MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM: THE SECOND CENTURY VIGNETTES 1: PROJECT OMEGA
Chapter 1: ICARUS
October, U.C. 0092…Quebec Colony (Side 6), L-4 Orbit
The Dogas descend into Quebec Colony and open fire indiscriminately, lashing out at everything and everyone in sight. Hundreds die within seconds, and many more are seriously wounded. Entire families are wiped out in less time than it takes to tell about it.
Lucie Minh searches frantically in the chaos for her children, "Jean? Jolie?"
"M-mom…" a weak, plaintive voice groans. Jean Minh has been impaled by a large piece of flying shrapnel. The boy's blood drains from a wound the width of his entire abdomen.
Jolie, thrown aside by a nearby explosion, but not seriously harmed, rushes to the side of her mother and her fallen brother.
"Jean," Jolie begins, staring in horrified shock at her gravely wounded brother.
Suddenly, two more MS blast their way into the colony and land on each side of the Minh family. On one side is Alexander Miguel's black Geara Doga, on the other side is the GM-III piloted by 1Lt. Dominic Minh.
Dominic notices the presence of his wife and children, and his eyes widen with horror, "Get into a shelter, now!" he urges them.
Dominic takes a closer look, and immediately wishes that he hadn't. Meeting his eyes is a sight that breaks his heart: his own son, Jean, lies dead in a pool of his own blood.
Tears flood the man's eyes, and a vicious, animalistic growl bursts forth from him as he turns his gaze back on Alexander Miguel's black mobile suit, "You Zeon pig! You murdered my son!"
Lt. Minh's GM-III, its beam saber ignited, rushes Alexander Miguel's Geara Doga. Miguel easily avoids Minh's enraged slash, and turns around to strike the GM-III with the butt of his Doga's beam cannon.
Dominic's GM-III is batted onto the pavement, its sensors and control systems malfunctioning.
Miguel prepares to blow away the skyscraper that towers over the spot where the Minhs are crouching.
In a last, valiant effort, Dominic attempts to use his MS's depleted beam cannon to put a chokehold on Alexander Miguel's Geara Doga. Miguel easily counters the move, flipping the GM-III onto a nearby condominium complex.
Alexander is tired of toying with his enemy. He fires a shot from his mecha's beam cannon, straight through the middle of the Federal Forces MS.
The GM-III explodes, killing 1Lt. Minh immediately. Shrapnel from his destroyed MS is propelled in all directions, and a dozen pieces of this shrapnel strike Lucie Minh.
Jolie, struggling to free herself from the rubble that had shielded her from the shrapnel, watches the scene in horror. Her father's corpse remains somewhere in the burning wreckage of his MS, cremated in the blasted cockpit.
The bloodied corpses of Jolie's mother and brother lie nearby, silent and cold forever.
October, U.C. 0100…Taklamakan Desert, Earth
Jonah is seated behind Jolie on the floor of the tent, holding her gently in his arms. Jolie sits on Jonah's lap, clad in only her uniform jacket, with her exposed legs spread wide and drawn back, knees nearly level with shoulders. Although the air within the tent is frigid, Jolie perspires profusely as she pants rapidly.
"Just keep panting, Jolie," Jonah says as reassuringly as he can, "It'll be all over soon."
"Jonah…" Jolie moans fitfully, "Help me…I'm gonna push."
Jonah can feel Jolie's pelvic muscles begin to contract on his lap. He holds her more tightly, taking her hand into his as he whispers into her ear, "OK. Push slowly, gently…not too hard. Just a little, like when you're constipated."
"Hnnnnnghhh!" Jolie grimaces as she begins to strain.
Jonah places his hands around Jolie's thighs as she pushes, bearing down into her bottom as if to relieve severe constipation, as Jonah suggested.
"Unnnnngh….nnnnnngh!" Jolie grunts, her hands gripping Jonah's tightly as she continues to strain and push.
A warm gush of blood soon splashes from between Jolie's legs, followed by a small, pitiful mass of dead flesh.
Jonah stares in deep, soul-deadening grief at the tiny, pitiable fetus that Jolie painfully passed from her womb. The developing child lies pale and still in the silence of death.
Their child…the latest casualty of this obscene war.
Jolie takes the lifeless fetus into her arms and holds it gently, breaking into uncontrollable sobs as she buries her face in Jonah's chest
Jonah holds Jolie tightly and begins sobbing with her, stroking the slain child's head lovingly with his gentle artist's hand.
Today is the darkest day the couple has ever known together. Jonah then remembers that, just a year earlier at the Woodhaven Colony near Jupiter, he and Jolie had shared a dream of starting a family together in a peaceful, beautiful place where they would be happy.
That dream has been corrupted into a nightmare of a reality.
December, U.C. 0100 – Baldur Bay (Side 6) Space, L-5 Orbit
With a deft shot from the WPG's beam rifle, Jolie shoots the primary cannon of the Azrael out of the enemy mobile suit's hand.
Jolie raises the WPG high above the Azrael…her heart, her eyes…her entire body on fire.
"NOW YOU DIE FOR ALL YOU'VE DONE!" Jolie screams.
A powerful burst of white energy erupts forward from Jolie's forehead…expanding beyond the cockpit of the WPG…amplified by the MS's biosensor system. The energy glows white hot…no less destructive than the energy that theScyllaorCharbydiscan spew…but more concentrated…focused upon one target: Alexander Miguel.
The deadly energy assumes form…the shape of a burning, fiery phoenix…a White Phoenix of PSI-energy…and reaches forth vengefully for the Azrael…unleashing a scream of rage and malice.
Glory forever to Zeon…Miguel has time to think.
The energy is met by another, energy stream…which also assumes an avian form…the noble form of a proud dove, which halts the momentum of the phoenix…creating an expanding white hot bubble of concentrated PSI-energy.
"JOLIE!" Jonah's voice comes through the tactical network.
"Jonah…don't," Jolie grunts, "I…I can't stop this…you'll…"
"Alex," Jonah says, his voice straining, "Get out of here! Go, NOW!"
The Archduke hesitates for a moment until his younger brother screams emphatically,"NOW!"
The Azrael vectors away from the dual Gundams and the lethal bubble of concentrated PSI-energy between them.
"Jolie…," Jonah grunts out as he feels his energy waning, "I'm…sorry…so sorry."
Jonah's energy bubble collapses, and the White Phoenix's energy washes across the armor of the Centurion Gundam, sending an electrical current of hundreds of thousands of volts coursing throughout the mecha's superstructure, including straight into the cockpit.
Jonah feels cold as the electricity runs through his body…burning out tissues, organs, nerves, and frying his blood solid. His muscles lose strength.
Jolie, her eyes blinded with tears, screams desperately,"JOOOONNNAHHHHHH!"
The White Phoenix energy reaches out beyond the Centurion Gundam to strike at many critical components of theScylla, including the focal lenses and the aiming mechanisms. The command center through which firing commands are sent to the cannon's mighty servos is also annihilated by the White Phoenix PSI-energy…which consumes everything in its path.
July, U.C. 0103 – aboard an unidentified space shuttle, L-3 Orbit
Captain Jolie Minh of the Earth Federation Forces' Centurion Special Operations Force bolts awake…shaking off the recurring nightmares that have plagued her sleep for most of her tender twenty-two years.
Her companion, the pilot of the space shuttle – auburn-haired Col. Christina MacKenzie, Director of the Special Forces, responds in her characteristically soothing tone, "You all right, Captain Minh?"
"No," comes Jolie's typically acerbic reply, "Remind me why you dragged my ass out of bed again."
Christina smiles, "I never told you; I just dragged your ass out of bed and onto this shuttle…or at least, a few of my agents did. A few of them are taking the day off to get fitted for casts or have emergency dental work done."
"Yeah," Jolie answers, "Sorry. So wherever you're taking me and whatever you want me to do, it's important enough for your boys to invade my home after midnight and shanghai me over to the spaceport, and secret enough that you can't talk to me about it even though we're alone in space aboard a space shuttle I'm sure you've had scrubbed for bugs."
"You've pretty much got the gist of it," Christina responds with noncommittal serenity.
Jolie continues, "You're likely taking me to some classified installation – one that officially doesn't exist and isn't known outside of the High Command and select members of the military intelligence community – to test some new superweapon for the Federal Forces. Am I right so far?"
"Is that Newtype intuition talking?" Christina challenges mildly.
"Nah," Jolie answers back, "Just putting all the pieces together."
A smile is audible in Christina's voice when she answers, "Lt. Col. Ibaz taught you well."
"This is as good a time as any to tell you," Jolie continues, "I'm thinking of not re-upping when my commission runs out at the end of this year."
Christina fixes Jolie in a silent, reproachful glare, then says grimly, "This is really not a good time for you to be thinking about leaving the service."
"Fuck that shit," Jolie snarls, "I've made up my mind."
Another reproachful glare from the eyes of Director of the Strategic Naval Research Institute.
"Look," Jolie says, struggling to maintain a more reasonable tone of voice, "You knew this was coming. During the past two and a half years, I've helped you train dozens of recruits and reorganize the old Special Forces into the new SNRI protocol. We're better prepared to meet any enemy attack than we ever have been, even with the huge force reductions since the end of the war. You really don't need me anymore."
Christina's eyes flash as she turns her attention back to the controls of the shuttlecraft, "Don't be so sure of that; the Earth Federation Forces still needs the services of its best MS pilot."
Jolie yawns, "Your flattery skills stink, Chris."
"Come on," Christina attempts a different tack, "Aren't you even slightly curious about this new assignment?"
"No," Jolie replies, meaning it.
Seeing that Jolie is as obstinately unreachable as ever, Christina sighs and says simply, "In any case, you're still with us until you aren't. I hope you'll accept that much."
Jolie flashes Christina a devilish grin, "As long as my paychecks keep coming."
Twenty minutes later, the shuttlecraft approaches what appears to be a derelict space colony, adrift from its original orbit in L-4. The colony, damaged during an extensive battle between Earth Federation and Archduchy of Zeon Forces, has been abandoned for nearly a quarter century…or so the public has been led to believe.
Visitors to the area are virtually nonexistent, as the colony's (known as Agua Dulce during its operational lifetime) present orbit is far-removed from both commercial and government transportation lanes, and the Earth Federation Government has long deemed the area as too deeply bathed in deadly radiation to be safe for entry.
In its heyday prior to the outbreak of the One Year War, Agua Dulce was a popular recreational space colony – its artificial environment of rugged terrain and freshwater streams designed to be reminiscent of that of the wilderness of Southern California on Earth as it existed prior to the Industrial Age. Even then, its inhabitants were few (boasting a population of just over 200,000 in the Federation Census of U.C. 0070), and the colony's inhabitants considered themselves far-removed from and not at risk for attack during the war…until a battle between a fleeing Zeon war fleet pursued by an Earth Federation Forces armada resulted in massive collateral damage on the colony, including the rupture of its nuclear power core, spilling excess radiation into local space. All inhabitants of Agua Dulce perished from the battle or the spilling of radiation, and Federation authorities condemned the colony after the war, allowing its orbit to drift away from Side 5.
As far as the general public is concerned, Agua Dulce's history ends there.
Beginning in U.C. 0083, three years after the conclusion of the One Year War, Agua Dulce came under the control of Anaheim Enterprises, which quietly, clandestinely, over the course of the next decade, completely rebuilt Agua Dulce into an industrial production and testing center for experimental high-tech weapons platforms.
Thus was born Anaheim Skunkworks, sometimes also called the "Engine of Death," or the "Devil's Factory."
None of this history is much on the minds of Colonel Christina MacKenzie and Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel as their shuttle passes through security screen after security screen, verifying and re-verifying their identity as they pass into the colony-turned-industrial center.
After passing through the last of the security checks (the end of an extended process that delayed them for ninety minutes), the shuttle lands at a designated pad, where two normalsuited and helmeted figures await them.
Aboard the space shuttle, Christina and Jolie have also donned their MS pilots' normalsuits over their duty uniforms, a safety requirement at AE Skunkworks in light of not only the basic dangers of being in an environment just an airlock from the void of space, but so deeply irradiated as a result of war. Their helmets and visors sealed, they disembark from the shuttle.
The taller of the two figures waiting on the landing pad salutes the pair, a gesture crisply returned by the two SNRI officers per protocol.
All four figures then disappear into a secured elevator, which sealed from both the void and radiation.
Helmet visors lift, revealing the faces of Dr. Camille Vidan of Anaheim Enterprises and Captain Eric Gardner of SNRI.
Jolie gives the two men the wryest of grins…almost a knowing smirk, as she remarks, "Figured you two had to be neck deep in this."
Gardner, tall and blonde, flashes a roguish smile in response, "How could I not be here? Everyone knows that I can and have piloted everything."
"As you endlessly remind us," Christina MacKenzie adds, a smile forming on her lips.
"Doc," Jolie says, turning to Camille Vidan, "it's been a while. So good to see you again."
They embrace, like older and younger sibling.
"You're looking good, kid," Camille beams, "How's your counterpart…the White Phoenix?"
"Still the most ass-kicking war machine ever to see combat," Jolie enthuses.
Camille's face is inscrutable as he responds with a gleam in his eye, "That'll soon change."
The passage of ten minutes find Dr. Vidan, Captains Minh-Miguel and Gardner, and Col. MacKenzie seated at a circular conference table in a private conference room. Joining them are a man of Chinese heritage in his early fifties, dressed immaculately in a dark, three-piece business suit and looking every centimeter the polished corporate executive, and two other Earth Federation Forces mobile suit pilots unfamiliar to Jolie, Eric, and Christina, but whose unit patches indicate that they are officers of the Space Armada Command.
Dr. Vidan rises…a certifiable hothead and firebrand in his younger years, the now thirty-three year old former AEUG mobile suit ace pilot has become much more reticent, and with some reluctance opens the meeting, "I'd like to welcome you all to Project Omega. You've been invited here today because you represent five of the finest mobile suit pilots in the Earth Federation Forces, and Project Omega requires your exceptional skills. Project Omega is the Earth Federation Forces' five-year plan to develop the next generation mobile weapons platform, which will be vital to the Federation's security in light of the heavy loss of resources during the war against the Phobos Zeon. To speak with us today about the technical aspects of Project Omega is Mr. Robert Wu, Senior-Vice President of Mobile Armaments Research and Development for Zhandyne Aerospace."
Zhandyne Aerospace…the name needs no further introduction or elaboration…one of the most vital defense contractors supplying the Earth Federation Forces…and consequently, among the wealthiest and most well-resourced.
Wu, nattily attired and bespectacled in neat gold-rimmed glasses, begins his pitch as Camille takes his seat, "Thank you, Dr. Vidan. Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is the cutting edge of high-performance mobile weapons platforms – a new technology that my company, Zhandyne, and the Earth Federation Forces have been developing over the course of the past two years. I present to you: the Omega Frame."
The lights dim in the conference room as a holographic display appears above the conference table. Shimmering into view is a shape vaguely reminiscent of the mighty leviathans that once plied the oceans of the Earth – the great whales that ruled the seas before humanity hunted them to extinction during the last century before the great migration into space.
But this leviathan is no beast of bone and muscle, but a sleek body of dark, gleaming metal – of nanocircuitry and mighty mechanical servos and gears. Its nose, refined to a swordpoint, is a bed of complex microsensors, and its tail is no fanlike flute of flesh, but a battery of mighty engine nozzles that appear powerful enough to propel the mighty mechanical form at speeds rivaling those of the fastest comets…
"That thing looks badass," Captain Eric Gardner enthuses.
Wu grins, "Wait until you see what it can do."
Suddenly, the dimness of the conference room becomes the light of an Earth day – days that the Earth's surface has hardly seen during the course of the past three years…blue skies and white clouds that are now nothing more than nostalgic memories…
"The Omega Frame," Wu continues, "is a unique lifting body…constructed from a lightweight alloy derived from materials mined from the asteroid belt…materials as resistant to damage as Gundarium, but lightweight enough that the frame's battery of reaction thrusters can accelerate the frame through Earth gravity at 5.2 km/second and 15.6 km/second in zero-gravity."
On that cue, CG Asshimar-S mobile armors – the fastest ever deployed in Earth's atmosphere – materialize behind the Omega Frame, whose mass dwarfs theirs.
The Omega Frame goes into a sheer dive – plummeting towards a computer-simulated terrestrial surface. The Asshimars dive in pursuit.
In the conference room, breaths accelerate and perspiration seeps forth from pores despite the room being comfortably air-conditioned as the CG Omega Frame dives towards a long, narrow canyon.
With bone-shattering abruptness, the Omega Frame pulls out of its dive with a grace and ease that belies its mass; in its wake, the two Asshimars struggle to duplicate the maneuver, each coming perilously close to slamming into the canyon walls.
The eyes of the mobile suit pilots gathered in the conference room note the airspeed indicator, "700 knots."
"Suicide," one of the SAC pilots mutters under his breath.
"Not necessarily," Wu beams proudly.
The Omega Frame continues to wind its way through the narrow canyon, actually accelerating to 750 knots as it takes the multiple sharp, winding turns of the canyon.
The Asshimars are unable to match…decelerating to 200 knots – the maximum airspeed at which they can safely maneuver the canyon.
Wu continues, "The Omega Frame's fusion reactor is rated at 36,760 kW. Its three main reaction thrusters are each capable of 86,800 kg thrust output and a battery of seventy-five vernier thrusters located strategically around its fuselage for superior maneuverability. Maximum thrust acceleration for the Omega Frame is, based on initial field tests, 5.75 G."
Captain Gardner whistles appreciatively, "Baby's got muscle."
"Too much muscle for you SNRI pussies," an abrasive, sarcastic voice cuts in.
The offending voice is that of a relatively short, wiry man, about thirty years old, of wild blue eyes and wilder blond hair that rises above his head like the plume of a flame. His thin lips turn upward in a crooked grin that resembles a sneer.
Plume-hair offers no apology or mitigating gesture, but instead turns to his partner…another SAC MS pilot of around the same age – a taller, beefier man with a mop of curly hair and matching facial hair, who remains reticent, but exchanges a knowing smirk with his plume-haired colleague.
Perhaps to defuse the tension of the moment as much as to move on, Wu continues with his presentation, "In terms of weaponry, the Omega Frame is mounted with a secondary weapons system of twelve coordinated external hardpoints from which the pilot and/or armaments engineer can select ninety-six different types of short-, medium, and long-range ballistic armaments. Its single built-in primary weapons system is a beam cannon that with a maximum power output of 23.8 MW, rivaling that of the cannon mounted on the largest warships."
As if to prove that point, the CG Omega Frame lets rip with a thunderous burst of crimson energy that disintegrates the fleeing Asshimars instantly.
The holographic display and the room go dark momentarily before the house lights slowly illuminate.
Robert Wu steps aside and Dr. Vidan rises to speak again, "You've all now seen a display of the Omega Frame's capabilities. As impressive as it is on its own, the Omega Frame is just the first stage of the overall project."
"Are we to assume that we've been invited here to be test pilots?" chimes in the other SAC officer, he of the curly hair and beard.
Camille nods, "Yes. Each of the four of you was summoned because of your experience and records of exceptional combat performance in mobile suit operation. Col. McKenzie, of course, was an esteemed member of the Federation's test pilot many years ago, but has logged very limited time in a mobile suit cockpit over the past decade and will serve mainly in an oversight position. I…have logged very few cockpit minutes myself since the late U.C. 0080s, so ultimately, it'll come down to one of you four."
"One?" Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel repeats, speaking for the first time since the conference began.
"Yes," Camille replies, "As you might expect, only one prototype has been built. Although we summoned the four of you here, only one of you will ultimately be asked to pilot the Omega Frame."
Captain Gardner grins, "You're not telling us everything, Doc."
Camille returns the grin, "Tomorrow, we're going to have you all in simulators. Each of you will get your chance to 'pilot' a computer-simulated Omega Gundam in for cockpit mockups identical to the real thing. It'll be an elimination derby: the survivor will earn the privilege of risking his or her neck in the real Omega Frame."
That sets off some murmuring among the pilots, which Camille silences with an ominous final remark, "Don't be too eager to prove yourselves; you might be winning a one-way ticket to hell."
Later that evening, Christina, Jolie, and Eric are gathered in the commons lounge of the residential suite they are sharing at the Anaheim Skunkworks facility. Captain Gardner studies the data displayed on the screen of his work pad with grave intent.
"Captain Harlan Koch," Eric reads aloud for the benefit of his two colleagues, "Thirty-two years old, serial number 94136692. Assigned to 14th Mobile Armor Corps, Space Armada Command, U.C. 0088. Veteran of Gryps Conflict, First Neo Zeon War, and Phobos Zeon War. Decorated numerous times for valor in combat, accumulating a kill total of 62 enemy units to date. Also first-rate asshole."
In response to Christina and Jolie's half amused, half bemused looks, Eric amends, "I added that last part."
"…and like you, he can and has piloted everything," Jolie interjects, her fifth cigarette of the hour wagging between her lips as she speaks, "Practically your mirror image, Gardner. What about the other one?"
"Captain Martin S. Savage, age thirty-four, also of the 14th Mobile Armor Corps, SAC. Also a veteran of the last three conflicts. Credited with 79 enemy kills. Appears that he and our plume-haired boy have been wingmates since way back. Hold on…"
Gardner's face darkens, "Files indicate that both Koch and Savage were in the Titans together during U.C. 0087, but were reintegrated into SAC during the Axis Zeon occupation of U.C. 0088."
"Titans?" Jolie scowls, orally exhaling a curl of white smoke, turning to Christina for guidance.
Christina offers, "After the Gryps Conflict, many of former Titans troops against whom there was no clear evidence implicating them as directly complicit with the atrocities ordered by Jamitov Hymem and Bosque Om were eventually cleared and repatriated into the regular Federation Forces…the best of them to Space Armada Command, where they were needed to combat the Neo Zeon."
"I know," Jolie sighs bitterly, "That was my dad's story."
"In other words," Christina continues, turning to Eric, "just having been involved with the Titans at one point, in of itself, doesn't mean anything. These men have otherwise sterling records."
"I don't trust them," Eric maintains, "There's just something about those two guys that doesn't sit right with me."
"I'm with you," Jolie agrees, butting out her cigarette in the nearest ashtray, "We're gonna have trouble with them."
"I'll look further into it," Christina concedes, "but in the meantime, don't forget: they are, officially, our comrades-at-arms and tomorrow, you'll be testing your skills against theirs. Get some good rest tonight: you're both going to need all your energy tomorrow."
Military combat pilots work long and unrelenting, not to say odd hours, and dragging oneself out of bed at 02:00 in advance of a 04:00 sortie is just one of the impositions of life in the armed forces…
Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel and Captain Eric Gardner of SNRI are accustomed to these demands, and neither betrays as much as half a yawn as they await the call to report in the pilots' ready room. Both officers are serious and quiet, mentally preparing themselves for the vital tasks ahead.
Their meditations are disturbed by the raucous entrance of Captain Harlan Koch and Captain Martin Savage, laughing like college frat boys on spring break.
"Mornin'!" Koch barks out, raising his hand for high-fives with Jolie and Eric, "What's with all the tight faces? SNRI doesn't feed you pussies enough fiber?"
Declining the other man's greeting hand, a tight-lipped Captain Gardner steps firmly into Koch's nose and says in a tone of latent menace, "Look, Koch. I know SAC and SNRI are rivals, and you don't have to like us. Personally, you can call me anything you like…I don't give a damn, but I'm not going to let you get away with demeaning Captain Minh-Miguel with language like that. You refer to her as 'pussy' one more time, and I swear I'm going to break your nose, Koch."
Koch grins leeringly at Gardner as he walks around the tall, blonde SNRI officer, slowly approaching Jolie.
"You threatening me, 'pussy?'" Koch pronounces through his grin, as his hand reaches underneath the crotch of Jolie's normalsuit.
Jolie's thin, but surprisingly strong hand reaches out, locking Koch's wrist in a viselike grip before his fingers can offend her. She twists that wrist in a painful torque, forcing Koch to his knees, screaming in agony, tears streaming from the corner of his eyes.
"You…!" Captain Savage snarls through bared teeth as he lunges towards Jolie.
Gardner stops Savage, a bigger, heavier man than himself, and drives Savage back against the wall, pinning him there.
"THAT'S ENOUGH, ALL OF YOU!" comes the voice of Col. Christina McKenzie, who has entered the ready room.
Jolie reluctantly releases her iron grip on Koch's wrist, tempted to break it before letting go, but relenting as better judgment takes hold of her.
Gardner similarly backs off, allowing Savage to step away from the wall, but never taking his eyes off the SAC pilot.
Col. McKenzie eyes daggers at all four pilots, reaming them with her keen eyes before biting out, "You're supposed to be the Earth Federation Forces' finest mobile suit pilots…start ACTING like it!"
Christina lets a moment's silence pass for her message to sink in before sighing and saying more quietly, but no less resolutely, "T-minus ten minutes and counting before you enter the simulators. Go over your pre-sortie checklists again, Captains."
"Yes, ma'am," the four pilots salute in unison.
The pilots hold their salutes until Col. McKenzie has left the room. A smirk returns to the face of Captain Koch, who is about to make another wiseass remark before Gardner's fist wipes it off his countenance with a rock-solid blow to the nose that knocks Koch flat on his back.
"Oh, God…oh, God…" Koch moans as Savage rushes to his side, propping his fallen comrade up.
"I'm a man of my word," Captain Gardner says as he towers over the fallen Koch, "I told you I'd break your nose if you used the word 'pussy' in front of Captain Minh-Miguel again. Don't let there be a next time, Koch, or you'll be taking your meals in liquid form for the rest of your life."
Precisely ten minutes later, the four mobile suit pilots (and one bloodied nose) are gathered in the TSC (Testing and Simulation Center), where they are met by Dr. Camille Vidan, Mr. Robert Wu, and Col. Christina McKenzie.
It is Dr. Vidan who delivers the introductory briefing, "What you see behind me are four simulated cockpits for the Omega Frame. Functionally, the simulation cockpits are identical to the real thing…including the G-forces you'll feel in different gravity environment scenarios. We'll run all four of you through a host of scenarios and then, it'll be an elimination derby. Whoever 'survives' will be the test pilot of the actual Omega Frame prototype."
Eric whispers to Jolie, "No way in hell you'll be flying her."
Jolie retorts in sotto voce, "No way in hell I won't."
Camille, hearing them through senses other than his ears, says, perhaps in response, "I know that all of you are very proud of your skills as pilots, and based on your records, you have reason to be. Make no mistake, however: piloting the Omega Frame will test your abilities as never before. Are there any questions?"
No words…just the reticent determination of Captain Martin S. Savage (Codename: Mace), the smirking confidence of Captain Harlan Koch (Codename: Shrike), the steadfast professionalism of Captain Eric Gardner (Codename: Knightsbridge), and the insouciant indifference of Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel (Codename: White Phoenix).
Col. Christina McKenzie joins the group to inform them, "Per High Command directive: Captain Koch, you will take point aboard Omega Frame-1. Captain Savage, your assignment is OF-2. Captain Gardner – you take OF-3. Captain Minh-Miguel, you've got rear guard duty aboard OF-4."
Jolie settles herself into the simulated cockpit seat of the Omega Frame – more ergonomically furnished than the cockpit of her familiar White Phoenix Gundam, and that's saying something!
Already, the control panel of the Omega Frame is illuminated – over three dozen distinct control mechanisms for flight control, avionics, weaponry, communications, and life support distributed neatly and compactly around the small space.
Jolie secures her helmet and seals its visor, activating the flow of oxygen from her normalsuit's independent air supply as she brings the Omega Frame's systems online, in accordance with the operation manual.
Col. Christina McKenzie's voice soon broadcasts clearly through the military tactical communications channel, "White Star Command to all units: report in."
"Mace ready, White Star Command."
"Shrike is A-OK!"
"Knightsbridge ready, White Star Command."
"White Phoenix standing by."
A holographic projection fills the cockpit windshield, and instantly, the four MS pilots are virtually transported from their simulation chambers to the skies above Earth, right down to the G-forces.
Jolie begins to breathe more rapidly as she feels the weight of the (simulated) Earth's gravity bearing down upon her head, shoulders, arms, and chest, working its way down to the soles of her feet. Born and raised in space, she had only been on Earth twice – though both times for fairly extended periods. She never did care for the suffocating grip of its gravity…
"Man," Gardner remarks, the strain evident in his voice, "the G's feel real!"
"Test Mission Scenario 1A," Col. McKenzie's voice comes through the tactical communications network, "Low atmospheric flight test – Great Canyon, Earth."
"It's not likely we'd be assigned any Earthside missions for the next few years at least," Jolie remarks drily, "Not sure I see the practicality of this particular test scenario, Col. McKenzie."
Christina replies indulgently, "The Valles Marineris and the Martian atmosphere would hardly have provided a challenge worthy of the Omega Frame's capabilities. Earth's atmosphere represents the most difficult environment into which the Omega Frame would likely be deployed, so we'll start with that. We've got quite an obstacle course laid out for you folks."
"Great," Jolie replies with transparent sarcasm.
"A-yup, people," Captain Koch, "Shrike," cuts in, "Cut the chatter. Time to put away the dance cards and hit the floor: shit luck to one and all."
The last remark, famous among Earth Federation MS pilots (particularly test pilots) as an auspicious wish for a safe return, draws chuckles from Savage and Gardner. Even Jolie can't help a slight grin.
The four holographic Omega Frames peel away from a holding formation of 11,000 meters altitude and dive towards the chasm of the Great Canyon below…Shrike, Mace, Knightsbridge, and White Phoenix…in that order.
"Omega Frames descending towards Great Canyon at 550 knots," a tech in the White Star Command Center reports to Col. McKenzie, Dr. Vidan, and Zhandyne Enterprises Vice-President Robert Wu, "ETA: fifteen seconds."
Christina speaks into the tactical network again, "White Star Command to Omega Frame test team: all units increase airspeed to Mach 1.2."
Four clipped "Roger, ma'ams," follow.
At a point at which any other aircraft would be drastically reducing airspeed to avoid imminent and fatal impact, the four Omega Frames penetrate the sound barrier as they enter the winding curves of the Great Canyon.
"Just look at how this baby handles!" Gardner enthuses.
"Just shut up and fly, Gardner," Koch snarls, "I got my hands full here without you yapping on the tac net."
Just to irritate Koch more, Eric continues, "You know, this reminds me of one of my favorite old-time movies: Star Wars. I mean, isn't this just like when the Rebels flew their X-Wings down the Death Star trench…"
"Heads up," Jolie cuts him off, "We got multiple bogies up ahead."
Eric reasons that must be Jolie's Newtype intuition talking, because the Omega Frames' sensors don't pick up on the bogies until a full five seconds after Jolie's warning. Sure enough…a dozen targets up ahead.
The combat computer of the Omega Frames identifies the incoming bogies: three Asshimars, three Gaplants, three Gabthleys, a Messala, a Byarlant, and a Zeta Gundam.
"Shit," fumes Koch, "Just what we needed."
"Passive resistance too," Jolie observes, "Watch your twelve-high, Mace!"
Jolie's warning comes just in time for Captain Martin S. Savage to narrowly avoid getting his Omega Frame (Unit-2) snared in the magnetic grip of a polarized mesh wire net that appears seemingly from nowhere, suspended between the narrow canyon walls.
Savage veers the OF-2 out of path of the net with hardly a second to spare, leaning heavily on the control stick. His evasive maneuver sends the OF-2 careening towards Jolie's unit (OF-4), which in turn narrowly avoids crashing into Gardner's (OF-3) in a domino effect.
"Knightsbridge to all units: enemy has just fired upon us," Captain Gardner reports to his comrades-at-arms, "ID scanning – sixteen incoming warheads. Eight heat-seekers…eight magnetic trackers."
"Copy, Knightsbridge," Koch notes, "Deploy countermeasures."
The Omega Frames dislodge a spread of multiple Minovsky Heat Flares (MHFs) and transmit Minvosky-particle based magnetic disruptor waves. Most of the incoming missiles are taken off course.
"Got one on my six," Koch grumbles as an incoming missile closes upon the back of his Omega-Frame, "I can outrun it."
So saying, Koch throws the OF-1 into a steep vertical climb, hitting full afterburners.
The missile follows.
Col. McKenzie's exasperated voice comes through Koch's helmet receivers, "White Star Command to Shrike: that maneuver is not authorized for this segment of training simulation. Return your craft to an altitude of 500 meters."
"With all due respect, ma'am," Koch voice drawls casually, "We're up here to test the survivability of the aerospace craft against all conditions. Can't do that if we hold back."
The OF-1 begins outpacing the missile on its back. Koch knows that within minutes, the missile would exhaust its fuel supply and he'd be in the clear.
His plan, however, neglected the hail of air-to-air missiles descending upon him from an Asshimar that suddenly appears at his twelve o'clock relative position.
"FUCK!" Koch curses as he yanks on the control stick.
The OF-1 corkscrews just in time to avoid being stricken both in front and in back by the air-to-air missiles, but those missiles' detonation upon collision with each other creates a concussive shockwaves that rocks the experimental aerospace craft, overwhelming even its advanced avionics systems.
Red emergency lights flash inside the cockpit of Shrike's OF-1, "I've got a compression stall! Gonna try a restart on both engines!"
The controls do not respond.
"No good!" Koch mutters, "I'm going down!"
And not helping matters are the two Asshimars and Zeta Gundam bearing down upon the OF-1.
From the cockpit of her OF-4, Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel has seen enough and throws her unit into a vertical climb, off to her teammate's rescue.
Captain Gardner, not content to allow Jolie to go alone, radios to Captain Savage, "Let's go, Mace…we're gonna back White Phoenix and Shrike."
"Roger that, Knightsbridge," comes the reply.
"White Star Command to all units," Col. McKenzie's terse voice comes through the tac net again, "Return to flight path…this is an ord…ah, the hell with it!"
Christina turns an exasperated glance at Camille, who offers a shrug and a sympathetic grin, "Ace pilots…you know how it is."
Christina can't help grinning in response; she knows all too well…
Jolie sizes up the situation and radios to her two compatriots, "White Phoenix to Knightsbridge and Mace: you guys take some of the heat off while I see if I can lasso our loose stallion."
"Roger, White Phoenix," come Knightsbridge and Mace's replies.
Captain Eric Gardner uses the targeting scope built into the visor of his helmet to bracket an Asshimar into his gun-sight: a burst of hyperaccelerated Minovsky energy particles from the beam cannon lodged underneath the OF-3's fuselage chases the Asshimar off its course, and a second burst reduces the disc-shaped mobile armor to burning shrapnel.
Mace, true to his blunt, brutal call sign, disgorges a quartet of missile towards the second Asshimar, blowing it out of the sky.
That leaves the Zeta Gundam, which bears down upon Jolie's OF-4 even as she closes on Shrike's plummeting, corkscrewing OF-1.
Mindful of the Zeta's threat, Jolie nevertheless focuses on reaching Shrike's OF-1, trying to match speed and trajectory.
The Zeta opens fire with its beam cannon, hitting the primary starboard thruster of the OF-4, which promptly gives out.
To equalize and prevent a tailspin, Jolie cuts off the primary port thruster, allowing the OF-4 to freefall.
The Zeta, which could not be more nimble had Camille Vidan in his prime personally piloted it, continues to bear down on Jolie's OF-4.
"White Phoenix to Knightsbridge, and Mace," Jolie says, "This doggy is sniffing my ass a little too close. Get him off my tail!"
"Roger, White Phoenix," come the dual replies.
A salvo of blasts from the OF-2 and OF-3 throw the Zeta off balance, giving Jolie some breathing room.
Jolie restarts thruster 1 (port) and thruster 2 (starboard), stabilizing the OF-4, and continues her pursuit of the plummeting OF-1.
The OF-4 extends magnetic clamp cables towards its damaged counterpart…closing towards its ebony armored surface, but still maddeningly out of reach.
The ground draws closer by the second, the altimeter reading 20,000 meters….15,000…10,000…
Jolie reverses direction, throwing the OF-4 into a climb, hitting maximum thrust, the OF-1 in tow.
Altimeter reading…20,000 meters…25,000…
At 35,127 meters, both of the OF-4's engines stall.
"Damn!" Jolie curses.
OF-4 and OF-1 begin plummeting. The engine restart mechanism does not respond to Jolie's manipulation.
The Zeta Gundam, having escaped Knightsbridge's and Mace's guns, returns, backed by Gabthleys, a Messala, and a Byarlant, their weapons trained on the two Omega Frames.
Nonplussed, Jolie targets the enemy MA in her target scope, arming multiple missiles.
She thumbs the trigger.
The world fills with light as the holographic projection fades and the interior of the simulated cockpit becomes opaque. The G's return to normal space colony standard, and the cockpit door slide opens.
"Simulation aborted," Col. McKenzie's weary voice comes through the tac net.
Jolie wrenches off her helmet, feeling oddly annoyed. Interrupting combat, even simulated combat, feels like interrupting sex…in a manner of speaking.
Col. McKenzie, Dr. Vidan, and Mr. Wu from Zhandyne Aerospace meet the four test pilots as they disembark from their simulated cockpits.
Christina McKenzie lays into them furiously, "The four of you went COMPLETELY off-script! I know each of you is an ace pilot, but you're also supposed to be trained and experienced professionals!"
Captain Harlan Koch answers for them, "Sorry, ma'am…you know how it is, the heat of battle and the fog of war, one of those colorful metaphors they use."
Christina sighs, "The four of you are to file an assessment report on things you noted during your simulation experience today; we'll convene again tomorrow at 06:00 for the second round of simulation. Dismissed."
Hours later, following lengthy debriefing sessions, filings of reports, and conferences, Jolie and Eric unwind at Skunkworks Saloon, an odd amalgam of Universal Century modernity with an Old West saloon décor, with chrome-covered swinging batwing doors and a chrome bar. The clientele are strictly Anaheim Skunkworks and Earth Federation Forces personnel, killing the downtime between hours on the work floor or in test cockpits.
Two large steins of light beer slide down the chrome bar to Jolie and Eric.
"…getting a good price on the Andromeda," Jolie finishes, "The entire operation for just under a million credits. I think Lon and Ernie must owe the loan sharks BIG TIME to sell the joint to me at such a deal."
"There's more to it than that," Eric says, with a smile.
"Well, yeah," Jolie says, her voice dropping to a low whisper, "I…made arrangements for the sharks to not bother them again."
"They'll never find the bodies," Eric remarks, drinking from his beer stein, "beam cannon tend to not leave much in the way of human remains."
Jolie smiles, drinking from her own stein, "Nothing that extreme. I wouldn't dream of wasting Federation Forces resources on something trivial like that. Ms. Fist and Ms. Boot were all the convincing they needed. The interest that Lon and Ernie paid them will just about cover their hospital and dental expenses."
"Still," Eric says, "Knowing that you pilot the White Phoenix Gundam had to help put the fear of the Divine in them."
"Pfft," Jolie dismisses, drinking from her stein again, "If those bastards believed in anything divine, they'd have gone into a different line of work."
Jolie spots Captains Koch and Savage of Space Armada Command entering the through the batwing doors of the saloon, cocky smirks in place.
"Speaking of bastards…" Jolie begins, not taking her eyes off the two SAC MS pilots.
Koch and Savage sidle up to the SNRI pilots, and steins of beer are slid towards them by the bartender.
Koch offers his roguish, pirate's smile as he offers a keening, "Mommy knows you kids are here drinking?"
Jolie and Eric say nothing, but keep their eyes fixed on Koch in a distrustful glare.
Koch laughs, "You kids were pretty good in the simulation, I must admit. Looks like SNRI doesn't breed losers after all."
"Unlike the SAC, you mean," Captain Gardner sneers.
"You take it too personally, Gardner," Koch says, motioning to the bartender to indicate that he is paying for all of their drinks, "SAC and SNRI might be rivals, but in the end, we're all Earth Federation Forces."
Gardner raises his stein, "To the Earth Federation Forces, then."
The other three MS pilots raise their steins as well, "To the Earth Federation Forces."
More drinks arrive, and Gardner and Koch, natural-born gearheads, talk shop, specifically their experiences in the Omega Frame simulator that day.
Jolie notices Captain Martin Savage sitting quietly by himself, staring reflectively at a photograph kept in a pendant locket.
Jolie plants herself next to the SAC officer, "You're not much of a talker."
Savage replies, "I usually let Harley do the talking for me."
"Your friend's got quite a mouth," Jolie admits, "all kinds of shit spews out of it."
"He's my friend nonetheless," Savage says defensively, but without menace.
"Right," Jolie replies, not wanting to press the issue as she spots the old photograph in Savage's pendant locket…a photograph of an attractive young woman with brown hair.
"Wife?" asks Jolie tentatively, indicating the photo.
"Should have been," Savage says solemnly, handing the locket to Jolie, "Tracie and I were engaged. She was killed during the Phobos Zeon invasion on Earth."
Jolie tries to hide a pained expression, "I'm sorry."
Savage sighs, and then says, "I want to thank you."
"For what?" Jolie asks, genuinely perplexed.
"For sending that asshole Miguel straight to hell," Savage snarls.
Jolie answers darkly, "I sent myself there too when I did."
Savage pauses before answering, "You had reasons for putting Miguel into a fiery grave as much as I did. Very personal reasons."
"Letting it get too personal was the worst mistake I've ever made," Jolie says, drinking from her beer stein again, "Harley is right about that much."
Savage is unconvinced, "War is always personal, Captain."
Having no comeback for that, Jolie says nothing.
Three weeks pass as the four test pilots, now collectively known as the Project Omega Team, continue their test simulations for the Omega Frame in Anaheim Skunkworks' TSC. Data is collected, processed, and analyzed as the pilots' experiences in the simulators provide Dr. Camille Vidan and the Anaheim and Zhandyne research and development personnel with crucial information on the Omega Frame's capabilities and limitations.
The four pilots find themselves work closely during these weeks…Minh, Gardner, Koch, and Savage. An underlying tension lingers between the SNRI and SAC pilots, but as consummate professionals, they do not allow their misgivings to hinder their developing a functional working rapport.
On the twenty-first day of testing, Dr. Vidan, Col. McKenzie, and Vice-President Wu summon the pilots together after their simulation run.
Camille comes right to the point, "The completed Omega Frame prototype has just arrived. Tomorrow, at precisely 04:00, we will initiate test flight procedures."
Col. McKenzie takes it from there, "First flight will be Captain Minh-Miguel at 04:00; second flight will be Captain Koch at 06:00; third flight, Captain Savage at 0:800; fourth flight, Captain Gardner at 10:00."
Robert Wu adds, "Anaheim Enterprises and Zhandyne Aerospace have provided three chaser mobile armors, upgraded MSZ-007F Zeta Plus with booster packs, to provide external data collection and security for the Omega Frame unit, which is not fitted with armaments for this phase of the test flight. Three of you piloting the chaser Z-Pluses while the fourth is piloting the Omega Frame prototype."
Camille finishes, "Encrypted data on the prototype and tomorrow's test procedures have been transmitted to you via secure wavelength. You are dismissed to review the data in preparation for sortie at 04:00."
22:00, that same day. Project Omega Team attempts to unwind…to ease the tension coiling around them. In a recreation room, all four pilots sit around a poker table, cards in hand, chips representing their pay for their work during the past several weeks standing as wagers.
Cigarette hanging lightly between her teeth, Jolie stares impassively at the hand of cards she holds, and spares a glance at her fellow players. Captain Gardner is focused like a laser on his cards. Captain Koch's expression is, as ever, an insouciant smirk. Captain Savage scowls at his cards as if they owed him something (and perhaps they did).
Gardner slides all his chips to the center of the table, "I'm all in."
Koch matches the move, "Likewise."
Savage pushes his money forward as well, "I'm taking home enough moola to keep me in booze and hookers for the next year!"
Jolie creases her eyes and lays her cards down, "I fold."
With that, Jolie rises from her seat, dons her officer's hat and overcoat, salutes her fellow pilots, and leaves.
"Women," Koch grumbles, "Can't handle pressure."
"The question, buddy boy, is if you can handle the pressure," Gardner says with a wolfish grin, "Show us what you've got."
"Two pairs," Koch announces, "two of diamonds and hearts; four of clubs and spades."
Savage throws his cards down with mild annoyance, "All I've got is a lousy pair of jacks."
Gardner grins broadly, "Three aces, boys!"
"Damn!" Savage curses.
"Yeah," Koch grins even as Gardner collects his winnings, "Three aces: me, Savage, and Gardner."
"Right," Gardner says acidly, "The 'White Phoenix' doesn't rate; she didn't do much…just soloed about a dozen of Zeon's best pilots during the past five years."
"Big flipping deal," Koch says wearily, "Any one of the three of us could've wasted those Zekes just as easy…maybe even easier."
Koch rolls his head towards Savage, "Let's go, Marty. We still got some business to finish up."
"Right," Savage says, then turns to shake Gardner's hand, "Good game, man. Take your money next time."
"No way in hell," Gardner grins as the pair leaves.
Gardner's hand moves towards Jolie's cards, fanned out face down on the table. He turns them over.
Royal Flush, in spades.
Eric grins, Never play poker with a Newtype.
23:00, that same day. Captain Gardner climbs to the top of a gantry way in an isolated hangar bay.
Already perched on the gantry, seated with her legs tucked up on a narrow alloy beam, is Captain Jolie Minh.
"You sure picked one hell of a spot for a secret rendezvous," Eric comments drily.
Jolie grins slightly before replying, "Too many eyes and ears anywhere else. Sure you didn't pick up a tail?"
Eric looks mildly annoyed, "Coming from anybody else, that would be insulting. I'll let it slide for you."
Jolie turns serious, "Something is going to happen tomorrow."
"Newtype intuition talking?" Eric ventures.
"Maybe," Jolie replies, "What do your spy's instincts tell you?"
"Pretty much the same thing," Eric sighs, "Dug up more on Koch and Savage's backgrounds: they answer directly to a Col. James Hardesty of SAC, who also heads up SAC's Special Intelligence Services group."
"So?" Jolie asks.
"Special Intelligence Service mirrors much of what we do at SNRI," Eric says, rubbing his chin, "Including assassinations."
Jolie lets out a cynical laugh, "Our Earth Federation Forces…so unified."
Eric suggests, "We can take them out first."
"We could," Jolie answers, "but we'd be brought up for court martial and executed. We need to gather up some evidence: take it all the way to the top and put these guys out of business for good."
"Right," Eric concedes, "Sad that it's come down to this."
Jolie rises from her perch, putting on her officer's hat, "Just the way war is fought; nothing personal."
The hangar where the Omega Frame prototype rests for the evening before its maiden test flight is off-limits to all but essential personnel (including even the test pilots), guarded not only be myriad electronic devices, but a perimeter of heavily armed Earth Federation Forces troops trained to detect and repel any interlopers.
Security is more relaxed at a separate hangar, where three MSZ-007F Zeta Plus mobile armors in Waverider configuration sit in preparation for their role as chaser craft in the following day's test flight.
SAC pilots Captain Harlan Koch and Captain Martin Savage inspect the Zeta Plus units, supplementing the efforts of the technician crews.
"Marty?" Koch calls to his longtime friend.
"Here," Savage replies, coming around the corner of one of the Zeta Pluses' rear fuselage.
"Ready for tomorrow?" Koch asks, his calm, almost light demeanor belying the import of his query.
"Yeah," Savage replies uneasily, "Though we need to wait just before to take care of the final detail. Look, Harley…"
"Yeah?" Koch rejoins, anticipating his friend's next words.
Savage fumbles, "I was thinking that maybe…it'd be enough…we wouldn't need to…"
Koch pats Savage on the shoulder and offers him a wry grin, "You're a good man, Marty. Maybe too good for the kind of business we're in, but it is our business, and in our business, we never let it get personal."
Savage allows himself a nervous laugh before saying, "Kind of a shame, though."
"Yeah," Koch echoes noncommittally, "A shame."
The hangar bays are already a whirlwind of activity at 02:00, a full two hours before scheduled launch time.
Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel is strapped into the open cockpit of the Omega Frame prototype. Numerous special sensors are attached to her normalsuit and helmet to record all relevant flight data pertaining to the effects of the Omega Frame's flight on her body.
"Ugh," Jolie complains as Dr. Vidan connects another hose to her normalsuit, "I feel like I'm getting tentacle-raped here."
Camille grins, "You've watched too much bad anime."
"Don't listen to her, Doc," Col. McKenzie chides gently as she performs a fifth review of the safety checklist, "her weakness is mushy rom coms."
"Libel and slander," Jolie says as she pulls on her helmet and seals its visor, "expect a letter from my attorney."
Camille gives Jolie a final pat on the helmet for luck and seals the cockpit. From the days of the One Year War, mobile suit pilots from all services and branches have darkly joked about the "closing of the casket."
Jolie tests out communications channels that will keep her in contact with both White Star Command and the three Zeta Plus chaser units, Zeta-Red (Koch), Zeta-Green (Savage), and Zeta-Blue (Gardner).
Jolie then does a final prelaunch review of all systems. With her background as pilot of the White Phoenix Gundam, Jolie feels confident that she can manage the flight systems of the Omega Frame.
It's the external factors that she can't manage that worry her…
In another, nearby hangar, Captain Eric Gardner, helmet in the crook of his arm, approaches the blue-trimmed MSZ-007F Zeta Plus he has been assigned as a chase pilot for the Omega Frame's test flight.
Eric whistles as he admires the sleek, supremely aerodynamic contour of the Zeta Plus. Though disappointed not to have been chosen as first test pilot for the Omega Frame, Eric concedes that getting to chase it in a Zeta Plus isn't too shabby a consolation prize. Flying a Zeta Gundam variant, after all, has been on Eric's bucket list for years…
Eric is about the round the nose of the mobile armor-configured Zeta-Blue when he nearly crashes into Captain Harlan Koch, coming around from the other side of the Blue's fuselage.
Eric, surprised to see Koch, says, "Yo, Harley…what're you doing here, man? Blue is my ride; you've got the rojo."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Koch replies nervously, "Just checking things out. Watch yourself up there, Gardner."
"You watch yourself, Captain," Eric rejoins, climbing into the cockpit of the idling Zeta-Blue.
Eric makes preflight check on systems from the cockpit, bringing all systems online. Everything A-OK.
Everything detectable by the cockpit monitoring systems, at any rate…
A massive lunar titanium alloy door, obscured behind a thick web of assorted flotsam and jetsam slides open along the derelict hull of the former Agua Dulce space colony. Few would ever have surmised that a state-of-the-art experiment war machine would emerge from the bowels of such ruin…
Gravity control is disengaged and the Omega Frame is allowed a controlled float out of its hangar bay…a powered launch being untenable amidst all the floating debris. Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel has received specific instructions to not engage the Omega Frame's thruster units until the Frame has floated clear of the danger zone.
"White Star Command to White Phoenix," comes the voice of a control center tech through Jolie's helmet receivers, "T-minus 4:46 to clear zone. Standby to initiate secondary thruster on command."
"Copy, White Star Command," Jolie replies, "Secondary thruster at 80% power and climbing."
From her viewscreens, Jolie can see that the three chaser Zeta Plus units piloted by Gardner, Koch, and Savage have also drifted from their hangar bay, and are maneuvering via vernier thruster bursts into position to the aft of the Omega Frame.
Jolie feels an odd sense of anxiety. Having years of experience as a combat pilot and as a test pilot, Jolie is familiar with the dangers of both jobs, and between the two, test piloting has always offered the greater fear and uncertainty. In combat, a pilot faced her enemy. She could shoot at her enemy. In test piloting, the pilot could be betrayed by her own machine, and despite all her experience, training, and skill, she could find herself helpless…
"White Star Command to White Phoenix," the tech's voice comes through the tac net again, "Unit has cleared the hazard zone. Initiate secondary thruster ignition procedure."
"Copy, White Star Command," comes Jolie's response, "Lighting the candle."
Jolie engages the secondary thruster, which pushes the Omega Frame forward on a predetermined trajectory at 300 knots.
The Zeta Plus chase team follows closely behind.
Dr. Vidan makes contact with Jolie via the tac net, "We'll begin with a straight up test of the primary thruster's acceleration capacity. Ignite primary thruster in t-minus thirty seconds."
"Copy that," Jolie responds, "Primary thruster at 95% and climbing."
At 100% primary thruster energy saturation, Jolie opens the throttle. There's no going back now.
From 300 knots, the Omega Frame accelerates to Mach 3 in an instant, and continues to rapidly accelerate…
Inside the cockpit, Jolie feels herself pressed back by massive force (even in this low gravity environment) against the back of her seat. Her arms and hands strain to maintain their grip on the control stick.
The cockpit…the entire body of the Omega Frame vibrates violently as the speed continues to climb towards Mach 20…not unexpected, but nevertheless alarming.
"How you feeling up there, White Phoenix?" Camille asks.
"Craptastic," Jolie replies through a strained voice, "It's…almost…better…than…sex!"
Camille grins, "If that's the case, I might need to try it myself. How about something a bit more relevant?"
Jolie catches her breath and replies, "All systems stable and normative, but there is some strain on the external structure because of the acceleration vibration. She seems to be holding together, though."
Camille and Wu exchange a quick nod, and then Camille asks, "Maneuverability?"
"I'll let you know when I've worked up the guts to actually try it," Jolie answers.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Captain Minh," Camille chides gently.
Jolie pulls on the control stick, sending the Omega Frame into a controlled spin.
The flight data is recorded into Omega Frame's onboard computer, in a reinforced black box designed to survive immersion in the core of the sun and impact equivalent to a comet strike upon a planetary surface. Although the means to instantaneously stream the data to White Star Command's computers is available, the security risk is too great to warrant the use of such technology.
From her own subjective standpoint, Jolie finds herself impressed by how delicate and responsive the control surfaces of the Omega Frame are…superior even to the White Phoenix Gundam's Wavediver configuration. She marvels at the possibilities for this machine after it's adapted for use with a Gundam unit.
Responding to instructions from White Star Command, Jolie eases up on the throttle, allowing the Zeta-Plus chase units to catch up.
As the Zeta-Plus units approach the Omega Frame, Captain Gardner receives a disturbing report on the monitor of his unit, "Fuel Line Rupture Detected."
Gardner coolly contacts White Star Command, "Zeta-Blue to White Star Command. I've got a fuel line rupture detected in my Zeta-Plus unit here."
Camille and Robert Vu exchange a glance, then Camille instructs, "Shut it down, Captain Gardner. Sit tight. We'll send a rescue-recover pod."
"Roger, White Star Command," comes Eric's reply as he brings his Zeta-Plus to a halt and kills the engine.
"Should we abort the remainder of today's testing?" Camille ventures.
"No," Wu replies, more adamantly than necessary, "My boss wants this data immediately so that we can supply it to R&D for evaluation. Two chaser units will be enough."
Camille has some misgivings about that, but nevertheless, instructs Jolie, Koch, and Savage to continue with the test flight of the Omega Frame.
In cockpit of his Zeta-Blue, Captain Gardner exhales a sigh of relief as the monitor indicates heat levels from the ruptured fuel line stabilizing and beginning to dwindle. As long as he does not reignite the engine, he is in no imminent danger.
Nevertheless, the consummate ace pilot in Gardner is disappointed that he will not be able to take further part in the day's historic test flight of the Omega Frame. All because of that damned fuel line rupture!
Gardner considers that…fuel lines don't just rupture…
As a rescue-recovery mobile pod rushes to Captain Gardner's Zeta Blue, the test flight continues. The Omega Frame is put through multiple obstacle courses that test its speed, maneuverability, and durability…the black box recording every conceivable facet of the resulting data.
A little over three hours into the beginning of the testing, another test mobile suit – an RGM-89 GM-III refitted with linking units, is brought in to test the Omega Frame's linkup facilities.
The GM-III, unmanned and maneuvering based on a preprogrammed logarithm, awaits interface with the Omega Frame.
Jolie maneuvers the Omega gingerly toward the GM-III. Eventually, the Omega Frame would likely engage in high-speed, combat scenario linkups with a mobile suit. For first testing purposes, however, slow and easy is the way…
Hovering nearby, observing the linkup, are Zeta-Red and Zeta-Green…unnoticed with all eyes and minds on the Omega Frame.
The Zeta-Plus units assigned to chase the Omega Frame are each mounted with a fully array of weaponry, as they would be in a combat sortie…the reasoning being that the Zeta-Plus units are meant to provide defense as well as operational safety and external observation data for the unarmed Omega Frame unit should the unit come under attack.
Slowly, the main cannon of the Zeta-Red, piloted by Captain Harlan Koch, swings towards the Omega Frame, targeting the idling experimental mobile armor as it prepares to dock with the GM-III test unit.
Hold still, baby…Koch thinks to himself as the targeting reticle of his helmet visor brackets the Omega Frame…a cold drop of sweat running down the side of his face.
Jolie is calmly focused on the impending linkup when an unwelcome pressure coils sinisterly around her brain like a constricting serpent…cold, clammy, murderous…
A cruel, jagged stream of concentrated and amplified Minovsky particle energy rips forth from the barrel of the Zeta-Red's beam cannon…one instant after Jolie abruptly yanks back the control yoke and hits the throttle, sending the Omega Frame into a steep climb!
At such close range (only 500 meters separated the Zeta-Red from the Omega Frame), even Jolie's Newtype precognition and lightning reflexes are only able to render a direct hit into a glancing one. The Omega Frame takes the hit…not strong enough to immolate the craft or send it instantly careening completely out of control, but enough to cripple several crucial systems.
"White Phoenix to White Star Command," Jolie calls out, "Mayday…I'm hit!"
Camille takes the communications station from the tech, all but shoving the young man out of his seat, "Try to maneuver for docking with the hangar! What hit you?"
"Not sure about that right now, White Star Command," Jolie reports, "but the shot…"
Jolie glances towards the Zeta-Red and the Zeta-Green, and her mind…sparks.
It's them, Jolie realizes, those dirty sonofa…!
Jolie sees the muzzles of their beam cannon glow deadly red again, and just barely manages to dodge a second shot, catching another hit by a third.
Jolie grits her teeth as the Omega Frame is rattled by a shattering impact…this hit doing more damage than the previous one.
Back at White Star Command, a still-normalsuited Eric Gardner rushes into the command center, barely noticed.
"What the hell's going on?" Gardner demands.
"The Omega Frame is under attack," Christina answers tersely.
"What?" Eric says in disbelief, "Got any spare aerospace craft or mobile suits? Let me get out there and give Jolie a hand!"
"All we've got are patrol Jegans and GM-IVs," Christina shakes her head, "You wouldn't be able to get out there in time."
"Who's attacking her?" Eric bites out.
"We're not sure about that yet," Camille answers.
"I'll tell you," Jolie bites out, having overheard their conversation through the tac net, "we've got snakes in the rice paddy!"
Horrified glances are exchanged as the meaning of the expression dawns upon the members of White Star Command…
"Jolie…" Camille begins.
"Can't talk now, Doc," Jolie answers quickly, "Trying to not get killed here."
Easier said than done, with the Zeta-Red and Zeta-Green disgorging more firepower against the already-wounded Omega Frame.
Jolie activates the targeting mechanism of her helmet visor and reaches out for armament controls…only to remember to her dismay that the Omega Frame prototype wasn't mounted with any weaponry for this test flight.
The Zeta-Pluses continue to close in on the Omega Frame…Jolie barely able to dodge their weapons fire…the Omega Frame's system monitors indicating that her craft is close to systems failure and would not be able to sustain another hit.
Words from long ago… suddenly come to Jolie, Become the weapon.
Twisting the yoke, Jolie swings the Omega Frame aroundand opens the throttle to full thrust, bearing down upon her assailants in a kamikaze attack.
Koch and Savage howl with shock and horror as they see the Omega Frame bearing down upon them…too stunned to even continue firing their weapons.
The Omega Frame barrels straight at the Zeta-Red and Zeta-Blue, all but bowling them over, sending them careening out of control.
Jolie's tactic, however, is not entirely successful. Though momentarily stunned by the Omega Frame's comet-like passage, Koch and Savage, ace pilots at the controls of state-of-the art (despite their inferiority to the Omega Frame) mobile armors, are able to stabilize their mecha and resume their attack.
Undeterred, Jolie swings the Omega Frame around for another run…determined that even if she must go down, the traitors would go down with her.
Jolie angles the Omega Frame for direct impact with the Zeta-Red.
Realizing Jolie's objective, and unable to avoid the incoming Omega Frame, Captain Harlan Koch screams in mortal terror.
Koch's death scream is matched with a savage war cry by Jolie, who plows the Omega Frame directly into the Zeta-Red, smashing the cockpit and reducing Koch to a puree of human flesh.
The wreckage of the Zeta-Red drifts away…spinning out of control for a moment before meeting a fiery end in a collision with a large fragment of space debris.
Without missing a beat, Jolie swings the Omega Frame around again to face Captain Martin Savage's Zeta-Green.
Jolie opens a communications line to the Zeta-Green, "Savage…Marty…what's this about?"
"It's nothing personal, Captain Minh," Savage answers, "It's for the Federation…sorry."
"For the Feder…what the hell are you talking about?" Jolie demands.
"You Newtypes!" Savage bites out, "and these machines they give you! You're a menace! Sooner or later, Zeon or Shambala or somebody will use you against what little is left of Earth's native humanity! We have to…!"
Savage, seeing no further need to explain, concentrates on finishing Jolie…bracketing the Omega Frame in the Zeta-Green's gunsight reticle and pounding the aerodynamic mecha with heavy firepower.
Jolie corkscrews the Omega Frame, dodging some, but not all of the incoming fire…the Omega Frame's sturdy Gundarium shell her saving grace.
The Omega Frame slices through the Zeta-Green with its razor-sharp port wing mount, cutting the other mecha in half with the precision of a samurai's katana.
Half of the Zeta-Green drifts off harmlessly into the void, but Jolie's eyes flash with horror as she follows the trajectory of the other half.
During the pursuit/combat of the Omega Frame against the Zeta-Pluses, the mobile armors had deviated from their original test flight path…quite remote from commercial spacecraft flight paths. Now, however, the Omega Frame and the Zeta-Green found the final scene of their battle playing out on the flight path to Van Nuys Aerospace Port – the main commercial/passenger aerospace transit hub of the Van Nuys Colony of Side 5…a colony inhabited by 1.3 million people.
Chelsy Aerospacelines' Flight # 1549 from Side 2's Everett Colony, bearing 239 passengers and a dozen crewpersons, approaches the Van Nuys Aerospace Port when the flight crew receive disturbing reports of UFOs in the area.
Less than a minute later, the flaming wreckage of the Zeta-Green clips the wing and engine mount of the Boeing 7777 Aerospace passenger transport, causing the aerospace craft to tumble towards Van Nuys Colony!
"Shit!" Jolie snarls, throttling the Omega Frame in pursuit of the plummeting transport craft.
Jolie opens the communications channel to Van Nuys control tower, "VNI. You have disabled aircraft approaching. Mobilize emergency crews, NOW!"
A member of the VNI tower crew demands, "This is VNI tower…who are you? Identify yourself!"
"THAT'S NOT FUCKING IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW!" Jolie snarls, "YOU'RE ABOUT TO HAVE A DISASTER ON YOUR HANDS, SO GET THOSE EMERGENCY CREWS OUT THERE!"
With that, Jolie closes communications and continues throttling the crippled Omega Frame towards the out-of-control passenger craft. At full capacity, the Omega Frame could overtake the relatively slow civilian craft easily, but the heavily damaged Omega Frame is down to 15% operating capacity and diminishing by the second.
2000 meters…1500 meters…1000 meters….c'mon, baby!
The external hull of the Van Nuys' Colony mass looms before the plummeting spacecraft…beyond its reinforced steel and glass surface, a city teeming with more than a million souls unknowingly going about their daily business is unaware of the imminent catastrophe.
The Omega Frame matches the airspeed of the Boeing 7777 a mere 100 meters and a tenth of a second before impact.
Jolie activates a control marked "MAGNETIZE HULL" on the Omega Frame's control panel.
The Omega Frame magnetizes itself to the underbelly of the 7777, essentially piggybacking the aerospace passenger craft as the now-connected craft crash through the hull of Van Nuys Colony, sending metal and steel plummeting to the streets below.
Jolie gooses the Omega Frame's failing engine for all it's worth…despite her best efforts, the power output dwindles…3%...1%...0%.
Jolie spots the entrance of Van Nuys Aerospace Port…just a little over three kilometers away and emergency crews just beginning to spray foam onto the landing surface. The Omega Frame's altimeter has gone offline, but Jolie's eyeball estimates place them at approximately 300 meters above street level and losing altitude.
Aboard the 7777, screams and sobs of terror are heard throughout the cabin. The more reticent and devout silently pray. The cabin goes dark.
Jolie coaxes a final burst of reserve power from the Omega Frame's engines…will it be enough?
Five seconds to impact…four…three…two…
Altitude 30 meters…
With a tremendous din that echoes throughout the 36 kilometer-long Van Nuy Space Colony, and a shudder felt for numerous city blocks, the Omega Frame hits the landing surface of the Van Nuys Aerospace Port, its underbelly scraping off the tarmac, shrapnel flying and sparks lighting nearby fuel tanks aflame.
The smoking wreck comes to a rest a mere forty meters from a crowded passenger terminal.
More than a dozen emergency vehicles rush towards the crash site.
Emergency exits open across the fuselage of the Boeing 7777. There are many injuries among passengers and crew…some of them serious…but based on a preliminary check, no one has died.
Even as emergency crews work to liberate the passengers from the craft and rush the wounded to hospitals, a heavy crane and two GM-IV mobile suits arrive at the site to partly lift the heavily damaged Boeing 7777 from the wreck of the Omega Frame.
Earth Federation Forces Military Police, armed with heavy carbines and wearing body armor, surround the site of the Omega Frame wreck. A team uses heavy power equipment to cut through the reinforced armored cockpit hatch.
Inside the darkened, silent, broken cockpit, Captain Jolie Minh-Miguel lies very still and quiet…her helmet visor cracked open, blood streaming from mouth and nostrils.