SD Gundam Fan Fiction ❯ In Memory ❯ In Memory ( One-Shot )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

This story and my author's notes can also be viewed on my fanfiction account here:
The memories ease the pain inside

Now I know why

All of my memories

Memories - Within Temptation


The first of the mines were set off.

The piercing shouts of fury that rose over the sound of the booming detonations were almost as deafening as the clamor of gunfire that broke out. They had been ambushed. The Dark Axis forces had thought that the empty field before them had been nothing more than a blank slate on their course to conquest, but the assumption proved to be a deadly mistake on their part. The first wave of soldiers who had marched onto the plain were suddenly caught in explosions where they accidentally stepped on the mines, and the humans with their Gundam forces charged them from their hiding spots amongst the trees on all sides of the field. A battle instantly broke out, and bullets and laser fire streaked overhead in the chilled nighttime air. Over the piercing shouts, booming detonations, and deafening clamor of gunfire, there was also wailing screams of utterly scalding agony.

Despite their efforts, the combined forces of the humans and their Gundam allies did not stand much of a chance. The Dark Axis had already mostly taken over their world and they were the last of the individuals vainly resisting the Axis' already seized victory. The Zako troops and the squad leaders who had been leading them defeated all of their enemies easily enough, although this didn't stop them from suffering casualties. The worse of them were the several very unfortunate Zakos who first triggered the hidden mines midway through the blank field.

As the advancing offensive wave of the Axis forces pushed onward toward their retreating and weakening enemies, the medics who had been stationed towards the back of the group for their own protection scurried up into the somewhat charred field to assess the damage of those unfortunate enough to have been caught in the fiery forces of the explosives hidden just beneath the surface of the dirt the soldiers unsuspectingly trotted on. Very few of those unlucky bastards survived. The Zako troops were very sturdy little automatons in general, but there was no protecting them when they were at the epicenter of an outburst going off right under their feet. Mangled body parts were stern about on the ground in almost unrecognizable slabs of now useless metal, and oil stained the soil like black tar spattered against an equally ebony canvas.

Over the rising sound of the machine guns and automatic beam rifles booming and ticking away on the offence, a single Zako medic managed to make his way across the field with extra care to step only where he saw the advancing soldiers ahead of him step before. That way he could make sure he did not stop on any hidden mines himself. He finally managed to scramble over a slight hill where he heard a single set of screams resonating from. The piercingly loud wails and sobs of one of the very few mine survivors were loud enough to be heard from an entire field length away. The medic nearly tripped over a clump of charred crabgrass before managing to scramble back onto his feet to rush over to the fallen Zako.

At first, the downed Zako himself looked fine. The first thing to go through the medic's head was that he was a miracle survivor. The worst, the medic presumed, was that he was just suffering from minor shock when the mine blast threw him several feet. The medic prepared himself to kneel to further assess the damage, but then stopped short when his processor finally registered that the Zako's legs and entire lower torso were missing.

The soldier, deranged and delirious with pain, reached weakly out to the medic. "Oh gods, help me! Medic, HELP ME!"

Except the medic suddenly found that there was nothing he could do for the fallen soldier. Not because there wasn't anything he could do professionally, but because he found that he was suddenly scared out of his mind and disturbed beyond anything he was prepared for. The horrors of war immediately scarred his fragile psyche and, in terror, he fled and left the wounded soldier behind where he lay. On his way to race back towards the edge of the field where he could wait for the fight to wane and die in safely, he tripped and fell on that clump of crabgrass that nearly downed him before. The medic scrambled back up, nearly fell again, and raced as fast as he could out of there. The soldier himself died sometime later right on the spot, writhing in agony and screaming the entire while.

Memories of that day burned the medic's mind forever, and they continued to haunt him for the many, many years that were yet to come.

The downward spiral began when they retreated from Neotopia to the Dark Axis.

The plan itself had been perfect, but the circumstances upon which it was carried out under didn't unfold in their favor. Their strategy had seemed simple enough -- to land down in the middle of the city metropolis of Neotopia and wreck havoc on the human settlements in an attempt to undermine the SDG's secret operations -- but it had backfired terribly when their coordinates were off by half a mile due to an instrument error on the Komusai's warp drive and a combined synchronization failure with the Zakorello Gate. Instead of making their appearance in the middle of the city square, they ended up touching down in a desolate and otherwise entirely unpopulated part of the city. Worse still, the Gundam Force was on their tailpipes in under a minute. The Super Dimensional Guard was undermanned and outgunned in stark comparison to the Dark Axis forces, but the Zako soldiers hardly stood a chance against the Gundams, but at least Zapper Zaku and Grappler Gouf were able to put up some of a fight to compensate for their insolence. This mattered very little however, because they were forced to withdraw as soon as Captain Gundam's souldrive activated, courteous of his annoying organic sidekick cheering him on. The human's name was unimportant at the time, so none of them bothered trying to remember it when they made their hasty leave.

Their failures in Neotopia were otherwise routine at that point. Nevertheless, there was nothing routine about the agonized, high pitched wail that pierced the air several cycles after the Komusai returned and re-docked with the Magna Musai to let its passengers off. It was enough to make Grappler Gouf nearly jump out of his armor plating and stop mid-sentence in his arguing with Zapper Zaku. Both squad leaders were caught drastically off guard.

Zapper Zaku looked alarmed, snapping to attention and glancing away from glaring at his counterpart squadron leader. He was slightly scuffed from the brief and equally atrocious firefight he had gotten in with Guneagle. The maroon mech was otherwise uninjured, but his old warrior's pride was far from unscathed. That had been the reason for their argument, but the energy he previously had to fight with his partner was lost immediately when he heard the scream. "What in the slag heaps was that?"

"Don't ask me," Gouf muttered, glancing halfheartedly around in a lazy attempt to find the source of the shriek himself. He initially didn't see anything and the cobalt mech mentally frowned in a dumbfounded but still very much unconcerned manner. The first thing that the younger squadron leader could come up with as being an explanation for the shriek was that one of the Zakos had fallen off the ramp docking the Komusai with the Magna Musai. The ramp was angled and the highest point was a four foot drop. Being that the ramp had no railings and the Zakos were incredibly incompetent in their own ridiculous ways, he was convinced that one of them had managed to fall from it onto the deck. It didn't explain the intense pain within the voice however, so Grappler had to force his already composed explanation from his mind. "For once, I'm just as clueless as you are. It's a once in a blue moon thing," he added scathingly. Unlike Zapper, he was still bitter and more than willing to continue their argument from where they left off. His pride was also severely compromised, and he had several gashes and nicks from Zero's Buster Sword to prove that.

Zapper Zaku completely ignored his jab. That was ridiculously out of character for the maroon warrior, Grappler thought. When the cobalt squadron colonel fully looked back at Zapper to see why the other mech hadn't responded with an insult or equally scornful jibe of his own, he was surprised -- and partially disturbed -- to see the older warrior's reddish pink optic fixated straight ahead staring at something. The dark red mech was trembling just barely, and it threw Grappler off as to why he was acting the way he was.

Zapper looked terrified, for a lack of better term. Grappler frowned to himself again.

Then there was a sudden commotion. The footfalls of Zako soldiers were clamoring in the deck rapidly. Grappler turned to look in the direction Zapper was, and he saw a large group of Zakos gathered around something in a dense crowd. Several others were running over from various parts of the deck with alarmed light within the glowing confines of their optics. Many of the ones gathered in the crowd started talking and asking questions amongst themselves in worried undertones. Grappler strained his audios to their highest sensitivity to hear what they were hurriedly murmuring about, but it was so garbled in with the background noise of running feet and the sound of the Magna Musai's whirring antigravs that it was nearly impossible to do so.

That was when another scream issued forth from the area the Zako soldiers were gathered around. Many of them jumped in place. That was when the panicked yelling and crying finally rose up from the crowd, radiating from a single mech. It was borderline hysterical… rather, it was hysterical.

"Someone help! Somebody HELP HIM, zako! PLEASE!"

In the crowd of Zakos, the soldiers started yelling to one another. One person screamed that we need a medic while others were screeching amongst one another that they need to give him some air. Grappler was positive he heard someone shriek in a tenor toned voice, "Holy slag, somebody get Zapper Zaku!"

Zapper cursed beside him, but his tone was shaky. "Oh smelt," the dark red and black squad leader unevenly said before suddenly running forward towards the crowd.

"Hey!" Grappler reached a hand out to try to stop him, but Zapper barreled towards the gathering regardless. The maroon warrior wasn't built for running -- Zapper Zaku's particular body model and structure was more suited to the wielding of and supporting the weight of large weapons -- but that much didn't seem to stop him from moving faster than Grappler had ever seen him move before. It was obvious Zapper knew something he didn't, and he was far more worried about seeing to it than settling their argument. Again, it was ridiculously out of character for him… and that was frightening.

"Outta my way, move!" When he reached the crowd, he started shoving past Zakos with a vigor that Grappler found peculiar. His shout withheld a trembling undertone to it as he kept on trying to shove his way through and the Zakos, caught off guard by his sudden arrival, willingly did.

Grappler wasn't sure when he moved exactly, but it was a moment later when he found himself lightly jogging over towards the crowd after Zapper. By the time he reached the mass of gathered Zakos, Zapper had already nearly forced himself to the epicenter of the circle. Grappler followed through the path the other squad leader had created in his wake -- he had to roughly shove a few soldiers aside to accommodate himself, and he could not have cared less if he accidentally injured anyone -- but he almost came to a halt himself when Zapper suddenly ground to a halt ahead of him. He had reached the source of everyone's attention and, just by looking at his turned back, Grappler could see him freeze up intensely. Not wasting another moment, Grappler hurriedly moved to Zapper's right so that he could stand beside the other warrior. When he finally pushed through the last of the soldiers blocking his way so that he was at the front of the mass, he moved beside Zapper and looked down at the subject of everyone's worried attention.

A Zako soldier who was scratched and scuffed from the battle sat kneeling and trembling over the form of another soldier. The down Zako who was on his back on the ground looked fine at first glance, but there was a distinctly deep dent on his chest that was burned lightly around the corners. The Zako didn't seem greatly injured at all from Grappler's professional perspective, but the way the soldier's optic flickered in silent agony said otherwise. He had undoubtedly been the one who screamed the first time around.

Zapper's optic was bright and the expression on his facial plating was something that initially caught Grappler off guard for a number of reasons. Zapper did look surprised, true, but there was such a look of horror that underlined it that it caught Grappler by immense surprise. In all his time knowing the other mecha, he had never seen that look before. The maroon warrior suddenly kneeled so that he was level with the Zako who was huddling and shivering over the form of his fallen comrade in hysteria. Grappler Gouf could just barely make out that Zapper Zaku was also shaking, but on a much more controlled level. His voice wavered somewhat when he spoke however, but Gouf was positive that the Zakos were around were too fixated on what was happening to notice. "What happened?" Zapper asked.

The other Zako looked up sharply, surprised from the address. His optic was bright and moisture was clinging to it with the threat of spilling tears. "Red was fine just a minute ago! He… he was even talking to me, but then he just screamed and he collapsed and he won't get up, zako!"

Grappler Gouf mentally scoffed to himself. So the collapsed soldier's name was Red? "The Zako soldiers still bother to name themselves nowadays? Don't they know we couldn't care less?" he thought to himself with moderate bitterness.

To Grappler's momentary surprise, Zapper did not call the Zako out on it. Instead, he pressed for more information by repeating his originally ignored question in a slightly more controlled tone. "What happened? How did he get hurt?"

The Zako didn't say anything right away. He trembled very lightly and it looked as though he was moments away from breaking down into a pile of bawling mech. Finally, what felt like after an eternity, he spoke in a shakily teary mutter. "During our retreat, when Captain Gundam's souldrive powered up… Red got in the way when he was trying throwing that last punch at us. Red couldn't move out of the way in time and he was hit. He… he got thrown back pretty hard for a few yards, but… but he got up like right away and was acting fine when we made it back onto the Komusai!"

Zapper Zaku looked at him critically. "He was acting fine?"

The Zako nodded fervently. "He was able to walk around and everything, but just now he… he stopped taking to me for a few seconds right before he screamed. Then he collapsed right out of nowhere. He can't get up and he won't even acknowledge me, zako!"

The hurt soldier, Red, suddenly started to scream. It was far worse that his initial audio splitting wail. In Gouf's mind, even years after it happened, he still remembered it as clear as a bell. Had there been glass nearby, he was sure the wail that was produced from the wounded soldier would have been enough to crack even fiberglass. As it was, Grappler felt his audio receptors nearly implode from the volume and he had to hastily turn down his audios' sensitivity to prevent it.

Zapper Zaku jerked away, and the Zakos who were gathered around leapt back about a foot's length out of combined fright and shock. Many of them looked absolutely horrified, but Zapper Zaku's expression reflected it so much more. He looked downright mortified and he trembled harshly, optic locked and reflecting terror while he stared down at Red. The Zako who was kneeling over his fallen friend wailed, shooting his hands out to grip Red's forearms just as the down soldier began to spasm. As far as Grappler Gouf could tell, the Zako soldier's internal circuit system was shot to scrap from the blast he received from Captain's punch. Even though the damage on the outside shell was minimal, the interior was undoubtedly slagged. Essentially, the injured Zako was nothing more than a useless shell and as good as already dead.

He didn't need to be a trained medic to know that.

"He's too far gone," the cobalt squadron leader said offhandedly, although no one appeared to have heard him. The agonized shrieks from the hurt Zako and his grieving partner drowned his pessimistic comment out completely and Grappler was annoyed with that. He tried vainly to raise his voice over the shrieking chaos. "His systems will completely shut down anytime now. It would be better to put the damn runt out of his misery now to get it over with."

No one listened still. Instead, Zapper Zaku looked up towards the crowd and he yelled. Instead of being unheard like Grappler was, his voice carried loud enough to be heard over the two screaming Zakos. "Damn it all… MEDIC! Somebody get me a medic over here and HURRY!"

In one lifetime, Grappler would have instantly reacted to the address. He kept himself from moving though, not even trying to look at Zapper directly. He forcibly glanced away, optic flaring and dimming again with the memories that threatened to flood his core processor. He roughly showed them aside and back into the recesses of his aching data banks.

From ahead of him beyond the Zakos that were at the front of the crowd, there was a commotion and a shrill shout that was an octave higher than most of the other Zakos. "Move it! Clear the way, zako! I need to get through!" Suddenly, a femme Zako forced herself past the congregation of soldiers at the front of the gathering and she stumbled forward far enough that she nearly fell over on the grieving soldier who was at his dying friend's side like a vigil. Regaining her balance, straightening out, and saluting to Zapper Zaku hastily, the newcomer spoke. "Someone paged me down at my office and I came up as soon as I could."

Gouf was perplexed for a number of reasons. For one, she used the term "resident medic" in the singular tense, meaning that she was more than likely referring to herself as being the only medic on the ship. This was odd for the reason that the Magna Musai had such a large group of residing soldiers. Having one medic would not nearly be sufficient to take care of them if any large portion of them were injured. Then there was the fact that she never addressed Zapper Zaku as 'sir' or by his name in a formal manner. Where Grappler came from before being called to action by Commander Sazabi -- which had only been very recently, mind you -- he had been in command of a large squad of soldiers who always addressed him as "Lord Grappler Gouf, sir" and with total respect. Here, the femme medic's voice would have no doubt been casual if the situation was not so dire.

Then something else caught Grappler by surprise.

Zapper looked up and, as soon as he saw her, his expression seemed to light up. "Cyan! Pitt, your timing couldn't be better!"

He knew the soldier by her name.

It was an alien concept to Grappler Gouf. Back when he had been the sole squadron leader serving on the Shadow Musai under Commander Nightingale -- before becoming a co-commander alongside Zapper -- he had simply addressed his troops by number or by simply barking orders at any given one. He never bothered with names because, back when he was a grunt Zako, he had never been referred to by name himself. It was a general rule of thumb that was followed by all squad leaders, but it was apparent that Zapper had not received that particular memo. Here he was calling the Zako out by her name, and Grappler found it sort of alien in a weird sort of way. What surprised him even more and even impressed him to an extent was that he was able to look at Cyan and immediately know it was her. With the consideration that all the Zakos looked alike, the only legitimate way to identify them was by their tone of voice or to know them well. Grappler was once able to easily distinguish one Zako from another back when he was one himself, but it was a gift he lost when he was promoted and had his body shell and programming consequently upgraded.

Cyan, the medic, took one look at the fallen warrior and her optic brightened in horror. "Holy smelt, Red." She stared down at him in an almost petrified state before dropping to her knees beside the wounded Zako. Her hands flew over the fallen warrior. She never actually touched him -- whether this was out of horror or in fear of hurting him more than he already was, Gouf couldn't determine -- but she kept her hands specifically over the dent in his chest as if she couldn't decide what to do. Finally, she looked up at Zapper Zaku. "Do you want the bad news, the worse news, or the mildly-but-still-not-so-good news first?"

Zapper Zaku expression turned to extreme worry and he shivered lightly. "In that order."

Cyan looked at the downed Zako and started rambling. "As far as I can tell, his fuel pump is completely bust and he's bleeding out inside his chassis far too fast for his internal repairs to assess the damage and take effect, zako." She looked at the Zako beside her where he was still grieving over his fallen partner. "You said he got up after Captain Gundam hit him, zako. Did he seem off balance, Blue? Maybe a little bewildered?"

The Zako huddled over Red, apparently dubbed Blue, turned his head to look at her. His pink optic was brimmed with moisture and he looked rather pathetic. "He… he seemed off, almost like he couldn't focus, zako."

The Zako's voice was scratchy and obnoxious sounding, but it jabbed at Grappler Gouf's memory core roughly. He remembered that it was when he spent one of his first nights on the Magna Musai that he recognized this particular soldier from. The ship's corridors were seemingly never ending and -- for a lack of better term -- he managed to get himself rather effectively lost. This wasn't as much of a problem as it was a nuisance, but Grappler Gouf's already short-fused patience shortened even further when two Zakos darted around a blind corner and nearly trampled him in their haste. He shouted at both of the smaller robots to watch where they were going in as threatening of a tone as possible but, instead of cowering in total fear -- a reaction Grappler was otherwise used to getting while he was a squad leader under Commander Nightingale on the Black Musai and Shadow Musai -- both Zakos only flinched lightly.

"Sorry sir," one of the two mechs said. He grabbed his comrade by the wrist and the both of them scurried down the hallway.

Grappler angrily watched the two of them leave, but that same sense of anger turned to curiosity when both Zakos met up with another mech down the hall. The three of them conversed briefly in a conversation that couldn't have gone on for more than ten seconds before one of the Zakos glanced nervously over his shoulder at him. Then, just as abruptly as they appeared, the three vanished around the other corner. They immediately appeared to Grappler Gouf to be robots who didn't want to be followed, and the cobalt squad leader stealthily trailed after the three as they wandered down several hallways in what he realized to be a very conspicuous manner. He stayed out of sight by hiding around hallway corners and peering over to watch as they vanished around different pathways. Then he would quickly dart of the way they went. He successfully managed to tail them through four different corridors when he saw them turn a corner but, when he followed after them and glanced down the way the three soldiers went, he was flabbergasted to see that he was only met with a dead end. The three mechs had vanished without as much as a trace.

That was when he just barely registered the faint cheering.

At first he thought it was the sound of the engines that were just a deck below, but then he clearly made out the sound of individual whoops and the sharp, cheerful outcries of Zakos. Grappler's frustration began to rise again when he fruitlessly felt the walls for potential trap doors or hidden passageways. The three soldiers couldn't have disappeared into thin air without warning like that, so the squad leader immediately concluded that they must have used a trapdoor to avert his detection. Then there was the fact that the three of them were undoubtedly making their way towards the sounds of the cheers. Grappler was hell-bent on finding out what the slag was going on.

After feeling his way up the walls for several corridor lengths looking for any signs of a secret path, he finally found one. The paneling was unfastened and the sound his fist made upon rapping against it sounded hollow. It didn't take Grappler much effort to move it free. True to his suspicions, there was a secret passage. In one lifetime the pathway itself might have been a ventilation shaft that was cleared out. The now very prominent sounds of a large crowd's distinct cheering wafted from down the path and Grappler entered as quietly as he could. After closing the panel behind him so that it would appear to be nothing more than a wall again, he crept along the path with his claws suspended at a defensive level in case of an attack. The sound of the cheers grew in volume as he moved in deeper and it was only a minute or so that he caught a glimpse of a light dimly illuminating from the end of the tunnel.

When he reached the end of the passage, it opened up so that it lead onto a small balcony that overlooked a massive chamber packed with Zako soldiers gathered around a small stage at the far back of the room. Grappler wasn't alone on the balcony either. There was a mech sitting in a chair overlooking the chaos, but the cobalt warrior was still able to make out who it was in the low light. "Zapper Zaku?"

Upon hearing his name, the warrior sharply turned his head to regard Grappler with surprise. His optic reflected immense astonish even in the hauntingly low light. "Eh? What are you doing here? How'd you find this place?"

"The passage in the wall," Grappler answered smartly. He advanced on Zapper Zaku carefully and regarded him bitterly for a moment before looking out over the huge crowd. None of the Zakos seemed aware of their presence as the booth they were in was neatly hidden in the shadows against the dark auditorium wall. "What's going on here? Who authorized this and where are we?"

Zapper Zaku made a snorting sound beside him. It was an agitated noise. "I authorized it. It used to be an old storage room that the Zakos cleaned out to make room for everyone."

Grappler scoffed impatiently. "For what?"

The lights in the massive room suddenly dimmed even further than before, nearly drowning them in total obscurity. Several cheers rose over the crowd but, for the most part, it turned immediately and immensely silent. A huge spotlight suddenly fixed itself on the metallic stage curtain at the front of the room, and it was the first time that Grappler actually noticed that there was in fact a stage at the front of the auditorium. Projected on the steel shutter was "Zako Zako Hour" in bold red lettering. Voices rose over the loudspeakers.



"Zak oooooo…"

"…Zako Zako Hour!"

The curtain suddenly rose, revealing a large widescreen and three Zakos who stood there in front of it holding colored microphones. Going from left to right, one mech had a triangle shaped triangle one, another had one that was red with a spherical shape, and the third mech had a mike that was square shaped and blue.

The one mech in the middle started speaking brightly. He was the one with the red mike, and the one who had spoken to him in the hallway earlier when he and his cohort bumped into him. With a start, Grappler realized that the three mechs he had been tailing after in the hallways were apparently the three hosts. "Ladies and gentlebots, welcome to the Zako Zako Hour!"

From what Zapper Zaku later explained, the Zako Zako Hour was supposedly a cross between a pep rally and a meeting intended to rile up the Zakos for their upcoming invasion. From what he was also told, the show itself had been going on strong for nearly three years, even well before Neotopia was in General Zeong's spiteful crosshairs. Grappler found he could only sneer at the general silliness of the odd concept. Zapper merely scoffed at his proclamation and said that he couldn't have cared less.

"What about the commander? Does he know about these little meetings?" Grappler couldn't help but to sound vindictive when he asked.

"Oh please. He's the one who allowed me to authorize it."

"And the Zakos?"

"Totally unaware that we're even allowing them… except for the hosts. For all the rest of the crew knows, it's a secret. It seems to give them a sense of confidence."

Zapper was right of course, but Grappler could only wonder if it allowed the Axis grunts too much confidence. Confidence led to thinking, thinking led to questioning, questioning led to disobeying orders, and disobeying orders led to riots and mutiny. That was his view, at least. If the commander himself had allowed the pep rallies to commence though, there was no actual reason for him to question or voice against the meetings. He would occasionally peer in on the Zako Zako Hours every once in a while when he had nothing better to do but. Despite the fact that Zapper had asked him on one occasion if he wanted to stick around -- his tone was oddly friendly when he brought it up -- Grappler didn't. He wouldn't. He refrained from it and was entirely adamant against it solely because Zapper asked, and he wasn't one to even think about attempting to establish a moderately domesticated relationship with his otherwise rival. He hated Zapper and wouldn't have it any other way. No questions asked.

It thus occurred to Grappler that Blue was one of the three hosts from the Zako Zako Hour. He remembered his tone of voice from when he was speaking on the Zako Zako Hour on the few times he brought it upon himself to watch. Consequently, so was Red.

Back in reality, Cyan was nodding and she turned away from Blue once he finished speaking. She looked directly at Red and held a finger up to his optic. "Red? Can you hear me, hun? All right, listen to me. Calm down and try to follow my digit without turning your head. Can you do that?"

Red's screeching had since died down -- this was no doubt because he was straining his vocalizer to the point of exhaustion -- and he seemed to have enough sense left in him to look blearily up at Cyan with an expression Grappler Gouf couldn't describe as being anything other than brain dead. Cyan moved her finger to the left and, instead of following it with his optic like he had originally been instructed, the Zako completely turned his head. Cyan tried it again moving her finger in the opposite direction, but Red only turned his head again with a shakily bobbing movement. Red didn't seem aware of what he was doing. His optic was glazed with a stupidity better suited for an animal rather than a soldier.

Cyan cursed crudely. She drew her hand away pressed her fists to her temples in disturbance. "He's going through post traumatic shock, zako. Just as I thought. The bad news is that PTS is incredibly deadly and he's already gone through phase two of the syndrome, which means he's one step closer to phase seven."

Grappler's memory hitched. He had heard of PTS before… it wasn't good news at all.

Zapper flashed his optic questionably. "Elaborate."

If Cyan had had the ability to do so, she would have bitten her lip. She took her hands away from her head and made an inarticulate movement with them. She resumed, somewhat hastily. "If a mechanical body goes through enough much trauma in a short period of time so that the processor can't keep up with acknowledging the damage, that's when PTS takes place. The first stage is confusion and disorientation. Because the victim's CPU is not able to immediately identify the damage that could potentially be life threatening, the core processor takes away from all the other functions to identify the problem. Symptoms of that state include incomprehension, potential memory loss, dizziness, fatigue, and I could probably go on forever with the rest of the warning signs. The second stage happens when the body is finally able to realize that it's seriously damaged. Because the processor was already working in overtime, it shorts out finally identifying the problem. The pain receptors kick in -- this is why Red screamed -- and they cause everything to temporarily shut down because of the massive data flow. That's why Red collapsed."

Zapper Zaku's arms shook from where he was keeping Red from moving on the ground. Even though Red's spasms had subsided, the maroon squad leader didn't seem inclined to release his protective grip. "Now what? Is he in stage three?"

"Maybe even four, actually," Cyan said with an intensely worried tone. "I've never seen PTS move as quickly as this. Stage three is just a premature state of stage four, which is when most of the motor functions start to fail. The systems that shut down from the massive data flow can't restart because of how extensive the damage is, and the body will just keep deactivating more and more of those immediate nonessential functions in order to attempt fixing the problem… but it still can't, which is why this syndrome is as deadly as it is. His pain management systems are offline and he can't control his own movements. When I moved my digit and told him to track it with his optic, he was unable to because he couldn't keep his head from turning to follow the movement. For all I know now, he could be going into stage five right now. That involves total paralysis, zako. By the time the processor and other systems would have normally been charged enough to try repairing the damage, the body would have drained all its resources trying to keep itself alive. Any unneeded systems -- major nonessentials -- will start to fail. That includes vocalization, eyesight, and even general body movements."

Zapper Zaku looked up at her. "What about stage six?"

Cyan's voice dropped. "Coma."

Now it was Zapper Zaku's turn to let his tone drop. "Seven?"

Cyan looked up at him and stared at her commanding officer square in the optic. She did not need to say out loud what was going to happen next.

Blue, who had been listening in the entire time, suddenly cried out in anguish and hunched protectively over the form of Red's crumpled, fallen form even more than he had been doing before. He shivered violently as if a sudden chill had overcome him, which made no sense from Grappler's perspective because there wasn't a breeze and the temperature outside on the ship deck was relatively warm. Blue was obviously disturbed.

Cyan shuddered a little herself before she continued. "The worse news is that I've never seen this syndrome before, let alone treated it. I've heard of it, but more than sixty-five percent of the majority of soldiers who end up with the syndrome don't survive more than twenty-four hours after obtaining the injury that set the PTS reaction off. For the twenty-two percent who live past the twenty-four hour point, they either go into a vegetable state or die from complications in life support. The other twelve percent do manage to recover, but they can't ever fight on the battlefronts again. The other one percent manage to recover completely with only minor signs of ever suffering from PTS, and that's a very, very small percentage."

"But it's not impossible," Zapper Zaku said with a hopeful tone.

"It's still not probable, but maybe…" Cyan trailed off. She glanced over her shoulder towards one of the entryways into the ship, probably judging the distance from where they were now to the medical wing of the ship. "The mildly good news is that we might be able to temporarily stabilize him if we move right now. The grunt level med-bay is two stories down on the ship, so we could get there in ten cycles if we get a stretcher to move him."

Zapper Zaku's voice turned slightly gruff. "Do we need a stretcher?"

Cyan looked back at him, glanced questionably down at Red, and then she looked to the higher ranking officer again. She shook her head. "Not necessarily. He hasn't broken his back, but none of us are strong enough to--"

"Back up," the Zapper suddenly said. Whether or not he was speaking to Blue or Cyan didn't matter. The maroon warrior quickly cut the femme off with the swift movement of standing up and scooping the fallen Zako up into his arms. Red cried out in a tightly hoarse manner, but he voiced nothing more to object when Zapper held him up close to his chest in a protective manner. The maroon warrior grunted trying to secure his grip on the smaller soldier before quickly speaking. "The officer medical wing is closer than the grunt level one. The sooner we can start treating him, the better."

Grappler Gouf looked at Zapper Zaku critically, narrowing his gaze on the older warrior and flaring his reddish pink optic lightly. "What? That's off limits to Zakos."

His voice, again, seemed to fall on deaf audios. Zapper was speaking over him with complete disregard as to what his input was. "Cyan, I'll need you to enter the access codes to get into the bay once we reach it." He told her the code. Then he looked down at Blue. The blue mike Zako Zako Hour host looked just as dazed as Red -- his gaze faraway and looking like he was either going to collapse or become violently ill -- but his pain had nothing to do with his body being damaged. Zapper Zaku addressed him, his tone caring. "Blue, I need you with us too. Other than immediate medical treatment, Red needs you the most right now. Do you understand?"

Blue nodded. Very, very slowly.

Zapper Zaku looked up towards the crowd. "Clear the way! We need to get this soldier immediate medical treatment! Get outta the way!"

The Zakos at front tried to move back to comply with the order, but there was still enough confusion in the back of the massive gathering that the crowd wasn't moving anywhere.

Cyan leapt to attention and turned on the congregation blocking their way, attempting to vainly to push her way through. "Damn it, move! Yellow! Yellow, help me!"

A Zako that Grappler Gouf hadn't noticed standing nearby before suddenly surged towards the crowd, raising his arms up high and waving them in a frantic vigor. His voice was a low tenor, and it was an immediate indication that he was also a host from the Zako Zako Hour. He was the one who carried the yellow microphone. Yellow waved his arms and started pushing his way through the crowd. "Move it, zako! Man down, clear the way! Man down, zako!"

As the crowd suddenly started to move aside, Zapper Zaku started to move forward while keeping Red tightly held against his chest. Before he could move out of his reach however, Grappler shot his hand out and he roughly grabbed the other warrior's shoulder. Whereas Zapper's behavior with the Zakos had been borderline and near very much benevolent -- Grappler Gouf didn't think that was something that could be physically possible up until that very moment -- his expression when he turned his head to face Grappler was murderous. Gouf quickly put his ten cents in before he could either be ignored or potentially punched out by Zapper's apparent anger with him. "Commander Sazabi will have a fit if he finds out you're taking grunts into the officers' portion of the ship. As a co-commanding squad leader of this crew, I'll insist we let the rest of the medics take care of him in the main medical-"

"You idiot," Zapper growled dangerously at him. "Don't you get it? Cyan is our only medic. We've never needed more than one. So unless you let go of me right now, the Magna Musai is going to lose its first soldier in ten years. So let. Go. NOW."

Zapper was usually one to shout -- as Grappler Gouf had learned, it was in his general nature to become prone to yelling -- but here his voice never rose above an evenly toned, enraged snarl. That surprised Grappler so much that he couldn't help himself when he loosened his grip on the other squad leader's shoulder guard. Zapper looked away, tore himself from his younger cohort's grasp, and pushed through the crowd with the fallen soldier still cradled in his arms. The other Zakos cleared the way instantaneously. Once Cyan and Yellow managed to break through the crowd, they both darted for the main entrance of the ship. Several other Zakos followed them as to assist with the apparent rescue endeavor taking underway. Zapper Zaku cleared the crowd and dashed after them while keeping Red secure against his chassis. Blue was right at the squad commander's heels, stumbling almost drunkenly the whole entire way.

Once they were out of sight within the Musai, Grappler stood there almost stupidly alongside the rest of the Zako horde. With a surreal feeling, Grappler Gouf wondered briefly what Zapper Zaku had meant by the fact there were no other medics beside Cyan. That and what the other warrior could have meant by the fact that they hadn't lost a single soldier in ten years.

At that very moment, the downward spiral began its destructive course. The grave robbers of Grappler's psyche began to unearth the hideous memories of his own past with it.

After the buzzer went off, there was a pause. Finally, an aggravated voice spoke up on the other side of the radio. "Zapper Zaku?"

"Grappler Gouf," Grappler corrected. "Were you expecting him?"

"Partly," Commander Sazabi said on the other side of the call speaker. He suddenly sounded less vexed and more tired. "Come in."

The automatic doors to Sazabi's office slowly hissed open. The hallway where Grappler was standing was well lit, but the room leading to the Magna Musai commander's personal quarters was completely submerged in pitch black darkness. Commander Sazabi wasn't nearly as social of a mech as he was brilliant, so it was a general known fact that he preferred the solitude of inky bleakness whenever he wasn't viciously barking orders at or taking angered shots his squadron leaders with his automated laser barrels. Grappler Gouf couldn't see Commander Sazabi right away but, once he stepped into the office and after the door closed behind him, he spotted the faint glow of Sazabi's pale crimson optic towards the back of the room shining indistinctly like a lonely dying star.

Sazabi muttered halfheartedly, "I know you're usually a logical mech, but I'll presume it's for an important reason if you need me. Sit down."

"Of course," Grappler said. Even in the dark, sight wasn't a necessary thing to have when navigating Commander Sazabi's office. Grappler could easily maneuver through the blinding ebony veil using his onboard radar system and he bypassed anything he could have potentially tripped on when he made his way across the room. Either way however, there really wasn't much to actually trip on. The office itself was mostly bare aside from the desk that Sazabi sat at, but there were a few steps that Grappler had to watch out for. On either side of the room was a staircase that turned to lead to Sazabi's recharge berth and personal area on the higher deck. Overall, it would have been a very nice living area if not for the total absence of the lights. Sazabi wasn't one to take interest in luxuries and he apparently considered sufficient lighting as being one of them.

Gouf sat down in the seat across from the desk. The two said nothing to one another right away but, right as Grappler gathered his thoughts and was moments away from speaking, Sazabi cut him off. "Does this have anything to do with Zapper Zaku using the officer level med-bay for one of the soldiers?"

"How did…?" Grappler trailed off, unsure of how to respond. He had been caught off guard by the address.

Sazabi sounded bored. From what little light both their optics threw across the room, Grappler could see that Sazabi was slouching with his left elbow propped against his chair's armrest and his head resting lazily against his palm. Even in his non-threatening posture, he was still intimidating. "My personal agent was down on the deck watching your return from Neotopia when that Zako collapsed. He was the one who paged the medic to go up even before Zapper Zaku attempted to personally summon her."

"Zako Red?" Grappler couldn't stop his voice from sounding incredulous. "I didn't see him."

"Char is very good at undercover operations," Sazabi said. There was a very distinguishable smirk underlining his voice, but he didn't give any indication that he was going to say why. "He reported back to me after Zapper Zaku ran off with the medic and the hurt Zako's companions."

"You didn't do anything about it," Grappler noted. "I thought you would have been upset about the breach in security. It's a general rule that grunts aren't allowed in the officer portions of the ship."

"I know the rules," Sazabi said in an agitated tone. "I'm the one who made them."

Grappler quickly apologized.

Sazabi either ignored his apology or only discretely took it into account, because he said nothing further on that note. He shifted slightly in his seat before speaking again. "Zapper Zaku has been an occupant of the Magna Musai for all the ten years it's been in service. He became a squad leader after six months of residency. Despite being the oldest squadron leader in history and his recent failures in Neotopia over the course of these past few weeks, he's one of the most reliable squad commanders the Dark Axis has ever seen. I can guarantee you that he's currently in line for being a potential commander himself." Sazabi paused and, almost looking thoughtful, he straightened himself out and sat upright. "He's allowed to get away with certain things when it involves the Zakos. He's… particularly close to all of them. His methods and demeanor around them might seem unorthodox to others, but he's still effective. That's all that matters to me."

"That reminds me," Grappler said. He leaned forward a little. "Zapper said something earlier that caught my interest. Do we really have only one medic?"

Sazabi said nothing right away. Then he responded with a dull, "Yes."

"This is the largest crew I've seen since being transferred from the last Musai I was stationed onboard," Gouf started, "but they all had far more medics than this one. Two teams worth, actually. Why is it that there's only one here?"

Sazabi laughed dryly. It was a humorless sound that was somewhat unnerving to Grappler when he heard it. "Grappler Gouf, do you know how many mechs have been seriously injured since Zapper Zaku became the Magna Musai's squad leader? Do you know how many died? Guess."

Grappler blinked. "Zapper mentioned that too…" He paused to think, remembering what Zapper had said about not losing a soldier in ten years.

Sazabi seemed to lose patience when the younger cobalt mech didn't respond right away. "I'll tell you. Zero."

Grappler felt his claws twitch in moderate disbelief. "No. That's not possible."

Sazabi laughed. This time is was a humorous cackle. "That's what Gerbera said when I told him! This is why we only have one medic. We've had absolutely no casualties since Zapper Zaku's promotion, all the other medi-bots were moved away from here to assist on other Dark Axis ships who needed the extra hands." He paused again for the reason that he was possibly gathering more of his thoughts. Then he spoke again, his tone slightly more controlled and serious. "You know, right after our first invasion on Neotopia, there were several Zakos who were taken prisoner by the Gundam Force. Against my orders, Zapper Zaku took a squadron of Zakos to Neotopia to trade the hostages in exchange for information on the Dark Axis. He recovered all of those Zakos. Any other squad leader I've known would have surely left them to rot, but Zapper Zaku didn't. He went ahead and traded them back for information. You can imagine how furious I was, but…" He trailed off.

Grappler waited patiently.

Sazabi resumed after a moment, leaning back in his chair as if he was trying to find a comfortable position. "Don't let his facade fool you. He's not nearly as stone cold as you might think he is. You should have known him before he became a squadron leader. If he didn't have his officer body upgrade, I would have sworn he was peppy little Zako soldier himself."

"Ten years ago," Grappler echoed. "So… he said we haven't lost a mech on this ship for ten years, and then you said that no mechs have died on this ship since he became a squad leader. Did something… happen? Back when he was still just an officer, I mean."

Commander Sazabi tilted his head and looked momentarily puzzled. It was a very rare look for the huge, daunting mech to wield. "He was getting ready to fight the other resident officer on the ship for the position of squad leader. You were there when it happened, weren't you?"

"I knew he was going to fight someone for the promotion and that the fight was overseen by you," Grappler said, "but I didn't get to stick around. Destroyer Dom and I were on a tour for officers in training. We were going to watch the fight, but then we had to leave. The academy wanted us back earlier than expected."

Sazabi nodded. The look of puzzlement left his features. "Ah. I thought you might have known what happened. Does the name Solitary Gyan ring a bell?"

Grappler thought about it. "…No."

The Commander nodded curtly. "I thought so. If he hadn't gone… missing… I bet that he would be a famous colonel right now. He had so much potential ahead of him and he was also an officer on the Magna Musai at the same time Zapper Zaku was. The both of them were looking for promotions at the same exact time. I agreed to let them duel for the title." Sazabi paused. "I wonder now if maybe that was a bad idea. Now that I'm looking back on it, it probably was."

Gouf raised the right corner of his optic ridge. "What happened?"

Sazabi didn't say anything right away. Grappler waited.

Finally, after a long and considerate pause Sazabi spoke.

"A Zako was murdered."

It had been a long hour in Sazabi's office. When their meeting was finally over and done with, Grappler shakily stood to leave. The thought of what Sazabi told him bothered the cobalt warrior a great deal, but that wasn't why he found he was lightly shivering. It had been the longest he had spent in Sazabi's office ever, and the fact they were conversing otherwise casually instead of rigorously going over battle strategies or anything regarding the matter of their assigned dimensional invasion seemed surreal to Gouf. When he was at the door and ready to punch the code in to open it and make his leave, Sazabi spoke up. "Grappler Gouf."

Grappler turned his whole body to look towards the larger mech. "Sir?"

Commander Sazabi quickly got to the point. "Zapper Zaku would make any sacrifice necessary for his troops. More so after what happened while he and Solitary Gyan were dueling one another. Remember that."

Grappler could not find the appropriate means to adequately answer. He nodded once and turned to leave. "Goodnight sir."

Sazabi did not answer back when Grappler walked out of the room. The door slowly hissed closed behind him and the cobalt mech was left alone in blinking stupidly at the bright lights of the hallway. He stood there for a long while before the flickering sizzle of the overhead fluorescents and his own adjusting vision drew him out of his daze. There was no doubt in the cobalt warrior's mind that Commander Sazabi would have taken him as a fool if he stood out there any longer, so he moved away and walked down the hall back towards the main portions of the ship. He had been wandering almost aimlessly in thought, but then it dawned on him that the halls were empty.

This only indicated one thing. It meant that the Zako Zako Hour was on. This seemed illogical considering that Red was hurt, but there was no other explanation for it.

Quietly, Grappler found the secret passage in the wall, glanced around to make sure no stray optics were watching, and then he darted in and closed the entryway shut. In the darkness of the passage, he heard the faint echo of Zakos who were gathered in the main meeting hall conversing with one another. The sounds wafting from the meeting chamber weren't as loud as he remembered however, and he had to turn up his audio sensors to their highest sensitivity just to hear somewhat clearly. He braced his left hand against the wall and he felt his way through the inky blackness until he came to the end of the passage and stepped onto the booth that discreetly overlooked the where the Zako Zako Hour stage was set. Grappler silently commended whoever designed the stage as a mental side note, but then he noticed something peculiar. The audience was usually filled up, true, but this particular night it looked packed.

There was also no cheering. It would have been entirely silent if not for the rumbling murmurs of the Zakos who had gathered. The room's air was very tense.

Zapper Zaku was already there sitting in his usual seat overlooking the stage and audience. Grappler walked up behind him. "Zapper?"

The maroon warrior lightly jumped in surprise and inclined his head to look at him. He said nothing at first but, regardless of the low light within the chamber itself, Gouf could immediately see that the older mech looked terribly exhausted. He was slouching somewhat and his optic, usually bright, was dimmed with the need to recharge. The older squad leader finally spoke up, his voice lacking its usually rough dynamism. "What do you want?"

Grappler ignored him. He leaned up against the wall and tried to see Zapper as he always saw him. It was slightly difficult to do so with the knowledge that Commander Sazabi bestowed upon him, however. He crossed his arms and looked over the crowd that was blissfully unaware of their presence. He tried to sound spiteful, although he failed miserably at it. "How's the injured Zako?"

Zapper didn't immediately respond. When he finally did, he sighed and shifted in his seat in an attempt to find a more comfortable position. He seemed to give up and settled for leaning back with his right leg crossed over his left and arms lightly draped on his lap. "He's on life support and right now. He was unstable when we brought him down."

Grappler looked back towards Zapper. "Do you think he'll be… all right?"

The elder squadron leader's voice took on a distinctly agitated tone. He repeated his first initial question with complete disregard for Grappler's. "What do you want?"

"In case you haven't noticed, these aren't just your troops. It's my business to know."

"But you couldn't care less," Zapper said in a low voice. Underneath the surface, there was a dangerous edge to his dark murmur. Grappler got it as his cue to shut up, but he wouldn't have had the choice to speak up anyways because the lights went darker and the spotlight aimed towards the stage. Then the spotlight appeared on the stage, cascading outward from being a pin-sized dot on the steel curtain until the light covered the entire stage. The holographic image of "Zako Zako Hour" was abruptly projected on the curtain in bold red letters, but that was when Grappler noticed something different about the introduction.




It was already obvious that Red would be absent from this particular edition of the show, and the voice that spoke up where he usually did was feminine.

"…Zako Zako Hour!"

The steel curtain lifted and, where Red would have usually been standing between his two cohorts, there was a new Zako with a teal colored microphone. Flanking the Zako's right was Yellow and to her left was Blue. While Cyan -- Grappler was positive it was Cyan, noting he remembered her tone of voice sounding exactly alike the new temporary host -- looked out towards the crowd, Yellow wasn't. He was looking around her in Blue's general direction, and the mech in question was looking towards the ground in a slouched position. Blue looked absolutely miserable.

Grappler spoke up. "The medic? Shouldn't she be with the injured soldier? I thought you said the Zako was unstable."

Zapper didn't look at him when he spoke. "That was only when we initially brought him down. She offered to help with the show because we stabilized Red. She has two Zakos who are watching him in case something happens. I think its Cook and Chef."

Grappler scoffed, although he felt intimidated at the same time. The names of the Zakos rolled off the colonel's voice far too easily for Gouf's comfort. "Why do you bother remembering their names?"

Zapper Zaku did not answer.

Cyan spoke up from her place on the stage. "Ladies and gentlebots, welcome to the Zako Zako Hour. Today's meeting is all about…" She raised her microphone into the air and leaned back a little bit so she could continue speaking into the teal head of the device. "All together now!"

Yellow raised his own microphone to follow suit with her. Blue, however, still kept looking towards the floor. He didn't to bother to do so much as move or even look up to address the audience.

Yellow and Cyan were the only ones who spoke. "What happened after today's mission to Neotopia?"

There were some softly exclaimed cheers from the audience but, for the most part, it was oddly quiet from the crowd partaking in watching the show. Many of them appeared to be anxious despite the fact that Grappler Gouf couldn't tell for sure by looking at them. They all had their backs turned to the booth he and Zapper were sitting in, but all of the soldiers seemed restless in a surreal sort of fashion. This wasn't like the other Zako Zako Hours. Whereas the room's air in previous shows was light with humor and energy, this time it was heavy with a dismal sort of dread. It was greatly unnerving and tremendously gloomy.

Cyan stood back and looked over the audience with her optic glowing. "I can answer this question for you, zako. Allow me to introduce myself for those of you who don't know me…"

Yellow glanced over at her. "You're the medic. Everyone should know you, zako."

Cyan turned around to glare at him. "No one ever comes down to my office anymore. No one knows who I am. If they do, it's because they stumbled in the medical bay while they were either lost or looking for some other room, zako." She turned away from Yellow with a shake of her head. "Did any of you even know there was a medical wing on the Magna Musai? Give me a shout if you knew!" She aimed her microphone towards the audience.

She was met with silence. Dead silence. There wasn't as much as a peep from the audience and the awkward situation would have been hilarious if the subject matter at hand wasn't so morbid.

Cyan looked a little agitated. She put her microphone back to her mouthpiece and darkly muttered something about being underappreciated.

"At least you never have to go with us on missions, zako. You have some dignity," Yellow said. He reached out and patted her on the shoulder.

Cyan sighed. "I guess so, zako, but I guess it's a good thing that I was around today. If I hadn't been here…" She trailed off. She resumed after a long pause. "Well, after today's mission to Neotopia, a fellow Zako collapsed from a serious injury he received courtesy of Captain Gundam. For those of you who are still clueless…" She abruptly gestured to the screen behind her, and on it appeared Red's image holding his trademark scarlet colored microphone from the show. He was obviously in very good graces when the photograph was taken, because his optic was bright with vibrant cheerfulness and he was posing in a notably silly manner. Cyan spoke again. "Well, the Zako who was hurt was Red. I'm temporarily replacing his position here on the Zako Zako Hour."

"Temporarily?" Yellow looked out towards the audience questionably before glancing back at Cyan. His voice caught a little and that small hiccup alone was an immediate indication to Grappler that he was troubled that his friend was in such a serious condition to begin with. Still, he recovered and promptly resumed. "You mean to say that Red should be back to his old self in no time, zako?"

Cyan nodded. "I hope so, zako. I am the only medic on this ship for a reason, and it's because the Magna Musai has had the lowest casualty rate of any Dark Axis Musai in our army's history. There used to be far more medics and doctors stationed onboard on this ship back when it was just the skeleton crew, but then no one ever came by the medical wing for treatment because no one was getting hurt. After the skeleton crew all left and when the permanent soldiers started to trickle in, all the other medical personnel besides myself were reassigned to other Dark Axis vessels as a consequence. Anyways, I was very unprepared to deal with a mech as seriously injured as Red today, so I sent a memo out to receive a team of expertly trained medical specialists to see to his condition. Because he's going to get incredibly intensive and professional help within the next twenty-four megacycles, I strongly believe that he will make a complete recovery."

Yellow sighed with relief. "That's good to know, zako."

Cyan nodded back. "It is, zako. He's very badly hurt and has a serious condition to top it off. Red has something called post traumatic shock -- more commonly referred to as PTS for short -- which is basically where the body is first injured so badly that it can't identify the damage. When the processing center does discover the problem however, everything in the victim's body shuts down. In most cases, PTS is… fatal." She poorly concealed her own flinch at her last spoken word.

Grappler Gouf made a mental note to himself. "In ninety-nine percent of all cases, you mean." He knew the statistics like the back of his clawed hand.

Cyan quickly interrupted herself. "But remember! Red is already in stable condition, and he should be perfectly fine with proper treatment."

Yellow nodded. "That's good. What do you think, Blue?" Yellow looked at Blue.

It was the first time during that show that the third Zako host had been addressed. Blue was still looking at the ground as if it were the most interesting floor in the universe, but the way he was looking downcast radiated despair in every sense possible. He said nothing. An odd, awkward silence swept over the show and the crowd watching it. The quiet and apprehensive stillness was thick enough to have been hacked through with a battle axe.

Cyan glanced at Yellow. Yellow looked to Cyan. Then they both looked to the audience. Finally, the two turned back to the subject of their attention. Cyan tentatively reached her hand over towards Blue and kept it suspended in front of her, almost as if she wasn't sure what to do with it. "…Hun?"

Again, the blue mike wielding host said nothing. Beside him, Grappler could see that Zapper was gripping his seat's armrests tensely. There was suddenly a great murmuring out in the crowd, but then they all hushed silent when Blue slowly looked up. It was an almost deliberate looking movement and, even from where Grappler was standing in the secret booth a good ways away, his sight was good enough that he could still see that his optic was misted over and his mouthpiece was curled back in a small, agonized grimace. The warrior looked like he was going to be sick or cry.

Blue picked the latter of the two.

The Zako sobbed very quietly at first, but then he abruptly dropped to his knees and bawled like a sparkling right there on the stage. His microphone was still in hand and, even after he thumped it against the ground hard enough to make the auditorium's speakers project the noise very loudly, it was still intact enough so that the Zako's agonized cries were pumped through the loudspeakers. It was an excruciating sound to listen to. In the back of Grappler Gouf's head, the memories of a Zako screaming and crying in a similar manner made the teal warrior cringe before he hastily shut his past demons away back behind their steel barred doors.

Cyan rushed over to Blue and dropped on her knees beside him. She clasped his shoulders and muttered something in his audio receptor. Whatever it was that she said, it didn't help in the slightest. Blue only cried harder. When it was obvious he was not going to stop, she looked up at Yellow helplessly and released Blue's right shoulder. She made a frantic cutting gesture across her throat with her free hand.

Yellow suddenly turned uptight. He looked over the audience, briefly faltered, nearly dropped his own microphone, fumbled over a few strangled attempts at words, and then he sharply looked upward towards the stage management booth suspended over the audience. That was the place where they managed the spotlight, projector, sound system, lighting, and curtain. He suddenly brought his microphone to his mouthpiece and he yelled into it. "Cut it!"

Immediately, the Zakos up in the management booth panicked and they activated the mechanism to drop the stage shutter without bothering to restrain the falling metal in their haste. With a booming thunder crack, the theater drape fell and the sound of it hitting the stage floor crashed throughout the meeting hall with a fearsome echo. It was like someone had taken a cymbal and smashed it beside everyone's audio receptor. The sound of Blue's cries were suddenly cut off, the spotlight flickered, and then the lighting returned to normal.

Zapper Zaku jumped up with alarm. The entire crowd was in a frenzy realizing the Zako Zako Hour had been stopped halfway through for the first time ever. Instantly Grappler Gouf realized something very important right there.

Blue and Red were bondmates. Consequently, there was no way in the Pitt that Blue was ever going to do another show without him.

It made perfect sense now.

Grappler had only seen a bondpair once, and that was while he worked with the two squadron leaders whom he had been partnered with on the Black Musai. That was when he had first become a squad leader. The two warriors he served alongside never mentioned it to him directly, but Commander Nightingale had initially warned Gouf that they were both just as dangerous as they were also madly in love with one another. There were always rumors and whispers that suggested that all sentient robots had a bondmate waiting for them in life somewhere, but Grappler himself had never truly believed in it. If so however, then robots could usually identify their bondmate just by seeing one another. After that, some invisible string would keep them bound for the rest of the time they functioned. Some bondlinks were powerful enough that you could hear your bonded's thoughts as well as feel their emotions. It was the ultimate sixth sense.

Something as minuscule as love and the emotions that were related to it had always seemed weak to Grappler before, but seeing how well the two squad leaders worked together made him reconsider. They were always in agreement over battle strategies and, consequently, it allowed them to add onto their plots to make them even more elaborate than before. Together, they were always three or four large steps ahead of their enemies and it allowed them to completely destroy any opposing force that got in their way. Not even Gundams could hold their ground against them. It was a surreal sort of thing that made Grappler feel humbled whenever he saw the two in action, but it was when the femme died that things started to fall apart. During a routine patrol with several Zako soldiers, they were ambushed and were all brutally killed.

The mech -- the femme's bondmate -- was in shambles over it. He couldn't function, eat, sleep… Grappler often had to wonder when he was finally going to snap. He didn't have to wait very long. The loss of his mate left the once bonded squad leader devastated and he eventually vanished off the face the Black Musai without a trace. Their commander, the Zakos, and Gouf never saw him again. Word was discreetly spread that another Dark Axis flagship, the Killswitch Musai, had found his remains buried under a pile of rubble in Lacroa after an earthquake. Whether or not this rumor was confirmed or denied didn't matter. The truth was never verified. Grappler Gouf remained as Commander Nightingale's designated squadron leader even after the Black Musai became the Horn of War on Lacroa's castle. He stayed under her command for nearly three more years while on her newly launched Shadow Musai before he was transferred and sent to the Magna Musai to aid Commander Sazabi's invasion in Neotopia. However, Grappler Gouf never forgot about the bonded squadron leaders.

He never expected to see bondmates again. Especially not so soon after his transfer.

Now that Grappler was thinking about it, it made sense that Red and Blue were bonded. The way they always looked at one another during the few Zako Zako Hour shows Grappler actually bothered to watch through until the end made it obvious to him now that he was acknowledging the fact. Even though they occasionally bickered on the show -- something that Grappler had to wonder whether or not it was scripted -- there was always something about the tones of their voices when they addressed one another that seemed off to him. Now he could understand why. They were in love with each other. Head over heels, undoubtedly. Whether or not Yellow knew this as well, he was unsure.

After the Zako Zako Hour had come to an abrupt stop, Zapper Zaku had hurriedly left him alone in the booth. Grappler could not understand where he was going. None of the Zakos knew that they watched the Zako Zako Hour -- whether or not Cyan was made aware upon becoming a self-proclaimed temporary host, he could not be sure -- and the cobalt warrior presumed that Zapper was not going to simply blow their cover by running backstage to make sure everyone was all right. Regardless, he himself left not too soon afterward. The crowd started to thin and he thought it best to make his leave as well.

Grappler left the booth and unobtrusively managed to sneak out of the secret passage in the wall that led back to the main corridors. He waited several moments before exiting into the open to be sure that none of the grunts were watching. His footfalls echoed in the hallway on his way down his room… except, regardless of the fact his mind was taking him there, his feet weren't. Randomly, he realized that he had bypassed his room and was almost at the main entryway to the medical wing where Red was being kept. He was initially tempted to turn around and go back the way he came, but decided against it mainly because he concluded that it wouldn't hurt to check up. Grappler didn't run into anyone until he got down there.

When he came upon the squad leader's med-bay, he entered the code to enter the emergency sector and it opened with a grating hiss. He stepped through the doorway and walked down to the end of the first corridor before he was nearly bumped into by a Zako soldier that abruptly darted into his path.

Grappler cried out and staggered backward. "Watch it!"

The Zako looked up at him with a wide pink optic, jumped back with a feminine cry, and the surprised soldier accidentally dropped the datapad that she had been holding beforehand. She quickly looked down to it and knelt to pick it up. Her voice took on a stuttering, nervous tone. "Forgive me, Lord Gouf. I didn't see you coming." From her voice, Grappler realized suddenly that it was the femme medic Cyan. She was certainly quick being able to go from the Zako Zako Hour stage to the medical wing in such a short amount of time. She looked somewhat disheveled however, and that much was an immediate indication to him of her only recent arrival.

Grappler forced his temper to cool. "Don't let it happen again."

"Of course not, sir," Cyan offered. She stood to her full height with the datapad back in hand and she looked at Gouf with a now only mildly apprehensive look. "Are you here to see Zapper Zaku?"

"Is he here?"

"He actually left just a few cycles ago," Cyan said. She looked away to glance over her shoulder as if she was expecting someone to round the hallway corner behind her. No one came. Cyan resumed speaking regardless. "He went to retrieve some of my supplies from the grunt med-lab. The squad leader medical bay is nice, but there are some supplies I need that aren't here. The stored electrical plugs for energy transfusions on this particular deck weren't designed for standard Zako body units… so I asked the volunteers to go on a brief excursion get the ones back at my office. Lord Zapper was one of them. He really has been an excellent source of assistance when I need it."

Grappler nodded curtly. "Will he be back soon?"

"Ten cycles at most," Cyan said. She looked back to Grappler and she gestured over her shoulder. "Is that all you needed? Do you want me to let him know you wanted him?"

Grappler Gouf nodded. "Actually, I wanted to see the injured Zako."

Cyan tensed visibly. She looked up at Grappler with an optic that gleamed with nervousness. "…For what reason?"

Grappler narrowed his optic. "Are you defying orders, soldier?"

"No, no!" Cyan raised her hands in submission and she waved them apologetically. The datapad she was holding was still clasped between her fingers, and Grappler could just barely make out it was a medical report. Whether or not it was for Red, Grappler couldn't tell. He presumed it was, taking into consideration that there were no other patients beside Red on that medical deck. Either way, the femme Zako was speaking again before he could inquire. "It's just that the injured Zako--”

"Red," Grappler said. "I've heard his name so many times within the past solar cycle that it's stuck in my head now. At ease, soldier."

Cyan nodded slowly and calmed down, slouching somewhat so that she wasn't standing fully erect at attention. Her voice took on a drab tone. "To be perfectly honest, I'm not confident about his condition at all. I won't lie to you sir, he's not well off at the moment. He's comatose and we've had to keep him on life support to keep his systems running. He might end up going into a coma very soon. The prognosis is looking bleaker by the megacycle," she said softly. She lowered her arms and held the datapad close. "I had a memo sent out to the other Dark Axis fleets looking for professional specialists to see to him, but it's a matter of whether or not they actually respond. PTS is a delicate syndrome and not many doctors have the expertise and patience to deal with it."

Grappler nodded. "I know that."

It took him a moment to realize that he let his vocalizer slip.

Cyan looked up at him with surprise and she blinked. "You… know, sir?"

Grappler shook his head and he waved his clawed hand dismissively. He tried to change to subject hopeful that the Zako would forget about what he nearly revealed about himself. "Whatever. Just tell me where he is. I want to see the damage for myself."

Obviously not as stressed as she had been before when they first started conversing, Cyan nodded. She turned somewhat on her heel and pointed down the hallway she had been looking down earlier. "Take the hall and it's the second door to the right."

Grappler knew the medical wing enough to know the place she was referring to. He blinked in confusion. "That's a big room."

"We needed a lot of space for all our equipment, and the fact that Zakos keep visiting," Cyan said. She made a face. "Mostly for equipment. There's a lot of it."

Cyan hadn't been kidding.

When Grappler left the female Zako to her own devices in the hallway, he took the right she had pointed out before peering in through the second. It was open. The glow from the fluorescent ceiling lights radiated from the emergency room into the hall and, when Grappler looked in, he had to do a double take. The medical berth was placed in the center of the room with Red lying on his back unconscious, but the sheer amount of cables and wires attaching him to the life support machines was unbelievable. Over the Zako soldier's head, the slowly beating spark monitor droned out its steadily bleeping tune in the silence of the room. Aside from that and Red's labored breathing behind the oxygen mask pumping clean air into his intake filters, Grappler was sure he would have been able to hear a pin drop. Grappler stared into the room a moment longer before he warily stepped in. Red didn't do as much as twitch. The prone Zako's optic was completely dark in his comatose state and it didn't appear as if he was going to wake up anytime soon. The downed soldier looked absolutely awful. There wasn't much exterior damage to take note of, but the equipment he was hooked to gave him the air of a cripple.

There was suddenly movement from the opposite side of a huge machine that was hooked up to Red. Gouf jumped seeing the movement and a Zako soldier peered over the machinery. His optic met Grappler's and he stuttered in a high pitched, grating tone. "Oh! Lord Grappler Gouf! I thought you were the medic!"

Grappler winced hearing the Zako's voice. It was obvious he was young just by the way he sounded, and the beaming gleam that glowed behind his optical glass was also a dead giveaway to his age. He was a young, clueless soldier who was indisputably a recent recruit. Grappler stepped into room and looked back towards Red, finding that he was too fixated and horrified by the mech's condition to look away. He addressed the young Zako almost without realizing. "She's down the hall. What are you doing in here, soldier?"

The Zako's bright air dropped immediately. "Oh. Uh… Lord Zapper Zaku left with a few other Zakos to pick up supplies for the medic and they left me to keep an optical sensor on things?"

Grappler narrowed his optic at the soldier's apprehensiveness. "What was that? Give me a direct answer, not a half assed excuse for one."

The soldier immediately straightened out in a momentary lapse of panic. "Uh, um, he left with a few other Zakos, zako," he said nervously. He just barely kept his voice from shaking with a fearful stammer. "They left me behind to keep watch over Red. Designation, Cook."

It wasn't as if Grappler could have given a damn about the Zako's name, but he didn't dwell on it. He kept watching Red for any signs of movement. Red showed none. He looked like he was deeply asleep, true, but he was so haggard looking that it threw Grappler for a loop as to how frail he appeared to be. The Zakos themselves were very sturdy little robots who could take relatively decent amount damage when it was tossed their way, although Red looked nothing like one of those same soldiers. He looked feeble and insubstantial. Grappler Gouf was afraid to move too close to the gurney in fear that the soldier would shatter into millions of pieces if he even made the motion to touch him.

Red was dying. There was absolutely no doubt in Grappler's mind about that.

Grappler Gouf felt his insides abruptly twist. He forced the memories -- memories of another dying Zako he had once seen -- that nearly unearthed their ugly heads back into his subconscious and he clenched his fist out of reflex. Cook, the Zako soldier, appeared ready to question the squad leader's sudden bout of silence when Grappler turned his head to look at him. Cook shrunk back tentatively when the cobalt warrior spoke up. "How long has he been unconscious for?"

"At least a megacycle," Cook said after a thoughtful pause. He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "He passed out after the medic gave him anesthetics for the pain, zako. He hasn't woken up since."

"What about the other Zako?"



"Oh." Cook looked thoughtful and was quiet for a brief moment before he spoke up. "Zapper Zaku dragged him along to go to the grunt med-lab, zako. He almost hasn't left Red's side for anything you know, except when people force him to leave. The medic made him leave when they started hooking Red up to the equipment because the poor guy was pretty much on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Then Zapper Zaku made him go with him to the grunt level infirmary because Blue looked like he was going to be sick. He and Red are really good friends… it's killing him seeing him hurt, zako."

Grappler shuddered. He couldn't help it.

Cook looked puzzled. "Zako? Are you all right, sir?"

"Fine," Grappler said stiffly. He looked to the prone Zako on the table again. Red didn't even do as much as shift in his sleep. The squad leader had to momentarily wonder if he was even dreaming. It didn't seem it. The memories that haunted the squad leader's past threatened to rear their hideous apparitions once more and he subdued them to the best of his ability. He had to stifle another shudder. "Don't tell Zapper Zaku that I came down. He might think that I actually care."

It was cruel to say, but Cook didn't acknowledge the fact. He was a grunt after all. He had no reason to question his superior's unkind nature. "Of course, sir." He stiffly saluted.

Grappler turned to leave.

Behind him, the shrill pulsing beeps of the life support monitor suddenly picked up in pace. The sound of Red suddenly starting to flat line was almost enough to nearly make Grappler jump out of his own casing. He whipped around on his heels to face Red and the monitor reading his vitals showed that his engine had begun to fail. Cook was standing there watching with an almost stupid expression, but then it turned to utter horror and he looked at Grappler Gouf with foreboding.

"Oh for the love of…" Grappler trailed off feeling an icy tingling surge up his circuits and back down again. Aside from the one useless Zako, he was the only mech in the room. The medic wasn't anywhere and Zapper Zaku was off on some random scavenger hunt for her, so that left him alone with the dying warrior. Despite his initial terror, he instinctively jumped to attention. He glanced at Cook before striding swiftly back into the room. "You, soldier! Find the emergency alarm and sound it! He's crashing!"

Cook didn't say or do anything. He continued to stare at Grappler in his fright.

Grappler's voice erupted into a shout without even him knowing. "DO IT!"

At that, Cook leapt out of the place where he had been frozen to the ground and he darted across the medical room to the emergency switch on the far wall. While he smashed the glass with his own fist before flipping the lever, Grappler had already darted around the other side of the gurney to look the soldier over to see if there was anything he could do. Mechanical adrenaline was viciously gushing throughout his coolant tubes. Piercing memories from his past -- the haunting ones that he always tried to suppress -- abruptly sprung to life inside his head without a word of his consent. His psyche was transported back where he had once been a measly Zako grunt himself. There was the steady roar of gunfire over his head and explosions of activating mines in the distance. On top of all that chaos, someone was screaming in agony. The down Zako soldier in front of him, with his legs blown off and his optic wide and watery with pain, was looking to him with desperation. He was shrieking and crying at the same time.

"Oh gods, help me! Medic, HELP ME!"

Grappler scared himself so badly at the recurring images that he snapped back to reality. The screams of that Zako died away into the never ending shriek of the Red's frail engine having finally failed. The Zako soldier's fuel pump audibly sputtered inside his little chassis and that began to fail as well. Now that his engine had stopped, it was only a matter of time before the fuel pump would surrender to termination as well. If that happened, there would be no chance of saving him.

Red stopped breathing.

Without even thinking, Grappler was about to perform CPR when he stopped himself. "No," he thought. "No CPR. Applying pressure to his chest could cause his interior to hemorrhage again."

Years of long unused knowledge came flooding back to him. He instantly checked the rest of Red's vitals faster than he could keep track of his hands. He felt for the soldier's pulse and found that it was still there, though very weak. The fuel pump was still working. Good. Even if Red had stopped intaking air, there was still a good chance at saving him well before his systems would overheat from the lack of cooling air current. Grappler turned to look at the oxygen delivery module beside him. He upped the pressure and increased airflow in an attempt to stir his breathing once more. That would buy him extra time as well as hopefully jumpstart his engine to reanimate him that way. The engine itself was directly linked to the air filtration system to keep it from overheating. If Red suddenly started breathing again, it would hopefully jar the engine's systems enough to restart it. Even if that didn't work…


At the sound of his own name, Grappler looked up to see Zapper Zaku standing in the doorway with his hands braced on either side of the framing. Behind him, more Zako soldiers came to skidding halts.

Both squadron leaders made optic contact.

Instead of finding themselves in an argument or glaring one another down with malice, there was a mutual understanding that passed between them. Zapper crossed the room swiftly in large strides and Cyan the medic followed in after behind him while telling the other Zakos in the doorway to stay where they were. Before either of them could reach Red to help however, Grappler raised his hand to stop them. "Zapper, get the defibrillator now. Prep the charge at exactly four hundred and ten volts."

Zapper Zaku looked up at him and flared his optic in surprise.

Cyan was speaking rapidly. "How did you--?"

"His coolant pressure is dropping too rapidly! Just do it!" Grappler felt for Red's vitals again. The low pulse of moving fuel from his pump was weakening rapidly and there still wasn't a sign that his engine would restart anytime soon. "Damn it all to the Pitt. Femme! Get me twenty milligrams of concentrated energon for this guy stat!"

Cyan diverted herself to do as Grappler said. Zapper wasn't listening to either of them, as he was in far too busy with his own duty. Having already wheeled the trolley with the defibrillator on it over to the gurney, he was charging the two shock pads with trembling hands. The defibrillator itself was of a custom design made specifically for standard Zako units. Grappler had to momentarily wonder what it was doing in the squadron leader level medical deck, but then it occurred to him that Cyan -- in preparation for a worse case scenario in regards to Red's failing condition -- had probably retrieved it from her office herself earlier in the day. The hub of the device looked like a computer block rounded and smoothed over with pale plastic that glinted under the fluorescent lighting of the ER. Protruding from the rear of the curved block were curled wires that attached to the two shock pads that had the ability to be holstered on the hood of the device. Underneath the defibrillator's tough plastic sheeting was the electric motor that allowed the life saving mechanism to work. Once the safety switch was flipped off -- said switch was on the front of the block -- the motor within would immediately whir to life in preparation to build a charge. The wielder would have to furiously rub the pads together with the utmost care to up the charge. A computerized dial kept track of the charge the shock pads built up. Zapper Zaku continued to rub the pads together while watching the gauge until it reached the level he wanted.

Zapper Zaku separated the pads and kept them suspended away from his own person so he wouldn't risk shocking himself. Static crackled around the air the newly exposed pads came in contact with. "Charge complete."

"Fork it," Grappler demanded stiffly. Without as much as a complaint, Zapper immediately did as he was told. Gouf checked the charge again and then he glanced down at Red to make sure no one was touching him. Then he turned his head to shakily regard the life support monitor. "Charge is at four hundred and ten… clear!"

He pressed the shock pads to Red's chest. The small body jerked in place from the charge that surged through his body and there was an outcry of utter terror from the room's doorway. Grappler faintly imagined that it was Blue. It more than likely was. The spark monitor went silent briefly, faltered, and then the beeping drone of Red's whirring engine returned. It was a short-lived victory because it suddenly failed again moments afterward. Grappler cursed and frantically began rubbing the pads together himself. "Bringing the charge back to four hundred volts and raising to five hundred. Cyan, increase oxygen flow to its maximum capacity and mute all anesthetic delivery."

He didn't realize it then, but he would later on. He called the medic by her name.

Cyan did as she was told, sneaking around Grappler's slightly hunched form so she could turn the valve for the oxygen tank up to its highest output. Then she scampered back around the other side to pull out the IV drip that was giving Red the anesthetics keeping him asleep. With any luck, Grappler hoped, they would be able to help jumpstart Red's body by removing the hampering effect of the ether. Zapper stood stiffly with a terrified expression, looking down at Red as if he was unsure as to what to do.

Grappler saw his expression while he continued to rub the pads together. "…Zapper, check his vitals for me. Feel around his neck for a primary pulse and his wrist for a secondary. Mark each how many beats you get for five seconds each."

Zapper snapped his head to look at Grappler. The maroon warrior's optic glowed brightly but, instead of arguing like the both of the both of them would have under normal circumstances, he reached down and felt for both pulses like he was told. He reported his findings back in a tight, fear stricken voice after the elapsed time. "Two for his primary and one for his secondary."

"He's worse than he was before," Grappler said roughly. The shock pads crackled with electricity and he pulled them apart seeing that they had reached their designated charge level. "All right, charge is at five hundred and seven… clear!"

Grappler pressed the pads to the dying Zako's chest and Red jerked in place again like a rag doll. The reading on the spark monitor sputtered but otherwise continued to flat line. At the doorway of the room, Grappler saw one particular soldier struggling desperately to get in. Two Zakos were holding Blue back and trying to comfort him, but he looked entirely resistant to their actions and vainly comforting words. His optic was bright with horror and Grappler was positive he saw liquid threatening to spill from the pink hued fiberglass. His mouth was moving with his outcries for his bondmate but Grappler, despite the volume of the Zako's screams, couldn't hear him. All he was focused on hearing was the never-ending drone of the spark monitor.

Red's body abruptly started to spasm.

"Slaggit! His fuel pump is expiring!" Grappler cursed loudly when he nearly dropped one of the pads out of surprise. On the life support monitor, the already wavering line that showed his fuel pump's status began to waver dangerously. The critical level activated another rapidly beeping tone to signal his distress. The Zako was now trembling uncontrollably, probably from his fuel pump finally shuddering to a stop. If that failed, it would spell the end for him. There was absolutely no hope of reanimating a mech after his fuel pump failed because the core processor would be permanently brain dead from the lack of energy flow. Zapper Zaku lunged forward and pinned Red's wracking body down to the table so that he couldn't shake off the equipment that was attached to him. Grappler reestablished his grip on the shock pads and he furiously rubbed them. He kept his voice as neutral as he could. "Raising the charge from five hundred to seven hundred…"

"What?" Zapper Zaku looked up at his cobalt and chrome counterpart, optic flaring in panic and surprise. "That would kill him! That's almost a thousand volts!"

"In case you haven't noticed," Grappler said making a jerky, sharp gesture towards Red's prone body on the table, "he already is dead. If we don't up the charge, he'll die either way!"

Cyan looked alarmed as well. She was standing off to the side monitoring the rate at which the rest of Red's systems were failing. "Why raise it so high?!"

"If his fuel pump burns out, then giving him a standard charge would just only restart that and not his failed engine. We can only shock mechs three times before we risk doing them more harm than good," Grappler quickly said while looking to Red's prone face. "If we don't reanimate his fuel pump and engine now, we'll have to call it."

Zapper Zaku -- a mech who was as fearless as he was dangerous in battle -- had a look of utter fear that spread over his face. His optic flashed bright pink in a dreadfully fearful manner. Red's body was still shaking fiercely pinned underneath the large mech's arms. The otherwise dead soldier's failing fuel pump was causing his entire body to shudder violently enough so that Grappler became concerned that he would accidentally snap his own neck. There was a harsh tick-tick-tick noise radiating from beneath his plating, further indicating his imminent final stretch to the point of no return.

Grappler raised the charges up over Red's body in preparation to shock him. He glanced up at Zapper Zaku, who was still using his weight to keep the seizure-wrought Zako in place on the bed. "Back off, Zapper."

"If I do, he'll fall right off and hurt himself!"

"Unless you want to get electrocuted, I suggest you let go of him right now."

Zapper Zaku -- a mech who was also just as ridiculously courageous as he was dangerous in battle -- held his grip fast. There was a glint of valiant, hell-bent determination shining in his red optical lens. "I'll be fine. Just do it!"

Grappler calculated Zapper's chances of going into shock from the charge that would leap at him from Red. Being as experienced with this sort of thing as it was, he mentally determined the risk that Zapper Zaku would go into cardiac arrest was very, very high. Grappler Gouf weighed the odds and found them considerably stacked against their favor… still, he had to at least try to save Red. Zapper was willing to acknowledge that, and that was why he was keeping the dead Zako held down firm. He was willing to risk it.

Commander Sazabi's voice echoed hauntingly in Grappler's head from their conversation earlier that same day. "Zapper Zaku would make any sacrifice necessary for his troops."

Grappler Gouf hissed air through his mouthpiece. His hands trembled for only a moment. "Charge is at seven hundred and fifteen… CLEAR!"

He pressed the shock pads to Red's chest. Red jerked ruthlessly in place and he threw Zapper off him… or rather, the electrical shock that jumped from Red's body to Zapper's did. There was a sharp crackling noise and smoke rose up from Zapper's arms as he was flung backwards at least six or seven feet. He may have even perhaps been momentarily airborne before the maroon warrior landed heavily on the floor and lay in a crumpled heap. Several of the Zakos at the front of the room -- excluding Blue, who was too focused on his bondmate to notice anything else -- shrieked in surprise at the sound of the crash. One of the Zakos who wasn't trying to hold Blue back looked about ready to surge forward to the down squad leader's aid.

Cyan was shrieking. "Chef, don't touch him! There could still be an electric current, zako!"

The Zako who had tried to jump forward, apparently named Chef, backed off immediately.

Zapper Zaku wasn't moving. In fact, Grappler couldn't even tell if he was breathing. The cobalt blue squadron leader felt his insides twist harshly at the prospect that the older mech had gone into cardiac arrest from the electrical shock. He himself would have lunged forward to Zapper's aid sooner if Red hadn't continued to flat line. The dead Zako had stopped seizing, true, but he was still dead. The spark monitor kept shrieking its dismal note that signaled his termination and the fuel pump's own separate monitor line was continuing to bleat its doom at a faster and faster rate. Gouf had to resist the urge to drop the shock pads. His hands started to tremble. The room turned silent. Blue had stopped screaming and all conscious optics were locked on the flat line on the monitor's screen.

There was suddenly a whirring sound coming from Red's chest. It was very faint at first, but then it started to build.

Grappler thought, "Please oh please let that be the sound of his engine regaining power. Come on… Come on…"

Suddenly, Red gasped audibly and there was a puff of air behind his oxygen mask. The beeping of his spark monitor returned. Albeit it was shaky in the same way that Grappler was, the Zako was still alive. His vitals began to return to normal just as quickly as they had originally gone downhill. With the engine running again, the fuel pump stopped crashing, and that too began to stabilize.

Cyan started muttering to herself in a dazed voice. "Holy smelt, I don't believe it…"

Grappler looked to her as calmly as he could. "Femme, watch him and make sure his vitals even out. Be sure this bastard doesn't start to crash on us again, too. We don't need to repeat this incident." He suddenly surged around the table and past the dazed femmebot to attend to Zapper Zaku. The maroon warrior in question was still laying in a crumpled heap on his side, half curled into a ball and half sprawled. Grappler hastily dropped to his knees beside him and he held his hands over the mech's body. He couldn't feel excess electricity radiating from his energy field and his electrical signature wasn't distorted. With no further hesitation, Grappler Gouf quickly grabbed Zapper's shoulders without as much as a second opinion. "Zapper? Damn you Zapper Zaku, answer me." He felt frantically for his vitals.

When his light blue fingers probed the neck cables of the other warrior, Zapper suddenly stirred. He made a mewling sound in the far back of his throat and Grappler felt the rumbling radiating upward into his fingertips. Grappler pulled his digits away so Zapper Zaku could move his head and look blearily up at him. His optic was glazed over and he looked quite unwell. "Wh… Where…?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?" Grappler held up his hand, flashing three of his digits.

"…Seven?" The older mech's voice was rougher sounding that usual and he appeared about ready to purge his fuel tank. He looked as if he couldn't support the weight of his own head any longer to continue regarding Grappler and his neck would have surely given out on him, though only if Grappler hadn't moved his hand underneath the other squad leader's helmet to keep him upright. Zapper made another mewling noise and his entire body twitched. His optic darkened and Gouf would have thought the other mech had gone offline if the steadiness of his somewhat shaky breathing didn't give away he was still conscious.

Cyan was speaking across the room. Whether or not she was speaking directly to Grappler was a different matter all together. She sounded astounded. "All vitals returning to normal, except his fuel pump is beating slower than normal… and his pressure isn't rising anymore… I think… ah slag." Her tone took on a frustrated, almost teary tone. "I think he's gone into a coma. I'll have to check his core processor's dispensation levels…"

Finally, there was a loud yelp from the front of the room and Grappler turned his head to regard it. Blue abruptly escaped from the crowd of mechs who had been holding him back before and there was a Zako mech who was furiously jumping on one foot while holding the other. Blue had apparently stomped that mech's stabilizing servo in order to escape containment. He rushed forward to the table and, without as much as a word, he huddled over his mate's prone form and kept completely still. He said nothing and no one was any longer inclined to bring him away from his bedside vigil. No one bothered to stop or remove him.

Zapper Zaku was vainly straining to sit up. "Is… Red…?"

"He's fine," Grappler said with a slight frown seeing Zapper's attempts to shift positions. He tried to get the other mech to sit still by gently pressing against Zapper Zaku's shoulder with his free hand. "Relax, you were just nearly killed a second ago. You're better off taking it easy so that your don't drop dead on us like that Zako almost did."

"You… you saved his life."

"It's my job."

Grappler realized the fatality of his statement a moment later.

He looked up to see everyone -- aside from Blue, who was far more interested in overlooking Red -- looking at him with critical, wide optics. Cyan looked perplexed, Cook -- who had been standing off to the side to avoid getting in anyone's way -- looked confounded, Chef -- the one Zako who had tried to help Zapper when he was first shocked -- looked astounded, and the rest of the Zakos in the doorway looked as equally puzzled as the three prior. Even Zapper Zaku was regarding him critically with his glassy looking optic.

Grappler made sure not to stick around in case anyone started asking questions. That was the last thing he needed. He stood roughly and helped Zapper Zaku stagger to his feet before having the other squad leader throw a limp arm over his shoulder. Grappler Gouf shuffled with the mech he was supporting in tow, saying that he was going to take the newly injured squad leader down to a room to recover from his ordeal. No one said anything to him as he left, and for that he was very glad. Halfway down the hallway however, the teal and cobalt squadron leader had only barely managed to half drag and half assist Zapper Zaku down to the nearest recovery room when the older warrior tried to shove him off.

"Hey!" Grappler kept his grip and came to a halt in the corridor. "Quit it! I'm trying to help you, you dummy!"

"I don't need your help," the other warrior said huskily. Despite the fact they had worked well during Red's grave predicament, it now appeared as if they were going to revert back to their normal routines. Sniffing angrily, Grappler shoved the other mech away with a forceful push. He felt absolutely awful and nearly found it in himself to dive for Zapper Zaku when the mech nearly toppled over from his lack of coordination, but then the maroon mech braced his hand to the wall and he recovered to the best of his ability. Zapper looked up at Grappler and regarded him with his still glassy gaze. "Now, are you going to tell me what the Pitt happened back there, or are you just going to keep playing stupid? How was it that you knew what you were doing? You we're handling that case better than--”

Grappler interrupted before he could say it. "Some things are better left unsaid. I don't want to talk about it." He suppressed the memories that abruptly tried to surface. Just then, it suddenly occurred to the younger squad leader exactly why he had originally gone down the medical lab that day in the first place. He had been looking for Zapper Zaku before Red's near brush with death, and now he remembered why he had wanted to see him. "I spoke to Commander Sazabi earlier today about your behavior on the deck when the Zako soldier first went down."

Zapper scoffed. The effect of the effort was mostly lost in his weakened state, although it was decent enough of an endeavor. "Tattling now, are we?"

"Frag off, metal head. He mentioned something to me about no casualties ever occurring on this ship ever since you took over."

Zapper Zaku immediately seemed suspicious. He shifted weight from one foot to another. "What about it?"

"He said that the last Zako that died on this ship was murdered ten years ago…" Grappler moved forward so that he and Zapper were face to face, their mouthpieces inches apart. "That was when you became a squad leader." He inched their faces slightly closer to one another and he let his optic flash. "I want you to tell me what happened."

Zapper froze up and went stiff. Grappler was momentarily frightened that the other mech would suddenly keel over from the electric surge that nearly killed him several cycles earlier, but then Zapper spoke in a tight, strained voice. "Didn't he tell you?"

"He did," Grappler said, "but Commander Sazabi spared me the details. I want the full story from you."

The hallway light behind them flickered momentarily and buzzed. After that, it went silent again. That was when Grappler realized how deathly quiet it had become. Grappler figured that it was because he had become so accustomed to the chaotic noise of the emergency room that he was having such trouble adapting to the hushed hallway. There was a faint ringing in his audio receptors but, since it sounded so much like a flat lining spark monitor, the younger mech forced himself to disregard it.

Zapper Zaku suddenly pushed Grappler Gouf away. When Grappler staggered far enough away so that there was a fair amount of distance between the two of them again, he looked at the other warrior for a long time before he turned and hobbled down the hall towards one of the recovery rooms. Grappler would have followed him if the older mech hadn't spoken. Disturbed, Grappler could only stand and watch as Zapper Zaku vanished around the corner.

"Some things are better left unsaid."

Red died in his recharge during the very early hours of the morning just three days later.

Ever since flat lining and being revived at the hands of Grappler Gouf, Zapper Zaku, and Cyan's efforts -- although most of the credit rightfully belonged to Grappler -- Red had gone from bad to worse. His simple bout of continued unconsciousness turned into a fully blown out coma and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to get him to wake up. At least every Zako onboard the Magna Musai visited Red once or twice within the very little time he remained living. They all tried their best to rouse him with conversations and the hope that he would return to reality in their presence. Yellow had even gone as far as to bring Red his patent microphone from the Zako Zako Hour he co-hosted with his friends. Yellow had done this in the hope that it would stimulate some sort of response from the prone Zako and, to everyone's astounded surprise and raised hopes, it did… if only for an instant. Red's grip tightened on the microphone for a split click before his hold slackened and went limp once more. Attempts to prompt a repeated reaction went in vain. It almost as if nothing had happened. Aside from that, they never got any other responses from him.

Blue practically lived in the med-bay for the three days Red had left to live. Ever since going into his coma, Blue had not done as much as to put his foot beyond the emergency room's door. He slept sitting up in the seat he had dragged beside Red's gurney because he refused to leave his bonded's side. Cyan had originally offered the distraught Zako a place to sleep in the spare room just across the hallway -- there was no room to bring in a second bed in the ER where Red was being kept -- but Blue turned her down without as much as a second thought. From what Grappler Gouf saw in the few times in went to check up on Red's slowly deteriorating condition, Blue looked appalling. His head was constantly bobbing from sleep deprivation, he looked sickly, and it was obvious that seeing Red slowly dying was tediously killing him as well.

If that wasn't bad enough, the fact that no doctors in the Dark Axis fleet had responded to the desperate memo Cyan had previously sent out was even worse. Cyan was hopeful that this was because the referendum had not reached a skilled enough practitioner yet, but Grappler Gouf knew the truth… none of them cared.

On the night of Red's death, Blue had been so sleep deprived that he fell dead unconscious at his bondmate's side and he never even stirred when Red started to flat line. Cyan wasn't anywhere nearby. She was unconscious in her own temporary quarters down the hall, passed out from exhaustion after tirelessly trying to contact physicians who would at least attempt to help her take care of Red. No one heard Red's failing systems, his progressively slowing breathing, or the sound of the inexhaustible blare of his death as it was sounded by the spark monitor. Red stirred lightly as if he was about to wake from his coma and, just barely, he moved his hand to gently brush it up against his tormented lover's helmet. The motion had been caught on the security camera stationed in the emergency room that no one had been watching the live feed for. Red's mouthpiece twitched, his breath hitched, and then he went distinctly lax before exhaling deeply and going entirely still. Red did not draw in another breath and he died. The life support automatic turnoff activated after five minutes of his system failure when no one came to address the situation. The instruments that were keeping him bound on their plane whirred to standstills. The room was submerged into peaceful silence and blissful darkness from the lack of light generating from the life support equipment.

He went peacefully and painlessly. Blue, however, did not.

Grappler Gouf was jolted out of recharge by an anguished scream that sounded as though it came from several corridors outside his personal quarters. He immediately leapt out of bed and was out the door heading towards the direction of the screaming before he could even register exactly what he was doing. An alarm abruptly went off and, judging by the sound and pitch, he realized with terror that it was the officer level medical wing's emergency siren. With his fuel pump racing as quickly as his legs could carry him, he sharply took corners on his way down to the med-bay. He was there in under two cycles. The screaming had long since stopped, but now there was distinct shouting coming from just a few hallways away. He recognized one of the voices to be Zapper Zaku right off the bat. Someone was crying harshly and everyone else was yelling and shouting things about "taking the gun away" and whatnot. Grappler felt his circuits run cold.

He made it to the med-lab and he darted to the room where Red was being kept. The door was open and several Zakos with pleading expressions were standing outside room. Grappler shoved past them and forced himself into the room.

Standing backed up against the wall like a cornered beast was Blue. In one of his trembling hands was a small handgun while the flat palm of his other servo was braced against the wall behind him. His optic was brimmed with tears and his chest was heaving with effort. On the bed in the center of the room was Red where he lay dead. If the sight of a mentally unstable Zako wielding a weapon didn't disturb him, then the sight of Red's corpse did. There was always the crude saying that mechs who died just looked like they were sleeping, but Grappler always knew that the urban legend was a falsification to make dying appear less terrifying that it already was. Red looked dead, plain and simple. He was shrunken, cold, fragile, and gone.

Grappler Gouf had not seen a dead Zako in a very long time. He had to force himself to keep from reeling backwards in horror. Memories of another dead Zako wormed itself from his subconscious to his main course of thoughts and he had to furiously shake his head to force those memories aside.

Zapper Zaku either was ignoring him or too busy trying to negotiate with Blue to care that the other squadron leader had finally arrived. The maroon warrior tried to take a step forward toward the trembling Zako at the back of the room. "Easy Blue, everything's going to be okay…" Zapper's voice was trembling just as fiercely as the deranged and heartbroken Zako soldier standing like a cornered animal on the opposite side of the room. It was obvious that Zapper was also disturbed by Red's death as well.

"The first Zako to die on the Magna Musai in ten years," Grappler dismally thought.

Blue suddenly lifted the gun and unsteadily aimed it at Zapper Zaku.

There was an outcry in the doorway where several other Zakos were standing. Grappler didn't need to have an optic in the back of his head to know that they were reeling backward in terror. Cyan, who was standing off to the side, yelped and there was another Zako standing in the room who squeaked lightly as well. Grappler recognized the low voice as belonging to Yellow.

Zapper reeled backward and held his hands up in a show of compliance. "Hey now…"

Yellow took the opportunity to try to move forward towards his distraught and cornered friend. "Listen now Blue, everything is gonna be all right, zako. Just put the gun down and we'll talk this over like civilized--”

With panic and hysteria shining in his optic, Blue suddenly turned and aimed the handgun at seeing Yellow take his own tentative step forward. Yellow leapt back and put his hands up in a submissive, unthreatening gesture in the same manner Zapper Zaku had. The tension that had been rising up within everyone in the room was either continuing to peak or at a standstill. Grappler Gouf honestly couldn't tell to save his own life. Blue looked like he was either insane or on the brink of it. His optic darted from one person to another and the hand that held the handgun trembled madly. Grappler would have been worried that he was having an epileptic attack if not for the fact that it was obvious that the occurrence of Red's death was causing it. At the moment, he was far more worried that his fierce shaking would accidentally cause him to pull the gun's trigger to unintentionally hurt someone. Finally, Blue looked to Red's still and unmoving corpse laying on the gurney.

He suddenly lifted the gun to his temple, all the while still keeping his optic locked on Red's dead one.

There was an even louder outcry by the door. Zapper Zaku shuddered violently, Yellow abruptly began to scream at Blue with words incoherent to Grappler's hearing, and Cyan was begging Blue in a frantic sounding voice that he needed to put the gun down right now. No one advanced toward him in fear that he would turn his seemingly homicidal insanity onto them.

Grappler Gouf, in his long years as a squad leader, never once cared for the wellbeing of a Zako. It was a rare occurrence that he found he cared and sympathized somewhat for Red, but he was even more surprised to find that he did care as to whether or not Blue committed suicide. The cobalt squadron leader raised his hands passively and he took a provisional step forward. "Blue, listen to me. We just want to help you. You hurting yourself isn't going to bring your bondmate back."

Both Cyan and Yellow turned their heads to look at him with flabbergasted expressions. Either they hadn't known or they hadn't been expecting Grappler to intervene. The cobalt squad leader imagined the other Zako soldiers standing in the doorway were looking at him with that same sense of surprise as well. Zapper, however, hadn't done as much as moved a centimeter. In fact, he looked far more akin to a statue than an actual sentient being. The maroon warrior was watching Blue intently and unflinchingly.

Blue, perhaps, had the strongest reaction out of all of the Zakos. His optic flashed brightly, almost seemed to widen, and then hot tears erupted from the pink fiberglass so that they glinted in the light of the fluorescent light fixtures above his head. That was when Grappler saw him move his finger slightly over the trigger of the gun.

On a whim, Grappler found that he had suddenly become desperate. Memories of bloodshed and suffering and of a Zako soldier with his legs blown off screaming for a medic flooded his core processor. The last thing Grappler ever wanted to see was another Zako dead and bleeding all over from his wounds. Never again. The cobalt mech spoke in what he hoped was a reassuring tone, but he couldn't help himself in the slightest when it started to tremble. "Don't do this, Blue. You're not honoring Red's memory by doing this to yourself. You need to snap out of it…"

Except, deep down, Grappler knew there wasn't any hope for Blue at all. Whenever a bondmate lost their significant other to death, there was an incredibly high mortality rate around the percentage of surviving robots. They usually killed themselves within the ten cycles, regardless as to whether or not their lover had their bondlink open to their mate at the time of death. Grappler momentarily thought back to the two squad leaders he had known while serving on the Black Musai. After the femme died, the mech went missing. There was suddenly no doubt in Grappler Gouf's mind that he was dead… and, consequently, so was Blue. He was dead even before he stopped breathing. His essence died at the same time Red's did, and now it was only a matter of time before his physical form followed suit. It was inevitable, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

The gun was making clinking sounds where it was pressed against Blue's head. His hand was shaking so hard that it was causing the barrel of the gun to tap his green armor.

Zapper Zaku's trembling turned almost violent. It was reminiscent of when Red's engine started to fail three days prior before his coma.

Yellow looked absolutely mortified and started to cry. "Don't do it, Blue. Don't do it…"

Blue wasn't willing to listen. He shook his head rapidly and his hand shook horribly where he had the gun pressed to his temple. Finally, he choked out in a voice that teetered on the edge of becoming a sob. "Take good care of the show, Yell. Zako soldiers fight."

Zapper Zaku shrieked and lurched forward. "NO!"

He was either too late or too slow, but then Blue pulled the trigger and the bullet shell tore through his head like hot metal through butter. Time went still. The sound of that single bullet as it pierced Blue's armor and ripped through his central processor changed into the sound of a screaming Zako on a battlefront with his entire lower torso missing. Then the sound turned into the never ending drone of a failing spark monitor. Then it turned into Zapper Zaku's anguished wails.

Grappler Gouf was frozen in place with horror.

The bullet exited Blue's head. The opposite side of his helmet exploded with a vile spray of dark oil and coolant. The dark, life giving liquid of Blue's "blood" sprayed on the wall like tacky paint highly reminiscent of tar. The coppery stench flooded Grappler's olfactory sensors and he just barely kept himself from ducking over to the side and purging his fuel tank. However, he found he was still frozen in place and he couldn't take his optic away from the sight of Blue's corpse as it collapsed into a crumbled heap onto the floor. Coolant and sparks were spewing from the gaping hole that had been torn in the side of his head. Yellow started screaming. Cyan was screaming. The Zakos were screaming. Zapper Zaku was screaming.

The dead Zako that Grappler couldn't save back when he was a medic was screaming. "Oh gods, help me! Medic, HELP ME!"

Grappler Gouf bolted from the room, leaving the chaos and retreating to the dark confines of his quarters on the other side of the ship. He ran the entire way, just like he had when he abandoned that Zako with the missing legs on the battlefront so many years before.

Grappler Gouf finally brought it upon himself to go looking for Zapper Zaku several megacycles later.

The cobalt warrior had vainly tried to get some recharge in his quarters with the hope that he could sleep off the horrible scene he had witnessed, but he only had more haunting nightmares about his past life serving as a medic in the Dark Axis army and gave up. That was when he was suddenly possessed by the strong urge to go find Zapper and make sure he was all right. He wasn't sure why he was overcome by such a strong urge, but he didn't bother to question it when he ventured from his room to head down to the squadron leader medical wing. He walked. When he finally got down there, he found it was unnervingly quiet. In fact, the entire ship had been oddly quiet. There had not been as much as a single Zako soldier in sight.

The officer medical wing was completely abandoned. Grappler made it to Red's room -- the same place where Blue also died -- and he peered inside through the open door. The room looked much larger without all the emergency equipment in it. The oil shed from Blue when he shot himself in the head had been cleaned and the somewhat overpowering odor of bleach and cleaning supplies invaded the warrior's olfactory sensors. The gurney where Red had been previously laid out before on was still there. It sat in the center of the room like a silent and haunting reminder of everything that had conspired within its blank walls.
He left the wing hoping that he would never have to set foot within it again. He walked down to the next place that he could think Zapper would have been. The grunt level medical wing had the ship morgue was down the built right into it. It was a morbid thought, but Grappler found that he knew the other squad leader well enough to realize there would be no way the older mech would retire to his room. He was either down somewhere near the grunt medical lab or dead himself.

That one last thought disturbed Grappler Gouf a very great deal. He had to stop in the hallway and wait to recover from his dizzy spell before he could find the mental strength to push himself onward.

Zapper Zaku wasn't actually in the medical bay. He was standing just outside it. Grappler rounded the corner that would take him to the wing when he found Zapper supporting himself with his back against the wall. His face was buried in his left hand while his right sat pressed against the wall behind him in the shape of a fist. Zapper Zaku looked haggard and ten times older than he already was. Those extra years made the other squadron leader look ancient. Wiser even.

The maroon warrior didn't look up to acknowledge Grappler's presence when he approached and stopped to stand in place to regard him. Grappler Gouf cleared his throat to garner his attention. "Zapper Zaku?"

The maroon warrior snapped to attention at the address. He took his hand away from his face and he turned his head to observe Gouf with a semi-faraway expression. His optic was glassy looking and Grappler briefly remembered that he looked similar to the way he was when he had been electrocuted by the defibrillator earlier in the week.

"He's still probably in shock," Gouf thought absently. When he appeared as though Zapper wasn't inclined to say anything, Grappler spoke up. "What happened?"

Again, Zapper didn't answer. At least, not right away. He stared blankly at Grappler for several moments longer before he turned away and buried his face in his left hand again. He rapped the fingers of his other hand against the wall and then he spoke up. "Blue's… Blue's dead. There wasn't anything we could do to save him. The damage done to his core processor was too extensive. Cyan said that even if we did manage to bring him from the brink, he'd be a vegetable for the rest of his life."

"Are both Blue and Red in the morgue?"

"Yeah." Zapper sounded faraway. "I had to help with the body bags. We're going to have them cremated and planted underneath the base of the Zako Zako Hour stage."

Grappler made a face. "Commander Sazabi won't allow it. Any Zako that dies is required to be melted down and sent away to the factories to produce new soldiers."

Zapper took his hand away from his face and he glared threateningly hard at Grappler. It was an expression marred with internal agony. "Commander Sazabi won't find out. The engineers on the mining level know how to produce Zako grade smelt from the ores we have in storage and Cyan knows how to fake medical reports. It's covered." There was a silent threat in his voice as well.

Grappler nodded. "Ah. In that case, I'll be sure to validate those reports."

The other squad leader looked critically at him at what he said. "You're… you're actually going to let us get away with it? It's against protocol."

"I know," Grappler said. He made another face and walked up closer to Zapper so he wouldn't have to speak across the hallway to talk with him. "Sometimes it's the best thing to do. I've broken protocol a few times before in the past too."

Zapper Zaku looked away. "For the better?"

"Probably not, actually," the cobalt colonel admitted. He stopped when he was a foot's breadth away from Zapper and then he turned to put his back against the wall beside him. There they stood side by side like equals in complete disregard to their previous distaste toward one another. Grappler turned his neck so he could watch Zapper. "Back when I was a Zako soldier, I… I went against protocols and ran away from something that I shouldn't have. Just like I did today. I'm sorry I didn't have the nerve to stick around when Blue…" he trailed off.

Zapper exhaled air deeply through his vents, neglecting to look up at his cohort. "You had a nervous breakdown. It happens sometimes. I'd say it was called for." He turned his head to look at Grappler Gouf just then with a questioning expression. "What was it you ran away from? Back when you were a Zako soldier, I mean."

Grappler internally winced. He hadn't planned on telling anyone -- let alone Zapper, a mech who was akin to a sort of enemy as much as an ally -- but he was tempted to now that the subject came up. Finally, he spoke having finally made up his mind. "I wasn't a Zako soldier."

The older squad leader snorted very lightly he looked away again. "Oh, that's right. You were a medic. I had that much figured out already."

Grappler Gouf flashed his optic in surprise. "Really? You… you already knew?"

His maroon warrior chuckled very softly. It was a humored sound, and it inspired a great amount of confidence in Grappler that Zapper was at least feeling better. Before he could contemplate further, the older mech was speaking again. "I'm not that stupid. When Red almost died on us that one day you were in the medical wing… you knew exactly what to do, so I guessed right away that you were a medic before you became an officer instead."

Grappler made another face. "I was always interested in medicine… I was a stupid Zako back then. I still wanted to be a part in what happened in the battlefield, but I didn't know there was a difference between doctors and medics. I always presumed they were the same thing."

"What's the difference?"

"Doctors save lives. Medics only comfort a soldier while they lie there on the ground bleeding and screaming. I had to learn that the hard way," Gouf said. He told Zapper everything. He told about Zako that had his legs blown off by a mine while they invaded that one dimension the Dark Axis was trying to wipe out. He explained how he had been too horrified by the extent of the soldier's injuries to help the injured mech. He elucidated how he ran away instead of doing his job. He told how the little Zako soldier died on the spot and how the event left Grappler shaken so badly that he resigned his hard earned post to apply for an officer position.

Zapper Zaku blew air out of his vents and regarded the other warrior after hearing his horrible past. "So you resigned? What made you want to become an officer?"

"It's easier to kill mechs than it is to save them," Grappler said helplessly.

"But you weren't happy about it. You're still not happy about it."

Grappler sighed deeply and looked downcast sideways to his left. The sharp claws that attached to his hand immediately served as a deadly reminder to what he had become. Whereas he had wanted to safeguard lives, he used those same dagger-like attachments to impale and rip them away instead. It was a thought that disturbed him greatly. He spoke up to clear his morbid thoughts. "I can't go back to being what I wanted to be. It's too late for me to go back."

Zapper Zaku said nothing. Gouf looked up to meet his gaze, but he was met with the other warrior's pink optic regarding him intensely.

Grappler was reminded about what had happened in the three days since their last retreat from Neotopia. Red and Blue had both died in the same day, meaning that there were two casualties that had occurred on the Magna Musai since the last death that occurred ten years prior. To get the subject spotlight off his person, he changed the course of the conversation in that direction. "Ten years ago, a Zako was murdered on the ship. Since I bothered opening up to you, would you do the same for me?"

Zapper Zaku froze. His optic flashed and he looked away. It appeared as if he wasn't inclined to answer but, just as Grappler Gouf was about to give up hope for him, Zapper Zaku spoke up in a tired voice. "He was murdered. That's all there was to it. You already said that Sazabi told you the story."

"He spared me the details."

"Then what did he tell you?"

"You were an officer," Grappler started slowly in a deliberate, coaxing tone, "and you were going to participate in a fight with the second officer who was stationed on the ship to decide who would become the Magna Musai squadron leader. All Sazabi told me was that there was a Zako in the crowd who you had loaned your weapons too. You wanted to fight fair against someone who was from the Dark Axis like you were, so you didn't bring your machine guns to the fight."

Zapper nodded. "Solitary Gyan didn't fight fair like I did. The guy was a bastard. You heard of him?"

"Commander Sazabi told me that was what his name was. It rang a bell, but no. I've never heard of Solitary Gyan before up until he brought him up."

"I killed him."

Grappler snapped to attention. "What?"

Zapper seemingly caught the surprise in Grappler's voice when the cobalt mech registered that his cohort had admitted to murdering another mech, and the older squad leader laughed lightly. "Sazabi covered it up so it looked like he went missing after the battle instead. Solitary Gyan…" Zapper trailed off and his voice shook a little before he resumed. "He was the one who killed the Zako. After he beat me down, the little Zako started cheering me on louder and Solitary heard him. He saw that the kid had my weapons and Gyan taunted him to bring them over to me, except he didn't expect the soldier to be brave enough to actually do it. When he got up to bring my weapons to me, Solitary Gyan got mad and…"

Zapper Zaku, the famous, heartless, stone cold and merciless squadron leader -- without warning -- broke.

Grappler Gouf could only watch in amazement as the warrior's resolve suddenly shattered into thousands of unrecognizable shards of painted glass. Zapper shuddered, his shoulder's shook, and then he shakily reached his hand up to his face and he buried his face against it. His other hand turned into a very tightly clenched fist pressed against the wall. It was obvious he was desperately trying not to break down into tears in front of his younger rival. He wasn't sure when he moved, but then Grappler found that he was standing in front of Zapper Zaku with his hands against his shoulders in a comforting gesture. The maroon warrior's resolve finally caved. He let out a harsh sob from his hissing vents and he shook as if a sudden chill had overcome him.

Gouf comfortingly tried to calm the other mech down. He couldn't bring it upon himself to feel disgusted that he was trying to console a mech that he had absolutely despised earlier in the week. "Except I don't hate him now," he thought halfheartedly. Without even thinking, he moved in front of Zapper, placed his hands on his shoulders, and pressed his forehead to the other squadron leader's in an attempt to reassure him. "You did everything you could for those soldiers. I've seen how you are with them. There was nothing more you could have done, so don't let it drive you insane that you couldn't save them. You did everything you could. You did everything you could…"

"His name was Neon. He was… gods, he was just a kid," Zapper babbled disjointedly in-between sobs. "He was shot dead right in front of me. He died right in front of me."

"Zapper…" Grappler tentatively reached his cawed appendage up to gently tap his sharp digits against the side of his partner's helm.

That seemed to snap Zapper Zaku out of his depressing thoughts. He jolted back into awareness and dropped his hand away from his face to let it fall to his side and brace against the wall behind him. The older warrior regarded Gouf with a mildly surprised, tear filled optic that glowed hotly against the moisture undoubtedly clouding his vision. He looked younger suddenly, almost as though he transported back in time to when he was a Zako himself, and that momentarily muted Grappler's voice box. Gouf flexed his vents with the intention to speak but no words came out. Zapper Zaku momentarily looked accusingly at Grappler Gouf -- this was more than likely because he was trying to regain his dignity after bawling like a sparkling in front of him -- but no words came out when he also flexed his vents to speak.

The corridor was entirely silent. Aside from the familiar buzz of the fluorescent lights above their heads, it was so quiet that Grappler thought it was too loud. The deafening noiselessness of the Magna Musai's corridor around them continued awkwardly until, finally, Grappler moved. He inched his faceplate closer to Zapper without realizing it at first, but he found he wasn't inclined to move away when it occurred to him what he had done. Zapper hesitated briefly before following Grappler's example. Their mouthpieces were centimeters apart and they were practically breathing on each other. Hot air wafted from one mech to another and Grappler found himself inhaling the heated air being expelled from Zapper's body. It made his own body temperature rise and he felt clammy and hot. Part of him wished that they were standing underneath an air conditioner.

Without warning, Zapper Zaku darkened his optic slightly and he and bumped the front of his mouthpiece against Grappler. Warm air caressed his vents. The younger squad leader found he wasn't at all inclined to move away.

"Lord Zaku, Lord Gouf, ANYONE! Somebody, HELP!"

Both squad leaders managed to leap away from one another just in time before a Zako came barreling around the corner. Her voice was shrill enough that Gouf immediately came to the conclusion she was a femme, and the way her vocalizer droned in a high pitch squeak was enough to convince the cobalt squad leader that she was Cyan. Zapper Zaku had seemingly recovered from his earlier fit, although the tears in his optic were still prominent from the way the light reflected off his optical sensor's pink lens. "Cyan! What's wrong? I thought you were in the morgue finishing up!"

She skidded to a halt nearly running into the two squad leaders and she nearly fell forward onto her chest. Grappler reacted quickly and he caught her with a graceful sweep of his arms. He was careful not to damage her with his grappling claws.

Deep down though, Grappler felt his insides twist horribly when he saw the look on her face.

She sounded like she was on the verge of bawling. "Yellow, he… He came into my office and he said he wanted to talk with me. We went out the back way onto the main deck and he started acting really weird before he… He jumped. He jumped right off the side of the Magna Musai, zako!"

It took them four long, grueling hours to find the body.

The Komusai was launched immediately after the news of Yellow's apparent suicide reached Zapper Zaku, and the maroon warrior personally led the rescue mission that followed. Hovering low to the ground and with their optics peeled, Zapper and a squadron of assorted volunteers -- one of whom was Cyan -- searched the planet surface for any traces of the lost Zako. They did not find him, and they had reestablished their altitude when they noticed something glinting in the low light on one of the floating boulders. Upon closer inspection, they found Yellow. He was dead, but there was also some indication of a struggle that suggested that he had not been immediately killed by his fall. It was obvious from the claw marks against the rocky surface that he suffered before his systems completely shut down. The internal bracing that made up his back was shattered and his neck was fractured.

Grappler Gouf had remained on the Magna Musai during the development, but he and the other Zakos onboard the ship knew exactly when the rescue party found the lost mech. Zapper Zaku's scream of anguish could have been heard for miles.

As soon as the Komusai returned and docked with the Magna Musai to unload its passengers, Zapper Zaku had been the first one off. The last time the Komusai had unloaded personnel off from a previous outing, it had been when they had retreated from Neotopia… where Red was diagnosed the PTS syndrome that killed him. The thought greatly unnerved Grappler now that he was watching the Komusai re-dock in that same place again. From what Grappler could see, the maroon warrior looked awful. His optic was glazed as if he was in a daze when he walked off the ship and his hands were clenched tightly and trembling. When Gouf strode over to meet him, Zapper Zaku did not even look up to meet the cobalt squad leader's gaze.

"I want everyone in their quartering halls and I want a headcount of everyone on this ship now." The older mech's voice was uneven.

Grappler Gouf, despite himself, was drastically worried over how distraught Zapper Zaku was. He glanced out of the corner of his vision and felt his fuel tank sputter when he saw Cyan and the group of valiant Zakos who had volunteered for the rescue mission. They were pushing a stretcher covered with a steel wool cloth down the ramp that connected the docked Komusai with the main flagship. Grappler didn't need to be an ex-medic himself to know that Yellow's empty shell was on that same stretcher. He spoke up to address his fellow squad leader almost without knowing it. "That's a little drastic, don't you think? You've had a rough day, Zapper. I think it'd be best if you just went down to your own room and lay down for a little while. Take the rest of the night off--"

Zapper Zaku moved faster than Grappler could react, which was saying something because the cobalt warrior usually had a faster reaction time. The maroon squad leader whipped around and lashed his hands out to grab Grappler by the front of his chassis with enough force to make the light blue colored warrior stagger backwards three or so steps. When he finally recovered, Gouf roughly grabbed Zapper's wrists to try prying him off -- Grappler's immediate presumption was that the older mech was attacking him -- but he stopped himself short when he registered that the other mech's hands were trembling madly. It took him a moment longer to realize that Zapper's head had been ducked and his shoulders were also starting to shudder. Zapper kept his head downcast for a moment longer but, just as abruptly as he had lunged for his younger cohort, he sobbed. His legs gave out underneath him and he collapsed to his knees. He kept his hold on Grappler so that he dragged the other warrior down, but Grappler didn't resist. He fell to his own knees in front of Zapper and he let go of the other warrior's wrists to wrap them tightly around his shoulders. Zapper let go of Grappler's chest and did the same. His embrace was tight and desperate.


Grappler Gouf looked past Zapper Zaku to see that Cyan had addressed him. She looked distant and faraway in the same manner Zapper had, but she seemed to be far more in control of herself. The gurney that had Yellow's shell was behind her and positioned almost eerily. The Zakos who were pushing and gathered around its spindly form kept their heads down in a depressing combination of shame and sadness.

Cyan made a sound in the back of her throat and her voice took on a slightly pitched tone. "What do you want us to do with…?"

Grappler hesitated before speaking up, but only because he wanted to be sure his voice would not falter if he spoke. He took his arm away from its position around Zapper Zaku's shoulders and he pointed towards the main entrance of the ship. "Put him with Red and Blue in the morgue. Then I want you and the other Zakos to go to the barracks immediately. Do a headcount for every Zako on the ship. If anyone's missing, find them. Radio me on my personal communications frequency if you have problems."

"What about tonight's rations?"

Grappler never paused to think about it. "I'll assist with that after the headcount is done. Go."

Cyan did not say or do anything for a moment. Grappler thought that he was going to have to give out orders to her again, but then she nodded and gestured to the other Zakos to push the gurney forward. They did so without speaking. Cyan spared Zapper and Grappler a final glance before she hurried after the Zakos into the ship. They entered and their footfalls grew softer and softer until they could no longer be heard. As soon as they were gone, the Komusai automatically retraced its docking bridge and it took off to reattach itself to the front of the ship. After the sound of the engines firing died away, Grappler found that he was alone with Zapper Zaku still clinging to him. His blubbering had died down in intensity considerably, but the maroon warrior's face was pressed tightly against the crook of Gouf's shoulder.

Grappler sighed and wrapped his free arm around the other warrior again. He tightened his grip and tried to find words to say, but there wasn't anything he could think of.

"Then again," he thought, "a wise mech once told me that some things are better left unsaid."

They stayed in that same position for a very long time.

Cyan's voice was somewhat disheartened sounding. "Thank you for helping us, zako. It would have taken us two trips to get all the provisions if you didn't offer to assist."

He snorted. "Better to get this done as quickly as possible. Zapper Zaku wants everyone to stay in the quartering hall for the rest of the evening after this."

Grappler Gouf had managed to help Zapper Zaku to his feet after ten or so cycles since his return back to the ship, and the cobalt squad leader brought his older counterpart down his personal quarters to take the rest of the evening off. Zapper did not say anything to him during that entire time. After the maroon mech was secure in his own room, Grappler left to go to the common quartering hall where all the Zakos' recharge stations were. It occurred to the mech after five or so cycles of walking that he had never even been in the barrack station for the Magna Musai before, but when he found the entrance and entered it… the young squad leader had to pause and gape at how large it was. Aside from the room used for the Zako Zako Hour and the mining bay below the ship's main levels, it was the most spacious area on the Musai. Embedded in each of the walls were many singular compartments that a single Zako would call their quarters, and the compartments themselves stretched up the wall to the very roof of the room. That was at least seven compartments up, and a Zako would have to climb the ladders embedded in the walls beside the cubicles to reach theirs if it was higher up. Stretching out horizontally, there were at least seventeen, maybe even twenty cubicles inside the walls. It was an impressive sight.

Many Zakos were gathered in different portions of the room in groups, and it took Grappler a moment to figure out why. At the center of each of those groups was a Zako who had stepped up to the plate to take attendance. The one group closest to him had been with Cyan. The group looked very mournful, undoubtedly heard the news that three of their comrades had all died on the same day.

The medic femme looked up from her holographic pad at the crowd around her. She had almost finished taking attendance for her group. "Showdown?"






"Good," she said. She looked down beside her and entered a code onto the pad so it turned a bright green. She lifted it up into the air and held it there. Grappler watched her for a moment longer before he looked out at the other groups of Zakos. All of them had green pads held up into the air except for two -- those two groups hadn't finished attendance to determine as to whether or not anyone was missing -- but then identical green pads were held up at the two of them. He saw Cyan sigh in relief before she lifted up a megaphone and yelped into it. "All right Zakos, listen up. I need ten volunteers to go to the mess hall with me so we can retrieve rations for this evening. Under Lord Zapper Zaku's orders, the rest of you are prohibited to leave here for the rest of the night." She then turned her head and saw Grappler. "Sir! We're just about finished here. I was going to contact you on your personal radio like you said."

Grappler led Cyan's group of ten volunteers to the mess hall where they all got to work leading carts full of rations for the other soldiers. When all the carts were packed with the food necessary, they wheeled the twelve carts of fuel back to the barracks. Due to Grappler being slightly stronger than the average Zakos thanks to his larger body model and superior design, he was able to wheel slightly more than they were able to. When they made it back to the barracks, Cyan gestured to Grappler. "All right, if you want to, you can take those cubicles over there. We have one cube of fuel for every Zako and they're all responsible enough not to take more than their fair share. The Zakos on the higher bunks will come down to you, so don't worry about getting their attention to get their dinner."

The colonel nodded. Before the events that had conspired over the course of the week, he would have never found himself low enough to be reduced to food delivery for the Zakos. Given the circumstances however, he was at least glad that he was given a chance to forget about the amount of death he had seen in the past day. "Of course," he said. He wheeled the cart over to the area Cyan had pointed out. There were several Zakos gathered around chatting -- some of them sitting at the feet of their beds and some of them standing -- but then they immediately ceased their conversing when they saw Grappler Gouf walk over. Some of them nervously shifted from foot to foot and they were obviously very hesitant to approach him for their meals. Undeterred, he approached them instead. Grappler handed the first can of fuel to the Zako sitting on the edge of a bottom bunk directly in front of him. He held it in his hand patiently and the Zako eyed it carefully. The soldier then glanced up to look at him cautiously before taking it gingerly. She spoke up in an apprehensive voice when she drew her arm back with the fuel in hand.

Her voice was scratchy and sounded as though she had inhaled a high amount of helium. "Thank you, zako."

The squad leader dismissively waved his hand. "No problem." He almost turned away to hand cubes out to the other waiting soldiers, but then something alien stopped him. He watched the Zako for a moment as she lifted the can to her mouthpiece to take a tentative swig, although she timidly stopped when she saw Grappler Gouf was watching her. She met his optic and, immediately afterward, they locked gazes. Finally, Grappler shook his head to clear his thoughts and he spoke. "What's your name, soldier?"

She looked up fully. Nervousness flashed behind her optic, but then she spoke up again a moment later. "My name? It's… it's Fireball, sir."

Grappler blinked. "Oh. Well then…" he wasn't sure what else to say. In fact, he couldn't even remember why he had even asked her for her name. As a squad leader he should not have cared less. At least, he shouldn't have. Shaking his head, he handed another canister of fuel to another Zako. It was the mech next to Fireball. He took the canister from him with less nervousness and with a slightly bold air radiating from him, although it was obvious he was intimidated by Grappler Gouf's presence as well. The squad leader almost turned away again, but then he stopped himself again when he had the urge to ask the Zako for his name as well. He turned back to the mech beside Fireball. "What about you?"

The Zako glanced at Fireball before he turned his head to regard Grappler once more. His voice was lower pitched and had a natural stutter. "Sh-Sh-Showdown."

He looked to the next Zako to hand out the next canister but, before he could even grasp exactly what he was doing and how quickly it was happening, he found himself staring face to face with many of the others who were watching him. Instead of looking at him in fear, they were now regarding him with curious, unafraid optics. He found himself handing off the cans of provisions to every one of them and they gave him something back in return.

"The name's Joyride."

"My name is Storm."

"Its Sightsee, but everyone else just calls me Sight, zako. Lord Zapper does anyways…"

"Welder, zako. Second engineer."

"I'm Meta!"


"Ironride, zako zako."

For the few hours that followed, Grappler made it his personal business to remember all their names. Surprisingly, he found that it was time well spent.

Three more days passed since Red, Blue, and Yellow died.

On the fourth day, their "bodies" were shipped away to the Dark Axis fortress so they could be melted down to make more soldiers. Commander Sazabi either never suspected that the metals were faked ores mined from the mining deck or he didn't care. Cyan did a wonderful job faking the death certificate paperwork sent with them. In the meantime, their real bodies -- now nothing more than ashes that were cremated in the high pressure furnaces of the engine room -- were planted underneath the Zako Zako Hour stage by several engineers who opened up a hole in the theater floor to plant the canisters. They made sure to put Red and Blue's canisters side by side before replacing the flooring. The microphones belonging to their respectful hosts, as far as Grappler knew, were planted down beneath the stage with them as well. A plaque was placed on the front of the stage, created by several Zakos who wanted to pay a personal last tribute to the late show hosts. It read:

We are Zako soldiers, and welcome to the Zako Zako Hour.

In loving memory of Red, Blue, and Yellow.

Rest in Peace.

Grappler watched as they installed the plaque from the hidden balcony that Zapper Zaku used to watch the shows from. Sighing, the cobalt warrior left his post and moved through the secret passage to head to his own quarters. That was it. The Zako Zako Hour was finished. After spending as much time as he did with the soldiers in the barracks the evening before, it was a despondent thought that there wouldn't be any more secret meetings of theirs to watch. The mere comprehension of the depressing thought distracted Grappler Gouf enough so that he didn't initially realize that the hallways were barren of Zako soldiers. Oblivious to the fact, the cobalt squadron leader wandered the passages aimlessly for quite sometime before he finally decided to make his way to his own room. He hadn't gotten more than halfway there when, suddenly, two Zakos darted around a corner and nearly trampled him.

Déjà vu struck him. "Hasn't this happened before?" Memories instantly flooded him. He remembered the previous Zako Zako Hour hosts.

He shouted at both of the smaller robots to watch where they were going in as threatening of a tone as possible but, instead of cowering in total fear -- a reaction Grappler was otherwise used to getting while he was a squad leader on other ships -- both Zakos only flinched lightly.

"Sorry sir," one of the two mechs said. He realized it was Cook, the Zako he had met in the medical wing while Red had still been alive. He grabbed his comrade by the wrist and the both of them scurried down the hallway.

The déjà vu was making his head spin.

Grappler Gouf curiously watched the two of them leave, but that same sense of curiosity became overpowering when both Zakos met up with another soldier down the hall. Without even needing to hear her voice, he realized it was the medic Cyan. He guessed for some reason that the other nameless mech was Chef, the one other Zako who was also in the med-bay on the day Red first flat-lined. The three of them conversed briefly in a conversation that couldn't have gone on for more than ten seconds before one of the Zakos glanced nervously over his shoulder at Grappler. Then, just as abruptly as they appeared, the three vanished around the other corner. They immediately appeared to Grappler to be robots who didn't want to be followed.

Grappler hurriedly trailed after the three as they wandered down several hallways. He stumbled over himself several times trying to stay out of sight by hiding around hallway corners and peering over to watch. As they vanished around different pathways, he would quickly dart after them the way they went. He'd successfully managed to tail them through four different corridors when he saw them turn a corner but, when he followed after them and glanced down the way the three soldiers went, he was surprised to see that he was only met with a dead end. The three had seemingly vanished without as much as a trace.

That was when he noticed the faint cheering.

He quickly ran to Zapper Zaku's quarters as fast as his feet could carry him. Zapper Zaku had been locked away in his quarters ever since the deaths of his three soldiers and he had essentially become a hermit within that short period of time. He hadn't been out of his quarters for awhile now but, given the circumstances, Gouf found it to be a wonderful opportunity to break his depressing habit of keeping to himself. Grappler knocked on his door rapidly. "Zapper! Zapper, open up now!"

The automatic lock clicked off behind the door and it hissed open halfway to reveal a slightly haggard Zapper Zaku. The mech in question looked as though he hadn't gotten a moment's worth of sleep, but that much didn't stop Grappler from grabbing his hand and tearing him away from the dark confines of his quarters before the door could fully open. Zapper cried out as he was sharply dragged along corridors by Grappler's prying grip. The maroon warrior yelped and tried to tear himself away with a brief, halfhearted struggle. "What in the name of the smelting pools are you--?”

Grappler ground to a halt, turned sharply, and kissed Zapper on the front of his mouthpiece to get him to put it on mute. It worked. Zapper squeaked in a slightly undignified manner before he melted into the gesture against his own accord. He faltered, staggering sideways and backward into the wall directly him, and he made a feeble whimper in the back of his throat in a show of uncharacteristic submission. Given what the poor mech had gone through during the week however, Grappler honestly couldn't blame him. The cobalt mech pumped warm air into Zapper Zaku's vents as he simultaneously reached his arms up and ran them up the length of the maroon warrior's broad shoulders. Zapper lifted his own arms and wrapped them around his cohort's waist. At least a minute had passed when they finally broke apart.

When Grappler pulled away, he spoke. "Shut up and listen."

They both went quiet.

The cheering of Zakos was quiet, but the sound was still distinguishable as it echoed around them eerily. Zapper Zaku's optic had been dull from their previous embrace, but then it abruptly brightened and widened when he registered exactly what the sound was. He looked just as surprised as Grappler had been. Zapper Zaku never once missed a Zako Zako Hour because he always knew when the rallies themselves started… however, for this instance, it was apparent the show going underway was a complete surprise to him. "Wha…?"

Grappler turned away and snatched Zapper's arm again before continuing to roughly drag him along. "Hurry up!"

They turned down several more hallways before they both reached the location of the secret passage in the wall that led to the private stands which overlooked the secret auditorium. The both of them quickly moved the plating in the wall and they hurried into the darkness before closing the pass behind them. In the still bleakness, the sound of cheers and whooping from a crowd they couldn't see yet was loud. Very loud. Louder than Grappler ever remembered it to be. Either the crowd was larger than usual or the energy from the gathered mass of Zakos was completely psyched for the show about to go on track. More than likely, it was a combination of the both. Zapper Zaku and Grappler Gouf looked to one another for a moment before moving silently through the dark corridor, nearly tripping over one another trying to reach the end of the pass. Before they made it to the end however, Zapper Zaku grabbed Grappler by his shoulder. "Wait."

Grappler turned his head to face him. The pink fluorescent glow of their optics illuminated their forms and, without as much as a warning, Zapper Zaku advanced on Grappler. He pressed is mouthpiece to the other mech's and, unable to bring it upon itself to force his offender away, the cobalt squad leader found it in himself to kiss back.

When they pulled away, Zapper Zaku's voice was hoarse with strain. "No matter what happens…" He dimmed his optic. "…No matter what happens, I refuse to lose anymore soldiers on this crew ever again. I… I need your help to make sure that happens."

Grappler tried to smirk at him, but it turned into a weak smile instead. He didn't need to say anything. They moved apart and further through the hall until they came to the end. The balcony that overlooked the Zako Zako Hour was the same as it had always been. There was still only a single chair but Grappler, having a gut feeling that they would be out overlooking the stage again sometime soon, made a mental note to himself to get another seat for himself directly beside Zapper's.

When they touched down onto the balcony and moved to the edge of the booth to fully oversee what was going on, they found that the stadium was absolutely packed. The crowd of gathered soldiers was wild with ecstatic energy and sound -- there was far more pep in the crowd than previous shows -- but there was also one major difference between this audience and the previous ones. For one, many of the soldiers were holding flashlights or similar light casting beacons. The Zakos wielding them had them aimed high towards the ceiling and the beams of light that illuminated from them danced in the air like flittering spires of rising luminescence. Grappler Gouf came to the abrupt realization that the crowd wasn't just gathered for the Zako Zako Hour. They were all clustered together to pay tribute to the fallen hosts. It was a memorial service, and it was also one of brilliantly epic proportions.

Zapper looked and sounded equally flabbergasted. "What in the Pitt…?" He shakily took a step back, wavered on his feet, and he collapsed onto his skid plate into the single seat directly behind him. The maroon warrior continued to monitor the scene below with a faraway and frazzled expression. He looked lost for words.

Suddenly, a spotlight beamed down at the stage and the projected words "Zako Zako Hour" appeared. It became deathly quiet. For a brief moment, Grappler Gouf was half positive that Red, Blue, and Yellow would be speaking. This was not the case of course. They were dead.



"But their legacy still lives on all the same," Grappler thought.

"…Zako Zako Hour!"

The metallic curtain rose and the three Zakos standing on stage were obviously different mechs… although it was clear that one of them was a femme. Standing in-between the other two new hosts where Red once stood was Cyan. Her microphone had a round and teal colored mouthpiece. To her left, in Yellow's previous place, was a mech with a dark yellow microphone with a triangle shaped top. Then, to Cyan's left in the place that was once claimed by Blue, was another mech with a square maroon mouthpiece on his microphone. Cyan bowed and the other two mechs did as well. Then the femme medic spoke. "Ladies and gentlebots, welcome to today's special edition of the Zako Zako Hour! Today's meeting is all about, all together now!"

All three of them stuck a pose and held the microphones up high when they spoke into them. "Whatever happened to Red, Blue, and Yellow?"

The massive crowd roared and waved their beams of light.

"Zako," the Zako with the maroon colored microphone said. Just by the sound of his voice, Grappler knew it was the Zako he met in the ER when Red flat lined on that first day. Cook turned his head to look at his cohorts and he spoke awkwardly into his microphone. He blatantly wasn't quite sure how close he had to be to speak into it. "It certainly has been an eventful week, hasn't it, Chef?"

The Zako with the muddy hued microphone, Chef, nodded. "It's been a tragic one, zako. If anyone doesn't know what's happened, it's probably because they live under a rock."

"Hey there, I take offense to that," Cyan grumbled. She glanced sideways at both her co-hosts and paused briefly before speaking. Her voice had taken on a dreary tone and it was just barely noticeable that her hands shook while she held her turquoise microphone close to her mouthpiece. "As we all know, the former hosts for the Zako Zako Hour all died very recently, and all within a few sparse megacycles of one another…" She trailed off, her voice miserable sounding.

Cook cut in suddenly, putting his maroon microphone awkwardly close to his own vented mouthpiece to talk. His gratingly obnoxious voice boomed through the loudspeakers slightly louder than what Grappler would willingly consider a comfortable tone, but the cobalt squad leader knew that the younger Zako would get the hang of using the microphone properly sooner or later. "In a freak accident involving Captain Gundam and one of his punches powered by his souldrive, Red was accidentally caught in the line of fire and was severely damaged. Blue, who we all know was closer to Red than anyone, was devastated by it. When Red died, Blue committed suicide by shooting himself in the head."

"Yellow was devastated by deaths of both his friends and he too committed suicide, zako," Chef said. He was also handling his new microphone awkwardly and Grappler could see that the gold microphone was far too close to the Zako's mouthpiece. Chef continued. "Those three were inseparable. When one went down, the other two had to follow. All for one and all for all. Now they're all together again."

"I couldn't have said it better myself, zako," Cyan finished. As if to solidify her statement, she tapped her foot discretely against the stage. She was obviously referring to the fact the ashes of the former hosts were stored directly beneath her. As for whether all of Zakos in the audience were aware of that however, Grappler was almost entirely sure.

Cook quickly brought it upon himself to change the subject. "If this wasn't a tragedy enough, their deaths are the first recorded casualties on the Magna Musai in nearly ten years! That's a long time, zako. How come no one else died within that span of time?"

"And who was the last death on the ship other than Red, Blue, and Yellow?" Chef's voice was inquisitive.

Grappler could hear Zapper shift uncomfortably in his seat. Regardless, the both of them continued to wordlessly watch.

Cyan sighed. "Well, I can explain that, zako. I may not be the oldest Zako on the ship, but I've had the honor of having been stationed here on the Magna Musai for the longest. In fact, I was on this ship when it was first launched upon its indictment into the Dark Axis invasion fleet as the head vessel. It was just a small skeleton crew back then."

Cook was looking at her questioningly. "Really? That was a long time ago! What was it like back then?"

Cyan scoffed. "Quieter. That's as much as I can say, really. On top of that, there was actually a fully staffed medical wing too. We had medics, nurses, doctors, and even a few surgeons crawling all over the place, yours truly included."

"But then why did they all leave?" That was Chef.

Cyan threw her arms into the air. "I'm getting to that, zako!" She glanced from co-host to co-host and, upon seeing that neither Chef nor Cook were about to interrupt her, she resumed. "Back then in those days, we didn't have a squad leader yet. We had two officers stationed onboard instead. One of them, of course, was Officer Zapper Zaku. He was like a big brotherly figure to us Zakos, and some of us were even willing to consider him to be a father figure, myself included," she said with a stiff shake of her head. "The mech is a hero in his own way. He may not realize it, but Zapper Zaku is one of the main reasons Red didn't die within the first ten minutes of his initial collapse returning from that failed mission. Without him, Red wouldn't have had a halfway decent shot of surviving at all."

"Really?" That was both Chef and Cook.

Cyan was nodding. "Zako." She suddenly gestured to the screen behind her and an image appeared.

Behind him, Grappler heard Zapper audibly choke up.

Grappler himself was speechless. On the monitor was a picture of Zapper Zako kneeling and starting to haul Red's battered body into his arms just before the maroon warrior was to carry the damaged Zako off the medical wing. One of the other soldiers must have snapped a picture at the time the photograph was taken. Regardless, Cyan began to speak again. "Who can forget Lord Zapper's efforts in originally trying to save Red? Not only did he immediately come to our fellow damaged Zako's aid, but no doubt it was because of him that Red lasted as long as he did. If not for his quick thinking getting him down to the officer level medical wing that was closer instead of the grunt level wing further away, Red would have died within cycles. Zapper Zaku assured that Red got all the medical treatment he could have asked for. Finally, it was because of him that Red didn't suffer when he finally passed on."

Cook cut in. "Even when Blue tried to kill himself, Zapper made every effort possible to save his life as well, zako."

"He even led the rescue mission for Yellow," Chef offered.

"That's not all he's done for us Zakos. Remember when Zapper Zaku first became a squad leader? When he fought against the other officer also stationed onboard the Magna Musai, Solitary Gyan? You two do remember what happened then don't you?" Cyan asked, her voice clinical as she glanced back and forth between Cook and Chef with a critical look.

Grappler remembered Commander Sazabi bringing the subject up during their previous meeting. With a mental note too, he also recalled that Zapper had brought it up just after Blue died. If anything though, the cobalt squad leader was surprised that the Zakos remembered the event at all. Grappler glanced back in Zapper's direction to try seeing the look on the maroon warrior's face. Zapper Zaku was leaning forward now, a hand placed firmly over his vented mouthpiece, and the younger squad leader swore that the older warrior looked almost as if he was going to cry. Zapper Zaku was visibly shaking in the dim light of the theater.

Cook and Chef both looked clueless though. They seemed dumbfounded.

Cyan glanced at the both of them, once at Chef to her left and once back to Cook at her right. "…Oh come on now, zako! Surely you remember that!"

"Sorry, but I don't remember anything about a Solitary Gyan," Chef said sheepishly.

Cook nodded. "We haven't been stationed here for too long," he admitted with an inward sigh.

Cyan snapped to attention with this. "Oh right! Sorry boys, my memory must have slipped me!" She glanced at the two co-hosts again before she looked back out towards the audience and resumed. At the same time, the image of Zapper Zaku appeared on the screen behind her. "As a few of us who have been stationed long enough on the Magna Musai to remember, Zapper Zaku was once a low ranking officer in charge of keeping us in order. Unlike most officers though, he was more of a guardian to us Zakos. He resolved arguments, helped with duties around the Magna Musai when needed, and, smelt, he even had lunch break with us Zakos… Pitt, he had all his meals with us. He still does!"

"Really?" Cook's voice had taken on a less obnoxious tone and was more curious than anything else. His optic flashed. "I didn't know that about Lord Zapper… Well, except for the last part. I knew that. I just didn't realize that he did all those things."

"Well, he wasn't a Lord just yet," Cyan said. "He didn't have his commander fin. Without it, his rank couldn't have been considered any higher than the officer position, zako."

At the same time, the image of Zapper Zaku with his commander fin on the screen behind the three Zakos changed. Then the commander fin faded away courteous of a digital manipulation effect. Beside him, Grappler swore that he heard Zapper stifle an inward gasp. In turn, Grappler Gouf also couldn't help but to gape. Without his commander fin, Zapper Zaku looked so much less… Intimidating? Was that it? Grappler honestly couldn't find a word to fit the situation.

Cook and Chef glanced behind them, whistling. "Wow! So then how did he get his commander fin?"

Cyan sighed. "Well, that was when Solitary Gyan came into the picture. He was the second officer stationed onboard the Magna Musai, but his reputation was far less benevolent in the manner Zapper Zaku's was. I'll be brutally honest, the guy was a total jerk. He used to shove us Zakos around and treat us like slag," the femme said with a light growl. "He and Zapper Zaku were at the same rank looking for their promotions at the same exact time. Dark Axis tradition said and still says that you have to let them fight for the title of squadron leader. Unfortunately, Solitary Gyan happened to be a top class cheater. Zapper Zaku thought he would have no problem defeating him…"

"But Zapper Zaku fights fair, doesn't he? Obviously not against Gundams, but against other members of the Dark Axis," Chef interrupted.

Cook nodded. "Right, zako."

"Would you two let me finish?" Cyan sounded somewhat aggravated. When neither Cook nor Chef said anything further, she resumed. "Like I was saying, Zapper Zaku thought he would have no problem defeating Gyan, so he really wasn't concerned. On his way to the battlefield, fate had it so that he found two Zakos squabbling. If he didn't accidentally run into that one Zako who was in the fight… well, I can guarantee that Solitary Gyan would be our current squadron leader right now, zako. After he broke up the fight, he had a brief conversation with the young Zako whom the other blamed the fight being started by. He was a little guy, a spark born runt -- he was one of the last few Zakos created by parental units who was born in a factory like the rest of us -- who had a definite case of hero worship for our Zapper Zaku. His name was Neon."

Another image appeared on the screen. It showed Zapper Zako actually breaking up the fight that Cyan mentioned beforehand. Both of the Zako soldiers looked momentarily terrified seeing Zapper Zaku's far larger bulk looming over them, but the expression on the maroon warrior's face was… friendly. It would have unnerved Grappler Gouf to the point of being sick if the mood of the situation wasn't so serious. Beside him, the cobalt squad leader swore that he heard Zapper stifle a small sob.

Cyan lightly muttered something about the photograph taking forever to find. She went ignored.

Cook shuddered. "Wow. I don't blame them for looking scared, zako."

"He was only trying to break up the fight, zako!" Cyan's voice was protective in, what Grappler thought, was a motherly fashion. "It was only because he was bigger than the two of them."

Chef nodded. "Zako."

"So, after everyone was gathered for the big fight, the rules were announced that weapons would not be allowed. Zapper Zaku asked Neon to hold onto his machine guns for the fight's duration subsequent of this. As some of us who were here long enough to remember, that particular soldier was very young and well, for a lacking of better terms, definitely an embarrassment to us Zakos when it came to courage. The Gundams might think that we're pathetic, but we were hardcore warriors in comparison to little Neon. The poor bastard would turn screaming and crying if you even showed him a picture of something organic. That's how bad off he was," the femme said. Cyan shook her head. "It's horrible to think that he's… gone. It was so long ago. He was such a pipsqueak that he couldn't stand up for himself. You could imagine how honored and scared out of his wits he was when Zapper Zaku loaned him his weapons. So, just as everyone was in their positions to either watch the fight or participate, Commander Sazabi gave the signal for the battle to begin."

"I'm shaking just trying to imagine how brutal it must've been!" Chef's voice boomed through the loudspeaker and there was a slight screech from the sound reverberating from the sound conflict the speakers had with the microphone, but it was otherwise ignored.

"It was. I know because I was there watching," Cyan said. At this moment, an image of a crowd of Zako soldiers sitting in bleachers and watching an unseen battle appeared. Somewhat cut off from the screen was a Zako circled with a blinking yellow sphere. The only part of Cyan that was plainly visible was the upper part of her helmet.

"I can see you were very photogenic," Cook said in an offhand tone. Cyan scowled darkly at him in response to his jibe. Cook immediately shut up afterward.

Cyan glared at him for a moment longer before looking away. "So, just as the fight started to really kick off -- Zapper Zaku was winning, by the way -- Solitary Gyan began to cheat using unfair fighting tactics. How in the Pitt that son of a glitch managed to hide a flamethrower on his person, I have no idea. Zapper still would have been able to top him easily regardless, but he didn't have his own weapons. Zapper was outgunned and outmatched, especially when Solitary brought out his shield rocket launcher."

"But wait a second!" Chef threw his arms into the air. "Commander Sazabi was watching over the fight wasn't he! Why didn't he stop the fight seeing that Gyan was obviously cheating!" Cook and Cyan stared at him with dull, deadpan optics. It took Chef a moment to realize how stupid he just sounded. Sheepishly, he rubbed the back of his head. "…Oh yeah. The Commander could have cared less, right? My bad…"

"…Anyways, Poor Zapper Zaku began to lose. Just as he was nearly beat, Solitary Gyan started to taunt him." Cyan made a weird motion with her wrist by rotating it in an articulate and considerate gesture. She looked thoughtful. "The damn bastard was thinking so high of himself that he took it upon himself to beat Zapper mentally just as he had physically. He told Zapper that he might have been able to defeat him if he had his weapons, and that was when he heard Neon cheering his hero on in the crowd. Solitary saw the Zako in the bleachers that had Zapper Zaku's guns. Neon was sitting in the front row, the poor little bugger. Solitary jokingly taunted the Zako when he saw him and dared him to bring the weapons over to Zapper Zaku."

Behind Grappler, the teal mech could feel in the air that Zapper tightly tensed.

Cook shuddered. "That's a scary position to be put into. We Zakos can be very skittish by nature, so it wouldn't be a surprise if the Zako just turned and bolted."

"But he didn't," Cyan said slowly.

Cook and Chef watched her intently. When she said nothing right away, they both threw their hands in the air and asked for her to continue.

"So, what happened?!"

"Did he freeze up and stay there?!"

"I think we all know the answer to that, zako," Cyan said with an almost sad tone. She looked up towards the crowd with a steadily bright optic and she scanned the crowd as if trying to meet the eye of every Zako in the room. "My fellow comrades, because I believe that this is very important, I will show you this clip. For those of you who are easily upset or just plain squeamish, I suggest you look away right now. The following footage is extremely graphic and I had to go to great lengths to get my hands on it. I won't lie to you, it's not pretty. Neither is the audio, zako. You might want to mute your receptors too."

Cook and Chef suddenly looked nervous. Quickly, Cook leaned close to Cyan to whisper something to her. He covered a hand over his microphone so the sound wouldn't carry, but he hadn't accounted for the fact that Cyan's microphone wasn't covered. What he said to her was plainly audible through the stadium from the speakers. "Cyan, you said we weren't going to show that video recording."

Cyan looked over her shoulder at him. "I thought about it and changed my mind, zako. This is significant, Cook."

Chef turned away. "I'm not gonna look, zako."

Behind him, Grappler heard Zapper start to rapidly mutter to himself. "Oh please gods, please don't let them show that footage…" Grappler Gouf heard the chair scraping against the ground, which was an immediate indication to the cobalt squad leader that Zapper Zaku had roughly stood up from his seat. Grappler turned and saw Zapper quickly walking away towards the exit of the secret booth that led back into the main portion of the ship. He was intent on leaving.

"Oh no you don't…" Gouf muttered to himself. He called out softly in a stern tone of voice to the other warrior. "Zapper, wait."

Zapper ground to an inflexible halt. He stood stiffly in place and he began to tremble lightly. "I can't stay here, Grappler."

"Yes you can," Grappler said. He took a step toward Zapper. "Yes you can, Zapper. Whatever it was that happened, you need to remember it. Keeping it locked away inside you only made you more miserable than you would have if you had just acknowledged that it happened. Memories ease the pain. I should know, Zapper. I do know. I kept my memories of when I was a medic locked away and I was unhappy. Now that I've finally acknowledged them, I was finally able to get over it and move on. I worked for me and it can work for you. It will. Please…" he took another step towards Zapper and he held his hand out. "Whatever it is that they're going to show, watch it. Remember. Do it for Red, Blue, and Yellow. Do it for the Zako who died ten years ago… for Neon."

Zapper Zaku did not move. His shoulders shook and Grappler Gouf thought he heard the older mech stifle a small sob. Finally, behind them, the stadium went dark and an alien light washed over them. Audio of chattering Zakos rose over the now quiet audience. The film had already started rolling.

Grappler's voice dropped so that it was barely above a whisper. "Do it. Trust me. I'll be here with you. I'll catch you if you fall."

It took a moment longer before Zapper turned around. His optic was dark with his misery, but he turned to watch the film regardless.

Gouf turned to look as well.

On the screen, there was suddenly a loud crash and, past the heads of some Zakos partially blocking the sights of the camera, the somewhat familiar form of Zapper Zaku lay half crumpled in a battered heap of maroon metal. He was lacking his squadron leader commander fin but, for what he was missing, the amount of damage embedded against his own person made up for it. He was marred with nicks, dents, and fire burns that made him look considerably beaten. The physical toll was obvious as well. Zapper Zaku's younger avatar on the film was struggling valiantly to stand. This was to no avail however, as he only collapsed again from his lack of strength.

Someone in the audience shouted. "Come on, get up! You can still beat that jerk! Don't let 'em win, don't give up!"

A sneering voice rose over it. "Ha! Please, he's already lost. Isn't that right, chap?" That voice had come from somewhere off the screen. Suddenly, the camera rose over the level of the heads of the Zako soldiers who had been previously blocking some of its view. Now entirely void of their distracting presence, the camera had the freedom to swivel about and lock its aim on a white colored mech sauntering towards Zapper Zaku. He was wielding a shield rocket launcher that was still smoking from the previous shots it had fired. Solitary Gyan appeared to be a figure of superiority and charisma, but the malevolent and deceitful look shining within his optic contradicted his apparent character. Grappler imagined that the warrior was cruel to the Zakos in the way that Zapper Zaku wasn't. Breaking his train of thought, Solitary Gyan stopped and beamed mockingly down at Zapper. "Well, do you want to prove me wrong? Get up and fight!"

Zapper was still struggling. From Grappler's perspective -- both from common sense and his medical training -- it looked as though he had broken his wrist. Maybe he had a fractured arm. Unable to support his weight on it, he collapsed again and lay there panting heavily from effort. Regardless of this, the warrior still had the strength to speak. His voice was somewhat muffled, though the determined resolve shining within it was not. "I'm not… I'm not through yet! I'm not giving up!"

This earned several satisfied cheers from the Zakos in the stand, as well as the Zakos in the crowd for the Zako Zako Hour. They were rooting valiantly for their hero despite the odds stacked against him. At that point, it was blatant Zapper was more than likely going to lose.

Solitary laughed condescendingly. "Please, I've seen half dead Zakos more battle prepped than you. What's the matter, no match for me without your weapons? Pity. I would have at least thought that you would put up a good fight."

Someone in the audience shouted again. "Cheater! You god damn cheater! You're only winning because you fight dirty, you filthy cheater!"

Solitary Gyan looked to the crowd of onlookers with a harsh glare shining within his optic. It might have just been the camera settings malfunctioning, but Grappler swore that his optic was bright crimson instead of the standard pinkish light red given to most officers. That greatly unnerved the teal cobalt squadron leader. Solitary Gyan suddenly looked back towards Zapper. "I wonder where you put your machine guns. I would have certainly liked to have faced a half decent opponent."

Suddenly, from within the audience, a young voice rose up louder than the rest of the yelling Zakos. "Don't give up Zapper! You can do it! I BELIEVE IN YOU!"

Solitary Gyan's optic suddenly swept over the crowd again.

That was when his optic seemed to lock onto something. He pointed a finger towards the crowd. "You there! The small one! What's that your holding… are those Zapper's weapons? My, how thoughtful of you, little one! You do seem small for a standard Zako soldier though. Are you a runt, perhaps? Oh look, you're shivering now! How delightful! Why, how about you run those weapons back to your master like the little puppy you are? Don't be shy, I won't bite… much."

Zapper's young film avatar was managing to sit up from his place on the ground. He was looking in the same direction Solitary Gyan and his optic was wide in mild terror.

The camera's aim changed and it angled downward. Whoever was videotaping was in the top row, so that had a very decent shot of the bottom row where a small Zako soldier was sitting with Zapper Zaku's machine guns in his lap. He looked timid and he was shaking very lightly, his head swiveling around in all directions as his optic darted from person to person looking for an answer as to what to do. He was obviously afraid…

Suddenly, Neon leapt up and bolted, with the two machine guns at hand. "ZAPPER SEMPAI!"

Solitary Gyan's expression dropped and the Zakos in the crowd went wild with outcries and cheers of support. The same went for the audience watching in the Zako Zako Hour. The booming whoop of uncontrolled cheering must have certainly alerted Commander Sazabi from his own office on the other side of the Magna Musai, because it became just that loud. Several of the Zakos on the stands in the film stood up to cheer the little mech on as he ran for Zapper to bring him his weapons. Zapper Zaku, from where he lay, looked amazed as well. The little Zako was certainly courageous.

Suddenly, Solitary Gyan went from tauntingly haughty to furiously enraged. "You insolent little…" he raised his rocket launcher.

The crowd suddenly went from cheering to screaming. The terror in their voices was prominent. Screams of horror rose over the crowd of the Zako Zako Hour as well. Grappler Gouf thought that Commander Sazabi, if he was hearing their shrieks from his office, would have thought there was a mass murder of all his troops taking place.

Zapper Zaku's avatar in the film suddenly jolted to attention and screamed. "NO! NEON!"

The blast of the rocket launcher firing tore through the speakers and echoed in the Zako Zako Hour stadium like a cymbal being clapped beside everyone's audio receptor. On the screen, the rocket ripped through the air and slammed into Neon's back before exploding. Shrapnel was sent soaring everywhere and the flash of light that erupted forward momentarily blinded the camera's focus, which caused the entire Zako Zako Hour auditorium to light up as if the Allspark itself had materialized within the theater at that very moment. Even the audio momentarily faltered, leaving Grappler Gouf's audios ringing almost painfully as silence momentarily ensued. The visual and audio feedback resumed a second later though, but the sight that they were met with on the screen wasn't pretty. Oil and coolant spattered onto the ground in the clip as if someone had dumped an entire bucket's worth of it onto the deck of the ship, and the mangled looking Zako that was once Neon went down like a ton of bricks. He landed face first on the ground and lay unmoving. One of the machine guns was still tucked underneath his arm, but the other went spinning away out of his grasp. The astray gun moved a dozen or so feet away, stopped spinning, and finally went as still.

The entire Zako Zako Hour stadium was eerily silent. In the film however, there were so many voices shouting in the bleachers that Grappler couldn't identify whether or not it was one mech or several. "MURDEREER! Solitary Gyan is a MURDERER! Neon's dead! He killed NEON! Oh gods, somebody call up the medics! Is he dead?! Oh gods, is he dead?! I think he's dead, zako! HE'S DEAD, ZAKO!"

Except Neon wasn't dead, because then he moved.

Silence ensued immediately. Solitary Gyan, now frozen in place from shock, could only watch in horror with everyone else as the Zako slowly, slowly moved. He managed to look up with his optic stained with agonized tears and, using his only partially working, burned and mangled arm, he began to drag himself along the ground while limply holding onto the machine gun he still had. He edged his way closer to Zapper -- who was watching the Zako approach with absolute horror shining within his optic -- before he was just a foot away from him. The little Zako suddenly stopped dragging himself and looked up at Zapper before he shuddered harshly and laid his head on the ground weakly. Then he went as still as death and was gone. The limp arm that he had been using to cling to the machine gun was still wrapped around the weapon protectively.

Zapper Zaku cried out in anguish before sitting up and immediately cradling the broken body with complete disregard for the weapon the empty shell was holding. He was screaming and sobbing uncontrollably. It was heart wrenching. Finally after what felt like a very long time, Zapper looked up from the corpse straight at Solitary Gyan. The look that glowed within Zapper's optic was absolutely murderous with pure, unrestrained homicidal intent. Slowly and without removing his fiery gaze from the mech who killed one of his beloved Zakos, Zapper gently set down the distorted body of his friend reached over to pick up the machine gun that had been delivered to him. He stood slowly before advancing forward. He never removed his hateful glare even when he knelt to retrieve the other machine gun.

The gloves were off.

Solitary Gyan, seeing that Zapper Zaku was now fully armed and pissed, began to nervously back away. "Now now, there. Let's not get hasty, shall we? Can't we talk this over in a civil manner? How about you put those down and I'll disarm myself as well? Then we can have a nice clean--”

Zapper Zaku went completely postal. Without waiting for as much as the other mech to arm himself, Zapper clicked the safety off both weapons and he showered the other mech in a hail of bullets. The camera zoomed in on his face as Solitary's screams of pain rose over the sound of the gun's rapid firing. It was apparent that Zapper Zaku was now fully intent on the kill regardless as to whether or not he fought fair like he had originally set out to do. Just then, the camera zoomed back over to Neon's fallen form crumpled on the ground like a fragile, broken

It suddenly occurred to Grappler just how much he looked like Red.

The screen suddenly went dark and the lighting returned to normal.

Grappler Gouf slowly turned his head to look at Zapper Zaku. The older mech was sitting slumped in his seat again. He looked about ready to bawl.

The rest of the room was silent. Even Cook and Chef looked lost for words. Cyan was the very first to speak. "Solitary Gyan was rushed to the emergency wing of the medical lab after that. In the reports that were filed by the head doctor, they claim that Solitary Gyan survived and recovered before mysteriously disappearing prior to being relocated to another Musai. Well, being a medic myself and having been present to witness the battle that day, I can tell you right now that that's bogus. Zapper Zaku murdered Solitary Gyan, although Lord Zapper did so for a justified cause. A life for a life, as they always say. They did a lovely job covering up the murder too. This ship is certainly full of conspiracies." She tapped her foot discretely on the stage again. Grappler was positive now that she was referring to the late hosts being planted underneath.

"Poor Neon," Cook said. He looked badly shaken, although he did a magnificent job keeping that from showing in his voice. He turned to face Cyan. "What happened after that?"

"Neon was dead," Cyan said. "I was one of the medics who examined him. The head doctor pronounced him as terminated as soon as we got to him. It was awful. You could see that he had obviously been in agony…" her voice suddenly faltered, but she quickly recovered and resumed. "Despite that, he never gave up. Never. Had he lived past that tragic day, I have no doubts in my mind that he would have eventually become a squad leader just like Zapper Zaku. Speaking of him… you can show yourself now." She held her microphone towards the audience.

Surprise and confusion surged through the crowd. Heads turned and a great bout of murmuring began. At the same time, Grappler Gouf snapped to attention. Up until then, he had always presumed that the Zakos were always unaware that Zapper never watched the shows. Judging by the way Zapper snapped to attention beside him, the teal squad leader realized that Zapper Zaku had thought the same.

Cyan put her microphone back to her mouthpiece. "I know you're listening, sir. Back when he was still alive, Red told me that you were the one who first authorized the Zako Zako Hour to begin with. I'm not sure why you wanted it to be kept a secret that you watched it, though. Sir, for everything you've done for us and for everything you've done for Red, Blue, Yellow, and Neon, we need to thank you. They may not be able to give their regards like I'm sure they would have, but we want to. In their memory, it's the least we can do." She held her microphone towards the audience again.

Now the crowd went silent. They were all waiting.

Beside him, Zapper Zaku looked up at Grappler Gouf questioningly.

Grappler looked down where Zapper was sitting and he smiled very lightly. "I'll catch you if you fall."

That was enough to convince him.

Zapper stood firmly before walking to the edge of the balcony. The railing was made of solid metal and about a solid two feet wide, so there was enough room for him to haul himself up onto the ledge and stand without teetering. Seeing Zapper up there made Grappler somewhat nervous but, then again, he had promised to catch Zapper if he fell… Gouf walked up behind Zapper Zaku and stood off to his side to continue overlooking the crowd. Zapper seemed to hesitate before he cupped his hands to his mouthpiece and spoke loudly. "…Hey! I'm right here!"

As soon as he spoke, spotlights immediately trained over him where the Zakos responsible for aiming them at the main stage heard his call. As soon as the light was pitted at him, the Zakos down in the audience looked toward him. Everyone was still and quiet. Grappler could see their optics -- some of them brimmed with tears but all of them with respect -- glowing brilliantly in the dark theater like beacons of hope. Someone started clapping. Then another. No more than three split clicks later, the audience had erupted into applause and cheering. Even as the applause rose, Grappler Gouf grinned and watched as Zapper stood to face the rest of the Zako soldiers. The maroon warrior's head was held high and his fists were clenched.

On the large widescreen behind the three new hosts, a group photo of the original three appeared. It was of Red, Blue, and Yellow. The three of them were standing very close together with their arms wrapped around one another's shoulders and wild grins of ecstatic joy on their faces. In their hands were their microphones -- very much brand-new looking -- and Grappler Gouf could only imagine that the photograph was taken after their very first Zako Zako Hour show. Slightly faded in the background -- obviously photoshopped -- and poised over the three hosts was a ghostly, happy go-lucky image of Neon.

Cyan, Cook, and Chef suddenly cried out in perfect unison from the front of the auditorium just a split click before the stage curtain fell. "For the future of the Dark Axis, Zako soldiers fight!"

At that moment, Grappler Gouf finally realized something. In memory, remembering helped ease both his and Zapper Zaku's pain inside.

Now he knew why.