Phase 02 - The Vedlow Fleet

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 02 - The Vedlow Fleet

April 10th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, orbit of Earth

A Nazca-class destroyer loomed up ahead before the Minerva, and on the ship's interior observation deck, Emily felt a distinct sense of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. The Vedlow Fleet was led by an ex-ZAFT soldier and had provided refuge for many ZAFT soldiers after the Junius War. So had Carpentaria and ZAFT veterans from Carpentaria had tried to kill her there. Would this time be the same?

At her side, Rau Le Creuset sensed her fear and chuckled knowingly. "Commander Vedlow is not as foolish as Argus," he said. "She has a grudge, but she has more sense than anger."

Emily eyed the Nazca destroyer carefully. "What happened?"

"Shinn killed her best friend in battle during the Junius War, and to the best of my knowledge, she has not forgiven him for it yet."

That was no comfort. "I can stand by in the Twilight, just in case."

"Not likely. We're going to be part of the party going over to meet with them."

At that, Emily cast a crestfallen glance towards the Nazca. The last thing she wanted was to leave the Minerva exposed in case somebody's grudge came to the surface. So this was one of Shinn's old comrades, who had lost her friend to Shinn's actions...well, they were fighting a different war and they would have to get along. They had scarier enemies.

At least, that was what Emily thought, and she hoped that Aoma Vedlow would see it that way too.

"We'll need to move our docking operation elsewhere," said the bearded, swarthy man on the Star One's bridge, distinctly out of place in his Earth Alliance service coat. "An Alliance patrol often passes through this sector. They came through about thirty hours ago and they shouldn't be due back for another six to eight, but I'm sure you understand that we'd rather not take any chances."

"Of course," agreed Meyrin. "We should probably move to the Debris Belt. Even if they spot us, they'd have to reach us to do anything about it, and that's easier said than done."

Ali Salaam al-Husayn nodded his agreement. "It's best to keep a low profile anyway," he went on, "after that debacle at Carpentaria." He shrugged, as Meyrin's thoughts clouded over with the bitter memories of utter, stupefying defeat. "At least you escaped."

"It cost the lives of everyone on the Anzac," Abbey said quietly.

"A lot of people died in that battle who didn't deserve to," he replied. "The important thing is that some of us have escaped and there's something to rebuild from." He shrugged. "And in space, we're still going strong."

There was that, at least. "We'll follow your lead," Meyrin said.

"Then lead we will," Ali agreed. "Star One, out."

Meyrin sat back and hoped. The Vedlow Fleet was the professional part of the Resistance, she reminded herself; Commander Vedlow had forged from a bunch of criminals, ZAFT veterans, disaffected Alliance soldiers, drifters, and rebels a disciplined and talented fighting force. They were capable of taking on squadrons of Alliance Space Force warships and they often won. The fleet had two refit Nelson-class battleships, a Laurasia-class frigate, and five refit Drake-class destroyers. It had dozens of mobile suits and a small space fortress sequestered in the Debris Belt. It was on good terms with virtually all of the Resistance's leaders.

But it also had ghosts and demons. The Junius War had strewn those all over the Earth Sphere, even aboard the Minerva. Some were stronger than others, and Meyrin forced down her fear at the thought that Commander Vedlow's ghosts were the stronger ones.

"I hate being in space," groaned Roxy.

In the crew lounge, Athrun and Viveka shared a glance and then dared to look back at Roxy. The red-haired comm officer was fiddling with a zero-g bottle and a white bottle of some European beer neither of them had seen before.

"Err, dare I ask why?" Athrun finally ventured.

"Booze is not meant to be drank through a goddamn straw," Roxy groused. "But you can't do it any other way in zero-g, or else it'll go in your eyes and that fucking hurts." She unscrewed the lid and then flailed after it as it floated from her grasp. "And that keeps happening!"

Athrun shook his head. "Am I the only one who's been in zero-g a lot?"

"I told you I'd kick your ass if you laughed at me," Viveka shot back, and even frustrated Roxy had to stop and snicker at that. "Hey, you too!" Viveka added with a glare.

"I've been in zero-g enough," Roxy answered with a shrug. "I just haven't been drinking in zero-g enough. So I thought I'd see how it works."

"About as well as it does on Earth," said Athrun with a shrug of his own. "Don't get too hammered, though. We're going to be linking up with the Star One soon, and we need you to be at least a little sober for it."

Roxy waved the white little bottle contemptuously. "This shit's ten percent alcohol by volume. It'll take more than that to get me plastered."

Viveka sat back. "Hey, we're going to Terminal soon, aren't we?"

"Something like that."

"And they build mobile suits there?"

Athrun arched an eyebrow. "...something like that. Why?"

"'cuz," Viveka said with a grin, "I want a new one!"

"Uh, I don't think it's gonna work that way," Athrun started.

"Man, women just get needier and needier these days," chuckled Roxy.

"Shut your hole. It's important." Viveka turned back towards Athrun. "They are building a new mobile suit, aren't they?"

Athrun put a hand to his chin in thought. "Yes," he said, "but it's probably meant for Emily. Chiao Xu and Copland have plans for her."

At that, Viveka's excited grin vanished. "Like what?"

"Like they want to make her into something like Shinn," Athrun explained. "She's getting a reputation for it already, but especially now, with the Earthside Resistance in tatters. They'll need all the heroes they can get."

"But so where the hell did they get a new mobile suit from?" Roxy asked.

"They were building it already and they just converted it, according to specs that Meyrin's sent in," Athrun said. "If we're going to Terminal anytime soon, it will be to pick that thing up."

Viveka heaved a melodramatic sigh. "My little sister's growing up so fast."

Athrun did not laugh, instead reaching out with his senses to find Emily on the ship.

That she is.

Stella floated over her trusty Gaia Gundam in the Minerva's hangar, staring contemplatively at it. Not far away, Sting and Auel watched her, shared a glance, and shrugged. There was no use trying to figure her out.

"Stella remembers space," she started. "There's scary things up here."

Auel snorted in laughter. "There's nothing up here scarier than you," he chuckled.

"Well, something like that," Sting added. "You should get some sleep. We're gonna be on standby here while the others are meeting with Vedlow."

"Okay," Stella mumbled, and turned to move towards the gantry. Sting sighed quietly and watched her go.

"Rumor mill says we're going to attack Althea soon." He glanced meaningfully at Auel. "You know what goes on there."

Auel shuddered. "Bunch of fuckers if you ask me."

"I guess it's important," Sting went on. "Like, we couldn't get away with not doing it. 'cuz the Alliance makes Extended, and Extended do so much damage to us. But still..."

"Can't decide if it's gonna be fun or if it's gonna hurt."


They both fell silent. Their horrors had all come from Lodonia Island, but they had spent a bit of time at Althea as well, before Captain Lee had taught them to be free. And now they were free, but there were hundreds of Extended at various stages of alteration and training at Althea Crater.

"We'll probably have to kill them," Sting spoke up suddenly, and Auel looked over sharply at him. "I mean, think about it. We needed Lee to basically run down our block words and break our dependencies, and both of us have the benefit of not really being as dependent as Stella. We'd need someone to do that for hundreds of Extended from Althea. We're not gonna have that. And without that, they'll either die themselves when the organ shutdowns kick in, or they'll get killed in the battle, or they'll go crazy and have to be put down." He shrugged. "Is there some other way?"

"What's the point of all this if we can't save any of them?" Auel shot back. "Why'd we run away, then?"

Sting glanced down at the Chaos and struggled to find an answer.

Aoma Vedlow was a ZAFT Red. She had been assigned to the Minerva as one of Shinn Asuka's replacements after the Battle of Arzachel Crater. She left after Solomon's Sword, struck out on her own, and now commanded a famous Resistance outfit.

And, Shinn knew from the furious presence on the Star One, she had never forgiven him for killing her friend at Orb.

But she was just one of many ghosts and pits of rage he had left around the Earth Sphere. Argus and his men had been foolish enough to act on it, and now they were rotting on the ocean floor for it. Aoma Vedlow was not that foolish, but she was still angry, and still in pain.

Shinn closed his eyes. Everything was coming back now. ZAFT had returned, and with them returned the memories of Lunamaria and Rey. In different ways, he had been unable to save either of them. He had been too angry, too impulsive, too caught up in his own powers. He had let Luna tag along at Solomon's Sword, only to see Rey kill her once and for all; he had failed to talk Rey over to his own side, the side where he belonged, so they could fight together, like it was meant to be. Rey had always offered him guidance, security, an anchor in the stormy seas of a life in flux. But he had felt anger instead, that Rey had sided with Dullindal instead; that Rey had never understood. They were Newtypes. They should have understood.

But as Shinn looked ahead and felt the burning presence of ZAFT at L5, he knew that they did not, and no one would because now they were all ghosts, and ghosts never argued.

Heaven's Base, Iceland

"Sir, I just cannot pull together units fast enough," protested Vice Admiral Mathis from faraway Arzachel Crater. "Not to simultaneously destroy the ZAFT fortress at L5 and to hunt down and destroy its fleet units."

On the command platform in Heaven's Base's control room, Lord Djibril's eyes flashed in fury. Every moment of delay was an advantage ZAFT gained over him. He had no idea what ZAFT and Sunogachi were planning and Vargas had done little to find out. Yes, Vargas had been a waste, as Djibril thought back on it. He had shipped decommissioned weapons from the Earth Sphere to arm Vargas's little military, expecting to finish off the reeling ZAFT, and look what that had gotten him. The frustration gnawed at him, and it did not help that Mathis was giving him more bad news.

"If I may say so, sir," Mathis went on, "I think we may need to be patient. ZAFT units are already striking out at any targets they can find, civilian and military. They'll blunder into our sights soon enough. We'll be able to pick their fleet apart piece by piece, and leave Messiah defenseless."

Djibril seethed. "Admiral, we do not have the time for patience," he snarled. "Damn it all...if only that Requiem shot had been a little more inaccurate. Taken down the other six PLANTs before ZAFT could evacuate their inhabitants. And Vargas..."

"We can be ready for a fleet attack on L5 in two days at the most," Mathis said. "No sooner than that. Unit recalls and repairs take time."

"I know," Djibril snapped, and whirled around in frustration. For all his successes in the Junius War, he had not quite finished the job...and now the bacteria left untouched by his antibiotic had multiplied.

ZAFT Minerva-class battleship Fortuna, orbit of Earth

The broken, smoking remains of a civilian space liner drifted around the Fortuna, and Kira stood tall and cold on the bridge, arms crossed, regarding it all with a mask of stone. A knot of terrified bodies, faces frozen in death screams, drifted by the bridge windows; Kira crushed the horror and sorrow before they could bubble up to the surface. Changing the world required sacrifice of them, and of himself, because their blood was on his hands now. They both twitched, one of flesh and bone, one of metal and joints.

Lyle glanced up from the captain's chair. "Civilian space traffic is slowing down sooner than we expected. What are we going to do about targets?"

"The Alliance is taking its time," Kira answered. "Which is odd. They should be all over us by now."

"Does this negatively affect your plans?"

"Not in the least. If they're not going to stop us from destroying the Earth Sphere's space transit systems and bringing the colonies' economies to a halt, then so much the better." He waved forward. "If we run out of ships to target, then we'll start going after stationary satellites."

Of course, people would be without power, without food, without medicine, without basic necessities for life in space. And they would be the ones not killed by ZAFT's attacks. But once again, Kira crushed the emotions that would have left him weak had he left them to surface. The new world he was building demanded strength and sacrifice, and he would sacrifice just as surely as they would.

ZAFT mobile space fortress Messiah, Lagrange Point 5

"The Deep Space Survey and Development Organization is technically neutral," explained Valentine Sunogachi from her imposing throne in Messiah's opulent control room, "but there are no neutrals in this war. The Troya Research Station is where they're carrying out final research on an experimental mobile suit for deep space exploration. It has all kinds of cool stuff inside it that we want, and its research and neutrality put it in a good position to help the Alliance alleviate economic and technological problems that we cause. So," her eyes narrowed meaningfully, "you know what to do."

The green-haired young man in the gold-decorated ZAFT White uniform smirked back on the main screen, the FAITH badge on his lapel gleaming. "Understood, marshal. Will you want any of the staff or the station's computers captured too?"

Valentine shrugged. "Once they see you coming they'll probably wipe their computers or something. Capture the prototype and whatever else is possible, but don't take unnecessary risks. I'm expecting your team to come back in one piece, commander."

The silver eyes of Varder Ehrmacht flashed with anticipation. "In one piece shall we return, then. The Seraphim will depart." He saluted, and the screen went dark.

Valentine turned at the feeling of a new presence in the room, and casually accepted the salute of a dark-skinned man in the purple uniform of a ZAFT flag officer. "And what brings you here, General Ghomak?"

"My troops are ready for their descent," answered Jordon Ghomak, and Valentine quietly thanked herself for the foresight to put him in charge of ZAFT's compact Earth combat forces. "And it looks like Lagash is still operational."

Lagash. One of her trump cards, and one of her best-kept secrets. The loyal soldiers of Lagash had sequestered themselves on the Pacific Ocean's nearly inaccessible floor. The struggles of the ZAFT remnant at Wellington had been nothing to them; they remained in silence, waiting for the ZAFT fleet's return. And they had not been idle; they had built the heavy equipment, even the land battleships that Ghomak's forces would need once back on Earth. Valentine idly wished that Wellington had sent his troops there instead of to Carpentaria, had he known about it...but such was war. Lagash could supply more than enough manpower and materiel to make ZAFT a formidable terrestrial and naval fighting force.

Yes, ZAFT had returned to an Earth Sphere that did not yet properly fear. But they would.

Resistance Nazca-class destroyer Star One, Debris Belt

It was almost like being in ZAFT again.

The impression filtered through Meyrin Hawke's consciousness as she was led through the halls of the Star One, immaculately maintained as though it were still part of the ZAFT fleet. Most of its original crew was gone, replaced by Commander Vedlow's most trusted men. She had obviously benefited from being a ZAFT Red; few leaders would be able to whip into this sort of shape the people she had started with.

Meyrin and her entourage arrived at the bridge under the escort of several soldiers in a motley array of uniforms. The doors slid open and Meyrin came face to face with Aoma Vedlow.

Unlike her troops, Aoma wore dark civilian clothes, and the steely look in her eyes betrayed everything as her gaze fell on Shinn Asuka. Meyrin stuck her hand forward to defuse any scene that might arise. "It's good to see you again, Aoma."

Aoma forced her attention back on Meyrin and put on a smile. "Moving on up in the world, I see," she said, and Meyrin almost winced at the artificiality of it. "Last time I saw you like this, you were sitting in that chair off to the side on the bridge. Now you're in the chair in the middle."

"And it's awfully hard to fill," Meyrin admitted. She shook hands with Ali next. "I'm glad you've found a niche for yourself, though."

"It was this or committing suicide," Aoma said bitterly, and for a moment they both fell silent, remembering a man on the Minerva who had chosen the latter. "Well," she said, "the first thing we'll need to do is get to Terminal." She glanced at Ali, who dutifully activated the mapping console. "Copland is going there, and Chiao Xu is setting up a meeting with the new ZAFT leader."

"Speaking of suicide," muttered Meyrin.

"I know, but he's Chiao Xu and he thinks that he's going to be able to reason with them." She gestured at the console. "In the meantime, I'm getting my troops ready to fight ZAFT if need be. Fortunately we haven't had too many defections. Don't know if the same can be said on your end."

Meyrin eyed Aoma with a lopsided smile. "We aren't on ZAFT's side either," she said, "remember? We're the traitors."

Aoma cast a surreptitious, furious glance at Shinn. "Yes, you are."

"So," Emily said quietly in the Star One's hangar, "that's the Impulse."

At her side floated Viveka, and they both regarded the silent gray Gundam standing before them. The Star One's cramped hangar had three weapon packs for the machine's back, and there was a small airplane on the floor before it that seemed to be folded up and destined for the machine's torso.

"Whoever decided that you should have to put a Gundam together in midair should be shot," Viveka put in. "Seriously, that's so stupid."

Emily looked into the Impulse's darkened eyes. This was the machine Shinn had piloted, as he made his name and his powers blossomed. He had used it once or twice in simulator matches, and even without a mothership launching replacement parts and Silhouette packs, it made for a formidable foe.

She thought back to Shinn's tenure in the Junius War and his reputation now. Then, he was the Traitor Asuka, the man who turned his back on his country and constantly bested the comrades sent to destroy him. Now, he was the hero of the Resistance and Emily herself seemed to be joining him on that miserable pedestal. How had he handled it during the Junius War, spending his time with space pirates and Lacus Clyne's private militia? How did he handle it now, as the symbol of hope for millions of oppressed people throughout the Earth Sphere? How was she going to handle it?

Emily glanced over at her sister as a hand shook her back to reality. "What's wrong, Em?" Viveka asked. "You've got that spacey look on your face, like Stella or something."

That was a frightening thought. "Tired," she said, and hoped her sister would buy it. She did not.

"Well, don't go zoning out in here," Viveka warned, and jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. "They're moving shit around in here. It's dangerous."

"So noted," Emily answered. She turned her eyes back towards the slumbering Impulse.

Well, Shinn Asuka had taken the power he never wanted and made it his own. She would do the same. She was the Angel of Death, the Resistance's heroine, and now that ZAFT had returned to the Earth Sphere and the Earthside Resistance lay shattered, she was more important than ever.

And that was a feeling she hated.

Rau Le Creuset grinned wolfishly from his chair. The main computer of the Star One held all sorts of interesting information culled by the various intelligence operatives of Terminal and the Vedlow Fleet. Aoma's men had let him in here without question. After all, he was the great masked ZAFT ace of the Valentine War and the Junius War. What ill intent could he possibly have?
Speaking of the devil, ZAFT was certainly doing its damnedest to set itself up as the greatest of all evils in the Earth Sphere. Even the worst of Lord Djibril's flunkies would not shoot at unarmed civilian ships unless they had a reason. And, he suspected, if Valentine and Kira's hand were behind this plot, neither would ZAFT forces. They had a purpose too. He already had a few guesses, but when he boiled it all down he found that he really did not find it critically important.

Instead, there was the ZAKU Goliath. The Star One's databanks were disappointingly silent on that final monstrosity to spring from the mind of Gilbert Dullindal, but Rau remained undeterred. Dullindal's Destiny Plan had been multifaceted, and his ultimate weapon, the ZAKU Goliath, was meant to serve as the sentinel of the Coordinators and all others who lived in space as they evolved into Newtypes. Funding, technological hurdles, and ZAFT's deteriorating military position prevented its construction, but Valentine's minions had spirited away a copy of the machine's plans to Mars. And clearly she was going to use it. The thing was the very Platonic form of destruction descended upon mortals, so that they might know the essence of destruction in its purest incarnation.

But the ZAKU Goliath needed a powerful Newtype to coordinate its various weapons. It was a one man army, but that one man needed an extraordinary mind. And, feeling Emily's flickering presence on the ship somewhere, he knew one already waiting.

In the meantime, however, he had other loose ends in need of attendance, like poor little Kira. Valentine had twisted him into something new, and Rau was eager to find out what.

"Althea Crater," said Ali with a stunned sigh. "That's a tough one."

Standing nearby on the Star One's bridge, Athrun Zala nodded solemnly. "Well, we have to do something to make up for Carpentaria."

"Yes, but Althea? That's where they make their Extended. There aren't many targets in the Earth Sphere better defended than that."

"No, there aren't," Athrun agreed, "but still..." He shook his head. "Damn it. I wish I agreed with the Resistance's leadership more often."

Ali cast a skeptical glance out the bridge windows. "I think I know what's going on here. Chiao Xu is angling for a meeting with ZAFT to discuss an alliance. But after that disaster at Carpentaria, we're going to have to prove to them that we're actually a creditable fighting force." He shrugged. "Hence, Althea. I still think it's foolish. But that's my guess."

Athrun shrugged. "I suppose we don't really have a choice. We lost a lot down there."

"Yes," Ali said, "but let's make sure the same doesn't happen here." He swept a hand towards the bridge windows, where the vast twisting Debris Belt lay. "The Alliance has been hunting for Terminal for months. There's too much we'd be putting at risk."

At that, Athrun merely sat back and rubbed his temples. "I know, I know," he answered. "But if we don't make a move, someone else will." He cast a glance of his own in the direction of L5, and the pulsing, twisting mass of hatred at its center. "And it'll probably be even worse."

Tension rippled up through the air as Shinn Asuka rounded a corner and came face to face with Aoma Vedlow. Shinn blinked in surprise at the palpable feeling of rage bubbling underneath her surface, barely contained. That, he recalled vaguely, was his fault; he had killed her best friend in the Junius War, and so...

"For what it's worth," he said quietly as she marched past, "I'm sorry."

With a flash of red hair, Aoma whirled around, slammed Shinn against the bulkhead with one hand, and drew a pistol from her jacket with the other to point it against his throat.

"Sorry? You're sorry?" she snarled, and Shinn almost shivered as he looked into her eyes and found pure, seething hatred. "I'm glad you're sorry, but that doesn't bring him back, now does it?" She tightened her grip on his jacket. "I knew him since we were both three months old, you bastard. We went to school together. We grew up together. We joined ZAFT together." She jammed the gun up into his throat. "And then we got assigned to the Minerva and you spent two months taking him away from me, piece by piece, as he got more and more obsessed with defeating you, and then you finally killed him. So," her eyes flashed with fury, "I'm glad you're sorry, but it really doesn't mean a goddamn thing to me."

Shinn squirmed. "So you're going to kill me?"

Aoma scowled and shoved the gun back into her coat. "That's the worst part of this. If you were just an ordinary man on the street, you'd be dead by now. But you're not. You're," her face twisted into a sneer, "important." She pushed him back against the wall and let him go. "Don't speak to me. Or else next time I might not remember that you're important."

And with that, Aoma stormed off down the hallway, leaving Shinn behind.

April 11th, CE 77 - ZAFT Eternal-class cruiser Seraphim, orbit of Earth

"Well, well, well," the man laughed, "what have we here?"

His name was Varder Ehrmacht, and the green-haired man in the white ZAFT uniform drifted down the Seraphim's bridge and came to a stop by the captain's chair. The straight-laced ZAFT Black Shirt serving as captain glanced up at him skeptically.

"Intel says they've got something of a reputation," he said. "Maybe not worth messing with."

"Oh, don't be a pussy, Evers," Varder chuckled, and motioned towards one of the bridge crew, who duly brought up on the auxiliary screen an image of the Seraphim's next prey. "Fighting Naturals is one thing; fighting us is something else."

"The Minerva wasn't the flagship of ZAFT for nothing, commander," Evers protested. "It's going to take a lot to get rid of them. We don't have the combat strength for it."

Varder thoughtfully stroked his chin. Perhaps Evers had a point; the Seraphim had a total of fourteen mobile suits crammed into its hangar, with little room to spare. And although a DOM Trooper and a GOUF Ignited were respectable machines in their own right, against the Minerva's now eight Gundam units it was something else.


"Well, you've seen the intel reports on them," said Varder with a confident grin. "So would you agree that they've got a fetish for protecting the weak and pitiful from the ruthless and strong?"

Evers arched a graying eyebrow. "Yes," he started dubiously. "Why?"

"I've got an idea."

"I hope it's better than the last one you had," a woman's voice put in from the back of the bridge. Varder and Evers both glanced up, and the former shot back a sarcastic smirk.

"You're still not over that?"

Lilith Ramsi alighted next to Varder and put on as sickening a pout as she could manage. "Three squads of MLA Murasames, all on my own, you jackass."

"You can't call your commanding officer a jackass. Says so in the manual." Varder turned back with a cheeky grin towards Evers. "Now then, captain, the Fortuna should be prowling these parts not too far away, am I right?"

"They're in range of L4, but "

"Perfect." He turned again. "Comm, get me a line to the Fortuna and ask for Vice Marshal Yamato personally. I've got a proposition for him."

Presently, the auxiliary screen flickered to life with the skeptical face of the Vice Marshal of ZAFT, still facing something just off camera. "What is it, commander?"

Varder, Lilith, and Evers greeted him with dutiful salutes. "Vice Marshal Yamato," Varder began, "sorry to bother you, but we've found a target we thought you might be interested in."

Kira arched an eyebrow dubiously. "Aren't you on assignment to the DSSD's Troya Station?"

"Yes sir," Varder said, "but we've found the Minerva."

In an instant, Kira Yamato's natural eye flickered with something that nobody on the Seraphim's bridge could identify, and he turned towards the camera.

"Go on."

Yokosuka Naval Station, Japan, Republic of East Asia

Actaeon Industries had its hooks in all sorts of mobile weapon development programs throughout the Earth Sphere, and the Earth Alliance's ceaseless hunger for new mobile weapons kept its coffers stuffed and its president, Duncan Luis Mockelberg, a happy man. But they turned out good products including the mobile suit standing before Grey Saiba on the tarmac outside the Charlemagne.

The Regen Duel was yet another evolution of the venerable Duel Gundam from six years ago. It had redesigned in Actaeon's expansive Luna Project, lightweight new armor; it had a huge bazooka on its backpack; it had new thrusters and a new armor layout to give it more protection and mobility. In conjunction with the other new Actaeon machines from Arzachel Crater, it would be more than enough to take on that damned Twilight Gundam.

But there were others. There was Erin, standing at his side with a smile as she regarded her own new machine...and, coming down the tarmac, there were two more pilots.

Grey and Erin both promptly saluted the woman before them with the rank tabs of a lieutenant junior grade. She perfunctorily returned it and watched them remain at attention.

"Ensign Saiba and Ensign Gedelberg reporting, Lieutenant Maynard," Erin spoke up.

Kelly Maynard arched an eyebrow at them both and extended her hand for a customary handshake. "At ease. I'm going to be your new direct commanding officer." She nodded over her shoulder, and Grey fixed his eyes on the highly-amused-looking man with a goatee behind her. "Ensign Alterman over there is with us too. Once your partner is out of the infirmary, Ensign Saiba, we're going to organize a new combat team aboard the Charlemagne, using the Luna Project mobile weapons."

Grey looked back at the five machines with the faces of Gundams, and focused on the one that the engineers had called the Nix Providence. "Where did they get that one?"

"Wreckage from Solomon's Sword," Kelly explained, "and spare parts captured at Armory 1." She gestured to the Regen Duel. "But you, Ensign Saiba, have a manual to get reading. Your combat performance history is promising. I'm expecting a lot out of you."

His thoughts turned back towards the Angel of Death once more as he saluted and answered, "Yes ma'am."

The gleaming twilight sun washed over Yokosuka, and from the gantry overlooking the warship dock, Ivan Danilov cast a pensive glance over his titanic warship. The Charlemagne lay in wait and under repair, and he could hardly wait to get back onto the battlefield against the Earth Alliance's real enemy. Regardless of their plans, ZAFT was unambiguously committing atrocities. Whether it was bait or something else, Danilov did not care; his soul yearned for the unambiguous battle his mighty warship deserved.

Standing on the gantry, he cast a glance over at Vera in the dying sunlight. His faithful executive officer seemed similarly excited about the prospect of facing the Earth Alliance's perennial enemy.

And yet, there still remained loose ends.

"What do you think the Minerva will do, Vera?" he asked suddenly, catching her by surprise.

"If their actions against other Resistance units is any indication," she said after a moment's thought, "they'll probably not side with ZAFT. Even if the rest of the Resistance does."

"If the Resistance even acts as one unit anymore," Danilov added. "If there's anything left of them on Earth to do so."

Of course there were Resistance forces left on Earth. Not all of them had made their way into that deathtrap of Carpentaria. And surely some of them would decide to try to ally themselves with ZAFT. But what use could ZAFT have for the demoralized guerrillas that had only scored glancing blows against an Earth Alliance that had just decisively crushed them?

"So that raises an awkward potential problem for us," Danilov said. "The Minerva deserted from ZAFT, and ZAFT's survivors do not forget that sort of thing. They're also launching attacks on civilians, which the Minerva will probably not tolerate. So we have the possibility on our hands that the Minerva could become the enemy of our enemy." He glanced over at Vera. "What would you do?"

"That doesn't make them not our enemy," Vera said darkly. "The instant ZAFT is dealt with, they'll be firing at us again."

Danilov looked to the sky and wondered. Until now he had fought the Minerva as his enemy indeed, that was the very purpose of his ship. But still, some part of him remained hopeful that the Minerva would side with him.

After all, it was a long time since he had fought a battle where good and evil were clear. And Ivan Danilov missed that.

Dropping them just like that, are you?

Sven Cal Bayan ground his teeth as he stomped through the mobile suit bays of Yokosuka. That damned child just would not leave him alone.

I will no longer need them, he shot back. I required them to make up for the Noir's deficiencies against the Destiny. Now that the Crusader is on its way, I will no longer need additional bodies getting in my way during a fight.

The child skipped along at his side and laughed sardonically. Two things, my incorrigible elder self, he chuckled. First of all, you must have already forgotten that stuff they said in our training, about how having a team is important. And second

As if I need your advice, Sven snarled back, and shook his head. That would not shut the child up, but he put his iron military discipline to work and trenchantly ignored the insufferable child. Why the buried vestiges of his conscience had taken on his own childhood face as its avatar was beyond him, but sooner or later he would root out and destroy those last remains, just as he would the last remnants of the Resistance.

At that, he turned his thoughts towards space. Operation Typhoon had wiped out most of the Resistance's fighting strength on Earth...but in space they were intact, they had more professional leaders, they had better hiding places, they had more dangerous weapons...and now they had ZAFT introducing chaos. The Resistance thrived on chaos, as surely as it created it. ZAFT, for all its evils, still brought order of its own twisted kind, but order nonetheless. ZAFT had leaders, the PLANTs had laws, the Coordinators had boundaries, and although they were his enemy, they were not his antithesis.

But not the Resistance. They were chaos itself, and they made a mockery of the carefully-constructed world for which the Alliance had paid in blood and treasure in two wars with ZAFT, both of them risking the very Earth itself. They would tear down this careful system and replace it with their own profane visions of the future.

ZAFT could be dealt with. ZAFT was a familiar enemy, an enemy that worked and thought on the same terms as himself. They wanted something and would take every step necessary to get it. But the Resistance was something else, and that Sven Cal Bayan swore to destroy. And the first step was to destroy their hero, the Gundam with the gleaming wings of light, the Destiny. Smashing the Resistance at Carpentaria had been a wonderful start but now their hero needed to fall.

Sven clenched his teeth as he headed back for the Charlemagne. He would destroy the Resistance and restore order to the world...because, after all, that was why he existed this way now, as Captain Sven Cal Bayan of the Phantom Pain, and not as that little boy who wanted to see the stars. Because he was part of a system, and he had been given meaning.

He pushed the child back down.

"Why does it have to turn into a dog?" moaned Shams Coza as he studied the plans for his forthcoming Vanguard Gundam on a data pad with Mudie at his side. "Couldn't they leave me with some dignity?"

Mudie's lips twisted into a wicked grin. "It suits you," she said after moment. "On the pool table you're always my bitch."

"Oh, go eat a dick," Shams shot back.

All things considered, the Vanguard was not a bad-looking mobile suit. It was an evolution of the old Calamity Gundam, carrying a sniper rifle instead of that bazooka, and it had increased agility and even some limited atmospheric flight capability. It just also happened to transform into a quadruped mode that made Shams' flesh crawl. So what if a four-legged configuration was superior for ground combat? Two legs were all Shams Coza needed, damn it.

Of course, Mudie had lucked out with her nimble, graceful, thruster-laden Artemis Gundam. And they both knew that Shams was the real winner here with his imposing Crusader. Still, Sven would need Shams and Mudie on the battlefield. The Artemis had close combat specialties and the Vanguard had long range firepower. The Crusader could cover both, but it could not be in three places at once.

Shams thought back bitterly to his experience at Carpentaria, taken down by the Destiny in a brutal fight. Was that his lot in this war? Just getting his ass kicked again and again?

He glanced over at Mudie, watching her as she studied the Vanguard's specs. Not many things kept her attention like this, the capabilities of her battlefield partner's new machine, and at that Shams began to wonder.

And at that, he began to hope that the Artemis would be good enough not to keep up with Sven, but to keep her safe.

Heaven's Base, Iceland

Duncan Luis Mockelberg had that supremely self-assured look on his face that never ceased to irk Lord Djibril, as the latter sat down with a handful of his longtime associates in Djibril's Heaven's Base office. Actaeon had just made a great deal of money off of its Luna Project machines, now at Yokosuka being loaded aboard the Charlemagne. The smug bastard was starting to forget that he had a more important task at hand than reeling in cash for Actaeon Industries.

Picking up on what Mockelberg seemed to be thinking, Lally McWilliams sat back with a small smile and a generous glass of red wine. "This isn't all bad, Djibril," he said with a smirk. "This war will boost our business substantially, and it'll give you an excuse to gain more power."

"And," added Bruno Azrael from across the table, "now we've got all the Coordinators in one place. We can wipe them out in one blow."

"And to think it's all come together this easily for us," chuckled Alwin Ritter. He raised his glass in a toast. "To Marshal Sunogachi."

"Gentlemen," Djibril said, and his voice sent shivers down the spines of his associates, wiping away their smiles. "I'm glad business is booming for you, but I fear you do not fully appreciate the precariousness of our situation. ZAFT has returned and their actions in the Earth Sphere of late have paralyzed space traffic, everywhere. And without freighters and shuttles, your products can only circulate on Earth." He paused sardonically. "And that isn't even counting whatever their real plan is."

At the end of the table, Lucs Kohler raised his eyebrows. "Your lack of confidence is rather disturbing, Djibril."

"It's not a lack of confidence so much as it is a realistic assessment of our present situation." He fixed the room's occupants with an imperious stare, a stare that reminded them all who was really in charge. "ZAFT undoubtedly means to destroy us all. The Requiem and the battle at Solomon's Sword did not destroy all of them, and those that survive want revenge. If we are to defeat them, I will require your full cooperation. No cutting corners, no stashing things away, no bickering, no turf wars. We're in this together, gentlemen. Let's make sure we make it out together as well."

As his tired old associates began to bicker amongst themselves, Djibril sat back. There were other threats too, of course, threats he would have to mention sooner or later but the mention of ZAFT's attacks on space commerce had gotten them all stirred up. And nothing worked to move the gears of power like money.

Battleship Minerva, Debris Belt

"Well, we haven't been shot at so far," Burt said cheerfully, and Roxy and Abbey both stared distastefully at him. "Hey, I'm taking that to mean it's a good thing. We're all getting along. Right."

"Sure, whatever," Roxy answered, and punctuated herself with a slug of beer, pausing only to glare at the straw. Beer was not meant to travel through straws.

"The Vedlow Fleet is too professional for that," Abbey put in, and sat back in the captain's chair. "We'll have "

"Wait a minute," Burt interrupted. "Heat signature from 9000 out! Judging by the database, I'd say it's an Eternal-class cruiser. And..." He trailed for a moment in disbelief. "IFF is ZAFT and it's heading straight for us!"

Abbey felt her blood run hot. So here came their first battle with their old comrades.

"Roxy, recall the captain and the others from the Star One," she said, "and issue Condition Red. We have a reunion on our hands."

To be continued...