“Jerboa Mice Ate My
< < I think we should get Christy to design
armoured cupholders for our Gundams, > > Mel said. < < I mean, I can
pilot one-handed so long as nothing goes wrong, but if we got ambushed by Theos
there’d be coffee all over the cockpit floor, and I put enough sugar in mine
that it’d be sticky until I got fed up and pressure-washed it or something. >
“Can we get her to also design a decent rubbish bin?” Quatre suggested. “Using a storage bin gets a bit messy sometimes.”
< < Mm. > > A faint slurping noise told him that Mel was finishing the last of her cup. < < Good point. I have a plastic bag in the compartment I use, but-- huh. Quatre, is it just me, or is there a row of people in deckchairs on the admin building’s roof? > >
“...It’s not just you,” Quatre snickered, zooming in his main camera. “I think we know where the hundred-credit seats are.”
< < I wonder if they charged extra for the umbrellas? > >
“Captain Gutierrez? You have visitors.”
“Well, show them in then!” Gutierrez snapped, not looking up from his screen. “I don’t have time to go running around after every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to see me, I’m busy sorting out the mess you incompetents left from yesterday!”
“...They won’t fit in your office. Sir,” the orderly said, after an expressionless pause.
“What? How big a group--?” Muttering under his breath, Gutierrez tossed down his stylus and stamped to the door. “Well? Where are they?”
“Fine, whatever!” He hit the front door of the admin block straight-armed, slamming it back against the building façade, and stormed out. “Who the hell thinks they can drag me away from... fr... wha?”
Slowly, his gaze lifted, tracking up the immense metal legs in front of him until his head was tipped back, staring up at the two Gundams.
< < Gutierrez, I presume? > > a poison-sweet female voice inquired from the green-and-black one.
“Uh-- uh, yes,” he stuttered, then coughed and tried to glare. “That’s Captain Gutierrez, actually. Who are you?”
< < Our names are classified, > > she purred, < < so I suppose you can just call us ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’. Given that we outrank you by quite a few levels, you blithering incompetent excuse for an officer. Where did you get your bars? The bottom of a cereal box? > >
< < I was thinking one of the ads you get at the back of comic books, myself, > > said a coldly calm male voice from the white-and-gold Gundam. < < You know the ones; send a self-addressed stamped envelope and five credits, and you get back fake X-ray glasses? > >
< < Either way, they’re plastic. > >
Gutierrez stiffened. “I don’t have to stand here and take this,” he snarled. “You can--”
< < You do, actually, because if you try to leave we’re perfectly capable of punching a hole in the wall of your office and pulling you out, > > she said. < < I’d enjoy that. Go right ahead. > >
“Are you threatening me?!”
The green-and-black Gundam leaned down, bringing its blank metal face uncomfortably close. < < Yes, > > its pilot said. < < And then again, no. Threats may or may not come to pass, whereas I’m stating a fact. If you attempt to walk away, we will do whatever is necessary to fetch you back, up to and including major property damage. I suggest you shut up and listen. > >
The other Gundam shifted slightly, looming closer. < < In case you hadn’t noticed, there was a major battle here yesterday. The casualties from that battle, both killed and wounded, along with an as-yet undetermined percentage of the property damage, are directly attributable to your incompetence, mismanagement, and blatant disregard for several ordnance handling protocols and regulations. Because of you, Gutierrez, twelve people are dead and thirty-two are wounded, at least nine of whom are permanently maimed. You are a self-important little tin-pot dictator whose only motivation is to make yourself look good. In order to get maintenance hours down in your reports and get efficiency awards, shiny little entries in your personnel file, you moved eighty percent of your base’s complement of pod rockets out of the perimeter foxholes -- where they would be useful -- and into storage. You falsified paperwork to do this. You falsified the maintenance and stocktake reports for months. It’s all on file. How do those efficiency reports look now, asshole? > >
The darker Gundam nodded, eerily human. < < Because those pod rockets were in the wrong place, the Theodorians were able to breach your perimeter far more easily than it should have been. Because they were trying to get the pod rockets back out into the hands of people fighting for their lives, Gutierrez, several volunteers in an APC got blown up. And you weren’t even here, you miserable prick, were you? Not that you would have been any use if you were. > >
< < And now we’re getting to the really good part, > > the pilot of the lighter Gundam chimed in. < < The bit where you might end up in front of a firing squad. > >
< < It’s oh-so-awfully-convenient that you were on furlough just then, isn’t it? > > The voice -- both the voices -- sounded horribly cheerful, Gutierrez noticed dazedly. < < You skipped off to town for a break, leaving your post under-defended by your own orders, and the Theos just happened to stroll over here and poke their noses in when you were safely out of the way. You don’t even have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the writing on the wall for this one. > >
“I’m not-- I didn’t-- I’m not a traitor!”
< < Oh, I kind of hope you are, > > the female voice said, and her Gundam shrugged. < < I would really rather have you be a traitor than have to accept that someone as ditheringly incompetent as you’d have to be for this to be pure stupidity could make it to Captain outside the Theodorian army. That’s just my personal preference, of course; I suppose you’d rather be known far and wide as a numbskull than dead. > >
< < Besides, if you’re a traitor we get to see you shot instead of cashiered! > > the male added, almost chirpily. < < I bet your former subordinates would sell ringside seats. Probably at a hundred credits each. > >
< < With umbrellas, > > the woman snickered, and the two Gundams turned and walked away. < < Do you think they got drinks? > > Gutierrez heard, drifting back over the desert. < < With ice, and maybe fruit on those little sticks? > >
< < The Pina Colada concession ought to be worth a lot... > >
Sagging inside his uniform, Gutierrez stared around him. A military-badged jeep was pulling into a parking space just a few feet away, and he swallowed and tried to stand straight as a lieutenant-colonel got out.
“Captain Gutierrez?” the officer asked mildly, looking at him.
“Uh... ah, yes, s-sir,” he stammered, belatedly remembering to salute. The officer returned the salute, and held a bundle of papers out to him.
“These are your new orders,” he said crisply. “You are to report immediately to Assiut Base; General Petrenkovich wants to see you. My jeep will take you, but you have time to pack first. You won’t be returning. I relieve you, Captain.”
* * * * *
Mel and Quatre walked into the pilots’ common room in time to see a sulking Jay slap two hundred credits into Asuka’s outstretched hand. Ignoring her pout, the Glacin pilot counted fifty credits out of the stack of crumpled notes and flicked them onto the table in front of Wufei before stuffing the rest into his pocket.
“Thank you,” Wufei said cheerfully, putting his profits away. Asuka snorted.
“That’s my line,” he pointed out. “I’m happy to tell you to strip any time you want to pry some more cash out of Jay.”
“The deal’s changed, wot!” she put in hurriedly. “I’m not paying for stripping any more unless I get to see it! Rotten bastards, the lot of you...”
“That reminds me,” Quatre said, and stretched one open palm out towards her. “Pay up.”
“Wait, oi, what for?!” Jay yelped. “I never agreed to pay you for tush-o-vision!”
“You bet twenty credits that Christy and Duo would catch up to us in forty minutes,” he pointed out. “I bet that they wouldn’t catch up at all, and they didn’t -- we caught up to them, in the end. Pay up! You too, Mel, Dan, Trowa.”
“Don’t forget Jamieson,” Mel snickered, pulling out her wallet. “Make sure you get him before he goes off-base again, and don’t believe a word he says; he’s not broke, he just insists he is so he can save his money for whiskey.”
“Fine, here,” Jay sulked, paying Quatre with a handful of single bills. “Lovely. What else is going to go wrong today?”
With a loud, groaning death rattle, the air conditioner stopped.
“Asuka, come on,” Mel said, leaning into his room. “Staying in here glaring at the air vents won’t produce a working air-conditioning unit out of nowhere. Latest word is we’re going to have to get one delivered; neither of the spares in storage are fit to be used.”
“Like the roof is going to be any better.”
“It is, you know. There’s a breeze, it’s dry heat instead of the humid swamp this building is turning into, I’ve set up my banana lounge under a beach umbrella with ice hanging from the supports, and we’ve organised a drinks delivery service from the officers’ mess.”
“...Do I get the banana lounge and ice?”
“Wouldn’t have told you about ‘em if I wasn’t offering ‘em.”
“Don’t tell me Gutierrez was in charge of maintenance records here too,” Quatre muttered darkly, chin resting on his crossed arms. Nine of the ten pilots were sprawled in the sun (or out of it, in Asuka’s case) on their barracks roof, slathered in high-SPF sunscreen and wearing minimal clothing.
“Nah,” Christy told him, tying a knot in her t-shirt to make it into an impromptu belly shirt. “Turns out jerboa mice really like the taste of the coolant fluid and chewed through half the seals to get at it, is all.”
“...Isn’t that stuff poisonous?”
“Yeeeeep,” she drawled. “As the meece found out. Apparently the repair tech who cracked open the first crate tossed his cookies at the smell.”
“Oi, Asuka, can I swipe some of your ice?” Duo asked hopefully.
“Fuck off,” Asuka muttered without opening his eyes. “Mine.”
“Selfish,” Duo pouted, watching trickles of cold water drip down all over the Glacin’s nearly naked body.
“Get your own!”
“I’ll get you some, Duo,” Heero offered, starting to get up.
“You stay right where you are! It’s only fun when you’re swiping from someone else. Besides,” Duo sighed, wriggling slightly on his towel, “I think you missed a spot.”
“Hn. Can’t have that,” Heero muttered with a smirk, reaching for the bottle of sunscreen. Wufei silently pointed at the lotion-free area below Duo’s left shoulder blade, then went back to rubbing sunscreen onto the braided pilot’s legs.
“I say old chaps,” puffed Jay’s voice from the stairwell, “care to give a girl a hand? This is -- eep! -- a tad heavier than it looked, don’tcherknow.”
Trowa, sitting nearer to the stairwell door than anyone else, leaned back to get line-of-sight on the Vaterean pilot. “Jay,” he asked politely, “why are you carrying the TV?”
“If we’re spending the day up here, I want something else to amuse people other than rehashing my horrendous betting record and failure to witness the Wufei-tush show, wot. Help?”
Obligingly, Trowa rolled to his feet and went to rescue her from her awkward burden, emerging back onto the roof with a large flatscreen TV (last seen in the common room) in his arms. Jay followed, wrestling with the coils of an enormous extension cord that seemed to be trying to strangle her.
“It would have been easier if you hadn’t tried to bring the cord at the same time,” Mel pointed out. “Not to mention that now you have to go back to plug it in...”
“Did I ask for a critique, wot?”
“No, but you should know by now that’s no guarantee of immunity.”
Once the TV was plugged in, Dan had fetched the bunny-ears antenna Jay had forgotten, and some mild wrangling about what channel to watch had been resolved without bloodshed, the pilots settled in to variously nap, read, sunbathe, or jeer at the Theodorian war drama currently showing.
“Do the Theos really like this drek?” Duo asked, eyeing the screen with a mildly queasy expression.
“No, but Torovha thinks it’s good for his approval ratings, so they’re stuck with it. Not that he actually needs good approval ratings, being a dictator and all that, but he likes them. His toadies make them up out of thin air, anyway,” Christy shrugged. “It makes a good drinking game, at least. Swig every time they praise the Emperor, and chug your drink if they manage to work the phrase ‘Destiny Made Manifest’ into a completely unrelated conversation.”
Duo frowned, counting on his fingers. “...By those rules, we’d have killed our livers five minutes in if we were drinking alcohol.”
“Good thing we’re not then, hey? Doing it with soda trains your bladder for long hitches in your Gundam,” she grinned, and chugged her drink.
The televised scene changed abruptly from Generic Battlefield #3 (Duo’s name for it), where the Theodorian hero was standing on his tank’s upper deck giving a rousing speech as bullets flew past his head, to a female news anchor with improbably pneumatic breasts that heaved every time she took a breath. < < We interrupt this broadcast for a live transmission from the Winter Palace, where our glorious Emperor is about to name a new Hero of the Theodorian People! > > she exclaimed, smiling in simulated delight.
“Seventy-five percent chance of it being posthumous,” Dan grinned.
< < Our new Hero distinguished himself in a triumphant battle against the forces of the Zakrosian aggressors-- > >
“The what?” Quatre asked, blinking.
“That’s us,” Mel told him. “The formal title for the Alliance is the ‘Accords of Zakros’, remember?”
“Yes, but ‘aggressors’?”
“We didn’t surrender immediately eight years ago, so by Theo logic the war is our fault.”
< < --heroic forces acting according to the Will of the Theodorian People struck deep into enemy territory! > > the anchor continued, really getting into the material now. < < However, our gallant warriors were betrayed-- > > gasp, heave < < --by their commander, a man already secretly under investigation by our beloved Generalissimo Po for suspected Zakrosian leanings. His treachery-- > >
The five ‘imported’ pilots all winced at this reminder of Sally Po’s Theodorian counterpart.
“Is any of that likely to be true?” Wufei asked, gesturing to the TV.
“The ‘already under investigation’ bit? Nah,” Christy told him. “That’s Theo shorthand for ‘we’re putting the blame for our losses on him’. Good Theos never lose, you see, so if you’re the commander of a beaten force you’re automatically under investigation for ‘suspected Zakrosian leanings’, even if two days ago they were grooming you for promotion.”
< < --seized command and directed his brave men in an epic battle, during which the Zakrosian forces were forced to retreat once more, and struck a heavy blow when an enemy Gundam was seriously damaged! > > Gasp, heave, smile.
Christy sat bolt upright, staring at the screen.
“...Wait a minute,” Duo said slowly. “They’re talking about yesterday.”
< < We’re now able to bring you exclusive, unprecedented battle footage! > >
The scene flicked to a grainy, jolting view of Hades and Deathscythe, backing slowly away from the camera as Cobra 6’s APCs retreated under their covering fire. Rocket pods popped out of Hades’s shoulders, then retracted again as the Gundam practically somersaulted to avoid the worst of a rocket barrage.
“Gun camera,” Asuka commented, briefly interested, then snorted. “Low tech. It’s not even compensating for terrain effects.”
Duo whistled. “Damn, Christy! That didn’t look nearly as impressive from my angle.” Christy growled wordlessly.
On screen, Hades rolled to its feet, brandished its scythe, paused... and fell over. Martial music swelled in the background as the station cut back to the anchor, applauding frantically. < < Yes! Wonderful! A palpable blow for the Theodorian Destiny! And now, the Winter Palace, where Emperor Torovha Barazynovich is about to designate our newest Hero of the Theodorian People-- > >
The screen cut to a picture of an overdecorated room, heavy on the gilt and red plush. A young officer stood stiffly at attention, bandages visible at the collar of his uniform and one arm in a sling, in front of a stocky man wearing a medal-bedecked uniform that was nearly as gaudy as the room.
< < --Lieutenant, now Commander, Andrei Grozny! > >
“That,” Christy said clearly, “is the bastard who broke my baby.”
“Nice to see that you’re finally placing blame in the right place,” Duo muttered; then he blinked, grinned, and slapped her on the shoulder. “Pay up.”
“Fifty credits, hon. That guy is definitely not a woman!”
“...Fair enough,” Christy shrugged, digging for her wallet. “I see an Adam’s apple, so I can’t even argue that he’s cross-dressing.”
“I note that they aren’t mentioning the next bit of the battle, where everyone on our side got clean away and the Theos got chased back to their pre-battle lines by the Serpent suits.”
“That would be fair and balanced reporting, not exactly a hallmark of Theo TV,” Jay chirped. “If you add up all the territorial gains they report, and don’t take into account all the pushbacks they don’t mention, they should have conquered all of Firma about three times over.”
“I’m going to go get some more drinks,” Quatre announced, standing up and stretching. “Would anyone else like something?”
“Yeah, mine’s getting low,” Duo said, testing the weight of his can. “Something with lemon?”
“Don’t bother, Q; I can just call the mess and have refills sent over,” Mel shrugged.
“It’s no trouble, really,” he assured her, turning towards the stairwell. “I need to get a shirt anyway, I’ve had enough sun for one--”
Automatically checking the visible area as he moved, Quatre focussed on a figure getting out of a jeep at the nearby admin building, and froze.
Mel blinked, expression sharpening. “What’s the matter?” she asked, sitting up and looking for whatever had caught his attention.
“Is that-- it is,” Quatre breathed, pointing. “That’s Gutierrez!”
“So it is,” she agreed, grinning a little nastily. “Looks like Pet’s called him in for a carpeting. I guess when we--”
“Mel!” he interrupted. “How do I declare a Free Fire day?! Oh, damn it, I don’t have a paintball gun--”
Snickering, Christy pulled a pistol out of her waistband and passed it to him as Mel picked up a handheld radio and switched it to ‘allcall’.
“Free fire day,” she broadcast, grin clearly audible in her voice. “Free fire day. Whoever’s driving that jeep at the Admin block, tell your passenger; we’re going active in five... four... three...”
Quatre threw himself into a braced stance, forearms on the parapet, sighting down the barrel. Over by the admin building, the driver of the jeep leaned over and said something to Gutierrez, then slammed his vehicle into gear and screeched around the corner of the building into cover, leaving his passenger looking around wildly.
“...two... one... go!”
The last word was nearly inaudible under the sound of Quatre’s first shot.
“Bullseye!” Duo cheered, waving his can of soda in salute. “Nice one!”
Mel dropped the radio and drew her own pistol as Quatre kept firing, tracking smoothly as Gutierrez started to run. “Leave a few patches for me to paint!” Three shots later, she tipped up her pistol and sighed. “Aww, he made it to the door. Oh well. How many times did you get him?”
“Seven,” Quatre told her serenely, passing Christy’s gun back with a slight bow. “I feel better now.”
“Cathartic, isn’t it?” the Theran pilot grinned, reloading.
Inside the admin block, Major Haddad raised one black eyebrow at the shaking figure leaning on the door, oozing paint. “Hm. The last time I saw them do anyone that thoroughly, it was Lieutenant Valeri. Here,” he added, passing Gutierrez a roll of paper towels. “Make sure you stop dripping before you go in to see the General.”
* * * * *
“Ve haff a problem,” Gredenko announced some hours later, stomping up the stairs to join the pilots on the roof. He was trailed by Instructor Heine, looking uncharacteristically serious.
Most of the barracks roof was now covered in a crazy-quilt of shadecloth and tarpaulins, supported by assorted stakes, a piece of trellis with a potted flowering vine still attached, the tripod from a light machine gun, and a plastic scythe Christy had unearthed from the back of her closet. Surrounded by a selection of her paintball weapons, spare ammo, stacks of books and a gun cleaning kit, Christy looked up at Gredenko and scowled.
“Do you mean ‘ve’ as in all you doctors, or ‘ve’ as in us pilots too? Because I don’t really want another problem on top of the whole lack-of-air-conditioning thing.”
“Option two,” he told her. “And it is the same problem. The air conditioning unit zat services your barracks also serves the Gundam hangar.”
“Yeeeess, because it’s all the same building. And?”
“Zat is also vhy it is hard to find a replacement,” Heine pointed out. “Ve cannot just use vun of the units from the smaller buildings.”
“And the Gundam hangar is now so hot zat some of the machinery is overheating,” Gredenko finished glumly.
“...You’d better not be telling me you can’t fix my Hades,” Christy told him menacingly.
“Zat is exactly vhat I am telling you! Ve cannot fix any of the Gundams zat need more than minor adjustments and armour refurbishment. Vhich means Hades, Deathscythe and Dyscalculia.”
Heine raised his voice over Duo’s pained yelp, Christy’s swearing, and Jay’s plaintive complaints. “Also, vhile Sandrock is repairable vithin the hangar’s current capacities, it vill take a vhile, because ze motorised vinches zat can handle a full Gundam backplate are vorking only intermittently.”
“So we’re down to six Gundams if we have to scramble?” Mel asked. “That’s... more than we used to have in total, actually, so not so bad,” she finished wryly.
“Ja,” Heine confirmed. “Just annoyink.”
“What do you mean, just annoying? Why can’t you set up fans or something?” Christy complained.
“Vhat, you think ve’re dumb or something?” Gredenko sniffed.
“Not ‘dumb’ so much as ‘differently intelligent’,” Dan grinned. “You do have a history of overlooking simple solutions to complex problems...”
“Vell ve didn’t zis time. Fans vill help a little in the main hangar, up to a point, but the main problem is the manufacturing machinery in the clean rooms. Zhey need cold, dust-free, positive pressure air, vhich ve are not getting vithout a new air conditioning unit,” he grumbled.
“Vhich is on back order,” Heine added.
Duo sighed, flopping back on his elbows and letting his head fall back. “Well, Dot’s going to be happy, I guess,” he said mournfully. “Less chance for you to strain your arm and for me to pop stitches.”
“Ha! She’ll be making dire predictions about what bored Gundam pilots get up to, and threatening to sedate us,” Christy snorted.
“What do bored Gundam pilots get up to around here?” Duo asked. “Apart from Drunk Night, terrorizing Lieutenant Valeri, and random Free Fire days, that is.”
“Well, if someone gives me the address of the people who have our air conditioning unit on back order, I could go expedite delivery...”
“No,” Mel said calmly, picking her book up again.
“And proud of it.”
“All right then, what are bored Gundam pilots allowed to get up to around here?” Duo amended. “Back home, if I was wounded I could at least spend some time hacking info or money out of our version of OZ.”
A sharklike grin rose above Mel’s book. Dan matched it.
“Guess who our hacking specialists are,” Christy said dryly.
“Oh, I wonder,” Duo grinned. Heero was smirking slightly. “So, you two gonna show us how to play in your sandbox?”
“We’ll even share our toys,” Dan purred, rolling to his feet. “We’ve got some very nice setups over in the EW building, which I hope still has its aircon working or this will be a short trip.”
“We’d have heard all about it if they’d lost cooling,” Mel assured him. “Okay, actually stealing money from the Theos is a bit tricky since the banking systems aren’t connected any more, but we have had good results ‘losing’ the contents of governmental accounts, and of course classified data is always a fun target. --Hang on a second,” she said, pausing at the stairwell door. “Christy, no ‘borrowing’ a Serpent suit while we’re gone.”
“And stay out of Taniwha. The seat’s the wrong height for you anyway. Go order some more paintball guns for the guys, or requalify on the range or something.”
“But that’s easy,” Christy pouted. “Hmph. You’re even stealing my padawan. ...What the hell, it’s still Free Fire Day, and we’ve left it long enough people probably think we’ve stopped. C’mon, Blondie, let’s show ‘em how its done.”
End of Warped Mirrors
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