Chapter 1: Boy Meets Gundamess
Zero the Winged Knight was in a brooding mood. The knight-motifed robot stood perched atop the chimney of Shute's house, as usual, staring across the treetops with blue eyes as his windswept red cape tickled his blue-edged heels. Neotopia was bright and cheerful as always, bustling and blue-skied, but Zero's thoughts were on his petrified home. It was impossible for him not to think of Lacroa on such a day, when Neotopia's beauty so resembled that of his homeland.
A flash of white flickered in the treetops of the forest. Zero snapped to the present and squinted into the trees. The small white form turned and vanished in the shadows, seemingly without noticing its one-man audience. Zero blinked a few times. He had seen the figure so vaguely and briefly that he could not be sure it hadn't just been a mirage. But he could almost swear that it looked like a Gundam of Lacroa. But no, that cannot be, the knight thought to himself. How can another have escaped to Neotopia? It was merely my fancy.
The Lacroan Gundam looked down to see a boy with bouncy brown bangs, Shute, waving up at him, with unimposing civilian mode Captain and red-armored Bakunetsumaru beside him. Captain's v-fin was angled upward and flashing. "Dark Axis is on the move again!" Shute called, confirming Zero's suspicions.
Zero sighed. "Those brutes never know when to admit defeat," he muttered, floating down to his comrades. "Where are the foul creatures this time?"
"The base has not yet transmitted the coordinates," Captain said. "Gunperrys have been sent to retrieve us. We will be briefed on the way."
The Gundam Force patiently waited for their ride. In only a few minutes, the deep hum of the Gunperrys' propellers and the strong breeze rippling through the trees in waves signaled that their transportation had arrived.
Once on board one of the Gunperrys, Chief Haro began to brief them. Zero, spotting white-painted wings, drifted into the back of the cluster and subtly beckoned the Gundam they belonged to. "Guneagle," he said in a low voice, "Were you in the forest near Shute's house ten minutes ago?"
"Uh…No?" Guneagle said. "I haven't been out there since...well, ever. How come? You saw someone there who looked like me?"
"It was probably just my imagination, then."
"Maybe," Guneagle said. "Or it could have been the enemy. You should tell Chief Haro about it."
"Is there something you have to say, Guneagle and Zero?"
The two immediately stood to attention. "No, sir," Zero said quickly.
"Then please pay attention," Chief Haro said. He returned to addressing the entire gathering. "As I was saying, Dark Axis is up to their usual tricks, but this time in a residential area on the south side of Neotopia. There have already been reports of houses burning and cars exploding." The Gundam Force tensed in anger at the news."Luckily, there are no known casualties as of yet, although there have been some serious injuries. You must stop them at any cost before citizens die. However, you must be more cautious than usual, because this area is highly populated, by both mobile citizens and humans, and stray shots and collapsing structures can easily kill them. SDG staff will be evacuating as many of the remaining civilians as possible to the Gunperrys. Your main priority is to engage Dark Axis, but if you find a civilian who is trapped, in need of immediate medical or technical attention, or otherwise in danger, feel free to help. Understood?"
"Yes, sir!" everyone chimed.
"Good. Then get ready. We touch down in three minutes."
The gangplank rolled down to reveal a myriad of explosions, fires, screams, and Zakos. The Gundam Force's eyes widened. "This looks like a war zone," Bakunetsumaru stated, drawing his two katana.
"Time to commence mission," Captain stated neutrally. His mouthguard slid and clicked together over his face, and he stepped forward, each movement clunking with the weight of his blue-and-white combat armor and weapons. "Shute, stay close."
"O-Okay, Captain," the shaking boy said, following him down to the streets. The rest of the Gundams came close after, eager to confront the Dark Axis.
The residential area stood in a suburb not too different from Shute's own neighborhood. However, the houses were set closely together. Some of them even smooshed right against each other to form buildings that spanned entire blocks. "Townhouses," Shute said. "Or, what's left of them." The fire stops had not been able to withstand the Dark Axis's flames; whole rows of townhomes had their roofs on fire, while other homes were only charred remains. A high window of one structure smashed outward to let through a T.V. screen, which crashed to a stop on the yard below, followed by laughter from some short round Zakos in the now-glassless frame.
Captain chose to target a gang of Zakos at a nearby fire hydrant first. "Halt," he ordered them, aiming his beam rifle. "I have been granted special dispensation to use weapons in the defense of Neotopia. Surrender and drop your weapons."
"Oh, no, zako!"
"It's the Gundam Force, zako!"
"What do we do, zako?"
The little green Zakos scattered. "Hey, get back here!" Baku shouted after them as he gave chase.
"Hey, leave some for me!" Guneagle called. He veered off for another cluster of Zakos that were scrambling to run inside a charred building for shelter.
One Zako remained and aimed its gun at Captain, Shute, and Zero, shaking. "Noble, but foolish," Zero said. The Zako squealed and fired wildly. Captain stepped protectively in front of Shute, his shield at the ready, but Zero formed his magic force field around them, and the bullets bounced off harmlessly.
"Thanks," Captain said.
Zero nodded, never taking his eyes off the enemy. As soon as the barrage let up, the knight sped towards the defenseless Zako, who screamed and flailed his arms aimlessly. "I kinda feel sorry for him," Shute murmured. Zero, rather than slashing the Zako with his sword, rammed him with his shield and sent the little green robot flying into a brick house. Crack! A spider-vein of cracks appeared around the Zako.
"Zako-o-~" The glow of the Zako's eye faded, and he fell flat on the pavement, unconscious, leaving a Zako-shaped indent in the brick wall.
"That should keep him down," Zero said.
"Awesome!" Shute said. "One Zako down—"
"—and approximately 546 to go, if Bakunetsumaru and Guneagle have already defeated their targets," Captain finished.
"Aw, man, don't remind me!" Shute wailed.
A familiar cackle sounded through the smoky air. "Scared of a few Zakos, organic?"
"Zapper Zaku!" Shute declared as he and the two Gundams spotted the one-eyed maroon Dark Axis lackey on top of a charred building.
"Close," Zapper said.
"Zapper Zaku and me!" A heavy clunk came from behind them, and they whipped around to see a sky-blue flash flying at them. Shing! Captain stepped forward and locked his rifle's bayonet with Grappler Gouf's massive claw. With a push, Gouf broke himself out of the grip and leapt backwards to a safer distance. "Pfft. Well, it was worth a try," Grappler said with little dismay. "You got a pocket knife built into that thing, too?"
"A retractable bayonet," Captain corrected him.
Grappler rolled his single eye. "No duh. Do you get sarcasm?"
"Cowardly fiend! Attacking from behind?!" Zero charged at Grappler, his sword arm drawn back to strike.
Captain and Shute's attention snapped back to Zapper as the red Axis member leapt to the ground, cracking the pavement beneath. Zapper's grin widened. "I've been waiting for this, Gundam."
"Bring it, Zapper Zaku," Captain challenged.
Meanwhile, the battle between Zero and Grappler migrated to the edge of the woods. Zero jabbed and swung with his sword while Grappler blocked with his claw, side-stepped, and used his sword to jab. Neither had made a mark on the other, though Grappler's steps tore wild grass underfoot. "Stay still, you little—ugh!—pesky bird," Grappler complained.
"Already tiring, Grappler?" Zero mocked.
"No way. I'm just getting—*grunt*—started!" Grappler suddenly lunged at Zero, swiping him with his sword.
Zero jerked back and dodged the blade, but the butt of the sword impacted the side of his head. "Ow!" Zero grunted, stumbling to the ground. Grappler then raked his big claw over him, leaving four grooves across Zero's shoulder pad and the side of his mouthguard. Zero retaliated with a vicious stab at Grappler's side. Grappler recoiled, and Zero took the chance to slice off his claw—and his detachable lower arm in the process.
Although wincing from the hurt in his side, Grappler laughed weakly. "What a temper. Can't take a few scratches on your face, pretty boy?"
"I assure you, I have no concern for simple scratches," Zero said. "I am only concerned with defeating Dark Axis and reclaiming my homeland, Lacroa." He pointed his sword at the Dark Axis bot. "You are wounded. Do you yield?"
Grappler's eye widened, and he suddenly ducked. Zero blinked, turned to look, saw a missile heading straight for them, cursed, and dove for the ground. Moments later, it sailed over their heads and crashed into the forest with a resounding boom. A shriek reached their ears.
Zero jumped to his feet. "A lady?!" He scanned the burning forest intently for a sign of long hair, a lithe form, a dress, anything that would give him a sign as to where she was.
Grappler pushed himself up with a grunt and hobbled unnoticed back towards the street, shouting into the smoke, "Dom! Watch where you're aiming!"
A flaring flame lit up the dark forest for an instant and revealed a white Gundam with gold edging, one with curvier limbs and a smaller body: a female Gundam who levitated without any visible jet thrusters. The very Gundam I spied in Shute's forest, Zero thought. She is most definitely from Lacroa! But what is she doing here? The Gundamess had shied a safe distance from the fire, but she hesitated there, unsure where to go. Zero moved to enter the forest and coax her to the safety of the Gunperry, but a crash snatched his eyes to a nearby rooftop.
"Ooh, that'll hurt in the morning."
"Guneagle?" Zero called to the grounded flier.
Guneagle pushed himself to his feet on top of the coal-black roof. "Dom got my left wing's flight thrusters," he explained. "Watch out—here he comes!"
"Little birdie~ Come out and play~!" Dom sang as he rounded the corner. "Where are you, birdie?" He launched a barrage of wildly circling missiles. Guneagle hit the deck, and Zero evaded the missiles, slicing those that wandered too close. Explosions rang as some hit the house beneath Guneagle.
"Aaaaaah!" The roof crumbled underneath the Neotopian flier and sent him plunging into the groaning building.
"Guneagle!" Zero gasped. Another shrill whistling sound cut into his audios: a second wave of missiles. Most flew in random—and harmless—directions, but Zero saw with horror that one coursed for the Gundamess still hovering a few feet in the woods. The unlucky girl spotted the projectile and spun to fly deeper into the forest, but she paused at a wall of flames.
Zero darted in the missile's path and cast a blue magic circle to shield him. The missile strained against the magic field but could go no farther. "No!" Dom wailed. "Dom want missiles go BOOM!" To Zero's dread, he launched several more towards him.
"Tenkyoken!" A flaming x-shape collided into the cluster of missiles, detonating them all. Zero's force field deflected the explosions, and a lick of the flames caused the missile that had been dancing on the surface of the magic circle to detonate harmlessly. Zero dropped the shield as Baku ran into view. "Looks like you owe me again, Flower Knight," the samurai jeered.
"It's 'Winged Knight,' you impertinent dog!" Zero growled.
"We'll see who's the impertinent dog after we're through with him," Baku returned.
"Dom hates hearing bad jokes. Dom will make you both go boom!" Dom interrupted.
"Not now, Dom!" Grappler's strained voice boomed from the speakers of the Komusai as it flew overhead at low altitude. "We're retreating. Get on, now!"
"Aw…" Dom leapt up to the Komusai, where Zapper waited on the deck. When Dom failed to make it all the way up, Zapper grabbed onto his arm, and several Zakos grabbed onto Zapper, as they all pulled.
Zero faced the forest. "Zero—what?" Baku began, puzzled. "Shouldn't we go after them?"
Zero raised his sword, and a blue aura burst forth, dispersing the flames.
The Komusai soared towards the open Zakorello Gate, the figures on its surface becoming indistinct. Finally, the portal engulfed the enemy ship, and the purple aura vanished.
The flames in the forest were all gone. Zero's sword and shield disappeared in a flash of white light. Baku sheathed his swords.
"The enemy just got away! What's the big deal?" Baku asked. "Are you a 'tree-hugger'?" he said, proudly flaunting the term Shute had recently taught him.
"No, there is a young lady in there," Zero said, drifting closer to the forest. "Madam, you may come out now. Those ruffians are gone." He eyed Baku. "Well…besides that one," he muttered.
"What?! Me?! I am very civilized! And I think you're such a ladies' man that you're having hallucinations of girls. I see no one there…!" Bakunetsumaru trailed off as a white-armored Gundamess slowly floated out of the woods towards them. "Woah." Her gold v-fin took the form of short feathers that connected to a light green jewel the same color as Zero's. Her helmet had an angular wing motif. A GunSoul also the same color as Zero's rested in the middle of her angular chest, outlined in gold. Two large "skirt" pieces over either thigh, sectioned in triangular shapes for mobility, jutted backwards, and small triangular wing shapes extended from her back. Angular, but in a sharp and aerodynamic way rather than unfeminine.
"I thought there were no Gundamesses in Neotopia," Baku said, aghast.
"Don't stare. It is uncouth to eye a lady," Zero said as he continued to gaze at her.
"I see! So it's 'uncouth' for anyone besides Pansy Knight to stare?" Baku laughed.
The newcomer blushed, but Zero ignored Baku, instead gawking at the symbol on the Gundamess's skirt piece: a four-pointed star above a v. The symbol of Lacroa. She seemed just as captivated by the fact that they shared the insignia. Her wide green eyes had locked onto the Lacroan symbol on Zero's shoulder armor. She floated closer, reached out gingerly, and touched the emblem. Then, seeing as he did not protest, she fingered it a few seconds before withdrawing.
"I…" It took both Zero and Baku a moment to realize that the soft voice came from her. "I'm sorry. It's just that…they're the same…" she said, at a loss for words.
"Yes, milady, they are," Zero agreed. "I am from Lacroa, like you."
"Lacroa? Is that where it's from?"
"Why, yes, it is the kingdom's crest," Zero said, perplexed. "Do you not know where you come from?"
The Gundamess shook her head. "No. I was just a baby when a spatial rift sucked me into Neotopia. A human family found me and raised me in this world."
"Oh," Zero said. He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "That's quite a story."
"Talk about a coincidence," Baku said.
Fiddling with the angular wing decal over her audio receptor, the Gundamess put forth shyly, "Um, how did you both get here? You don't look like the mobile citizens, either."
"We recently came from another dimension through various unusual circumstances," Zero said.
"Oh." Then, she added hurriedly, "Oh, um—Sorry, before I asked all this, I meant to say thank you for saving me. I just got so caught up in—in that symbol—that I completely forgot to say that. I've been searching for my home for a long time, so..."
"No offense is taken, Lady Aleda," Zero said. "I'm only happy to help such a beautiful maiden."
A small, shy smile broke out behind her mouthguard. "You're really nice."
"I live by the code of chivalry. In Lacroa, I am a knight who serves the royal family: Zero the Winged Knight," Zero stated proudly.
"That's a cool name," the Gundamess said.
"May I ask your name, fair maiden?"
"That is a beautiful name." Zero smiled.
Aleda bashfully averted her green eyes. "Thanks."
"Well, Lady Aleda," Zero began, kneeling. He snapped his fingers, and a princess rose appeared in his hand, which he held out to her. "Would it please you to come with this knight and learn more about your birthplace?"
"Yes, I'd like that," Aleda said with a smile as she accepted the rose. She glanced around. "Where did your friend go?"
Zero stood. "My friend? Ha! We are merely allies fighting against a common enemy. I don't consider such a boorish swordsman my friend. But—" His eyes, too, began to search for the red Gundam. "I am also at a loss. Bakunetsumaru!"
"Wow, that's a long name," Aleda commented.
"You have no idea," Zero sighed, rolling his eyes. He cupped his mouth again. "Bakunetsumaru!...Bakanetsumaru! Where are you hiding?"
"'Baka'?! I'll show you 'baka'!"
Zero and Aleda wheeled to see Bakunetsumaru walking out of the half-collapsed house with Guneagle slung over his shoulder. "You were too focused on her to notice Guneagle screaming for help, so while you were busy flirting with the girl, I was pulling our comrade out of the rubble from underneath three heavy fallen support beams! Baka!" Baku loudly scolded.
Zero turned red and stared at the ground, shamefaced. "I did not forget!" he protested. "I was only checking that the lady was unharmed."
"Checking her out is more like it," Baku said.
"How dare you accuse me of such perverse behavior! I did nothing of the sort!"
"Hey, I don't blame ya, Zero," Guneagle said. "I mean…" He whistled. "Wow, she is one cute chick."
Aleda blushed, and the red in Zero's face deepened. "You will not address her in such a belittling way! She is a lady of Lacroa, and her name is Aleda!"
"See? He even got her name, the sly dog," Guneagle hissed to Baku, and both of them split into peals of laughter.
It was not until they were on the Gunperry that Baku took a close look at Zero. "What happened to you?" he said in amazement.
"What? Oh." Zero fingered the claw marks on his face. "Grappler Gouf landed a lucky hit."
"Heh, you can't even take that goon?"
"Oh, no, you are mistaken, samurai," Zero said with a smirk. "You should have seen Grappler. He came out in far worse shape."
Baku snorted. "Sure."
Silence reigned between them for a few moments. Then Baku spoke up. "So…She isn't your sister or anything, is she? She looks a lot like you."
Their extra passenger had taken another Gunperry with Chief Haro so he could brief her on the ins-and-outs of SDG and the Gundam Force. Although it was undetermined whether Aleda would be officially joining them or not, it was clear that, under the circumstances, she would be staying with them for the time-being and so had to know the rules.
"Nay," Zero said softly in answer to Baku's question. "She looks like a Lacroan. I have no siblings. But, I can hardly believe one of my kin was here in Neotopia for so many years."
"I get why you like her," Bakunetsumaru said. "She reminds you of Lacroa, right?"
Zero snorted proudly. "I am not infatuated with Lady Aleda, nor do I consider her as a lost remnant of Lacroa. She wasn't even raised there. She doesn't speak like a Lacroan, she doesn't know magic like a Lacroan, and she doesn't know any Lacroan culture. She is only a lost soul who I can teach about her lost home."
Baku nodded. "And one day, you'll show her Lacroa, too."
Zero smiled. "Thank you. I hope so, too."