Bazyan Mokri still couldn’t believe that this was happening. He hadn’t believed it when his request to write his thesis on one of the 24th-century Gundam Meisters was approved. He hadn’t believed it when his thesis advisor had said he’d be able to get access to primary sources. And he still didn’t believe it now that he was sitting at a computer equipped with a direct link to Veda.
Bazyan was six, maybe seven, when he first got fascinated with the Gundam pilots. His grandparents were the ones who showed him that old, grossly inaccurate movie—his parents later deemed it too violent, but also they honestly wouldn’t have thought to show their child something so old, especially not when it was common knowledge that the movie got most of the facts wrong.
But there had been something about it. The colors, the music, the tingly feeling he got in his chest during some of the speeches…once his grandparents explained it was based on real events, Bazyan had to know more.
That had been the tipping point for his interest in history.
And now he was here.
There wasn’t a lot of easily accessible scholarship about the Gundam pilots. Even now, most of it was still classified. The easiest to research were the two pilots who had used the codename Lockon Stratos, Neil and Lyle Dylandy. Lyle worked with Katharon before joining Celestial Being, and had a life after the war as well; he talked to reporters and interviewers occasionally, and even wrote a memoir. Neil, meanwhile, was well beloved of the rest of Celestial Being, and apparently their favorite thing to discuss with reporters, especially when they didn’t want to discuss themselves. But Allelujah Haptism had apparently vanished after the war, unwilling to play any public role in peacetime and uninterested in leaving a legacy. And while multiple interviews with Celestial Being members confirmed that Tieria Erde had remained with Celestial Being, he himself had left nothing that wasn’t classified behind. There weren’t even pictures of Allelujah or Tieria, unless the other Celestial Being members had passed them off as Krung Thep technicians in the pictures they’d allowed to be archived or published.
It was Setsuna F. Seiei, however, whose case was most interesting to Bazyan. His later life was incredibly well-documented. As the first Innovade, he’d been the subject of a fair bit of scientific study and a few papers. While a fully unclassified version of the logs from his trip to the ELS homeworld had not been released, the speed and course of the trip and certain sections of the logs were also available for study. And of course large parts of his return home and his meetings with various officials had been recorded. He’d also written reports and proposals that were public record. But none of what he’d written concerned the war, or his part in it, except in the vaguest and most ideological terms. He spoke broadly of “cutting off the cycle of revenge” and “ending the twistedness in the world” but never did more than allude to his part in bringing about the peace that followed the Armed Intervention Wars. Celestial Being’s members spoke about what he’d done, occasionally, but they were always frustratingly vague.
However, Seiei did, in one of his reports, sign not as Setsuna F. Seiei, but as Soran Ibrahim. Which was a hook. Bazyan was betting that he could use that name to find at least something of the person Seiei had been before he’d found Celestial Being, or Celestial Being had found him. Bazyan’s thesis proposal had rested mostly on his ability to sort through massive amounts of old census data for what was a pretty common name back then, and come up with some theories about where Seiei might have come from.
But Veda was a whole other story…Veda might contain personnel files, and mission logs. Unless people had deleted them.
Would someone actually do that? Bazyan thought, rather aghast.
So, here was his chance. He was a no-name grad student from a university in the back end of Azadistan, but if he could establish himself in the field of the Armed Intervention Wars, he might actually be able to prove to his parents that grad school wasn’t a ridiculous waste of time.
He just had to navigate the most important supercomputer in the world without stumbling onto anything classified enough to get him killed, first.
He poked, gingerly, at the holo-screen, to wake the device.
“I take it you’ve gathered your nerve?” a deep, imperious voice asked, as the screen dissolved, and the scattered pixels coalesced into a small hologram of a person with bobbed violet hair and glasses. It was dressed in a frumpy sweater, a dress shirt, and slacks, and had its arms crossed over their chest.
Bazyan yelped and jumped back, sending the wheeled chair he was sitting in rolling backward, which he felt was a sensible response.
“So much for that,” the little hologram sighed. “Hello, Bazyan. You said you wanted access to Veda, yes?”
Bazyan cautiously scooted back toward the desk. “Yes.”
“Well?” the hologram said, impatient.
“You’re Veda?” Bazyan asked. Then blinked. “I didn’t know Veda was an AI!”
“I’m not,” the hologram said. “It would be more accurate to say that I’m an intelligence stored within Veda’s mainframe, but as I’m the only sentient intelligence within Veda, it’s simpler to just say I’m Veda itself.”
“How did that happen?” Bazyan asked.
“Are all academics so nosy?” the hologram sneered. “I’m not the one you requested information about, if you’ll recall.”
“No, right, right!” Bazyan exclaimed. “I know some of it must be classified, but what information am I allowed to have on Setsuna F. Seiei?”
“I’ve prepared a number of files,” the hologram said, and just like that, there were plain manila folders tucked under the crook of its arm. “Do you have a tablet device or something similar with you?”
Bazyan nodded, and took it out.
The hologram held up a file. “Here are some photographs,” it said, and the folder dissolved into pixels. “Here are parts of Marina Ismail’s writings that we classified.” Another folder dissolved. “And here are the mission logs you and your fellow researchers keep requesting.”
Bazyan stared at his tablet, wide-eyed. “Just like that?”
“We’ve run a thorough background check on you, Mr. Mokri,” the hologram said. “We believe you can be trusted with this. Don’t disappoint us.”
“Why were these parts of Marina Ismail’s writings classified?” Bazyan asked, before he could quite stop himself. It wasn’t like this mind living in Veda would necessarily know, but he was curious.
“They concerned an aspect of Setsuna F. Seiei’s personal data that we believed had the potential to become controversial to a destabilizing degree,” the hologram said.
Bazyan frowned, mind working fast. “What would that even be? The Gundam Meisters ended up popular enough for their part in dismantling the A-Law regime and dealing with the ELS situation that even the massive damage and casualties of the initial armed intervention campaign was all but forgotten by the general public. Compared to that, what about him as a person—”
The hologram’s smile was tight. “His age. He was 16 during what you historians are calling the First Armed Intervention War. Moreover, he was 10 when he was added to the pool of potential Gundam pilot candidates, and 14 when he was formally selected.”
Bazyan stared, aware that his jaw was hanging slack. No way….the man who played him in the movies was like 25; none of the Celestial Being members ever said anything…though, come to think of it, Feldt Grace was probably about his age…but she wasn’t piloting a mobile suit!
“How aware are you, exactly, of the ways in which the origin of the A-Laws and Celestial Being are…interrelated?” the hologram asked, almost delicately. “I ask this, because it will help contextualize some of what I am about to tell you.”
“I know there’s a theory that the people at the very top of the A-Laws were…ex-Celestial Being, in some way? There’s a lot of disagreement.”
The hologram nodded. “Accurate, if undetailed. And to be fair, those people were as convinced as we were that they were being true to Aeolia Shenberg’s ideas.” He paused. “Setsuna’s recruitment was handled by one of those people, before they left the organization.”
“So that’s why they picked up a ten-year-old?” Bazyan asked.
“That’s why they took a ten-year-old child soldier off of a battlefield and put him into a position to keep fighting,” the hologram corrected gently. “Setsuna was picked up by a mercenary when he was 8 and recruited into what amounted to a small terrorist cell made up entirely of children, called the KPSA.”
“The same KPSA as…” Bazyan choked. Everyone who studied the Armed Intervention Wars knew that name, from Dylandy’s memoirs, but he had to be certain.
“The very same,” the hologram said with a nod.
“That’s…” Bazyan choked on the words. Then, thought about it. “They wouldn’t have known at first, because of that policy against discussing their pasts. Did Neil even find out, or was it just Lyle?”
“No, Neil found out,” the hologram said, sounding amused. “It was…memorable.”
“Were you there?” Bazyan asked. “Can I use you as a primary source?”
“Yes, I was, but if you want to use me as a primary source, you’ll need a name.” The hologram didn’t provide one, and the smile on his face all but said, and you’ll have to guess.
Bazyan could feel his face fall. “But—you could be anyone, all I know is what you look like!”
“You know more than that,” the hologram said. “But I’ll give you two hints. One, when I said my intelligence was stored in Veda, I mean it was uploaded directly. And two, you’ve seen me before.”
“How do you know that?” Bazyan asked.
“The university gave me access to your browser history on their computers,” the hologram said, smirking.
“All the Facebook was someone else I swear!” Bazyan said on instinct, even as he racked his brain for some kind of solution to Veda’s puzzle.
If he uploaded himself directly…I assumed he was a copy of someone’s personality, but if it’s really his consciousness, then he’s got to be an Innovade, Bazyan said. But there were a lot of them back then, more than now, especially around Celestial Being…but, I saw him before? Does he mean in those pictures of Celestial Being? Come to think, there was a guy in the one picture who looked like him, but he was labeled as—
--as one of the Krung Thep technicians.
“Holy s*** you’re Tieria Erde,” Bazyan breathed.
Tieria grinned at him. “Very good. I’ll tell you the story about Neil finding out a bit later, if you like. I imagine you might have other questions, first?”
“You knew my research topic, frick yes I have questions,” Bazyan crowed. “I mean, if you don’t mind. And if I don’t decide to do a paper on you holy—wait, no, I can do a paper on you later, if it’s okay—“
“Slow down,” Tieria said, looking distinctly amused. “And look at those photos I sent, if you don’t mind.”
Bazyan opened the photo folder on his tablet, then flicked open the first file. The tablet projected it into the air above the screen, the age of the photo obvious by its low resolution.
It was a group of children gathered in front of some bombed-out buildings. All of them were covered in dirt and dust, and carrying guns, whether in their hands or slung over their backs. One was wearing a too-big helmet.
“The one wearing green and white, toward the center,” Tieria said. “That’s him.”
All the recordings and images of Seiei that Bazyan had seen up to this point were either of him in his pilot suit, or of him post-ELS transformation. Bazyan had always been quietly fascinated by the way that Seiei and later ELS ambassadors looked, their skin, lips, hair, and nails all the exact same shade of silvery-white, and their eyes always glowing kaleidoscopic gold against all that monochrome. It was uncanny in a way that wasn’t deliberately intimidating, but was nonetheless.
Bazyan had wondered, more than once, what Seiei had looked like before. More so when he’d found the name Soran Ibrahim, and started wondering if the man really had been from his part of the world. Now, he didn’t have to wonder anymore.
Young Seiei looked surprised by the very existence of cameras, but not particularly pleased about them, either. He had black hair that was cut in the same style he’d worn later in life, but it looked more unkempt on his younger self. He was absolutely not white, though his skin was lighter than Bazyan’s own. His eyes were…weird; maybe that color was brown and maybe it was red. But it wasn’t glowing gold. No one was an Innovator at the time of this picture, and this kid most likely didn’t even know Innovades existed.
“How old…” Bazyan started.
“Do you know, I never asked?” Tieria said. “Somewhere between eight and ten.”
“Wasn’t the youngest there, then,” Bazyan said, stomach churning, looking at another of the boys, who barely came up to Seiei’s shoulders.
“No, he wasn’t,” Tieria said lowly. “Ah, and before I forget--there’s a file labeled ‘group picture,’ as well. Bring that up, will you?”
Bazyan did. It was a group of eleven people and the orange Haro unit that had assisted in the Dynames and Cheridium Gundams. Tieria was there, not as a hologram but as a dour-looking man near the back of the photo. So were a number of others Bazyan recognized—Leesa Kujo, Ian Vashti, Lasse Aeon, a very young Feldt Grace, and one of the Dylandy brothers. He vaguely recognized the two next to Feldt as members of the bridge crew who had been killed during Fallen Angels, which meant the Dylandy was Neil.
The man next to Tieria had to be Seiei. He still had the same hairstyle, and he was wearing the Exia pilot’s suit. He looked even less happy about this picture than the last one. He was also short enough that all the women in the front row of the image were ducking down significantly just so he could be visible. Bazyan hadn’t thought about it, but now that he did, they did have one news report showing the Exia pilot’s return of then-Princess Marina Ismail to the Azadistani palace, and Ismail had definitely been taller than her rescuer.
“I’m giving you this picture for context, only,” Tieria said. “You are not to publish it.”
Bazyan blinked. “Why not?”
“You’re focusing on Setsuna,” Tieria said approvingly. “But the pilot of Kyrios and Arios is in this image too, and he requested that he be left out of the historical record.”
Bazyan looked at the picture again, and noticed a man in an orange flight suit, with a hairstyle that frankly looked impractical for a pilot.
“Am I allowed to ask why?” Bazyan asked.
“You can ask, but I think he would have preferred I didn’t answer,” Tieria said quietly.
Bazyan nodded, deciding not to press. “Are there any other photos I can’t publish?”
“No, the rest you’re free to use the rest of them,” Tieria said. “And you have permission to use all of the documents, as well.”
“And you said I could talk to you,” Bazyan said. “How much time do you have?”
Tieria smiled. “I am part of a supercomputer, Mr. Mokri. I’m running dozens of other tasks right now. I can talk to you for as long as you can come up with interesting questions.”
“You wanted me to look at the picture of the KPSA,” Bazyan said. “Because I needed context. So now can you tell me the story about Neil finding out?”
“I think you may appreciate it more, now,” Tieria said. “Though, first, I would like to know what you know about Laguna Harvey and his role in Operation: Fallen Angels?”