Phase 19 - Gathering Swords

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 19 - Gathering Swords

May 4th, CE 77 - Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, outside Sagan City, the Moon

The last remaining Laurasia frigate cracked in half and exploded under the Charlemagne's tempest of firepower. As the lime-green hull vanished behind a sheet of fire, Ivan Danilov sat back on his ship's bridge and watched impassively. Only a handful of mobile suits remained, and Danilov rather hoped that they would decide to go down fighting. Prisoners would present a serious problem and dying in a glorious blaze in battle was probably better than what was in store for them as the Phantom Pain's captives.

He glanced up towards the tactical map as he saw movement from the other Alliance ship in the area the Lucifer. That Agamemnon-class that had shown up earlier had already slipped away in the confusion of the Charlemagne's entrance, but the Lucifer was quitting the battle as well and heading after the Minerva.

Naturally. Joaquin wanted himself a piece of glory. The jowly officer's face appeared as though on cue on the auxiliary screen.

"Captain Danilov," he sneered, "I see most of the work has been done for you already."

"As long as the city is safe," Danilov answered. 'What is it, colonel?"

"I am pursuing the Minerva," Joaquin replied. "Circumstances cost us a shot at destroying them here, but we cannot pass up another."

Danilov glanced again at the tactical map. "Colonel, the Minerva is pursuing the survivors of the ZAFT force here who escaped. They are doing our work for us, yes and absorbing the risks. If they can destroy the ZAFT survivors, who are we to stop them?"

Joaquin narrowed his eyes. "Captain, I think you forget your orders. I expect you to join us once you've finished exterminating these stragglers. Lucifer, out."

The screen flipped off and Danilov sat back with a sigh. Hawke better not have been expecting an easy way out of this, because she certainly would not get it.

Sven Cal Bayan ground his teeth as he felt the Crusader's feet slam down onto the Moon's surface and a cloud of dust kicked up around him. Herding Yukiko into the observation deck had not paid off here not since the battle was so far away from the ship. So he would have to wait.

One of the last ZAKUs lunged up from behind a dusty ridge and charged with its beam tomahawk held high only to be cut to shreds by a beam volley from above, and the Vanguard landed with a crash next to the Crusader.

"Hey Sven, wake up in there," Shams called out. "There's still a squad left. We're flanking them but we're going to need a fast unit for the linkup."

Sven nodded and the Crusader vaulted into the air, with the Vanguard not far behind.

"Man, what's gotten into you?" grumbled Shams. "You're more emo than usual."

"It's not your concern," Sven shot back.

"The hell you say. If you get your ass shot down it sure as fuck will be my concern."

Sven scowled back. "I told you. It's not your concern."

The Crusader's eyes flashed, it activated its beam wings with a wave of light, and the Gundam rocketed back into the fray.

The lone surviving ZAKU Warrior went down with a crash, and Travis Alterman grit his teeth as he put the Nebula Blitz's beam saber through its cockpit. Fire rushed out of the opening and the red Gundam backed away as its mortally wounded opponent succumbed to a fiery death.

He glanced around the battlefield, at the dim red smoke and smoldering wreckage of warships and mobile suits. This had been a few drops of water to a parched man in the desert. Enough to remind him of what it felt like to drink deeply, but in no way a substitute.

That meant he would have to think and be all intellectual, and he hated that.

Travis glanced up towards the looming Charlemagne as it hovered over the battlefield, the undeniable victor. Of course the good captain had ignored his orders to engage the Minerva on sight. And the more pragmatic of his superiors would understand why, but you couldn't just go ignoring orders in the Phantom Pain especially orders against its nimble nemesis. The more Travis saw of this man in action, the more he became convinced that he would make a terrible commander for the Phantom Pain. Lord Djibril's army required ruthlessness to make the world bend to its master's will, and Ivan Danilov was not a ruthless man.

Most vexing, he reflected, if Ivan Danilov were a more ruthless man, then Travis and his frustrated Nebula Blitz might get to see more action. And that was the most annoying part of this spy business.

Battleship Minerva, Debris Belt, orbit of Earth

"The enemy's flagship has survived, along with two Laurasia-class frigates and the Eternal-class cruiser," Rau explained on the Minerva's bridge, with Meyrin and Abbey on the other side of the mapping console. A wire-grid display stretched before them, with the survivors of the ZAFT task force clawing their way out of the fray, away from the Moon, into Earth orbit. Rau glanced back down at it and saw the trap snapping shut. "Number of mobile suits is unknown, but can be assumed to be about three dozen. The enemy is most likely reeling from its losses." He looked back up at Meyrin. "They'll have nowhere to go."

Meyrin, for her part, looked considerably less than assured. And Rau could understand why because speeding after them was the black Archangel-class that had shown up at Arnhelm and Terminal and Sagan City. And now it was clearly in pursuit.

And, then, there was the Charlemagne as well. Rau glanced over Meyrin's face as he supposed she considered the specter of her formidable rival. That was a good enough reason to fear, perhaps.

But there was something else to her presence, a different kind of uncertainty one directed at him. Why would she feel uncertain about him? That was an easy question: Shinn had told her something. But that could be remedied.

"If the enemy attempts to escape into the Debris Belt," Rau continued, "there is a technique we can use with the Tannhäuser." Meyrin and Abbey both looked up at that, interest piqued. "'Scattershot.' Target the debris around the enemy with the Tannhäuser, and the destructive properties of antimatter will set off a chain reaction. If the explosions themselves don't inflict damage, the shrapnel thrown around will."

"The Debris Belt isn't that dense," Abbey said with a shake of her head.

"In some parts, it is," Rau countered, "and the enemy is likeliest to use those areas as shields against our other weapons. If all else fails, the positron cannon will force them out into range of the ship's other weapons."

Meyrin looked back down at the map, and Rau felt the uncertainty begin to dissipate.

A clever flanking maneuver, Shinn, but I am not that stupid.

Shinn Asuka stared up somberly at the silent Gundam Eclipse in the Minerva's bustling hangar. Emily had fought Kira Yamato to a standstill with this machine. She hadn't beat him not quite but this new power of hers against that improved Freedom...with this power she might have destroyed Kira Yamato.

He turned his thoughts towards his archenemy. The pathetic man that was gassing colonies and slinking through the shadows. But soon, Shinn told himself, he would have a new mobile suit of his own, one that could stand up to that new Freedom and soon he would be able to close that chapter of his life. It was a chapter he needed to close, he knew; he couldn't stand being haunted by the ghosts of dead friends and comrades forever.

He glanced over as Athrun landed on the gantry next to him. "Well," he said, "she had quite a day today."

Athrun cast a grim look at the Eclipse's silent face. "But she didn't kill him."

"No, she didn't."

"I guess destiny is reserving that for one of us."

Shinn leaned back against the railing and glanced over towards the GOUF Ignited across the hangar. "My talk with Meyrin didn't go too well either."

"What why not?"

"Meyrin wanted proof. And how are you supposed to prove that he's been trying to destroy the world?" He shook his head. "I don't really have any. Just what you've said. And...well, looking at it from her point of view, it's kind of a crazy thing to say."

Athrun scowled over at the GOUF. "Not if you know him."

"Yeah, but we don't. In ZAFT we only met him once, at the Academy, when he gave some lectures about mobile suit tactics." He shook his head. "Figures, he had to be some big war hero."

"Well, we have to do something about him. If what you said is true..."

"I know." Shinn glared over at Rau's empty GOUF. "One is bad enough."

"They've been asleep forever," Stella Loussier sighed outside the Minerva's sickbay as the door slid shut. Roxy glanced over her shoulder at the sullen Extended.

"It's so they'll heal," she explained. "They'll be back on their feet faster this way."

Stella looked unconvinced and Roxy shoved her hands into her pockets and mentally searched for another soothing platitude. At the very least, the drugs and healing factors would kick in faster if neither Sting nor Auel especially Auel, probably were conscious for it...but the halls of the Minerva were a bit lonelier now that they weren't filled with two cranky Extended cussing at each other.

"When will they wake up?" Stella asked suddenly, and Roxy shrugged.

"When they're better."

"When will that be?"

"I dunno."

A put-out Stella turned away and glanced forlornly at the infirmary door before she drifted off down the corridor. Roxy glanced after her and heaved a sigh. Of course, take away the two most disagreeable members of the ship's crew and the whole thing goes to pot.

But she was feeling the itch to see her friends back on their feet. Alcoholic intolerance aside, they made good drinking partners and with all the angst and drama on the rest of the ship, she knew she needed a good drinking partner or two.

The sound of a foot landing on the gantry outside caught Emily's attention, followed by the telltale distortion of an Extended, and she didn't even need to look up to know that Lily was there.

On the Eclipse's cockpit hatch, Lily stood with crossed arms and a petulant look on her face. "You've been working in there all day. When are you going to come out?"

Emily shrugged back. "I'm busy."

"You're always busy."

"Well, giant robots are high-maintenance." She frowned down at the console and the bewildering array of values for the Eclipse's Voiture Lumiere drive, and the brick-like manual in her lap. "Especially this one."

Lily pouted for a moment. "Trojan says you're acting funny."

"Am I?"

"You are! You're all broody and depressed. It's not cool. Stop it."

Emily smiled sadly. "It's more complicated than that, Lily."

"No it's not! You just have to stop thinking about the stuff that's making you sad." She flashed a cheeky grin. "That's what I do."

"And how do you do that?"

Lily's smile disappeared and Emily seized the chance to return to her work. "Well...uh, you just don't," the Extended answered after a moment's thought. "Hey! Pay attention! This is important!" She dropped her hands down onto the Eclipse's console. "How come you're being all bummed out?"

"It's complicated."

"Oh come on!" Emily glanced up in surprise at the feeling of hurt from the young Extended. "Everyone says that! How can it be so complicated that I can't understand it?"

Well, that was hard to argue with but Emily glanced away all the same. She would have to figure these things out for herself before she could go telling everybody else about them. "I'll tell you later."

Lily frowned. "Later?"

"Yes, later."

"You promise?"

"Yes, I promise."

Lily looked unconvinced, but stepped away anyway and regarded Emily skeptically for a moment. Then she pushed off the cockpit hatch, and left Emily to sit back and sigh, her work forgotten.

Earth Alliance Archangel-class battleship Lucifer

With the vast sweep of the Debris Belt before them and four ZAFT warships, plus the Minerva, somewhere up ahead, Joaquin felt profoundly jittery as the Lucifer cruised into the debris field. Fighting in the Debris Belt was to space combat what fighting in a forest or a city was to ground combat and the Minerva in particular had always used this vast shoal zone to its advantage.

He peered ahead. The four ZAFT vessels would likely be off balance, and if the calculations were right the Minerva would probably have them decimated by the time the Lucifer arrived. But a desperate foe was a foe that frequently confounded calculations, and Joaquin knew that those ZAFT survivors must have been starting to get desperate.

In the captain's chair, Ortega glanced over. "The Charlemagne is running behind us by an hour. Should we hold until they show up?"

Joaquin snorted. "Of course not. They'll all get away if we wait. Danilov will just have to come through."

"What if he doesn't?"

"Then we'll take down the Minerva ourselves. ND HE and the Hyperion Gs can handle it."

Ortega cast Joaquin a skeptical glance, but the latter did not notice and instead stared ahead intently into the Debris Belt. They had slipped through his fingers too many times and they were carrying his career off with them. But not this time.

Morgan Chevalier had to admit that the Lucifer's technicians had done well with the slender mobile suit before him. With the body of the Windam, the wings of the Aile Striker, and the four violet gunbarrels of the Exus mobile armor, the Fenrir was several steps above his old Windam and that was what he would need against that formidable new Gundam the Resistance was fielding. It had torn his mobile suit to pieces at Terminal, but now the Fenrir would have a chance to bare its fangs and let loose its howl across the battlefield.

He glanced across the hangar, where the Lucifer's other mobile suit with a Gundam's face sat waiting. The Raigo Gundam had the masked ND HE floating in front of it, and even with the mask and flight suit, Morgan could see in him the look of a cornered animal, coiled and ready to pounce.

That, really, was the most sickening thing about the Extended. Training people to fight was one thing it was something he had done himself, and had done to others. But leaving people with no ability other than to fight? It was not as though the Extended were ever intended to be discharged or something anyway, but that powerlessness, that deciding of one's destiny, that kind of engineering of human life...wasn't that what Blue Cosmos railed against in the Coordinators?

Of course, as his memories returned of his Windam being dismembered by the Resistance's blindingly fast new mobile suit, it wasn't as though Coordinators were the only ones with superior abilities. The new Gundam had the same pilot as that old Twilight and its elusive Angel of Death.

Morgan returned his gaze to the Raigo, and its masked pilot. ND HE...a man whose destiny had been decided by another. That was the essence of the Extended.

But, the Moonlight Mad Dog reminded himself, Colonel Joaquin was not the only man who could decide destiny.

May 5th, CE 77 - ZAFT Eternal-class cruiser Seraphim, Debris Belt, orbit of Earth

Bathed in the eerie cold light of the monitor, Varder Ehrmacht stared intently at the combat footage of that blinding, ever-unstoppable Gundam Eclipse. Those bursts of speed, those intricate maneuvers, that precise had all matched the Vice Marshal himself blow for blow. And then Operation Hell's Wind had ended in failure right before Kira Yamato himself.

Over Varder's shoulder, Lilith glanced down uncomfortably at him. "You've been staring at that footage for two hours, Varder."

"Someone has to."

"Yeah, but nobody's gonna beat that kid like this." She put a hand on his shoulder. "Come on. Let's get something to eat."

Varder waved her off. "Go without me. I've got stuff to do."

"Like sit in here and stare at combat footage?" Lilith crossed her arms. "What's up with all this, anyway?"

"She humiliated us, Lil," Varder said, and his fists tightened. "She's been doing that a lot, I must say. Either she's pulling some surprise trick out of her ass or she's just slaughtering us." He looked up at her with fire flickering in his eyes. "Would our operation have failed if that kid hadn't tied up Yamato the whole time?"

"Oh come on, Varder," Lilith sighed, "it was such a long shot and you know it." She waved at the screen. "Anyway, you're going to get a rematch pretty soon. The Minerva is catching up and we both know what they want."

Varder glowered back at the screen. "Yes, we do."

ZAFT Nazca-class destroyer Caernafon, orbit of Earth

The sight of a panicking man was always so unseemly and double for the already unpleasant-to-look-at Commander Glasgow.

Leons Graves sat back stoically on the Caernafon's bridge as Glasgow frantically handed out orders, to the Caernafon and the two ships surviving, the Vacquier and the Averroes. The Seraphim was off to the side, apparently doing its own thing, but Graves knew he would be sitting this battle out. The failure at Sagan City had shattered Glasgow's trust, and without that there wasn't much left for Graves to do.

Which, of course, was why he had spent much of this little journey preparing his Civilian Astray for a quick escape should the need arise. No sense getting killed in the service of some abstract ideal like loyalty. That was just bad business.

With the mighty Minerva bearing down on a handful of demoralized, isolated warships, the conclusion seemed foregone. But there were Alliance ships in pursuit too, so as long as the battle could be prolonged until their arrival, the problem might solve itself. There was always a bigger fish.

In the meantime, Graves listened idly to what seemed to be Glasgow's battle plan. The Minerva was on the verge of catching up hell, it was probably beginning to launch its mobile suits. When it did, and when they attacked, the Caernafon and friends would steadily retreat back into the Debris Belt, before scattering and peppering the wreckage with anti-beam depth charges and missiles on timed fuses. They would rendezvous elsewhere and then slip away as the Minerva dealt with an exploding cloud of anti-beam gas.

A clever plan, but would the Minerva be fooled, or held off for that long? If not, Graves had a few plans after all because that, after all, was good business.

Battleship Minerva, orbit of Earth

"Targets in range," Burt announced from the sensor console as the Minerva's bridge sank down into its combat state. Distance, 4500 and closing. Enemy is on course for the Debris Belt and launching mobile suits."

At her station, Abbey peered forward thoughtfully. "So they're just going to melt through the wreckage."

"Not if we have anything to say about it," Meyrin said. "Tristans, Isolde, Neidhardt, target the space around the enemy warships and fire. We'll force them around and hit them with the Tannhäuser."

The Minerva's guns boomed and its missiles arced through space towards the four ZAFT warships, which plunged to the side and threw up a wall of CIWS fire.

"Okay guys," Roxy said at her console, "for those who don't know, fighting over the atmosphere is just like fighting in space normally, except you have to keep a close eye on the altitude or you'll get pulled into the gravity well. So don't fuck up. Ready?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," Emily's voice answered. Meyrin glanced up at the red-haired comm officer and nodded.

"Then let's kick some ass!"

The winged battleship shuddered as its catapults fired, the Destiny and Gaia went rocketing out, and Meyrin sat back and steeled herself for a fight.

Trojan Noiret threw his DOM Trooper forward with a shout, beam sabers on the end of his rifle blazing. Up ahead, a crimson Blaze ZAKU Warrior flung up its shield to deflect the blow only for Trojan to level off the DOM's Gigalauncher in its left hand and spear the ZAKU through the cockpit on a beam bolt. But from the flames a Slash ZAKU plunged down towards him with a sweeping swipe from its beam axe, and Trojan jammed the DOM backward to dodge the blow.

The ZAKU charged forward, but a moment later a wave of beams plowed through it and tore it to flaming shreds and in a silver blur, the Vent Savior Gundam shot by in mobile armor mode.

"Not having such a great day, are ya, Undefeated of the East?" giggled Lily.

Trojan frowned back. "The hell you talking about?"

"Ah, I'll explain later." The Vent Savior arced upward and went spiraling after the ZAFT warships. Trojan shook his head and returned his attention to the oncoming team of red ZAKUs the ones from the black Eternal-class cruiser. A Gunner ZAKU sent a shimmering blast of red plasma streaming towards the DOM; Trojan threw his green mobile suit aside and returned fire with his own rifle and Gigalauncher, only for another Blaze ZAKU to streak in from above with its beam rifle blazing. Trojan pulled back behind his beam shield, sparks flying around him, and waited for his opportunity.

"We'll do this the way we planned," Shinn said, clenching his fists around the Destiny's controls as his Gundam sailed into battle. "There's an old warship wreck up there."

Stella smiled. "Stella knows what to do."

With that, the Gaia whirled out of formation and set down softly on the charred hulk of an Alliance warship. Shinn glanced up ahead, at the force of ZAFT mobile suits on its approach. He could feel their fear, at last outweighing their anger. They were discouraged and desperate, and now there were well over a dozen on their way in, weapons primed. They raised their guns and opened fire

The seed burst, the beam wings snapped to life, and the Destiny roared forward with sword drawn.

A wall of afterimages rushed up around the Gundam as it danced around its enemies' beam fire, and with a resounding shriek, the Destiny rushed in and slashed its first victim in half. The bisected ZAKU exploded only for another with a Gunner Wizard to back away and level off its cannon. The Destiny blasted forward, slammed its left-hand palm cannon clear through the ZAKU's cannon, and then ripped it in two with a sword stroke. A Blaze ZAKU lunged up from behind, beam rifle leveled off, and Shinn spared it a glance

...just as a beam blast from the far-off Gaia Gundam plowed through it from the right and blew it apart. Shinn backflipped over the cloud of flames and rushed down after the survivors, who had all backed away for distance and let loose a shimmering barrage of beam fire.

"Three of you down," Shinn grunted and slammed down the booster as he saw his chance "And here's four!" The closest ZAKU seized its beam tomahawk and flung itself forward with a downward hack the Destiny pounded the blade to the side with its sword, then slammed its palm cannon into the ZAKU's chest, and blew apart the green mobile suit. A wave of beam fire raced out from the darkness and claimed a fifth ZAKU, and as the ZAFT mobile suits backpedaled, the Destiny seized its chance to rip another in two.

Shinn scanned the ten remaining mobile suits, waiting for them to make the next move, the fear pulsing from their cockpits.

"Did you guys really think you could do this without being punished?" he asked quietly. The ZAKUs broke their formation and opened fire; the Destiny snaked its way through their blasts and charged. "'cuz today I'll show you the same mercy you showed them!"

The Infinite Justice rattled as a wave of missiles detonated around it; Athrun gritted his teeth and glowered through the flames at the squad of Blaze ZAKU Warriors unloading their missiles into his Gundam's Phase Shift armor. But it would take more than that to take down even his own hobbled mobile suit; the Justice switched its rifle to its left hand and drew a beam saber in its freed right

With a blast of thruster exhaust, the Justice rushed out of the flames, fired forward its anchor, yanked the first ZAKU close, and chopped it in two with his saber. The remaining five pulled away with a desperate wave of firepower; Athrun dove through the blasts and fired back with his own rifle.

Below loomed one of the two surviving Laurasia-class frigates, guns turned up towards the Justice. The warship let loose a fearful fusillade; Athrun scowled and threw his Gundam into the open spaces between the shots.

"Let's see you follow me!" Athrun shouted, and plunged down towards the desperate warship. The ZAKUs hesitantly followed and opened fire only for a stray railgun shot to blow away one of their number.

The Justice roared down towards the warship and darted aside from a pulsing beam cannon blast. With a crash it swept in and peppered the ship's hull with beam rifle shots, then darted aside from another beam cannon blow. One of the ZAKUs dove in from behind, a beam axe blazing and ready for battle Athrun whipped around to stop the blade cold with a saber swipe. The Laurasia angled its guns to fire

Instead, Athrun jetted backward, pulling the ZAKU with him, and then darted upward just in time for the Laurasia's beam cannon blast to vaporize the ZAKU. And before it could follow up with another shot, the Justice swept down with a beam rifle barrage of its own and punched a blast through the ship's bridge. The stricken vessel reeled back as flames gushed out like blood from its wounded prow; a moment later it shuddered again, as Athrun tore apart the ship's upper surface with beam fire and sent the ship staggering off the battlefield, towards the atmosphere.

The ZAKUs charged; Athrun cast a glance towards them and took off towards the next warship.

"Don't think you've defeated us yet!" cried Varder Ehrmacht as his Proto Gaia brought down its saber onto the Gundam Eclipse's shining beam sword. "You can kill grunts, but you haven't killed me!"

Emily ground her teeth as the sparks flew. "I certainly still could," she shot back only for the instinct of danger to rise up her spine. She hurled the Proto Gaia forward with sheer thruster power and whipped around, just in time to face the missiles and beam blasts of the charging Proto Savior. "And you too!"

With a flash from its eyes, the Eclipse waved its hand and the missiles arced away to explode harmlessly around the combatants. The Proto Savior charged forward, beam cannons blazing; the Eclipse rocketed up, closed the distance, and slammed its sword down into the mobile suit's giant backpack. It vanished with a blaze and the Proto Savior itself staggered out of the flames, just as the Proto Gaia pressed the attack with its saber.

"That was only the Ratha parts!" screamed Lilith, as the Proto Savior went on the attack with a beam barrage of its own. The Eclipse snaked its way through the blasts, parried a blow from the Proto Gaia, and then whipped around and sawed the Proto Savior's beam rifle in two. "Dammit! You !"

"I don't have time for you two," Emily growled; the Proto Gaia slammed its own saber down onto the Eclipse's sword. "And I've killed better people than you, so just get out of here now."

In the Proto Gaia's cockpit, Varder Ehrmacht trembled with rage, his fists tightening around the mobile suit's controls, his teeth grinding. "You're going to just dismiss me like that?" The Proto Gaia charged forward with a series of furious saber swings. "Me?! Of all people?!" The red mobile suit brought its saber down with an eruption of sparks. "You little bitch! You have no idea who I am! I'm the Widowmaker of Mars!" The Proto Gaia surged forward, into a vicious swordfight with the Eclipse. "At Mars I personally destroyed twenty mobile suits in one battle and you have the gall to blow me off?!"

Emily scowled back and glanced down at the altitude reading, and then over her shoulder where the Proto Savior was sweeping in for the kill. "You aren't on Mars anymore."

With that, the Eclipse pushed off from the Gaia, whipped around, and slashed off the Proto Savior's left arm and left-hand plasma cannon as it passed by. The Proto Gaia charged instead with a scream from its pilot and a furious saber swing but the Eclipse ducked below the blow and then jerked upward, and with an ear-splitting shriek, it claimed the Proto Gaia's left leg at the knee, its left-hand hip armor, its left wing, and its left arm at the shoulder.

"Have you had enough yet?" Emily asked, as she glanced at the tactical map. "Because I really don't have time for you."

"You aren't going anywhere!" shrieked Varder, and it plunged down after the Eclipse with a blaze of exhaust.

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, orbit of Earth

"ETA to combat range is fifteen minutes," the sensor officer announced. On the Charlemagne's bridge, Danilov sat back and glanced to starboard, where the Lucifer was already opening its catapults. Joaquin was starving for glory and would seize on any scrap he could lay hands on. Just as well, though maybe that would make him more effective.

Up ahead, he could see that the ZAFT force had already lost one ship and was in the process of losing another. That black Eternal-class cruiser had slipped away to the edge of the battlefield and looked about ready to escape, but that could be accepted. It could be hunted down later. One ship with assuredly off-balance and demoralized troops could be dealt with.

And then there was the Minerva, ruthlessly tearing apart the enemy but not fast enough. Now the Charlemagne and the Lucifer were here, and Captain Hawke would have to find a way out of two high-end Alliance warships cornering her in the Debris Belt, with the gravity well at her back.

Well, the more hopeless things get, the better you seem to work, he reflected. So let's give each other a fight to remember, Captain Hawke.

He leaned forward. "All hands, prepare for anti-ship and anti-mobile suit combat!"

Sven Cal Bayan stopped on his way to the hangar in the Charlemagne's corridors at the feeling of a hand on his arm. He glanced over and felt his blood run cold as he saw Yukiko reaching out from a side hallway, a stern look on her face.

"Are you going to do it this time?" Sven blinked and for a moment wondered if she had found out. "Destroy the Destiny?"

Sven wrenched his arm free. "I will do as my duty requires."

"You're more than that," Yukiko shot back. "The Crusader will make you more than that. You're the Earth Sphere's hope." She paused. "Have you thought about my proposal?"

"I will not be turned into an Extended," Sven snarled. "Nor will I take Gamma Glipheptin or in any way surrender control over myself. That is final."

Yukiko frowned back. "You're selling yourself short. You could maximize the Crusader's potential as an Extended. And you could defeat the Destiny, decisively, once and for all, so they can't bring it back."

Sven whirled around. "I will defeat the Destiny myself," he shot back, "without interference."

"I'll be watching."

"Of course you will."

He pushed off down the hallway and clenched his fists around his helmet.

ZAFT Nazca-class destroyer Caernafon

His heart raced as he looked out the bridge windows again at the Vacquier, as its mangled hull disintegrated in the Earth's atmosphere. The Minerva was unstoppable. Even with its diminished mobile suit contingent, it was gutting his forces; how formidable had they been, then, back when they had all eight of those alleged Gundams?

Glasgow shook his head and, with great effort, pushed away the fear. The Minerva could still be eluded. The Debris Belt was close at hand; all he had to do was distract them long enough to slip away into the wreckage. That wouldn't be too hard would it?

Another of his mobile suits exploded somewhere outside, and for a moment he saw the flickering afterimages of the Destiny Gundam, and terror raced through him.

"Graves," he said quietly, "what do you suggest?" Silence answered him. "Graves?" He glanced over...

...and found nothing but an empty chair.

A stricken Laurasia-class frigate, the one that Rau Le Creuset recognized as the Averroes, listed to starboard up above. A handful of ZAKUs remained by the ship's cratered hull, bravely pouring firepower after his GOUF Ignited.

The GOUF ducked down between the walls of firepower thrown up by the ZAKUs. Up ahead, the green mobile suits moved forward as their warship belched smoke and fire; the first came charging forward with a barrage of missiles from its Blaze Wizard. Rau expertly cut them down with a beam gun salvo; the ZAKU came rushing up from below the blasts, rifle leveled off

Instead, Rau seized his chance to slam the GOUF forward and slice the ZAKU in half at the waist with his beam sword before it could react. The remaining three up above poured firepower after him, but came up empty-handed

"Minerva, now!" Rau roared.

From the winged warship came a shimmering quartet of beam blasts, and the Tristan blasts slammed straight through the crippled Laurasia and blasted it apart with a thundering explosion. One of the ZAKUs vanished in the blaze; the other two scrambled for distance, but Rau lunged up over one of them and cut it in two. The survivor whirled around with its rifle ready, only for the GOUF to chop it in two; the ZAKU resorted to its beam tomahawk and slammed it down onto the GOUF's spiked shield.

"Well fought," Rau chuckled, "but not enough!"

The ZAKU shuddered as the GOUF slammed its sword through the cockpit. Rau drew it out, kicked the dying mobile suit away, and watched it explode, satisfied.

The Proto Savior shuddered as the Gundam Eclipse claimed its right leg at the knee with a powerful downward sword hack. The black mobile suit staggered away, sparks spewing from its wounds. Emily glanced over her shoulder and whirled around to smack aside the Proto Gaia's saber; she turned again to deflect the Proto Savior's blow, and then rocketed over the two wounded mobile suits.

"You think that Gundam makes you better than me?!" Varder shouted. "I'll show you, little girl! A superior mobile suit has its limits against a superior pilot!"

The Proto Gaia charged, beam saber held upward

Instead, blindingly fast, the Eclipse closed the gap between them, slashed off its right arm at the elbow, and sent the rest of the mobile suit reeling with a lightning-fast kick to the chest. Emily swung up her beam sword for a lethal blow and burst forward

The Proto Savior lunged up into her path and deployed its remaining plasma cannon to be sliced in two by the Eclipse's beam sword. The rush of fire sent the Eclipse staggering back and as Emily hacked the cloud apart, she saw the Proto Savior seize the ruined Proto Gaia with its remaining arm and rocket into the Debris Belt as fast as its remaining engines would carry it.

Emily sat back with a sigh, staring after that retreating, pulsing point of hatred.

With four ZAKUs left, Shinn scanned the black skies for his next target and found, looming far ahead, the cerulean hull of a Nazca-class destroyer, the last warship on the field.

"Stella! Cover me!" The Destiny somersaulted over the remaining ZAKUs and then blasted off towards the destroyer. The four ZAKUs followed, only for one of them to be blown apart from a blast from afar by Stella. The three survivors turned their shields towards the Gaia and their rifles towards the Destiny, and one of them rocketed after the latter Gundam. Shinn glanced over his shoulder an instant later he whipped around, sword upraised, and sawed the ZAKU in half.

"Stella will finish the rest!" Stella cried, and the Gaia lunged out of hiding with a beam saber lit. Shinn turned again, sword drawn, and went charging towards the Nazca.

"Then it's just down to you!" shouted Shinn, and with a flash the Destiny darted through the warship's desperate fire. He plunged the sword down into the ship's hull, smashing one of its beam cannons and then, as sparks and shrapnel flew, he whipped up the Destiny's long-range cannon and poured a blast through the ship's bridge, and another through the engines.

As fire tore the vessel apart, a mobile suit lunged out of the splintering hangar. Shinn watched it go, catching sight of its purple armor and the distinct snake symbol on its shoulder armor. A flash of recognition shot through him the Destiny vaulted up after the retreating Civilian Astray and dodged the desperate fire from its beam gun.

"So!" Shinn cried. "You're the rat that's responsible for all this, huh? Leons Graves!"

"I'm just a mercenary!" Graves shot back. "If you want someone to blame, blame ZAFT!"

"Don't try to worm your way out of this, you son of a bitch," Shinn snarled and with a flash of afterimages and thruster exhaust, the Destiny charged forward. "Capture is too good for you," the Destiny raised its sword, "so I'll just be the executioner myself!"

Graves leveled off his beam gun to fire but the sky filled with afterimages and his scream of terror as the Destiny lunged up above him and dropped back down with a devastating sword slice that chopped his Civilian Astray in two.

Leons Graves and his Civilian Astray vanished in a blast of fire and Shinn let out his breath. He cast a glance back towards the battlefield, where Stella had handily finished off the two surviving ZAKUs. The ZAFT force looked to be completely gone, so

The instinct jolted him and he threw the Destiny back, just as a beam rifle blast sizzled by. He glanced towards the stars

Up ahead, in front of the massive Charlemagne and the black Archangel, beam wings spread, eyes blazing, the Crusader Gundam went on the attack.

To be continued...