five times as long in juvenile detention in spite of it all. If Balke isn't involved with it, then this might very well be an isolated local incident as von Mellenthin said it was. I don't believe that, however, not without speaking to our miserly Federation colleague first. He'll lie, but he's not as good at it as he thinks he is."

He noted Sajer's continuous look of dejection. "Oh, stop that, Captain. You won't be facing the Zeon in a damaged suit, though you certainly warrant that level of punishment for your failure to obey instructions."

"My suit will take days to repair and recalibrate," pointed out Sajer in a harsh whisper.

"No," Tizard shook his head, "you'll be taking the Marasai. I will pilot the Barzam from here on out."

Sajer's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. "Wha--? Why?"

The Major's smile was almost reptilian in its cunning. "The challenge of it. Besides, I would hate for von Mellenthin to think I was not interested in a fair fight, or do you think I'm not capable of being combat effective in a suit with one hand? I'll do it for the thrill of the ride, Captain; any other reasons are my own to entertain."

Tizard was going to continue, but the tent flap opened at Captain Palaccio stuck his head in. "Sir, Saber Main is calling on the Brigade push, asking to speak with you directly. Something about a sleazy Federation officer and his driver they just stopped at the Aerzen interchange. Says he's here to see you, sir."

Tizard's smile grew harder, but his eyebrows rose as he met Sajer's gaze.

Hameln, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

Reinhardt von Seydlitz managed to squeeze his dripping Gouf Custom into the narrow space between the prone forms of von Mellenthin's Zaku Hi-Mo and Weissdrake's Gelgoog Commander with centimeters on each side to spare, water sloshing out of the limb actuators and running over the camouflaged armor to puddle on the floor. He locked the suit down and shut off the controls, then popped the hatch manually and stood, watching the clamshell doors close above his head, bathing the space in blackness until the loading lights flickered on. He knew there would be very little power at this point and time was limited, so he did not dawdle as he walked or hopped over the supine mobile suits until he reached the ladder on the far side, bag in hand. The lights cut off as soon as he reached the first rung, but it was of little concern. He climbed the ladder, eager to escape the sickening smell of oily tar that permeated the space where his suit now lay. He felt himself again, the terrible pressure that had tortured him for days now gone, and while it looked and smelled as though he had bathed in a slaughterhouse, the end result had been eminently worth the effort. He closed the door behind him and made his way through the cramped hallways towards his destination. He had been the last to arrive.

This piece of von Mellenthin's scheme had taken some explanation. It relied on a singular albeit multifaceted premise: that the Zaku spewing Minovsky radiation in the center of their half of Hameln and the dense German winter cloud coverage, coupled with their foes' obvious reluctance to tempt van Allen's Gelgoog Cannon into an antiaircraft role and the Titans' grounding of all civilian flights over or around the besieged town, meant that the Titans had insufficient aerial coverage over the entire town. This idea, when viewed from the reports they had generated from the audio/visual recordings the Peeper remote reconnaissance vehicle had given them from the 54th's 1st Battalion TOC daily briefings, reckoned that the Titans were relying solely on ground-based surveillance of the Zeon positions in Hameln's east side, and were thus constrained into a two-dimensional view of the area. In regards to the position the 10th Panzerkaempfer had chosen to weather out the siege, all of that put together meant there was a 400 meter-long blind spot sitting right in the center of the Weser river in the form of a man-made island called the Werder, which ran the length of the river between the Muensterbruecke and the Thiewallbruecke bridges, covered the entirety of the Sudetenstrasse and most of the Promenade, and was easily observable from the Zeon side of the river from the Pfortmuehle manse that was on the riverbank. The island connected to the mainland via a single road, the Inselstrasse, that fed directly onto the Muensterbruecke bridge. It was also the place where Margul's Kaempfer had been stationed just prior to the Titans' attack.

From the far side of the river, where the closest Titans position was located, the entire thing appeared to be one contiguous piece of riverside property. They could not see that the Weser flowed around the Werder, between the island and the Pfortmuehle, without aerial reconnaissance or an astute map and sharp eyes. It was on that little branch of the Weser, one day prior to the arrival of the 10th Panzerkaempfer in Hameln, that Sergeant Wolfram La Vesta and his two 186th Amphibious Battalion cohorts found a particular covered quay that would not be shown on any map, and as per von Mellenthin's instructions when they had divulged that discovery, they had slipped RMS Fafnir, formerly known as RMS Ruhrort, into that same quay and begun Phase Two of their directives.

The time had come to leave, and with the exception of the several days it took La Vesta and his soldiers to make the ship ready, the way out of this mess had been in place the entire time. That von Mellenthin had managed to hide the ship and La Vesta's men for the better part of a week before letting his battalion commanders know was a pretty good piece of internal subterfuge, and the surprise that the revelation produced was quickly replaced by a sudden sense of superiority over the small army of Titans that for all intents and purposes had the upper hand in this arrangement. It was even better when taken with the knowledge that von Mellenthin had known about all of this back at the Taunus, just before their linkup with von Seydlitz and the running battle with the airborne Titans elements that brought them here.

Now, circumstances had worked again in their favor, as the Titans had been forced to drop their watchfulness to fulfill von Mellenthin's demand that they relocate. Ruhrort was now free to launch, carrying the 10th Panzerkaempfer away from their enemies not by land, but by water, courtesy of the 186th 'Deep Dwellers' and the Weser river. Von Mellenthin had given the Titans four hours; they would be leaving with nearly two hours to spare.

He climbed the last set of steps and slid open the door, finding the room full of Zeon soldiers. De la Somme glanced furtively at him, probably still anticipating him being victim to his Time. Von Mellenthin smiled at the state he was in; he looked like he had been rolled through a meat-packing plant. "Everything set, Oberst?"

Von Seydlitz spared the time to look at every face in the room, pausing longest on the face of the NewType child. De la Somme saw it and put a hand on the boy's shoulder, even as fear flickered across the too-green eyes. Six left behind and one to show off to Haman Kahn. Will she not be upset at the loss? Too bad for her. He wondered what this construct of a life-form would think about New Koenigsberg and what they had in store for him upon his arrival; it did not matter anyway. The child was a toy, one the bio-scholars were going to reduce to his component amino acids to decipher for their own uses. What de la Somme thought about that piece of the plan he was not sure, but it would ultimately be irrelevant in any instance; it was part of the deal the children had made with von Mellenthin, and not even the most violent tantrum de la Somme could muster would sway that Will. The contract was sealed now.

He would explain to de la Somme why he should put his fears to rest later. He was not in the mood to air out his laundry in front of the whole unit. "Yes, Herr General. My suit is locked down and the doors are sealed shut. We are ready for departure on your order." Von Seydlitz noted the blood under his fingernails and wondered if he would be able to shower. He doubted it, at least not yet.

"Good, then we're all here. Tomorrow, first thing, if you haven't seen the gun camera footage that Kommandant Margul should have uploaded to everyone's FBCB2 systems, you should prioritize that to the top of the list. It will prove very instructive about what it is we may have to face if this goes badly, and while Margul accorded himself well during the fracas, even he admits some doubts as to our suits' weapons effectiveness against this form of armor. I want you to go over the entire sequence with a refined interest and concentrate on ways to exploit whatever weaknesses can be found in their new design philosophy. Any tactic we can develop helps us and hurts them, and I am all for hurting them, gentlemen."

Von Mellenthin's smile would have given the sunrise a run for its money. "Mister McKenna, would you be so kind? Set course north by northwest towards Bremerhaven, make speed for ten knots. Blackout ops, no internal lights or battery power. Rig for silent running, Oberleutnant. Nice and quiet, we would not want to be noticed at this stage."

"Aye, sir," grinned McKenna's ruddy face as he cranked the old 'Gertrude' submarine phone that he had La Vesta's people install in Ruhrort's conning tower. As he spoke, the rest of the Zeon wandered off of the bridge in ones and twos, until there were just a handful of officers remaining.

"I don't know 'bout you cats, but I'm calling it a night. Wake me up when we get to Bremen, 'kay? C'mon, Erik, let's rack out." The ace draped an arm over the boy's narrow shoulders and led him off the bridge, but the child still seemed to be the loneliest thing von Seydlitz had ever seen. He wondered briefly why this was surprising; the Federation's weapon was now truly alone, cut off from his crèche-mates and still prisoner of the enemy he was designed to fight.

As the door opened, the two shared identical yawns, and then the door closed behind them; von Seydlitz made a mental note of that, though he could not say why immediately. The bridge lights flickered off, all except for the eerie blue blackout lights that illuminated instruments and little else. They, too, would be cut off soon.

The ship gave a minute lurch that von Seydlitz felt in his knees, and then it silently began to move forward and out of the quay. No fireworks lit their passage. He could detect nothing to suggest the presence of either la Vesta's Hygogg or the two Z'Gok Es beneath the murky waters of the Weser.

This may work. Please make this work. His thoughts as he stared into the darkness were interrupted when a hand touched him on the arm, and he glanced away from the window and to the darkened face of von Mellenthin.

"I'm going to catch some sleep as well, Reinhardt. You should do the same; the next two days are critical and you'll need all your strength. Besides," the other man sniffed, then smiled devilishly in the blue light, "you stink."

"I will be there as soon as we pass Hessisch-Oldendorf. You go ahead. Oberleutnant McKenna will maintain the conn until the Rinteln turn, and then it will be up to Hauptfeld La Vesta."

The General grasped his arm in a friendly gesture. "Then I'll leave you to it. Try not to wake me for at least ten hours, please."

"Done. Guten nacht, Generalmajor." It dawned on von Seydlitz that for the first time since Steinbaum, the plan was actually on track. Everything was precisely how it was supposed to be. He actually had to stifle a chuckle at the thought that they had been flying off the seat of their pants even as they had spent the week sitting on their behinds.

"Guten morgen, Oberst," corrected von Mellenthin. "It's pushing five in the morning. Get to bed within the hour, Reinhardt, that's an order."

"Yes, sir." A final squeeze on the arm and his foster brother was gone, still wrapped in the now-ragged greatcloak. It seemed to von Seydlitz that the wear and tear it had endured tonight made its majesty somewhat diminished, but not that of its wearer.

The door slid shut behind von Mellenthin, whom he knew would head for the captain's cabin. For an hour, he and McKenna stood the watch, trading a night-vision set of binoculars every now and again to scan around the banks of the river. No Titans impeded their path, and none were seen that they could detect within the limited range of the binoculars. By the time they made the turn northward just past Rinteln, crossing the border between Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia in the process, Ruhrort was clear and away, and all its passengers sailed on the ship of dreams.

All save one.

Aerzen, Niedersachsen, Central Europe

November 24, 0087

Tizard waved a hand through the smoke-filled air as he entered Brigade TOC, Sajer behind him. At the map table, the slouched form of Federation Captain Camael Balke sat, casually smoking what looked to be his fourteenth cigarette since his arrival, judging by how many butts had been ground onto the floor beneath the table. He had apparently not shaved in days, bathed in at least as long, or slept for even longer. Balke shot him a toothy smile, and then turned his rheumy eyes towards Sajer, and Tizard noted the sudden soldier-like cast they grew as soon as they met Sajer's; all traces of the scum Balke had become in his lifetime vanished beneath the surface of what could only be a competent professional, and Tizard wondered why Balke refused to simply give in to what anyone could see in these circumstances was a blessed destiny. The man was not a fool, but his lack of discipline and professionalism was the only crusade he would fight for.

The Titan Captain growled quietly, enough so that only Tizard heard him, and then spun on a heel and stormed out, slamming the door shut behind him. Apparently satisfied with the result, Balke leaned back, and the coolness of his eyes suddenly melted back into his usual dismal softness. "Surprised to see me here, Major?"

"No," Tizard replied levelly, "I'm surprised to see you here free to roam about at will when I left instructions for you to be placed in chains should you ever show your face in Aerzen again. That you are unfettered does not follow in accordance with my orders." He shot Volkyr a look, but the Brigade S-3 was busy coordinating movement on the radio and did not notice.

"Don't blame them. I pulled a little rank at your checkpoint and then threatened to bite my tongue off to keep from telling you anything if your droids got in my way. They seemed pretty eager to keep my tongue where it is. Might be you were expecting me?"

Tizard chose not to answer that. "I'll presume that the mobile suit we've intercepted just south of here is also part of your entourage, Captain?"

"Yeah, that'd be Brak and the Missus Lieutenant Dyson in her fixed-up battlewagon. I thought it'd be smart to have another suit before begging to get let back into the club." Balke stubbed out his cigarette on the wall behind himself, then dropped the butt to the floor and stamped on it with a dirty boot heel. "Well, you like my way of asking nice?"

Tizard sat down in front of the table. "In case you failed to notice, though I know your driver did not, I have plenty of mobile suits of my own already. One obsolete Federation GM is not solving any sort of deficiency in my MTOE."

Balke frowned. "No? Oh, you thought the suit was the peace offering. No, I was talking about me, Major. I'm the peace offering."

Tizard grinned that tiny grin of his. "I see. And with this package of a deal just so happens to come an obsolete Federation GM, its pilot, and a clump of ragtag remnants of the former Federation command group for Europe, the same Federation command group for Europe that allowed the Zeon to fester like an abscess in their very midst until it blew Bonn up around them. I don't believe this cup of cold tea has enough sweeteners for me to put it to my lips and sip from its contents, Captain. Get out of my TOC, we have a movement phase to execute."

"Whoa, hold on there, Colonel Klink, you're forgetting one big lump in all of that," Balke grabbed another chair and plopped it down in front of the map table, on the far side of Tizard. "With me, you get access into some of the juiciest intel sources a guy can find, including the Church."

"The Church?" Tizard knew this already, but it was too much fun making Balke wheedle what could have been his already by Federation status of forces agreement writ if he had just taken the time to read and cite it. "What do I need from a bunch of neutral religious dogmatists that I can't get out of the locals?"

"The locals don't like you, Major, any more than they like the supermonkeys. You guys have dirt all over your faces thanks to what you've pulled in Space, Southeast Asia, and countless other locales all over the globe. Who're you that they should trust you enough to want to have seen or heard anything you want to know?" Balke leaned closer. "But people do talk to their priests, and they'll talk to me."

"Why would anyone want to talk to you? You're nobody."

"I'm not a Titan, and here in Germany that makes me somebody. Look, Mellenthin hasn't made a lot of friends here thanks to some of his antics, and neither have you for backing down every time he says 'boo'. The locals don't trust you, and that makes them scared and they'll clam up rather than suck the wrath of whichever side wins if they pick wrong. Back in the War, everyone and their dog knew that unless forced, Mellenthin wouldn't attack German soil, especially after Bayreuth; now, after having shot the shit out of Kassel, Heidelberg, and Mannheim, no one knows what he'll do next. He's not playing by the rules anymore. There are bets in every bar between Koeln and Stuttgart as to whether or not he'll raze Hameln before he leaves. There's others hedging bets over if you'll do it after this is all done for aiding and abetting them, even if it was under gunpoint and under duress. The third party is betting you'll let Mellenthin nuke this town because you really don't give a flying fuck. No one wants to talk to your people, Major."

Tizard's eyes narrowed. "And you think that because my associates in Space sinned, I should have to bear that cross?"

"You already are, buck-o, even if you can't feel the nails. Half of everybody here thinks you're either a monster making a list and checking it twice for who's going to get it when this is all done, or they think you're a chickenshit pushover who's too busy bending over to every demand Mellenthin throws at you to fight even when he's not using civilians as a shield. No one knows what game you're playing, but everyone's afraid to see what's in your hand."

Tizard was silent, so Balke continued: "I can't give you every card he's holding, Major, but I can give you a pretty good idea what kind of hand he's trying to make."

Wrong game, Captain. You're trying to play poker with a chess set. Checkers would have done you better. "Perhaps you have a point, but make no mistake," Tizard fixed his stare on a spot on Balke's forehead, right between his eyes, "I will not tolerate my unit being slighted by any sort of taint of cowardice. I choose the time and place for my battles, not the German public or the junta in Dakar. I am a Titan, and the commander of the defense of Europe. I have the wherewithal and authority to pick my fights where I see fit, and while my honoring an ancient code of sanctuary may seem to others to be weakness, I assure you it is not. Hameln is a poor venue for an armored battle, and one that would cost countless unnecessary deaths. I will not play into von Mellenthin's hands in full view of the media and make him a martyr for anyone's cause. When everything is right, he and his irregulars will be neutralized in such a fashion that they will gain no glory from it. I dislike being thought of as craven, but I refuse to allow any sort of Zeon hero worship to perpetuate from the leavings of this campaign."

Balke did not blink. "That's cute and all, but I would've shot him down on the bridge if Assclown had given me the opportunity, honor be fucked. There's way more at stake here than looking good for the cameras, Major, and you know that as well as I do."

"Maybe I do, Captain," Tizard reached a hand across the table. "Welcome back, Mister Balke."

Balke did not grip his hand any longer than he had to. "Thrilled."

"As you should be; you are working with Titans again." Tizard let Balke's clammy hand go with almost visible relief. "So, Captain, anything you'd like to confess about a priest with a pistol causing havoc in Hameln?"

Balke pursed his lips, then shook his head wearily. "Not really. Anything you wanna confess about why Assclown's suit has to jerk off lefty now?"

Tizard had nothing to hide. "Captain Sajer had a run-in with Vladimir Margul on the bridge. His mobile suit lost its hand in the battle to a beam saber."

"Assclown can't take the 'Demon' on his best day. Margul's a sick piece of work. Your boy's lucky to be alive."

"It could have been worse, but this is a new era and times have changed. That situation is rectified, but it has cost us time and area. Von Mellenthin demanded a twelve-kilometer radius between our cordon and his town in exchange for our violating the Sanctuary. I chose the diplomatic route rather than a pitched battle on the banks of the Weser."

Balke rubbed at an eye. "Funny you should mention the river. You know that Kassel's attack choppers still haven't found that third ship?"

"The search continues, I imagine?"

"They've searched the length of the Rhine and come up with nada. Bryton told me that he sent them running willy-nilly through the offshoot waterways and canals capable of supporting a thousand-ton draft barge, but they still haven't come up with shit. Last report had them sweeping the Neckar in case it doubled-back."

"But you have another theory as to where it's gone," concluded Tizard matter-of-factly.

"Yep, just so happens I do." Balke sat back and looked at Tizard, patiently waiting.

Tizard steepled his fingers below his nose, lips pursed against the knuckles. "All right, Captain, earn your place in the clubhouse. I'm listening." And he did, as Balke began to weave a tale that had taken him halfway across Germany and into a glorified nunnery. As he spoke, Tizard's mind began to wander, prompted by Balke's findings, which while they came from wildly different places, made Tizard wonder just how many fingers were stirring the pot of soup called Nemesis. Still, in spite of Balke's apparently hard work and factfinding, Tizard simply did not need anything Balke was giving him. He was ahead of the game already.

Over the last week, his sources had fed him all the bits and pieces he needed to see the big picture without having to rely on the divinations of some washed-up Federation Captain and his pack of buffoons. Nemesis had always and ever had been about a single long-term purpose: getting back to Space, back to Side 3; claim possession by force or duress of the Republic of Zeon using the others from their colony, employ an army with a core comprised of nearly three million humans with an absolute hatred for all things Federation to enlist with Axis to acquire the material to outfit that army, and then finish what the Zavis had begun while Earth was weak and the Titans it was dependant on to protect it from threats from Space were so enmeshed with fighting the AEUG and strife within its own ranks that it would not be able to devote the forces to combat this new enemy. Earth would be more helpless now than it had been during the One-Year War. Tizard imagined it could be worse: at least von Mellenthin knew nothing about Space Command's ultimate plan for the Gryps 2 colony cylinder.

All of that made military sense, in spite of the ostentation. The part that disturbed Tizard's sleep was what would come afterwards. Sajer had reported that when Balke had crashed the European Command group planning meeting, he had said that von Mellenthin and those from his colony had been exiled decades ago for anti-Federation political activism and illegal genetic experimentation. The rest of the story fed directly into Balke's explanation, and that made Tizard exceedingly nervous: when one mouth spoke, it was superstitious nonsense and rumor-spinning; when it was two unrelated mouths saying the same thing, it was truth and even more frightening. Once the Federation was crushed under heel, the victorious eugenicists would spend decades harvesting from Terra and the other colonies, shuffling the species through a thousand tests to determine who was worthy to fit into what category of genetic order. Those found to be acceptable to continue their lineages would do so; the rest would be harvested for what was useful, or cast aside as being unfit to be of use to the species as a whole.

It was a nightmare Tizard had fought the Zeon to prevent when the Contolists had extolled the virtues of Spacenoids above Earthenoids, and he would continue to do so, because unlike his comrades in Space who were blind to the "minor" threat von Mellenthin represented, Tizard knew that to lose in Europe was to lose everything. If anything, this was going to be much worse: Giren Zavi would have just killed everyone who did not fit into his new social order; Dietrich von Mellenthin would not grant them even that much of an escape from what he had in mind. The unsuspecting world they stood on could not conceive of the level of cruelty von Mellenthin planned for them, a prison there would be no escape from for countless generations of what amounted in Tizard's mind to slaves, bound by their very genetic makeups into obedience without question to an entirely different genetic offshoot. Camael Balke knew it, too, and that made the Titans Major and the Federation Captain keepers of the biggest secret yet: that von Mellenthin's Grand Plan had been leaked before he had even reached Hameln. What Balke did not know was that Tizard knew, and that was precisely how Tizard liked it.

To do all that, first von Mellenthin had to go back to Space; Berlin would not get him there, no matter how big a jewel in his crown it would be. Tizard had nurtured the suspicion that the whole Berlin thing was as much nonsense as the biological weapon threat had been; the 10th Panzerkaempfer had maintained a northward drive ever since their initial attack on Heidelberg. If Space was their ultimate destination, then it did not take a genius to reason out the logic of their movement, though there were several possibilities to choose from. Overland meant they would have to face the 54th's firepower, but there were other ways to travel than by foot.

"If I were him, and thank heaven I'm not," spoke Balke into the silence, "I'd go right here."

The Titans Major raised an eyebrow as Balke mashed his nicotine-stained finger onto the map, and the two of them stared at the point the yellow fingernail indicated, confirming what Tizard had told Dewar on Erebus before Balke had even walked into the room.

Tizard shrugged; best to simply feign ignorance and let things go as they would. "By morning, we'll know. Pray you're right, Captain."

"Don't gotta. I already know I am. Still, he's a conniving bastard. Here," his finger slid westward and stopped, "would get him the same thing, if he wanted to go for it."

Tizard almost laughed at the ludicrousness of that notion, but he chose to continue his charade instead. "You're drunk again, aren't you?"

"Out with a bang and not a whimper? You've got to admit it'd be showy enough to matter. Hell, no one's managed it in centuries, especially from this piece of the continent, and it would still get him what he needs to get home." Balke raked a hand through his dirty hair. "It's worth letting them know to be ready, just in case."

Tizard nodded slowly. "Perhaps, but I prefer a more direct approach for interdiction." It would be him having to repeat himself, but it made the game that much more fun and he was no friend to Dewar in any event. "I'll radio the task force and give them their sailing orders."

Balke moved his finger again. "Here's another spot that could work, too. Goddammit, how many boats does Dewar have?"

Tizard frowned. "Erebus is the flagship, a pre-War frigate. He's got a two-suit mobile carrier that's essentially a rigged trawler, and about six other smaller ships of various size and combat capability. There may be others, depending on what your office across the Channel dispatched to reinforce him, if they did anything at all."

"Say then about eight vessels and two mobile suits?" Balke smirked at Tizard's nod. "Against three late-War amphibious mobile suits. That's cutting it close."

"Erebus has its helo asset as well. Air superiority is still on our side."

Balke's face went grim. "We had air superiority over Europe during the War, too, and the Zeon still ended up ruling virtually every waterway and inland sea on the continent through the whole damn thing." He shrugged. "Fuck it, maybe we'll catch them by surprise if they manage to slip past the cordon and get out."

I'm already counting on it. "They won't get past us if we finish movement within my timeframe. Nevertheless, I'll let Dewar know to begin moving eastward. We'll want to cut them off before any of the options you've pointed out become reality, if they manage to get out."

"Bounce it off Nijmegen, too. They may end up being out only line of defense if he goes west. Stilwell still has ammo and trainer suits." The grave look of Balke's face would have told anyone that he was not joking.

Tizard managed not to laugh. "I'll do that." After I make another call first. "When I return, I think you'll be telling me about that priest after all, Captain. If we're going to play on the same team after all, I think keeping secrets is something we're both going to have to swear off before New Year's."

For the first time since they met, Balke looked at Tizard with something resembling honest respect. "Yes, sir."

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(To be continued next chapter. . .)

Author's Notes:

Uhland's Lied is an actual German Remembrance Day pastime, though I don't think there are big public renditions of it in the style that I portrayed. It was written in 1809 and inspired by Tyrolian partisans fighting against Napoleon, and was parodied during World War I in the trenches by hungry Wehrmacht soldiers. I found two translations to it, one of which was put to music, and while this translation isn't exact, I liked the flow of it better than the precise one. Even set to music, it's not pretty to speak out loud just because the language is so harsh, but in English the deeper meaning behind the lines comes out true and the idea of a thousand people saying it at the same time gave me shivers. The English is below:

'In battle he was my comrade,

None better I have had.

The drum called us to fight,

He always on my right,

In step, through good and bad.

A bullet it flew towards us,

For him or meant for me?

His life from mine it tore,

At my feet a piece of gore,

As if a part of me.

His hand reached up to hold mine.

I must re-load my gun.

"My friend, I cannot ease your pain,

In life eternal we'll meet again,

And walk once more as one."'

The "ditty" that Duhamel sings while being tortured is a verse and chorus from an old French song called "Trois Navires de Blé", which I became aware of thanks to a neat folk band from Newfoundland called Great Big Sea. Though I'm no French speaker, I really liked the song (which is best sung in French judging by how the piece is structured), so I tracked down a translation for it. The piece Duhamel quotes is, in English:

'The youngest was light on her feet
We will play at the water's edge
The youngest was light on her feet
We will play at the water's edge
To the side of the boat she skipped
We will play
At the water's edge
We will play on the island

At the water's edge
We will play on the island'