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The White Jade Armor that Denied the Dark of Day

Chapter Text

 


 

The glittering black filling Chen Guo's vision set her teeth on edge and made her fingers twitch.

It hadn't always been like this. Not so long ago, looking upon it had been like wreathing herself in a warm blanket. But now...

She drew her jaw back and clenched it shut, then tapped her right index finger against the controls of her captain's chair, cycling her VR headset's view from the starboard of the Exuberance onto the planet to port.

The stars were only visible since they were on the nightside of Mars, deep within its umbra. They were a few hundred kilometers above the Isidis Gulf—which had once been the giant almost-circular impact basin of Isidis Planitia—and racing east above the surface at over 25,000 kilometers an hour. The waters of the gulf itself were dark, but its edges were brightly illuminated by the lights of human habitation.

Chen Guo traced the various lines and circles of civilization for a moment, until her gaze swept up across the curvature of the planet. They were too close to it for her to see as far as Elysium, but they'd be at their insertion point for it in less than 20 minutes.

She very deliberately resisted pulling up all the actual data, even though the headset could provide it to her in myriad ways and with exacting detail. Focusing on that sort of stuff wasn't her job as a captain. A captain is... she thought and mouthed to herself, a multi-tasking problem-solver. She repeated her dad's words a few times like a mantra before reaching up to pull her VR headset off, then drew it back to lock it securely atop the headrest of her acceleration chair.

She rolled her shoulders to shift her ponytail into place and squinted into the reality of the bridge of the Exuberance, quickly surveying her crew. Although this was technically a combat mission, there was nothing particularly dangerous or daring about their current flight plan. She dismissed the pilot from her thoughts and her eyes instead settled on Tang Rou's station—she was in charge of launch procedures.

"What's his status?" she asked aloud, biting off the 'Little Tang' she wanted to add to the end of it.

Tang Rou knew she was of course talking about Ye Xiu. "He's completing preflight checks on Lord Grim and should be ready for atmospheric insertion in five minutes."

Chen Guo quirked her lips. In theory, Tang Rou was supposed to be Ye Xiu's radio operator for this mission, as usual. In actual practice, there wasn't much they could do to assist him this time—they would continue hurtling around Mars and only return in an hour and a half. It was possible for them to bounce encrypted signals around on the planet's communications network, but they couldn't relay any combat data of utility to him after they were over the horizon. That meant Tang Rou wouldn't really have much to do after he sortied, and Chen Guo herself would have absolutely nothing to do but wait. Wait and worry.

Finding herself scowling at the thought, Chen Guo reached up again. The ship's headsets were split into two components: the VR headset, which was purely visual, and a regular audio headset with integrated speakers and sound. She'd always found splitting them up like this to be more flexible and comfortable than an integrated, all-in-one solution. She grabbed her audio headset and brought it down, getting it on and adjusting the mic.

Once she was satisfied with it, she patched herself into the internal comms network of the Exuberance. Finding the channel momentarily quiet, she stated, "I'll be taking over ship-to-shore communications for the duration of this mission, while Tang Rou will continue to oversee the launch procedure and data transmission as and when we're able." She knew her orders wouldn't be questioned.

"Oh, hey, boss. You're bored already?" Ye Xiu replied.

Chen Guo's right eyebrow twitched. His tone was blasé in its usual way, but she could somehow hear the way the corners of his mouth had ticked up a few millimeters. It was about more than that, though. There was the fact he was just so casually calling her out, and then the fact that they were scarcely just something as simple as employer and employee anymore. I've told you not to call me 'boss' even when we're on the clock, you idiot...

"Distributing our focus will allow Tang Rou more time to try and utilize commercial assets to assist you," Chen Guo forced herself to say. It was something she'd just made up, but it sounded plausible. They might not be able to hack into any of the orbital monitoring systems or anything like that, but Mars was one of the oldest and most established colonies, so there'd inevitably be things they could use to generate at least vaguely meaningful intelligence from.

"It's okay if you're worried, but I'll be fine," Ye Xiu said.

Chen Guo's cheeks became red enough that their shade was visible despite the gloomy lighting of the bridge. Not for the first time, she found herself wondering whether anybody else had ever been able to get under her collar so quickly. A cheeky thought in her head betrayed her, wearing his voice: Or into your pants? "Who's worried? I'm in command here, that's all!" she groused into the microphone, trying to keep her voice down.

Tang Rou stayed pointedly quiet, listening in but pretending she wasn't. Chen Guo and Ye Xiu might've kept their relationship secret from everyone else on the Exuberance—so far, anyway—but she was no fool and they trusted her not to gossip about it. Their antics were a pleasant distraction.

Ye Xiu gave a thin smile and waved his hands in front of him as if to ward her off in person. "Of course, of course!" He soon settled them back upon his controls and returned his attention to his displays.

All mobile suits had fully digital cockpits, but Lord Grim was unique in having panoramic monitors—the pilot sat in a so-called linear seat, which was suspended from below by a shock-absorbent arm within a spherical housing covered in displays. This arrangement permitted the illusion of floating outside, and not only eliminated blind spots but allowed the pilot to adjust the view as desired regardless of the mobile suit's orientation. His voice took on its usual disaffected quality again as he said, "Preflight checks are complete, all that's left is to finish loading ordinance and fuel."

"Both are proceeding as planned," Tang Rou helpfully chimed in.

Things were quiet for a time afterward, the three of them alone with their thoughts.

Tang Rou broke the silence. "We have a visual on Elysium." She was already looking at it through her VR headset as it came up over the horizon.

Ye Xiu toggled Lord Grim's displays to the ship's cameras to see for himself.

Chen Guo, unwilling to don her VR headset again, settled for looking at the wall-mounted displays on the bridge.

Elysium was a rather large island in Mars's vast Northern Ocean. Its bulk had been formed by the uplift of the ancient shield volcano of Elysium Mons, which dominated its western edge and gradually ascended to a height of some 15 kilometers above sea level, high enough to pierce out of the planet's terraformed atmosphere. The rise of oceans created by the terraforming process had left it cut off from the southern mainland. It was flanked by the smaller volcanoes of Hecates Tholus to the northeast and Albor Tholus to the southeast.

Their specific area of operations on Elysium was in the southern highlands of the interior. The majority of the opposing forces were farther south, along the coast, where elements of the factions of Tyrannical Ambition, Blue Brook, and Herb Garden were fighting for control of the island.

The former was reinforcing from Tharsis in the east, while the latter two had staged invasions from their respective strongholds in Arabia Terra to the west and Terra Cimmeria to the south. The campaigns for Elysium had bogged down over the past several months and become internecine, with Herb Garden and Blue Brook fighting with each other just as often as they did with Tyrannical Ambition. Although their forces were concentrated in the south, the whole island was—ironically, given its name—a confused war zone, which made it perfect for a sudden and unexpected raid. All that was necessary to create an opening was to stir the pot a little and get them interested in shooting at one another again.

"We'll be able to conduct direct observation of the target in 56 seconds," Tang Rou added.

Chen Guo narrowed her eyes as she considered the monitors. "You're sure that the technology being developed at this 'Perses Facility' will be useful for Lord Grim?" she asked quietly, her question obviously directed at Ye Xiu. It still wasn't too late for them to scrub the mission.

Ye Xiu hesitated for only a second before answering, "If they haven't pulled everything out of it, then yeah."

Lord Grim—more officially known by the serial designation of MS-RX-13/1 (Mobile Suit Research/Experimental: 2813 Mark 1) although nothing about it was official, as it was a one-of-a-kind unit—had been developed and built some ten years earlier by Su Muqiu before his untimely death, and featured numerous technologies that marked it out from rival designs even a decade on.

In addition to the panoramic cockpit and linear seat, it featured: a movable frame construction rather than a monocoque one—which is to say, its armored skin and other components were integrated into its structural skeleton for superior range of motion and maneuverability; transforming body elements which could rearrange themselves to produce higher performance as tactical situations demanded; a novel armor composite (a layered sandwich of ablative plastic, ultra-hard ceramic, osmium, tantalum-doped titanium alloy, and carbon nanotube mesh) with a much greater endurance than standard equivalents; a generally modular construction designed for ease of maintenance; integrated anti-projectile defenses; a novel high-energy weapon system, the so-called 'beam smart gun' mega-particle cannon capable of adjusting fire independently of its aim; and a much higher-output ultra-compact fusion reactor to power any new systems later added to the design.

That last item was particularly crucial given the final advancement of Lord Grim, and the ace up its sleeve: the 'Myriad Manifestations Unit', or MMU. The MMU itself was an early but robust example of hylonano technology (or what might be called "dry" nanotechnology) that allowed for autonomous integration of discrete external systems; in layman's terms, Lord Grim could analyze, adapt, and rebuild any new technology it encountered and incorporate it into itself, provided it could fit and there was sufficient power to operate it. This process could be controlled using a custom-made 'Equipment Editor' built into Lord Grim's operating system.

This technology had limits and wasn't capable of self-replicating or self-repairing, so it was only useful in re-engineering the mobile suit rather than in an active combat capacity, but the implications remained enormous. Su Muqiu hadn't been able to precisely forecast what new devices and technologies might be developed in the near future, but with the MMU, he wouldn't have to: Lord Grim could theoretically remain relevant and cutting edge for an indeterminate amount of time all by itself—that is, provided it was exposed to new technologies on a routine basis.

Which is exactly why Ye Xiu was going to the Perses Facility—a Tyrannical Ambition research and development lab—in Elysium: to upgrade. While it wasn't entirely clear to Ye Xiu exactly what was being developed at Perses, he had gleaned enough from Excellent Dynasty's intelligence on the place during his time with Excellent Era to know the lab was involved with mobile suit development. Protecting it was likely no small part of the reason why Tyrannical Ambition was holding onto Elysium so tenaciously.

It was possible the place had already been evacuated and stripped of its research projects, but as the most immediately vulnerable major R&D complex owned by a faction in the system, they had to have a look. If there was something useful that could be salvaged from it, their options might expand dramatically. If it looked like Tyrannical Ambition had pulled out or especially reinforced it... well, they could still scrub the mission, and they'd know in little more than a minute.

Seconds ticked by in silence.

At last, Tang Rou dutifully reported, "We are now within observable range of Perses." Data had already begun to fill the display of her headset.

The same was being relayed to Ye Xiu's monitors, and he began to conduct his own analysis in tandem with her.

Although this data was also visible on the bridge's displays, Chen Guo only skimmed it before focusing on the raw visual feed. Interpreting such things wasn't her forte; making a command decision based on judging the analysis of others was. She instead busied herself with assessing whether she thought the place was still active. Based on visual and infrared indicators—lights, heat signatures, motion, and so on—it sure seemed like someone was still home.

As she contemplated the imagery, a thought popped into her mind. She vocalized it almost immediately, not really paying attention to her words. "During mission planning, Little Tang noted it was strange that the estimates regarding Tyrannical Ambition's reinforcements from Tharsis seemed low given their preponderance of forces there. It was like they sent just enough forces early on to hold the line, but not enough to repel Blue Brook and Herb Garden."

"Right," Ye Xiu replied, still focusing on the data more than what she was saying.

She continued: "You thought that might be because they were worried about maintaining their long frontiers in Tharsis with a defense-in-depth strategy, but what if..."

Tang Rou blinked as she followed it through too, completing the thought. "What if they're developing something there that they think might win this campaign for them, and they decided to use this as a live fire exercise? They've... just been buying time to complete it?"

A serene smile graced Ye Xiu's lips as he continued to study the surveillance data. Perses seemed to be hardened against leaking electromagnetic emanations, but a study of the visible infrastructure that led into it indicated they were using a lot of power. The place had its own commercial-grade reactor, and the coolant systems necessary to support it simply couldn't be hidden. "That's what I'm hoping for."

Something about his tone sent a shiver up Chen Guo's spine. She'd observed Ye Xiu in combat against conventional mobile suits several times already, but this guy... wanted to take on some secret superweapon that was probably intended for Tyranny? Lord Grim was incredibly impressive, and he might've been in Excellent Era before, but who exactly did Ye Xiu think he was? God Ye Qiu?!

What really made his statement eerie though was the cold and calm certainty behind it. She couldn't just hear it, she could feel it in her bones. He wasn't hoping for anything—he was sure something was down there, and that whatever it was, that he could not only beat it, but turn whatever innovations might be in it against its creators and all the other factions.

The uneasy quiet that followed was dispelled by Tang Rou stating, "Loading of fuel and ordinance is complete and all engineering crew have departed the hangar. We are ready for atmospheric evacuation and depressurization prior to launch."

There was a pause before Ye Xiu spoke up again. When he did, his voice was softer and warmer than usual. "Until these doors open and the clamps release, it's your call, Chen Guo: go or no go. But if you really want to see what can happen... I ask that you say 'go'."

As he talked, she studied the visuals of Perses for a time, finally shutting her eyes as she considered his request. She'd trusted him this far, hadn't she? She'd gone from being a high-end merchant marine captain to a mercenary manager. (So, basically... a pirate captain...) She'd taken him as her lover. If she stopped him here... what were all of those actions for? She'd never seen anyone fight like him before outside of the factions' elite special forces. If anyone could carry out a strike like this, it was him and his weird mobile suit.

Heartbeats passed, thumping in her ears, before she opened her eyes and commanded, "Flush the air and cycle the cargo airlock. Prepare to drop Lord Grim at the insertion point as scheduled."

"Thanks... boss," Ye Xiu replied.

"Shut up," she replied coolly. Left unsaid was the thought that filled her completely: You'd better come back—and in one piece too, you jerk...

 


 

Xu Boyuan, supreme commander of Blue Brook's forces in Elysium, was taking the opportunity to conduct a nighttime inspection of the front lines in his most recently issued mobile suit—a Tsunami, unit name Blue River. He had been appointed to this role and dispatched from Earth just prior to the start of the campaign, and was still familiarizing himself with Blue Brook's disposition on Mars, with his forces, with the planet itself, and with his mobile suit.

Mingling with and reviewing the units he was responsible for had always been his preferred method of getting to grips with understanding the people under his command, and it gave him an opportunity to get used to piloting Blue River. (While his personal mobile suit, Blue Bridge Spring Snow, was also a Tsunami, it was much more heavily customized to his liking. Sadly, transporting it with him would've unacceptably delayed his deployment.)

He and his command cohort were on a patrol route that skirted a little town named El Dorado when their radios squawked to life with a distress call broadcasting on all frequencies.

"Mayday, mayday! This is Turquoise Dream, we are under attack! H-Holy shit! I repeat, we are under attack! An unknown mobile suit is—fuck, it's fast!"

As soon as the message was received, infopanes on ancillary displays flashed up in the mobile suits of all recipients, including Blue River. Xu Boyuan briskly scanned the details.

Unit affiliation and other details like position or grid reference tended not to be reported orally anymore, as that sort of information was encoded within the signal. Turquoise Dream was with the 33rd Infantry Division, 1st Armored Brigade, 2nd Battalion, Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon. Bravo Company, nominally numbering 12 mobile suits, was on routine maneuvers outside the city of Paradise, about 29 kilometers to the west.

The pilot of Turquoise Dream—suit names were normally used as call signs too—was not the commanding officer of 3rd Platoon, and theoretically shouldn't have been on the radio at all., unless...

Blue River toggled his radio on. Normally there was a chain of command through which these things were handled, but if Tyrannical Ambition—or Herb Garden?—had deployed something new and was joining battle, he wanted to be the first to hear about it. Furthermore, the cat was already out of the bag that they were under attack. "This is Blue Brook Actual, Blue River," he began, making his authority on the channel clear. "Report, Turquoise Dream!"

"S-Sir! Sandy Bank is down; he was taken out with one shot—can't tell if he's KIA or disabled. All platoons are engaging unknown hostile! I'm transmitting all data on—it-it's coming this way, it's so fas—"

Her signal went dead.

Blue River wasn't a fool; whether Sandy Bank was dead or not, Turquoise Dream had just joined him in being unable to communicate. He didn't have time to ruminate on their fates—they might have been killed in action, their suits might have been disabled, their communications gear might have been destroyed...

"Turquoise Dream, come in," he prompted, even if it was more pro forma than anything else. He flipped a switch to broadcast on all channels. "33rd ID, 1st Armored, 2nd BN, Bravo Company, this is Blue Brook Actual! Any unit, report!"

Even as he spoke, his attention was really on the data that Turquoise Dream had transmitted. She had relayed an audio-video file from one of her mobile suit's gun cameras, which was encrypted for headquarters command-level access only. The file itself hadn't been fully transmitted, so after decrypting it his Tsunami's OS had to try and clean up the corruption, and thus the quality was unusually poor, which compounded the fact that it was nighttime, image intensifier footage. Even so, the enemy mobile suit was striking.

It was humanoid, like most mobile suits, but more lithe and elegant than usual—its proportions rather closely resembled those of an actual human, rather than merely a caricature of one. Despite that, its shoulders were enlarged, and it had on the equivalent of a large backpack—some sort of large thruster unit for greater maneuverability and acceleration, with several control surfaces for greater stability (these looked to be made mostly for spaceborne operations but clearly didn't impede it on the ground).

It was also physically larger than their own front line mobile suits, seeming to have an overall height of between perhaps 23 and 25 meters, versus the 18 meters of a Tsunami like his or the 17 meters of a Wave like Turquoise Dream piloted; its head height wasn't too far off though; maybe 21 or 22 meters? It was the "backpack" that really gave it more bulk.

The most immediately arresting thing about it though were its colors. It had a kind of slightly off-white base—almost like there was the vaguest hint of green to it?—but its overall paint scheme was garish and brazen, featuring copious amounts of a shade of blue that was somewhere between azure and indigo, and some crimson. Looking closer, it had yellow-gold accents, and its eyes—yes, it had two eyes, unlike the monoeyes or visors of most mobile suits, and even a kind of rudimentary face?—glowed aquamarine, seeming to leave trails as an afterimage as it darted about. The plasma contrails from its verniers were the same color. It was as though everything about it was calculated to scream, 'Look at me!'

Blue River had never seen anything like it. Its performance was more plausible—it was indeed incredibly fast and agile, but within the outer limits of the spectrum of what he knew to be possible. The precision of its movements and the power of its energy weapons, though... Was this Tyranny or Tiny Herb? But it looked nothing like what members of those forces fielded, as far as he was aware...

Bravo Company stood no chance against its rampage. With singular shots of its beam rifle it took out one Wave after another, all the while effortlessly dodging this way and that, shooting down rockets and shells with what appeared to be rotary cannons mounted in its head.

Those beam rifle shots always seemed to be aimed at the heads of Blue Brook's mobile suits though. That was curious. Headshots would certainly explain the loss of communications, as most of their suits' communications arrays and sensors were in the head. Mobile suits had backup cameras distributed across their bodies and weapons, but would not be particularly combat effective without their primary sensors or the ability to coordinate, especially at night.

Meanwhile, the cockpits of all their suits were located in the torso, where the pilots would theoretically be afforded the most protection by virtue of armor and mass. That said, piercing the torso of a suit could destabilize its reactor, detonate ammunition stores (if any), or cause secondary explosions from other volatiles like oxygen supplies.

To aim exclusively for the head took a very high skill-ceiling and wasn't really advantageous at all... The white mobile suit was very deliberately trying to avoid killing pilots and making that a priority?

For all Blue River's analysis, only a few seconds passed after his radio transmission. He followed it up with, "Alpha Company, report!"

"Sir, this is Placid Pond! Alpha and Charlie Company are en route to Bravo Company's position!"

A glance at his tactical command display and a few taps of his fingers indeed confirmed this to be the case. Both companies were vectoring toward Bravo Company with textbook precision.

"We have a visual on the white suit! It appears to be retreating toward Tyrannical Ambition's lines at high speed!" Placid Pond added.

"Advance to Bravo Company's position, check for survivors, and await further instructions from command," Blue River ordered, narrowing his eyes. He flicked the settings on his radio so he was no longer broadcasting on all of Blue Brook's frequencies, excusing himself from further direct command.

He instead patched into the line-of-sight laser communication system that linked him more discreetly to the mobile suits around him. "Returning Cloud, establish a secure channel with HQ. I'm moving up our threat condition. All units are to prepare to mobilize, and I need information on Tyrannical Ambition and Herb Garden's readiness."

"Got it," Returning Cloud said. Blue River's command detachment didn't bother with the formalities of rank and spoke their minds.

"Are you sure that's wise?" Bound Boat asked. They had indeed been preparing for a renewed assault on Tyrannical Ambition's lines, but to move it up so suddenly...

Blue River was quiet for a few seconds, rewatching the guncam footage that Turquoise Dream had sent. This thing, if a company of Waves didn't stand a chance against it... While distributing the guncam footage to the rest of them, he mused aloud, "If that white suit belongs to Tyrannical Ambition, the most likely reason for this was they're probing our readiness. That could make this a prelude to an attack. If we're not ready to receive it and counterattack..."

The white suit was at least at the level of power of his own Tsunami, if not much higher. Something about the way it moved made him profoundly uneasy; he had the sense it was nearer to the level of the custom suits the elite strike forces like Blue Rain used. And the pilot of it...

He left it unsaid that he had no idea what might be necessary to stop it. Maybe several Tsunamis could do it. But if the rest of Tyrannical Ambition's forces were following in its wake... And that was if it was Tyrannical Ambition's. Perhaps it belonged to Herb Garden. Or perhaps... The possibility was open that it belonged to neither, but he didn't know how to even begin to approach dealing with that possibility.

Someone, probably Lunar Grace, gasped as she reviewed the footage.

"... I see," Bound Boat muttered, apparently doing the same.

"Let's get back to HQ and plan our next move," Blue River decided, immediately setting off in that direction.

 


 

Blue River's counterpart in Herb Garden, call sign Plantago Seed, was awoken sometime after the incident at Blue Brook's front line.

Herb Garden's signals intelligence had dutifully picked up Blue Brook's radio chatter as it happened, and that had eventually been synthesized with both the network intelligence and human intelligence that indicated Blue Brook was mobilizing to full combat readiness.

All that had not, however, been deemed to be reason enough to wake Plantago Seed, even as Herb Garden's chain of command itself went into a frenzy of activity. Plans were drawn up for emergency mobilization and ready units were moved to a higher alert status.

Meanwhile, a general radio silence order was issued to front line forces regarding sensitive information—no one was to give any indication that anything unusual might be going on. Nobody would be punished for shooting the breeze on-air (as units sometimes did) since it maintained an illusion of normalcy, but Herb Garden's largely laconic forces remained quietly dutiful, their communications mostly terse and crisp.

It was a credit to their professionalism that they followed orders even when the white mobile suit slipped into their lines like a fox skulking into a hen house. The Mint mobile suits that encountered it fared no better than their Wave equivalents in Blue Brook, but their distress signals went out by laser rather than radio.

It was after this attack that someone was finally sent to wake Plantago Seed.

"What the fuck is so important that you had to wake me up at 3:12 in the morning?" he demanded, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

"At 0144 hours local time, an element of Blue Brook's forces were attacked by an unknown enemy mobile suit in the vicinity of Paradise, which promptly retreated. Blue River immediately assumed command of the initial response, and it quickly became apparent to us that Blue Brook was mobilizing after this incident. At 0253 hours, one of our units outside of Utopia was attacked by a unit matching the descriptions we gleaned from Blue Brook's communications. A fork was reached in the decision-making process that required your direct input," Malva Nut patiently explained. Essentially, Plantago Seed had to decide what they should do next.

"What?" Plantago Seed asked. He was still groggy and his mind was already reeling. The cities of Paradise and Utopia were almost 200 kilometers apart. To traverse that distance in little more than an hour was... Were there two of these things? "What the fuck?" he repeated.

He glared at Malva Nut before throwing his covers aside. "Get somebody working on a way to securely talk to Blue River, then brief me on details of the attacks as I get dressed."

Chapter Text

Blue River studied the red phone that'd been brought to his command post with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. The design of the plastic handset was incredibly archaic, dating back almost a millennium; it even had a spiral cord attaching it to the base of the phone. Were they really reduced to something this primitive in a time of crisis?

Just as he found himself glaring at it, it rang. He watched it for two rings before picking it up and bringing it to the side of his face. He didn't bother with any kind of greeting or introduction.

"So, this White Demon is a real piece of work, huh?" Plantago Seed began.

"Is that what you're calling it?" Blue River asked drolly. White Demon? What the hell.

"Do you have some kind of better name for it? Or have you just been calling it 'the unknown white enemy mobile suit' this whole time?" Plantago Seed snapped. He had come up with the name himself after reviewing Herb Garden's own combat footage.

Blue River quirked his lips sourly and looked askew. It was at least short, and perhaps a not entirely undeserved title. He'd watched Blue Brook's footage enough times to recall its look and movements with crispness and clarity. "So, are you freely giving away that it attacked your forces too?"

Plantago Seed abruptly realized he couldn't tell if he hated Blue River or found him funny. The two of them were familiar with each other through the nature of their positions and work, but had also obviously never really had cause to talk directly before, let alone meet. Negotiations weren't normally their business, and this was new for both of them. After a long pause, he made a decision and said, "It came from Tyrannical Ambition's lines. We can't figure out if it's the same one that hit you or if there's more than one of them."

The first assertion caused certain things to snap into place for Blue River. The second made his brows arch up in alarm. He'd never considered the possibility that there might be more than one White Demon. If that was indeed the case, and they belonged to Tyrannical Ambition... "What are you proposing?"

"Share and share alike," Plantago Seed said.

At least you didn't say 'I'll show you mine if you show me yours', Blue River thought. "And?"

"You're mobilizing," Plantago Seed said flatly, making a statement of fact. "So are we." Blue Brook's spies were no less pervasive than their own, so there was no real point in trying to hide that. It would become obvious soon enough anyway.

"You want to coordinate against Tyrannical Ambition?"

"'Coordinate' is such a strong word... how about 'deconflict' instead? I'm not interested in that thing—or two of them, or more—returning. I doubt you are either. "

A beat passed before Blue River said, "That would require some understanding of where there might be conflict."

"Fuck, just draw a line straight north from Shangri-La," Plantago Seed griped.

Shangri-La, much like its fictional namesake, was a steep-sided valley—one that happened to divide the zones of control of Blue Brook and Herb Garden, and which had so far proven impossible for either of them to advance beyond. It was already a de facto border.

"When?" Blue River asked, a steely resolve already in his voice. He technically wasn't authorized to make this kind of decision, but damn if anyone would question him on it.

"We'll be ready just before dawn."

"And after?"

Plantago Seed smiled coldly to himself, playing with the cord of his own secure red phone. "Let's say we have 72 hours. After that... no promises." Three days could probably be managed without many questions being asked from higher up.

There was a brief silence, during which Blue River pulled up weather forecasts and astronomical data on his console. It was cloudy across the southern half of Elysium, and there would be sporadic rain that would persist throughout the day. Sunrise was expected at 06:02. "0530 hours local," he said.

"On the dot," Plantago Seed affirmed. That was a fine enough deadline to prepare for.

"72 hours," Blue River reiterated.

"You have my word," Plantago Seed said.

"Then you have mine." Blue River hung up the phone and immediately began issuing orders for redeployments.

 


 

The intelligence-gathering apparatus of Tyrannical Ambition was broadly equivalent to that of Herb Garden, and so it too had also followed along in real time with the attack on Blue Brook. Its spy network wasn't notably worse than those of Blue Brook or Herb Garden either, and so it had likewise picked up on Blue Brook's heightened state of alert in the aftermath.

It did not, however, discover the attack on Herb Garden until much later, due to their unfortunate insistence on operational security. That Herb Garden was mobilizing its forces too only became fully apparent later still. By the time it was evident that Blue Brook and Herb Garden had been redeploying units from their mutual front with one another, it was almost sunrise—and it was too late.

Tyrannical Ambition's supreme commander for Elysium, Cold Night, was abruptly woken by a subordinate informing him that their front lines were crumbling under a massive attack by both Blue Brook and Herb Garden.

The mysterious attacks upon them both were quickly forgotten as Tyrannical Ambition desperately tried to dig in and stop their combined advance.

 


 

The sky was a dark and dull gray—a featureless sort of cloudy morning—by the time Ye Xiu was able to observe the Perses Facility directly. It sat within a shallow and eroded bowl-shaped impact crater, some four kilometers across. He had ensconced Lord Grim behind the east side of the ridge line formed by its rim to observe it with some degree of cover. The mobile suit held its main armament—the beam smart gun—aloft in order to peer over the rise without being easily observed.

"Yeah, we're not seeing any security either," Chen Guo said. She was a disembodied voice inside his helmet and an image on a transparent infopane off to one side of his panoramic view; they were once more on a secure optical connection afforded by line of sight.

The Exuberance had orbited Mars three more times since Ye Xiu had undocked from it and plummeted down toward the planet below. He'd completed his provocations of Blue Brook and Herb Garden just after their first pass, those two had just gotten back into a shooting war with Tyrannical Ambition around the second, and he had arrived at Perseus just prior to the third.

The few mobile suits and other defensive units they'd seen around the facility during their previous three passes were gone on this one—Tyrannical Ambition had redeployed everything south in the intervening time to try and stop their bleeding at the front. The Exuberance could confirm that, able to observe them on the road some 40 kilometers south already. The facility seemed to be defenseless other than its token fixed defenses, maybe some infantry, and (perhaps) whatever it was developing.

Ye Xiu studied the scene the smart gun could see, going back and forth from it to the imagery that the Exuberance was relaying as he built up a mental map of the place.

The Perses Facility was a rather typical-looking research complex. It was, on the surface anyway, a cluster of fairly ordinary-looking civilian buildings connected to one another by walking paths and access roads. Around these were yet more access roads, which led off toward its dedicated power plant to the north, and the main gate to the south. There were large empty spaces which seemed to functionally just be fields of grass between the roads and the short perimeter fence, but even so the facility only took up an area of around a square kilometer, ending well short of the rim of the crater. It was remote enough that no effort appeared to have been made to establish permanent security on the rim of the crater itself. The fence wasn't even tall enough to keep out someone who might want to hop it.

After much study of it from space and in person, Ye Xiu was fairly convinced there was far more to it than just this. The question was how to access what he imagined to be the rest. He was soon satisfied, and smiled ever so slightly. "Then it's time to go."

From some 400 kilometers above, Chen Guo watched as the almost static image they had of the facility was marred by perfectly straight beams of aquamarine lightning. They were so bright as to wash out the image, momentarily messing up the camera's contrast, and they fanned across the frame in rapid sequence from left to right, impacting variously upon the facility's grounds. So quick were the shots that all the targets seemed to explode at once, the image almost whiting out from all the light. She sucked in a breath at the sight.

Ye Xiu didn't wait and brought the smart gun down into a more natural position as he activated Lord Grim's thrusters. He cleared the ridge in an instant and shot toward the facility like a rocket.

He blitzed toward the tallest of the complex's buildings and alighted atop it with a satisfying crunch; he kept his verniers burning, and the surface cracked beneath Lord Grim's feet as all its 125 metric tons came to bear, but the roof didn't buckle, which was in and of itself proof that these were no ordinary buildings.

Ye Xiu cut the engines. All he had to do now was stir up the hornet's nest. "I'll meet back up with you on the next orbit," he said, as though he was talking about going out to pick up groceries. He didn't know if anything might disrupt their communications from here forward.

Chen Guo blinked as she watched their surveillance feed; the Exuberance was just reaching the point of being almost directly overhead, rapidly continuing eastward. So confident?...

Lord Grim hoisted its beam smart gun into firing position and began to lay down a barrage onto the grass fields around the facility. Ye Xiu didn't aim anywhere in particular, just varying the distance somewhat and slowly turning in a circle. From here onward, it was merely a statistical matter. Knock, knock. This is your wake-up call...

Chen Guo observed the withering assault on the lawn with confusion. Was this some kind of joke? After several seconds of growing befuddlement, she exclaimed, "What... what are you doing?!"

"How do you hide something big from view, but still deploy it? And how long will you wait to reveal it if it might potentially get destroyed due to your delay?" Ye Xiu asked, humoring her. A Socratic approach was fine, it might take them a minute or two to—

Just as he was thinking that, and before Chen Guo could truly get angry, there was a thunderous detonation in the distance behind Lord Grim.

Ye Xiu smoothly turned the mobile suit around, naturally aiming into the plume of flame and debris. For all the sound and fury there wasn't much visual spectacle to be seen.

The fire and smoke quickly dissipated amid a shower of rock, to reveal a large rectangular divot about the size of a football pitch and perhaps some 15 meters deep. At the bottom were slatted metal hangar doors; the slats began to tilt on the vertical axis and retract, allowing the doors to slide open lengthwise from the middle. One of those slats was heavily scored and scorched from where it had (barely) absorbed one of his beam smart gun's shots.

It took a moment longer for Chen Guo's orbital perspective to clear up. "They... they built an underground hangar?" she muttered, inadvertently answering Ye Xiu's first question.

"Under the bedrock," Ye Xiu observed. They had dug right up beneath the topmost layer of bedrock and lined it with shaped charges that could be activated whenever they were ready to open the hangar bay. It was more difficult to do than a simple cut-and-cover method but it had two benefits: a bit more added protection, and the element of surprise—no one would be any the wiser without strong ground-penetrating radar scans of the site.

"They panicked when one of the shots hit the hangar doors and decided to sortie," he explained. There was no way of guaranteeing one of his shots wouldn't eventually make it through, especially if it hit at less of a grazing angle. As to the reaction time... perhaps their dire straits at the front had caused them to have a pilot on standby alert.

Chen Guo narrowed her eyes, regaining her composure. The increasing angle of the Exuberance relative to the site was already making it difficult for them to see down into the hangar bay. "Isn't it pretty arrogant, thinking you won't just shoot whatever it is as soon as it appears?"

"Maybe." Ye Xiu smiled a little again. Maybe he should. But he also wanted to learn what he'd actually been hunting this whole time.

Chen Guo was about to continue on when the sound became distorted and Ye Xiu's image on the bridge monitors became fuzzed, then dissolved into static. The visual feed of the battlefield also fogged strangely at the same time. She stared for only a split second before demanding, "What the hell just happened!?"

"I don't know," Tang Rou replied, rapidly working with her console. This kind of interference... but, that sort of thing was highly frowned upon. Still... "It seems like... Minovsky particle emission!" she declared, completing her thought.

Chen Guo blinked, looked toward Tang Rou, then turned her attention back to the monitors and glared. She could see something having arisen from the hangar, but the details were blurred. Whatever it was, it was big. "That... thing... is freely emitting them?"

Minovsky particles were the critical factor in the miniaturization of fusion reactors and the operation of energy weapons. Emerging from the curious interactions of helium-3 atoms within artificial reactors, Minovsky particles were fundamental particles of near-zero mass which carried an electrical charge. Their main interaction with the macroscopic world involved interference with most forms of radiation by means of naturally forming a regular cubic lattice (a so-called I-field lattice) in free space—in other words, they naturally dispersed and blocked light and charged particles.

The severity of this for light depended upon the wavelength in question; the shorter the wavelength, the less severe the effect was. High-energy frequencies of light, such as UV or X-rays, were largely unaffected. Visible light would "fog," as they were now observing. Infrared, microwave, and radio waves experienced increasingly greater degradation.

Among other things, this made Minovsky particles useful for containing the heat and radiation of fusion reactors, which both increased their efficiency and radically reduced the need for cooling and shielding to safely contain them (allowing them to be made ultra-compact).

They could also be captured and stored for offensive uses; compressing an I-field lattice sufficiently would result in the Minovsky particles fusing together into massive, neutrally charged mega-particles. These mega-particles comprised the firepower of energy weapons such as Lord Grim's beam smart gun. The Minovsky particles needed to do this could either be produced directly by a reactor, or stored in special containers (with the latter method obviously being a much more finite source).

Finally, if they were freely released, they could block all radio communication, nullify radar, impede thermal tracking, and obscure visual target acquisition.

Given the potentially disruptive effects of Minovsky particles on ordinary civilian economic activities, ever since their discovery the Company had consistently and strongly discouraged the Alliance against their wanton use, and the Alliance had abided by that advisement rather stringently. The Company did not suffer threats to its bottom line lightly.

For there to be a secretly-developed war machine that arbitrarily dispersed Minovsky particles like this... Chen Guo didn't like the implications of that at all.

She was stirred from her thoughts by Tang Rou saying, "We've received a text message from Ye Xiu via the line of sight system." Their laser link operated in the visible part of the spectrum; although its data transmission rate was being heavily degraded, it still functioned.

"Well?" Chen Guo asked.

"All it reads is, 'Like I said: see you next orbit'."

One of Chen Guo's eyebrows twitched and her expression grew sour. You... You'd damn well better...

 


 

Ye Xiu dismissed the flashing alarms about Minovsky emission and impassively studied the enemy that had appeared before him. The most immediately interesting thing about it was that it was floating. Aside from that, it was strange looking.

It wasn't really even vaguely humanoid. It had a sort of triangular base with three large hemispheres protruding from the bottom, near the corners. Above this was a bulky, sort of squared-off oblate torso. There was one large mega particle cannon mounted centrally at the front of its waist, and a ring of many smaller ones that seemed to circle around it to either side of that. Somewhat humorously, above that was the head of one of Tyrannical Ambition's bog standard Fist mobile suits, which was dwarfed by the rest of the machine it was attached to; they had apparently decided to skimp on reinventing the whole wheel.

Ye Xiu inclined his head slightly. He knew more than enough about physics to guess what was happening: this... mobile armor... was using Minovsky particles as a cushion it could float on. Presumably it could use them for thrust and maneuvering—perhaps even flight? And what else could it do with them?

Without any warning, Lord Grim's beam smart gun fired a much larger full-power shot, which flared off at an angle relative to where the muzzle was pointed. Ye Xiu hadn't moved the gun to aim directly at the mobile armor since he'd turned to face its pyrotechnic introduction, but it was well within the 40° cone of the particle deflection system in the barrel of the gun.

The searing aquamarine blast abruptly stopped some meters away from the mobile armor's hull and sprayed out in every direction, as though washing over an invisible bubble, and soon dispersed into the atmosphere.

A brief silence fell, only to be broken by a voice booming out of the mobile armor from speakers located somewhere on its exterior. "Nice gun... but not nice enough."

Ye Xiu smiled a little and toggled his own speakers on. "I was just thinking the same thing about your I-field barrier." The last word was still leaving his lips when he engaged the throttles.

Lord Grim hopped from its perch toward the ground below, then engaged its main backpack thrusters as it plummeted and burst forward on a wave of vibrant aquamarine flame, skimming just above the ground.

The mobile armor seemed to hesitate, perhaps unwilling to open fire with Perses directly behind Lord Grim. It finally began to maneuver away, taking flight and moving backward toward the rim of the crater.

Ye Xiu clenched his jaw and accelerated as hard as he dared. It was only once he was within a critical range that he began to dodge and weave, varying his approach as he rapidly approached the mobile armor from below.

This was enough of a change for the Perses facility to leave the firing line, and the mobile armor began to alternate volleys, spamming some of its smaller mega-particle cannons to try and box Lord Grim in before firing a single large shot with the main one to try and kill it.

Ye Xiu let that cycle of fire happen three times as he continued to close in.

Lord Grim's sensors were rather more sophisticated than might be imagined. Even with the heavy Minovsky interference, some radio waves could still make it through over short distances, and the kind of high-voltage electricity necessity to fire those cannons was more than enough to produce them, even given shielded electronics. If he was close enough, had enough time, and allowed the enemy to do enough, that information could be used as a side-channel attack to gain some idea of the internal structure of the mobile armor. And then...

After the third volley, Lord Grim abruptly reversed its thrust and then instantly vectored in a completely different direction: up.

The mobile armor tried to compensate its aim, only to be frustrated by a variety of side-to-side mid-air jukes. All its shots went wide.

Ye Xiu closed and closed, as though intent on physically ramming the mobile armor. I-field barriers could neither really penetrate physical objects nor block them; they only interfered with neutrally charged mega-particles because of a fundamental interaction. They couldn't stop tangible objects.

Lord Grim was close now. Too close. If the barrel of that beam rifle so much as poked through the I-field barrier, then... The mobile armor had to retreat. It had to.

Only in the last two seconds before impact did Lord Grim's hands flicker.

One stowed the beam smart gun to a mount at the hip. Ye Xiu dared not fire it within the I-field barrier the mobile armor had produced; the shot could quite possibly bounce around inside rather than dissipate on the interior of the bubble. He needed the mobile armor intact. Mostly, anyway.

The other retrieved a beam saber from an armored storage prong on the knee, then shot forward through the I-field barrier of the mobile armor. That beam saber suddenly blazed to life as soon as it was through.

Beam sabers were hot plasma contained within tube-shaped I-fields of their own. One I-field would repel another, and so the back of the blade bounced off the bubble and forward toward the mobile armor, amplifying an already mighty downward swing.

The mobile armor turned out to have no anti-beam coating. Maybe it'd been decided there was no need for it with the I-field generator installed. Perhaps it had been deemed a cost-cutting measure.

The beam saber slashed into the mobile armor's torso, molten metal bubbling like magma around its entry path.

At the same time, Lord Grim's other hand produced its other beam saber, this one stabbing downward into the base, right through the top of one the bulbous hemispheres that were providing lift.

Ye Xiu worked the beam sabers like remote manipulators, as though conducting surgery, and cut through the interior of the mobile armor with the utmost precision. He had to avoid the reactor and wanted to avoid the pilot, but he had to disable the controls and its ability to flee...

After a mere second Lord Grim retracted both beam sabers. They turned off as they were withdrawn, and Lord Grim kicked off of the mobile armor's base and torso, backflipping away from it as it stowed both beam sabers.

The mobile armor seemed to shudder in midair, as though caught in some invisible grasping hand, and then began to fall listlessly, unmoving.

Lord Grim landed neatly in a crouch, while the mobile armor crashed some hundred meters in front of it.

Smoothly rising, Lord Grim immediately and implacably advanced on its vanquished enemy.

"It wasn't a bad idea," Ye Xiu offered through his speakers. Tyrannical Ambition had made a fairly mobile and relatively impervious weapons platform that could float around and rain death upon their enemies; it probably could have dodged or shot down what it couldn't have tanked. Maybe it really could've single-handedly turned the tide for them in Elysium. Maybe.

Lord Grim drew its beam smart gun from its mount as it walked and smoothly leveled it on the axis Ye Xiu believed would intersect the cockpit of the mobile armor.

"I don't think you can detonate the reactors, or are willing to anyway. Get out," he idly commanded.

There was a long pause before a hatch that was flush with the surface opened, confirming the estimates of the position of the mobile armor's cockpit.

Lord Grim's focus zoomed in on the man who climbed out. He looked visibly shaken even through the tinted visor of his flight helmet; the name 'Endless Night' was stenciled upon it.

"Who the hell are you?!" Endless Night demanded.

Ye Xiu thought for a moment at that. "I'm Unrivaled Super Hottie," he said at last, just making something up. That'd sound good on a debriefing report about this incident, right? Such a thing would probably eventually wind up in Han Wenqing's hands...

Endless Night gave no immediate reaction to that answer, too stupefied at it to formulate one.

"Run back to your facility. If you stop—even to look back—I'm going to blow it up," Ye Xiu continued, just wanting the pilot out of his way. To accentuate the threat, Lord Grim turned halfway and swung the beam smart gun toward the cluster of buildings in the distance.

He watched Endless Night flinch, then slide down the side of the wrecked mobile armor's base before he started to jog back to the research facility.

Ye Xiu kept track of him for a few seconds, then returned his attention to the mobile armor, extending Lord Grim's free hand toward the open cockpit. Tiny manipulator arms, like mechanical versions of those of an octopus, extended from housings at the center of its palm, snaking their way in to find consoles and ports. That didn't take long. Establishing a connection took even less time—Endless Night hadn't bothered locking the system before surrendering. Lord Grim scanned the operating system and data of the mobile armor (it turned out its name was Avalanche) and copied absolutely everything.

Ye Xiu let half his attention linger on the schematics rapidly flickering across various infopanes, but kept the other half in the direction of Perses, vaguely wary of any actions the personnel there might try and take. There was no guarantee that there was only one Avalanche... although if there were more that were in any state to fight, they'd likely have launched already.

Meanwhile, Endless Night was still dutifully running back toward Perses. He had quite a ways to go.

It took less than two minutes to download all of the Avalanche's data, and a cheery chime helpfully indicated when the process was complete.

Ye Xiu returned his attention to the connection. The armor's reactors were indeed still running, but the controls were in fact locked out. The I-field generators still seemed to be operable, though. After a bit of thought, Ye Xiu issued instructions for them to gradually ramp up to full output, duly overriding the warnings about how that would stress the reactors.

With that done, he disconnected and withdrew Lord Grim's hand from the cockpit, then fully turned toward Perses. While tracking Endless Night's run with a rangefinder, he also began to run a simulation for the minimum safe distance from the Avalanche were its reactors to catastrophically fail.

It turned out Endless Night wasn't beyond it yet.

Finding he had some time, Ye Xiu scanned Perses more carefully, trying to pick out anything that could be used for long-range observation. There didn't seem to be much, as it wasn't intended for such things, but there was at least one possibility.

He cranked the volume of Lord Grim's external speakers to maximum and, with an affect that was ominous in its flatness, declared, "Run, Endless Night."

A beat passed. Ye Xiu repeated, "Run," then shot at the feature that he had suspicions about, a parabolic dish atop one of the buildings. It simply evaporated within the beam smart gun's shot.

Endless Night picked up the pace, running as fast as his legs would carry him.

Ye Xiu watched with approval as the time necessary for him to reach minimum safe distance decreased markedly. Yes, he could afford to wait three more minutes here. He was going to be back up in space quite early regardless.

When there were only thirty seconds left on the timer for Endless Night's run, Ye Xiu turned Lord Grim back around and locked the beam smart gun onto one of the Avalanche's reactors, simply automating the controls to keep it on target.

When there were only seven seconds left, he ignited Lord Grim's thrusters and began to ascend, soaring skyward and slowly arcing west, as if to take up position over Perses.

The thunderous takeoff washed over Endless Night within three seconds. He finally hazarded a glance back even as he continued to run. Lord Grim was already almost two hundred meters in the air and arcing toward him. His head naturally tracked it, especially its gun. Shit, is he going to open fire anyway...?! Within another four seconds it was already a kilometer up, and he slowed.

At the same time, Ye Xiu fired the beam smart gun at full power.

Endless Night flinched at the extreme glare, shielding his eyes with a hand, only for the shockwave of the detonation behind him to throw him forward into the long grass another few seconds later.

An even more massive explosion followed just behind as the Avalanche's reactors all detonated, rippling over him with a deafening roar. All he could do was clasp his hands behind his head to try and protect it, and pray.

By the time he got to his feet, somehow seemingly unscathed, Lord Grim was long gone.

 


 

Lord Grim plowed into the nimbostratus clouds above Perses within three seconds after firing at the Avalanche, climbing at a steady four Gs of acceleration. It could handle somewhat more than seven, but things would actually be easier with less.

Ye Xiu initiated Lord Grim's transformation sequence the moment it was concealed by the clouds.

Five seconds later, it burst through the clouds into brilliant blue and radiant daylight, already four and a half kilometers up. It was already completely changed in profile, having a chunky but knife-like silhouette, albeit one ending in the two 'handles' rather than just one—the legs. Although it looked scarcely more aerodynamic than a brick, its power could not be underestimated.

Its flight-path quickly began to arc as it gained altitude, rapidly heading east again. With nothing to do but wait and bear the acceleration, Ye Xiu kept an eye out for active sensor pings. Between the Minovsky particle haze all around Perses, the cloud cover, and the ongoing war, it seemed unlikely anything would be tracking him. Apparently nothing did.

After approximately 105 seconds had elapsed since takeoff, he was well more than 100 kilometers up and moving at the necessary four kilometers a second of delta-v to make it to low Mars orbit. The engines automatically shut off and Lord Grim began an automated orbital insertion procedure, climbing to the altitude necessary to match orbits with the Exuberance.

All of the orbital maneuvers necessary to complete a Mars orbit rendezvous were likewise best handled autonomously—it was both more precise and less monotonously taxing that way. After transforming Lord Grim back into its mobile suit mode, Ye Xiu allowed it to figure all that out and execute it.

Meanwhile he busied himself with finding the nearest communications satellite that he could bounce messages off of to inform Chen Guo and company that he was waiting for them in space. Once that was taken care of, he contentedly set about studying the data gathered from the Avalanche while freely floating and flitting about in the void.