Soldier of OZ: Walker's Account

Chapter 43 – Caardus, Epidendrum and Chrysanthemum

13 September, AC 195, L1-D-120

The staff sergeant in charge of the security detail escorting Oswald Walker pushed him into the top level of the dormitories adjacent to a factor complex he hadn't gotten a good look at. The top floor looked unused, with the open doors in the main hall revealing the bedrooms had been packed with wartime supplies: preserved food, drinking water, medicine and so forth.

The staff sergeant directed him to the last room in the hall, whose door was closed.

"You'll be staying here."

"Looks comfortable," Walker goaded the best he could, which was still quite poor.

He smirked and opened the door, which was only held back by a fairly conventional looking lock. Walker entered to see what he expected was very typical lodging for a P.O.W.: an old mattress on a metal frame, hastily installed military-use toilet with a sink.

"So I'm alone in here?"

This got a laugh from the staff sergeant. "You have no idea."

"Excuse me?"

The muscular NCO forced Walker, still in his dull work suit, to sit down on the mattress before reaching into a breast pocket of his uniform and pulling out a small index card with some handwriting on it. "Because of security concerns, Captain Walker, we're keeping you in emergency isolation for the time being," he explained, clearing referencing the card.

"Solitary confinement?" he screeched back.

He gave Walker a condescending look. "Because of wartime obligations, our security options for holding a high-value prisoner are limited."

"This is illegal!" Walker blurted. "You can't just throw me into solitary confinement! I've done nothing wrong, I haven't even had the time to!"

"Says who, sir?"

"Says Articles 9 and 10 of the Geneva Convention, Staff Sergeant," Walker barked back.

He looked up from the index card. "Right, that's a very good point, Captain. How about I get Captain Fielding on the line?"

Very quickly—too quickly, really—Walker found himself speaking to Fielding on the handset from a nearby wall-mounted telephone.

"I'm afraid those are your conditions, and you will probably have to be confined there for twenty-three hours a day."

"This is inhumane, Fielding!" Walker shouted back angrily. "Wasn't that the whole point of our earlier conversation?"

"You're very correct, Flight Lieutenant. How about we come to an arrangement: rather than being confined to your quarters for almost the entire day, you will be allowed travel freely, within reason, within our own labor structure." There was a pause. "As covered by Articles 27 to 34 in the Geneva Convention. I'm certain we can find you work appropriate to your skills and physical state."

This only infuriated Walker. "Get bent, Fielding!" he snapped before throwing the handset against the outside wall before he threw himself into the old mattress.

On the other end of the line, Fielding, still at his desk, listened to the crack of a handset bouncing against a wall and then a dial tone, before hanging up. He glanced at the paper copy of the Geneva Convention, printed on Alliance military stationary, sitting in front of him.

Nearby, Captain Soletta, also in uniform, raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Do you think this will work?"

Fielding looked up at her. "According to records from the Army Medical service, within fifty days, more than half of prisoners Walker's age undergoing solitary confinement like this were diagnosed with mental health problems. I seriously doubt it'll take fifty days, though. Walker might be immune to seduction from the likes of Maya Barton, but I doubt he's resistant to the effects of long-term isolation. No mobile suit troops officer is," he explained before adding, "No offense."

Soletta dismissed it. After all, Fielding piloted one too. "I still don't care for it.'

"Of course not. But the Defense Minister and I recognized his value. Trust me, this is quicker and more humane than the alternatives. You can't enslave technical specialists at gunpoint, and sharashkas only work in the face of an enemy promising total extermination, which isn't the case."

"You've given this a lot of thought, Fielding."

"I give everything a lot of thought, Captain," he repeated. "Put me in solitary confinement with a network connection and a slide rule, and I'd find out how to turn a colony torus ring into a doomsday weapon."

He closed the paper booklet and rubbed his temples. "But I'd need an engineer to do the drafting work." Sighing, he stood up. "How's the Defense Minister settling in, since most of the fleet's in dock?"

The already tense Soletta stirred a little. "She's not liking it. She's had the whole neighborhood on the edge of the Military Quarter barricaded and sealed. 'Anti-espionage measures' she's calling it, no one gets in or out."

"That seems…rather extreme," Fielding observed, grabbing his briefcase. "Didn't you grow up not far from here?"

"I went to school in the neighborhood, yes," she told him somberly.

II

"Mr. Willard Pratt?"

The ex-First President of the Republic of Utah looked up from the chair under the shade of his porch. An OZ officer climbed off a surprisingly quiet motorcycle he'd driven up the path to Pratt's summer home outside the town of Holladay.

"I didn't even hear you, soldier," he offered calmly, lowering his newspaper and looking over the rims of his reading glasses.

"Electric motorcycle, Mr. Pratt."

"Mr. President, soldier" Pratt corrected him.

"Second Lieutenant," the OZ officer corrected him in turn. On his green uniform sleeve was the patch of the 99th Carabineri Company of the 8th Alpine Division, OZ Earth Army.

Pratt grunted and crossed his legs. "What do you want?"

"The envoy from the Romefeller Foundation will be arriving in a half-hour. She wanted me to inform you in person."

Pratt almost fell out of his chair. "Excuse me, what? Duke Dermail agreed to my request?"

"Yes, sir, and his personal envoy will be meeting you soon. She's not far behind me."

"Why wasn't I called?" he asked, standing up.

"I don't know, sir."

"Wait, you said 'envoy'. Duke Dermail isn't meeting me personally?"

"No, sir, he sent his envoy, Ms. Dorothy Catalonia," he repeated insistently.

"Why didn't he?"

"I don't know these sort of things, sir," the officer explained, sounding more and more impatient. "Ms. Catalonia was part of the negotiations following the Liberation of Colorado, so she has some experience in this region."

"More like the Invasion of Colorado," Pratt muttered. The officer ignored him, instead looking up at the contrails of a strategic airlifter flying overhead.

"You should probably prepare, sir," he said distantly after a moment.

"I know that, I don't need you telling me that," he muttered before adjusting his slippers and running through the front door.

Just as the second lieutenant had warned, a long, gold-colored limousine had made its way up the snaking country road, escorted by two open-top 4WD military jeeps. Following a uniformed bodyguard detail, Dorothy Catalonia exited in an expensive gown belonging to the Romefeller Foundation's diplomatic corps and a sash in OZ colors going over one shoulder.

By then, Pratt was ready. As first president, one of his primary functions in the republic was to receive foreign dignitaries, a responsibility it seemed he still had. His family 'clan'—his wife, three sons, a daughter, and the seven grandchildren who were present at the estate—were practically Utahan royalty and one of the greatest political dynasties in North America. They knew how to play the part, even to the young heard of the death of their greatest political ambitions.

Dorothy played her part as well, shaking the hand of each family member, one by one, with an unflinching smile and unshakable enthusiasm. After finishing, she put her hands together in front of her gown and spoke. "My grandfather, the Duke of Liechtenstein and Chairman of the Romefeller Foundation, offers his most sincere apologies: the interstellar war demands he remain in close proximity of the military headquarters in Luxembourg," she said, sounding surprisingly sincere and giving a bow.

The ex-first president barely held back his disappointment. "We're very grateful that you were able to join us, Ms. Catalonia."

The former first lady, Ann Pratt, saw her husband and tried to change the subject. "Ms. Catalonia, it's wonderful to finally meet you. Or should I call you Lady Catalonia."

Dorothy gave a thin, unnerving smile. "My father, the late-General Chilias Catalonia, would have inherited the title of Duke of Liechtenstein. I am allowed to take the title of 'Lady', but I prefer not to, since I have not had a military career."

Anna looked surprised. "But you're so young…"

"Yes, Mrs. Pratt, but women and men not much older than me are fighting and dying in Outer Space."

III

From the end of his phone conversation with Fielding, Walker appreciated that he didn't really have a choice, that they would not allow him to just sit out the conflict regardless of what international law said on the matter. They were correct in that he didn't have the mental fortitude to reject them on principle and remain in solitary confinement.

I once knew an Alliance junior lieutenant who'd applied just to have a reprieve from his own demons. He'd managed to pass the psychiatric evaluation and earn a commission in the Alliance Engineering Corps despite being deathly afraid of being left alone with his own thoughts, shaped from a abruptly traumatic experience that he had bottled up years ago. Whether he was emotional stunted or just delusional, he did not consider being K.I.A. the worse thing that could happen.

Sitting on the mattress, Walker scratched his chin and waited. He'd always said he'd shoot himself in the face before being put in solitary confinement, he thought warily.

Walker didn't think he was that far gone, but he had second thoughts. Standing up, he kicked the door twice.

The staff sergeant appeared again, open the door very quickly. "Well, Captain?"

"…what is it that you want me to do?"

The NCO took Walker out of the barracks as quickly as he'd brought him in, and with his hands unbound the two took a military car through the Quarter, stopping frequently for traffic.

"Congestion's just going to keep getting worse," the sergeant explained dimly. Walker didn't comment. He did, however, notice the Space Forces Military Gymnasium, a rectangular, windowless building with an outdoor area including a basketball court. Three men were engaged in a pick-up game and watching them, Walker realized they were prisoners like him from their standard-issue fatigues, the kind worn underneath military normal suits. They were supervised by a single, bored-looking armed guard.

Walker kept it to himself. "Here we are, Captain," he announced when the jeep came to halt in front of a hydraulic door large enough to accommodate cargo loading and unloading. Walker deduced it was probably the entrance to one of the smaller military hangars in D-120. A long walk through dimly-lit corridors, deeper into the colony's superstructure, confirmed it.

Another officer, clearly Captain Fielding's assistant from the squadron patch he wore, was waiting there. "Is this him?"

"Yes sir, Lieutenant."

The officer checked his watch and gave Walker a wary look. "Well, he'll have to do for now. Bring him in."

They finally entered the hangar, upon which Walker gasped quietly. Sitting inside there, with a half-complete electrostatic paint job, was an OZ-12SMS 'Taurus', half OZ Space Forces black and half UESA Pioneer Troops violet. There was some visible damage from glancing beam fire and impacts from 105 mm HEAMS projectiles, but the mobile suit was almost entirely intact. Behind it, in a separate maintenance rack, its beam rifle stood vertically.

"According to the report from Engineering, software decryption is complete, except for autonomous combat mode, which we don't really care about," he began, glancing at his clipboard. "What we need from you it to make it combat operational."

"Did you capture this with those troops? The ones playing ball?"

The officer gave the sergeant a look, who shook his head. "No, this was one of your fabled mobile dolls."

Walker put his hands on his hips. "And what's wrong with it?"

"Why don't you tell me, sir," the junior officer asked laconically, putting his clipboard behind his back.

He gave an annoyed sigh. "The repairs on the servometers look substandard."

"Which ones?"

"All of them," Walker shouted back, causing him to jump a little. "The quality of metal used for the new armor facings, particularly this one on the left forearm, certainly looks to be of poor quality, but I guess there's no helping that," he added, pointing.

"Have you tested the powerplant output? What is it?"

The officer looked through his clipboard. "The report isn't specific…"

"Lieutenant!" Walker shouted.

"After the most recent repairs…under twenty-three hundred kilowatts."

Walker put a hand to his forehead briefly. "You know I'm not a miracle worker, right? You're going to need at least ten percent better output if you want high-mobility combat."

The officer stared at Walker with some consternation before cracking a smile. "And that's your expert opinion, sir?"

IV

In civilian dress—a dark sweater over an opened-collar shirt and khaki slacks—Second Lieutenant Edward Parsons waited in a popular coffee shop on the edges of New Town's business district. From where he sat, one of the colony's inner dorsal walls was clearly visible, painted neutral white-blue and discreetly lined with access lines and maintenance hatches. The Area 'D' football club semifinals played on the nearby monitor, and within earshot a Colonial couple was discussed the impact of traffic in Old Town and their relief that its military operations had not particularly changed life in their neighborhood.

E.P. sat directly in front of the second-floor window overlooking the nearby city park. Past that park, behind a security barrier and a chain link fence, was the D-120's Weather Control Center. Glancing over a stack of books on loan from a nearby library, he spent hours each day staring at the unremarkable grey concrete building and the adjacent sensor tower. He didn't sketch or take any sort of notes on his observation—that was too obvious, even this far from the militarized sections of the city.

The glass doors underneath him swung open, and a pair of Colonial officers in uniform entered, greeting the baristas cheerily and ordering expressos. E.P. glanced through the gaps in the tiles of the floor beneath him for a second before looking back up.

Don't worry about the military. Worry about the Noventan Secret Service, he thought before taking a sip from his cup. In most of New Town, daily life had a surprising air of normality, probably a reflection of the many weeks L1-D-120 had spent under military alert more than anything. Civil defense volunteers roamed the streets in surplus Alliance uniforms, primarily on patrol in the evenings and conducting impromptu building inspections during the day. Like everywhere else, civilian police made their presence known, now carrying heavier weapons and occasionally wearing body armor. But no mobile suits had been seen in his time there, and overhead flights by military helicopters were rare.

Taking a break from the hardback he was reading, E.P. scanned the Weather Control Center with his eyes again. Police regularly patrolled the main building's flat roof, entering and exiting through two small stairwells at opposite corners. At least one converted 4WD military jeep, painted in police colors, made rounds through the perimeter and into the park grounds on an hourly basis before vanishing into the building again.

Cheap, effective security precautions. Somewhere, another infiltrator from the Military Commissariat has the assignment of mapping the underground access points. I don't envy them.

He heard a jostling sound, as the two officers who had entered earlier abruptly stood up, almost knocking over their expressos, before one ran through the open doors and stared at the dorsal wall of the colony torus structure. A few seconds later, there was a minor tremor resembling an earthquake, and the coffeehouse went silent. Though surprised, E.P. had an idea what it might have been.

V

The announcement came over the office intercom. "Sirs, we're standing down from alert, no further objects detected. Damage control teams are en route, but they're only expecting one small impact."

"That wasn't a long-range orbital missile," the adjutant of the general that was briefing President Gwinter Septim III announced.

"How do you know?" the general asked.

"We would have gotten an alert well before this, sir."

"Excuse me, but…why couldn't that have been an 'orbital' missile?" Septim asked.

The general gestured at his adjutant to step back and cleared his throat. "Of course, Your Excellency. To attack a space colony from Earth, over the distance of hundreds of thousands of kilometers, the most obvious way is to put your weapon in orbit, either by launching it or from a system already in orbit. The Alliance's Orbital Missile Silos worked this way, for example. Over a long period of time, the missile travels in orbit, inactive and largely indistinguishable from any other kind of debris, until it gets into range."

"Upon which it functions like a conventional missile?" Septim finished for him.

The general opened his hand. "Exactly, Your Excellency. In that final stage, the missile is also immediately detectable, like any conventional battlefield weapon. Most of the missiles, and all torpedoes, carried by warships that you're familiar with behave conventionally and expend large quantities of fuel to travel in a direct line to their target, with minimal influence of gravity, hence why they're so detectable. So you fire them in a cluster, cover them with some amount of ECM and hope that one makes it to its target."

"But you can't do that with an orbital missile?" Septim asked.

"A number of identically-sized, identically-massive objects in orbit is the most blatant giveaway of them not being space debris, Your Excellency," the adjutant added.

"That was a barrage of missiles. OZ is within direct targeted distance of their torpedoes," the general concluded softly.

Unlike his relaxing general, Septim was visibly tense, standing up jerkily behind his desk and reaching for a digital notebook sitting on its corner. He pressed a key and paused. "Has there been an update?"

"Sir, we've confirmed one missile got through. The rest were intercepted by air defense. Superstructure damage on the north bracing arm, primarily cosmetic."

"Thank you."

"Nothing to worry about, Your Excellency," the general said quickly, also standing.

"Except OZ is within torpedo range."

"OZ is just probing our defenses past the Ventei Line. Given Defense Minister Arroway's absence, it's to be expected. Once her fleet is underway, they'll quickly withdraw, if they're already so conservative in its absence."

"Once she deploys, yes." Septim turned to him. "She's still at D-120, overseeing the rearmost defensive lines," he told him very anxiously.

The general coughed. "Of course, though frankly, I think that's left better to the Reserve Army commanders than the Defense Minister." He paused before hurriedly adding. "In my own estimation, sir."

VI

"So, he spent the next eighteen hours—in other words, the rest of the working day, even for a prisoner-of-war—repairing the captured Taurus mobile suit."

Fielding ran a hand through his light hair, smoothing out a few errant curls. "And then he decided it was operational?"

"That was his conclusion. He even finished a report, if you can call it that," Fielding's adjutant explained, handing over a single page of military stationary. Aside from the pre-printed lines of text, there was some handwriting scrawled out in the middle. "I suppose he finally acknowledged we'd already made the unit operational."

"Mostly operational," Fielding corrected him, taking the repot. "We'll wait for Major Khattāb's own report, but I have a feeling he'll be proven correct."

The adjutant's eyes narrowed. "He's just one engineer, sir."

"You're right—he's only one. But he is the right man for the right time." Fielding leaned back in his chair, tapping his left riding boot against the ground. "Is Admiral Arroway still in-colony?"

"Yes sir."

"Inform the Defense Minister that Walker is still amenable for the time being, and should be put to work while he's still of use to us. She'll know exactly what I mean."

Having finished his work on the Taurus, Walker saw fit to collapse onto a bunk in the hangar typically used for hangar personnel resting between shifts, under the watching eye of the security detail posted to him. As before, it was before dawn when he was roused from his bed.

"Lieutenant, are you awake?"

Walker muttered an indistinct response before sitting up in his working suit. The NCO next to him shoved a tray of food into his lap followed by a cup of coffee. In a half-awake, instinctual manner, he tore through the tray's plastic, began shoving the food into his mouth and finished the coffee.

"Damn it, it's not even morning yet. Can you wait until your fake sun rises at least?" Walker muttered between bites.

"Feeling rested?" he asked with no trace of sarcasm.

"This food is pretty bad," he said after a moment.

The NCO nodded somberly. "You've been finished here and are being move to one of the mobile weapons projects for the Capital Defense Plan."

Walker yawned loudly. "Capital Defense?"

"It's everything that's not part of the forward fleet," the NCO explained quickly, taking the empty tray and cup from him.

"Fine, let's go," Walker mumbled. "What hangar is it in?"

"Not here. It's in the central military dry dock across town."

Walker scratched his head and pulled his collar down. "What it is, a mobile carrier?"

"You'll see," the staff sergeant assured him, a little humor leaking into his voice, as the small door into the bunkroom slid open. Followed by another pair of enlisted men, a young woman in a uniform summer coat and sunglasses entered, and the sergeant and the rest of the detail turned to salute. Walker remained and squinted at the woman in the darkness, particularly at her sunglasses. He could barely make out anything in the light.

"Are you ready, Flight Lieutenant Walker?"

"Have we met?" Walker asked, entirely serious.

"He's ready, ma'am," the staff sergeant announced.

Captain Soletta peered over the rim of her sunglasses as the dazed, haggard-looking Walker. He looks worse than when he arrived, she noted, before gesturing for him to be brought. Rather than heading for a jeep, they walked to a parking area that was in the process of being cleared of vehicles.

Soletta found Walker shuffling slowly about, hands in his pockets, trying to put a little distance between him and the ever-present security detail. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye.

"Again, have we met?" he repeated.

"You're not afraid of flying, I hope?" she interrupted him.

"I was a unit commander in the Alliance Middle East Air Army," Walker explained indignantly.

"Good," she replied as a small utility helicopter with military markings descended on the parking lot. Whatever bravado Walker had seemed to evaporate as the helicopter came closer, itself barely illuminated and looking woefully obsolete.

"So this'll take me to the dry dock?" Walker yelled to be heard over the rotors. She nodded back at him and he kept squinting at the helicopter, presumably studying the make and model. When it touched down, the staff sergeant ran to it first, immediately speaking to the crew through the cockpit window and gesturing at Walker repeatedly.

This is worrying. Walker watched the staff sergeant point at him again before leaving the window and gesturing at them to board. With the sunglasses-wearing woman following a step behind him, he boarded the outdated utility helicopter manned by a pair of Alliance officers in olive-drab uniforms and helmets. The pilot was yelling at him, but between the helicopter's loud turbine and the pilot's bulky helmet, he could barely make out what the other was saying. At first, it was just their communication with their control tower that was incredibly muffled and indecipherable, sounding more like static-ridden shouting through a bullhorn, but then the pilot looked over his seat and addressed Walker directly in an unclear voice.

"Excuse me?"

The pilot tried again, shouting louder.

"Arigh, fursdyme ina helicopper, Walkuh?"

Leaning away from the officer, Walker cocked his head and shook it.

She raised her voice and Walker could hear her clearly. "Don't worry, Sir Oswald. Scott here is a…fine pilot."

He could see her wince immediately after saying that, apparently realizing she sounded just doubtful enough to cause Walker to become more alarmed, before looking away through her sunglasses. Walker immediately began buckling the seats restraints over his chest. Looking past the pilots only worried him further: the helicopter's instrumentation was clearly analog, lacking digital readouts, and surprising bear. He still couldn't identify the make or model: the helicopter design could be a century or older from what he knew.

"Hey, why is only the sergeant joining us? Where's the rest of the security detail?" he asked. Another muffled, indecipherable response.

Silence wasn't an option in the helicopter. The utility helicopter jerked into the air, turning twenty degrees before it stabilized again and began bobbing about. After they had cleared the building tops, the pilot turned his head and began again, sounding a little clearer. "'Names' Lieutenant Glenn Carpenter, but everyone calls me 'Scott'. And this is my co-pilot, Second Lieutenant Niazi! Right, Niazi!"

"I hate flying with you!" the uniformed co-pilot yelled sharply.

"He's a real kidder, this one!" Scott laughed before leaning over and actually elbowing the co-pilot. "So, first time in a helicopter, Walkuh?"

"Actually, no, it isn't."

"It is?"

"No, I'm saying it isn't, Scott!"

"So it's your first time in a helicopter, huh?" Scott yelled back in response. "I'm from Earth too. Joined the UESA Air Force in 'Ninty-One, Army Aviation Service. Thought I'd fly gunships. Apparently not!"

Abruptly, an old-style warning alarm sounded, two repeating shrill notes, before Scott turned back to the controls and immediately smacked his hand on the vibrating console. With every turn, the seats and instrumentation console wobbled on the helicopter's frame.

"The guide lights are off, they must be saving electricity," the co-pilot observed.

"I think I forgot night-vision goggles!" Scott yelled.

"You're wearing them," Walker pointed out, unable to resist, before his smile vanished. He looked at the officer in the sunglasses, then at the pilot. "Wait, you're flying us and you can't see the ground?"

Scott gave him a suspicious look in turn. "What kind of business you got with them anyway? Who did you say you worked for?" he mumbled very loudly.

"OZ's Space Mobile Suit Troops," the woman explained. "He's a…"

"I'm a civilian contractor," he cut her off to her surprise. "The Noventan Army took the space station I was working on."

The pilot seemed satisfied and nodded before turning away and scanning the horizon three times.

"Your night-vision goggles." Walker repeated.

"Oh, right!" He flipped the switch on his antiquated helmet-mounted infrared goggles and jolted in his seat. "Whoa! It's too dark! Or not dark enough!" He flipped the switch and sighed in relief, not seeing Walker staring at him with wide eyes.

"Have you ever met the admiral before?" he asked, or at least Walker thought he asked—the rotars were getting louder again. "When we land, three things for you in case you speak to or meet with the admiral: No eye contact! Be real polite! And for godsakes don't mention her mother!"

A very violent shudder meant Walker didn't see the officer sitting next to him shake her head at Scott's remark. The co-pilot interjected again. "You know, I have a car, we could have just taken my car!" he yelled.

Walker didn't trust himself to answer that, so he didn't, even after the helicopter abrupt dove more than fifty meters before pulling up again. The seemingly interminable helicopter ride through the torus finally came to its conclusion, with the helicopter coming to a hover above a landing site adjacent to a massive, darkened concrete structure. The officer leapt out and Walker was about to follow her when the pilot once again addressed him, this time leaning past his seat.

"Okay, Walkuh, three things before ya' gedoff! Don't make eye contact, don't mention this flight, and for godsakes, don't mention her mother!"

VII

"The data on Khattāb's sortie in the captured Taurus unit has been promising. Looks like Captain Fielding's little scheme is actually working."

Captain Soletta, the ranking officer at the military dock, and a Reserve Army lieutenant were being briefed by the primary display in the dock's central traffic control. On the screen, Admiral Arroway sat leaning back in a recliner, the colony skyline visible through the bay windows behind her, along with Major Khattāb in his service uniform.

"Yes ma'am. With your approval, my own team here at the docks is fully prepared to start working with Oswald Walker on the unit."

Arroway smirked and tapped her folded fan against her desk. "Curb your enthusiasm, Lieutenant. Just because Walker was able to fix a mobile suit that he operated doesn't mean his expertise will extend everywhere. That said, with him remaining in the military docks, you have my approval to make as much use of him as you can manage."

"Thank you, Defense Minister, ma'am."

Arroway's eyes shifted. "Captain Soletta, I believe? You're off the hook so far as our guest is concerned. Return to your duties."

Without her coat and sunglasses, Soletta stood visibly rigid and tense. "Yes ma'am. With your permission, ma'am, I'm volunteering to pilot the operational combat unit as part of the Capital Defense Plan, should the situation come to that."

Khattāb's jaw dropped. Arroway raised an eyebrow. "While your performance at the Battle of Midway was excellent, Captain, are you sure you want to leave your squadron in the Republican Guard? Major Khattāb has told me he'd be available to…"

Soletta interrupted her. "Ma'am, I understand, but with my own mobile suit still under repair, and OZ now within striking distance of D-120, I think I'd be put to better use in the final unit while the major continued operating the Taurus unit," she said quickly.

Behind Arroway, Khattāb looked horrified, even betrayed. Arroway just gave a bemused smile. "Very well. Your performance in this campaign has been outstanding and I've heard your records are superb. I'll approve your transfer out of the Republican Guard and becoming the new unit's pilot."

Soletta smirked a tiny bit herself. "Thank you, ma'am, I thought you would understand."

Khattāb spoke. "Defense Minister, I think…"

Clearly enjoying herself, Arroway cut off the major. "I have no right to deny such a decorated officer a purposeful transfer to defend her homeland. May the Heavens bless the heir of the Soletta family, defenders of the Alliance in Outer Space."

Soletta clicked her heels together and saluted, as did the other two officers present. "Dio salvi l'Alleanza!"

Arroway just smiled widely and raised her rise hand to her face before the connection terminated. Soletta looked similarly pleased as she turned to the stairway exit and climbed out. The two remaining officers exchanged looks before the Reserve Army lieutenant quickly followed behind her.

The actual military dry dock was a cavernous chamber long and tall enough to accommodate a large cruiser. However, Walker followed an Alliance Space Forces technical chief through the passages running parallel to it, into a subsidiary chamber separate from the colony outer wall.

"We're holding the unit in here until it's fully operation and has been outfitted. Then we'll move it over to the main military hangar in the bracing arm, where there's no gravity. Here, watch your eyes," he said, reaching for a bank of switches and flipping three at a time.

One by one, three groups of lights along the high ceiling came illuminated the room's contents: a large, tall cylinder, about four meters in height with multiple tiers of finely-machined tubing running in parallel to the top.

"A ship fusion reactor." Walker turned to the technician. "So you're working on a warship."

"It's…sort of like that," he admitted rather vaguely.

"Going by the size of this, I'd say a frigate. I took the least safe helicopter ride in Earth Sphere to help you install a frigate's powerplant?"

He laughed. "Yes, Lieutenant Scott's a real treat. Can you look at those unshielded electromagnets? This is a lot easier with two people or more."

"Where's the rest of your staff?"

The technical chief looked at him. "I suppose you'll find out anyway: this is the staff. Everyone else is at the forward defensive line. I'd be there too if it weren't for this."

In a few minutes, Walker was elbow-deep in the cavity that metal ring that held the reactor's containment field generator, the technician watching closely over his shoulder and helping him lift a large semi-circular bank of magnets from their socket. When the phone on the wall rang, he walked to it immediately and picked it up.

"Assembly dock, go ahead." Walker ignored him as he gave a number of mumbled affirmatives before concluding. "Yes sir, Lieutenant."

Bracing himself against the titanium alloy casing, Walker slammed part of the magnetic array down into its socket before pausing for breath.

"So, that was my boss in the Reserve Army. Apparently, the unit's got a pilot now, and she'll want to give it a looking over." He rolled his eyes. "Like any of these officers know a tokamak from a water heater, huh?" he jibed in a friendly tone.

Walker didn't respond, so he just gave a cough. "They didn't give you any eye protection?"

"I had goggles, but they took them with my uniform."

"Er, right," the chief muttered, taking his own from around his neck and handing them to Walker. "Here. I've got spare in my office, somewhere."

"Thank you," Walker replied tersely, while the chief climbed half-way up the reactor.

"Not bad for your first go. I always hate seating magnets. Really, I've always hated magnets in general, but that's beside the point." He dropped himself down. "Mind taking a look at the cryostat? I…really don't want to die when we finally turn this on."

"I don't really have a choice, do I?" Walker coolly reminded him.

He coughed again. "I guess that's true," he admitted. "I guess it doesn't hurt to tell you, I'm actually a civilian contractor. Well, sort of. I wasn't in the Alliance Army, I just work for the D-120 branch of the First Lagrange Shipbuilding Conglomeration."

"I got that impression," Walker informed him. "You said 'pilot', as in one pilot. This frigate of yours has only one pilot?"

"The only crew member, actually. It's…not really a frigate," he began, turning to see Walker two-thirds of the way up the reactor housing on the opposite side as before. Shrugging, the technical chief took a pair of hoses from the wall and swung them over his shoulder before climbing up himself.

Walker was still working with the delicate electronics of the cryogenics system, occasionally wiping his dirty gloves on his worksuit, when he heard shouting above him. He glanced up, adjusted his new goggles, and then wiped another stain out on his suit.

"What was that about?" he asked as conversationally as he could to the Alliance Space Forces technician knelt down next to him.

"Probably a briefing from Admiral Arroway, the Defense Minister, they take those in the control area for morale."

"I see," he responded, groping around the wiring treated with insulating black paste before wiping his hand on his shoulder. Shielding his face, he flipped a nearby switch. After a momentary hum, the lights on a nearby display panel went from red to green and Walker snapped the open compartment shut before climbing back down.

"You know, I thought they were exaggerating about technicians from OZ, but you've definitely got the touch," he told him, carefully watching the data readout.

Walker said nothing, pulling off his goggles before wiping his insulation-covered hands against his worksuit again. He heard the sound of a bulkhead door opening and turned to the long maintenance stairway that extended behind him to the level above, where two Space Forces officers strolled down, bright lights illuminating their perfect, olive uniforms. They wore same blouses as OZ uniforms, albeit solid black rather than maroon, the branch color of the UESA Mobile Suit Troops, both in the Army and Space Forces. He was momentarily struck by how much they reminded him of their counterparts in OZ—they were both young, maybe even younger than he was, and the one in front was a smallish woman with long, wavy hair held back in an elastic band. Her epaulets said she was a captain, the same rank as him, and she had olive skin and dark hair tinged blue. The young man behind her was a lieutenant, with Southeast Asian features and dark, slicked back hair.

Unsure what to do, Walker moved out of their way as they descended, standing by the stairway politely. Strangely, the woman looked at him directly as she passed.

"So you were also a Taurus pilot?"

"Ah…" Words seemed to be fail him then.

"That would make you a combat engineer of sorts."

He didn't think it was the time to argue semantics. "That's correct, Captain." He squinted at her. Now that I can finally see, that's the captain from this morning.

She cocked her head very slightly and gave him a smug, conceited but vaguely sympathetic smile. "Don't disappoint us."

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, both officers marched in a straight line to the bulkhead door, with the junior officer remaining behind. Walker glanced at the chief, feeling himself relax. "What was that about? Why talk to me now?"

"You should avoid all of them," the chief offered. "Especially Captain Soletta. You ever hear the expression 'brimming with hate'?"

He glanced at the closed door. "That smug snake routine is just what she uses to cover up the fact."

The lieutenant, having overheard the chief's remark, grinned abruptly. "You want to see something really cool?"

The lieutenant guided both Walker and the technical chief through another bulkhead, this one adjacent to a massive set of blast doors large enough for components like the reactor to past through. They entered another dark chamber, the only light from the path running along the bridge that went across a chasm.

"What is it with you people and the darkness?" Walker muttered. "If you want to kill me, go ahead and do it in proper lighting."

"Just cross the bridge, Walker, and try not to fall," the lieutenant jeered. Walker quietly obeyed, grasping onto the guardrail and crossing the gantry, the dimensions becoming more apparent in the darkness.

"This is a very large hangar. Big enough for a missile ship or a patrol craft or…"

At the other end of the gantry, the lieutenant flipped the main breaker, and the entire hangar was bathed in light. Walker looked up at the lights, then behind on the gantry, and jumped: arrayed just past him was a massive behemoth, a modular, aerodynamic superstructure framed on both sides with four massive missile pods. Outside of those, and reaching underneath the gantry, were two pairs of massive beam cannons, distinctly older cylindrical Alliance models with cooling sheaths and enormous in size. Each cannon was accompanied by a four-barreled beam gatling. The whole thing was built around a huge reactor housing topped with a massive cylindrical generator in an armored housing and a huge communications array, with further wing surfaces behind.

What a monster! "W-What is this? Is this a mobile armor?"

He grinned at him across the hangar. "You've got an eye for this. Look closer."

Walker turned back to the behemoth behind him and squinted. Just behind the aerodynamic 'beak' was the power core, which he stared at oddly. A second later, he realize it wasn't just a power core the size of mobile suit, it was actually a mobile suit. There was a Leo-E docked into the structure, its trademark monoeye visible but the rest of it shielded behind aerodynamic armor plates.

"That reactor you worked on is the primary, of course, and should put out forty-eight hundred kilowatts. It takes a modified Leo's flight computer to control it through. All the targeting data is relayed back to it as well."

He leaned against the wall near the breaker. "We thought about putting a separate cockpit underneath the nosecone, but all the prospective pilots shot it down."

Walker turned to the chief, who'd followed them in. "She's piloting this, that captain?"

"You betcha'," he said in that folksy voice of his.

He leaned over the gantry for a better view of its large landing gear. "Six vernier thrusters…four missile pods, plus two under the wings…point-defense beam gun...two heavy beam cannons, four beam gatlings and some sort of...rail gun! This is more firepower than a squadron of Space Leos!" He pressed his cap against his head, staring upwards.

"So the Alliance designed and almost finished a mobile weapon without anyone in OZ knowing."

The chief crossed the gantry to him and nodded. "Anyone but you." He crossed his arm. "It's the third model I'm told."

"The third? What happened to the first two?" Walker asked, not taking his eyes off the mobile armor.

"The second one, 'Epidendrum' is here. The first one was abandoned on Earth, somewhere in North America I think. They called that one 'Caardus'."

"And this one?"

"Chrysanthemum. EA-01MA1 'Chrysanthemum'."


Author's Notes:

You can't tell now, or maybe you can, but that last scene with Walker, a technician, Captain Soletta and the junior officer from the dry dock was an even worse mess than it is now. There's a very obvious reason: I wrote that scene literally months ago, at a burst of inspiration (and as an homage to a scene in Gundam Unicorn, though maybe 'homage' is just a way of convincing myself I wasn't totally ripping it off.) Even now it's a little bit of a mess, though I've tried to clean it up. My only excuse was that I was juggling this and a somewhat grueling office job that I've got my own reservations about.

The least safe helicopter ride in Earth Sphere is similar, written months ago, and inspired by a Giant Bomb Quicklook at a Russian-developed helicopter flight simulator on Youtube. As you know, I love to be funny (though again, am I actually writing from inspiration or just ripping things off?). On the bright side, I hope it actually does a tiny bit of character building (something I woefully lack) for Arroway (calling back to her mother, many chapters ago).

Caardus, Epidendrum and Chrysanthemum-the three mobile armors-are not-so-subtle references/homages/rip-offs to another Universal Century series, Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, which features a mobile armor 'upgrade' for the final battle's Gundam also named after a flower. I ended up going that way simply because I'm no good at coming up with original names, and thought another zodiac-themed name would be thematically inappropriate. And now that this chapter isn't a horrific bumbling mess (or at least is less so), I invite everyone to leave reviews blasting my hokey sense of humor or praising my awkward, jilted attempts at drama.

Finally, because I forgot to mention it last chapter, Mr. Bailey, the civilian fashion designer hired by the Romefeller Foundation, is a not-so-subtle cameo of famed TV personality and fashion consultant Tim Gunn. The things you can do when you're the writer!