Phase 20 - To Earth

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 20 - To Earth

May 5th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, orbit of Earth

"That's not good," groaned Roxy as the image came into focus on the auxiliary screen. Storming into view were the mobile suits of the black Archangel and the Charlemagne, and the warships themselves hovered at the edge of the Debris Belt and closing in.

Meyrin glanced over at Abbey. "I suppose we can try the Pinball Machine," she offered. Abbey looked back diffidently.

"We'd be sacrificing a lot of missiles."

"We'll be sacrificing a lot of missiles anyway." She looked back down towards a waiting Chen. "Eject the prepared missiles and move them into the Debris Belt, behind some of the wreckage. Make sure the fuses are set to remote detonation."

As Chen set to work, Meyrin glanced back up at the auxiliary screen. Of course, this would depend on the enemy captains being dumb enough to fall for this. The captain of that black Archangel, possibly, but Danilov?

Well, she thought bitterly, I did tell you it wouldn't be easy.

Athrun Zala fixed his eyes on the fast-approaching Arrowhead Raigo Gundam, charging towards him with its eyes ablaze and Kira Yamato's distorted presence pulsing from within. The memories of Kira came rushing back; Athrun forced them down. It would be all too easy to simply disable the Raigo, capture its pilot, and try to create a new Kira, a Kira who hadn't been led astray by Rau and turned into an enemy. To go back to a simpler time.

But that wouldn't be Kira. Athrun tightened his fists around the Infinite Justice's controls. Kira was gone, and this Extended before him would simply have to be destroyed.

The Raigo let loose a salvo of beams from its rifle and forced the Justice on the defensive. Athrun pulled back behind his beam shield as the Raigo closed in; he lunged forward, lit up one of the Justice's leg blades, and swung it towards the Raigo's head

Instead, the blade crashed against the Raigo's shield, and Kira's voice filled the Justice's cockpit.

"'re the one who's been tormenting me!"

Athrun glanced around wide-eyed for a moment, before the auxiliary screen came to life with a masked face staring back through a single green pentagonal eye. "I've been what?"

In the Raigo's cockpit, ND HE trembled with rage. "You've been torturing me," he snarled, "with these...memories!" The Raigo surged forward with a blast from its thrusters and forced the Justice back on the defensive with a volley of beam rifle shots. "I have these memories that I can't explain, and you're in them!"

The Raigo stormed forward; Athrun seized his chance to lunge into its face, ignite one of the leg blades, and slash its beam rifle in two. He whipped around to bring his own rifle to bear on the Raigo's exposed back only for the Raigo to whip around with a beam saber drawn and slice his own rifle apart. Athrun abandoned the weapon in favor of a beam saber and jammed the blade up to spoil the Raigo's downward hack.

"I can see you," snarled ND, "as a boy, with some little green bird!"

"With Torii?" Athrun breathed; the Justice crashed as the Raigo slammed its knee up into the red machine's torso.

"I have these memories as if we were friends!" ND screamed. "But we aren't! We never were! I don't know you, so," the Raigo charged, "stay out of my memories, Athrun Zala!"

Athrun swung his saber up to deflect another blow, as the memories returned to him as well. "You...have Kira's memories..."

"I am not that man!" ND HE roared, and with a crash it brought its saber down again onto the Justice's blade.

The Destiny Gundam danced across the black sky as the Crusader Gundam stormed after it, and the afterimages flew as the two Gundams slammed their swords together.

"I told you," growled Sven, "not to think that we were on your side."

Shinn smirked back. "What makes you think I ever did?"

The two Gundams darted apart and traded fire from their long-range cannons. Shinn threw the Destiny to the side as the Crusader poured fire after him the white bolt flared before him and he flung his Gundam upward as two black Windams came streaking in from behind, beam rifles blazing. Another appeared behind him with a booming Doppelhorn Striker; a fourth with a Lightning Striker, electromagnetic cannon extended.

"All units, engage at will!" Sven cried, and the Crusader closed in with its sword upturned

Instead, the Destiny dove to the side, whipped around, and sawed in two one of the Windams with its anti-ship sword. The three survivors backed away and then a beam blast came barreling out of nowhere to blow away the Doppelhorn Windam.

Shinn glanced up in surprise as the Gaia Gundam roared into the fray. "Stella, stay back! These guys !"

The Gaia lunged down and let loose a storm of beam rifle fire that forced the surviving Windams back. Sven ground his teeth and charged after the black Gundam, only for the Destiny to leap into his path and knock him aside with a powerful overhead sword hack.

"You're not going anywhere near her, jackass!" Shinn yelled.

"Then I won't," Sven shot back. "Shams, Mudie, engage the Gaia!"

From behind one of the larger pieces of wreckage, Shams' light blue Vanguard and Mudie's dark green and white Artemis Gundams lunged out with bright trails of thruster exhaust and lanced down towards the Gaia. Stella glowered up at them, leveled off her rifle, and opened fire.

Up above, the Crusader pressed its sword down against the Destiny's own. "Now, Asuka, I will deal with you."

Shinn glared back. "At least you're confident."

The Gundams flung each other apart and rocketed forward again to bring their swords crashing together.

Bolts of green energy sizzled by as three Hyperion G mobile suits poured relentless fire after Rau Le Creuset's winding GOUF Ignited. Fighting isolated and demoralized ZAFT soldiers had been one thing, but these troops were well-rested and better-equipped, and it had been a little too long since he had last fought Alliance soldiers.

One of the Hyperions closed in with a beam blade shining from its Zastava Stigmate machinegun. Rau whipped around and jammed his shield up to stop the blow; he flung up the GOUF's sword for a finishing blow, but the Hyperion rammed its knee into the GOUF's chest and then slammed it back with a kick that sent the ZAFT machine reeling. It moved in for the kill; Rau flung the GOUF back further and then jetted upward, and with a crash he sent his heat rod snaking down to curl around the Hyperion's machinegun and yank it from the mobile suit's grasp

...and a moment later one of the Hyperions above fired its beam cannon and blew away the GOUF's left-hand heat rod.

"Suppose I should have seen that coming," Rau sniffed as the Hyperions opened fire again. The first Hyperion charged in again with a drawn beam knife, blade extended to the length of a saber, and with a crash it swung the blade down against the GOUF's shield. Rau surged back with a sword slice at the Hyperion's waist, but the blue Alliance mobile suit jetted backward just in time for the other two to slam the GOUF's shield with a wave of beam fire.

The GOUF backed away again and Rau scanned over his enemies, watching as they charged again.

A black Windam flung its ruined bazooka into the face of Trojan's DOM Trooper and switched to its beam rifle only for Lily's Vent Savior Gundam to blow it to pieces with a wave of plasma fire. The remaining three Windams backed away, beam rifles leveled off only for the two mobile suits to break apart, showering the Alliance units with beam fire. One of them ducked beneath the barrage and charged forward towards the DOM

Trojan rocketed forward with a shout, lighting up the beam sabers on the end of his rifle, and slashed the Windam in two at the waist.

"Just two left," Lily started, "so let's "

A barrage of beams tore through the space between the two mobile suits and forced them apart. The two Windams backed away as up above, five points of light materialized among the stars and five mobile suits with the faces of Gundams came rushing in.

"Those things again," Trojan growled, "the ones from Arnhelm."

"Hey, those are the jerks that trashed my Strike!" Lily wailed. "Come on, let's kick their asses!"

The Vent Savior transformed and roared off towards the oncoming Gundams. Trojan steeled himself and followed.

"So," cackled Morgan Chevalier as his humming Fenrir soared into battle, "I must commend you, Miss Angel of Death, for what you've done at Copernicus and Sagan City. Side of righteousness and all."

In the Eclipse, beam sword blazing, Emily tensed as the Fenrir launched its gunbarrels and the remote weapons wove a web of green beams. She threw the Eclipse through the nearest opening and swung up her sword, just in time to avoid a saber blow from the Fenrir. It leveled off the beam rifle in its left hand; the Eclipse darted aside as it fired and charged again, falling into a spark-spewing swordfight with the Alliance machine.

"I'll confess some curiosity, though," Morgan went on, sparks dancing around the two mobile suits, "as to which one of you is really my enemy." The Fenrir's eyes flashed and the mobile suit went on the offensive, with a volley of saber blows barely parried and a wave of gunbarrel fire barely dodged by the Eclipse. "So let's make it clear, right now, once and for all!" The Fenrir charged, saber blazing. "Whose side are you on, Angel of Death?!"

Emily flung the Eclipse backward, dodging Morgan's final blow, and then slammed her Gundam forward again and pummeled the Fenrir's beam shield with her own sword. "I'm against the Alliance and ZAFT," she shot back. "Both sides massacre innocent people!"

"Some might call that retaliation, kid!" Morgan laughed, and with a blast of sparks the Fenrir blocked another sword blow with its saber. "After all, the Resistance has been killing people all over, ever since this war started. Ever wonder how many of them were civilians? How much blood is on the Resistance's hands?"

Memories rippled through Emily's mind, of Novorossiysk, of the blistering deserts of Iraq, of Argus. "I've been killing them too."

The Fenrir surged forward. "So I've heard!" Morgan roared with a grin. "Yes, we all know, you butchered a ZAFT remnant detachment that turned on the Minerva! One might begin to question your loyalties, little girl! So I say again," the Fenrir came crashing down with another saber swing, "whose side are you on?!"

Earth Alliance Archangel-class battleship Lucifer

Joaquin sat back uncomfortably in his chair as the Lucifer shook. The Minerva's shots were random, or so it seemed, but they were getting unnervingly close to the hull of the ship and there was still the question of why they had paused near the edge of the Debris Field and launched missiles into it. Offloading duds, perhaps but intelligence indicated that the Minerva had rarely had such an abysmal supply situation in previous engagements. What were the odds here?

"That laminated armor," grumbled Ortega from the captain's chair. "Valiants, target the enemy's engine block! Fire!"

The Valiants fired a volley of shells, but Joaquin could already tell they would miss as the Minerva veered to the right. He glanced up at the auxiliary screen as Danilov's face appeared.

"Lucifer, change your attack vector; we're going to engage."

Ortega blinked in surprise. "Already? But the mobile suits "

"Our pilots are of the Phantom Pain," Danilov said. "Surely they can deal with some close-quarters ship-to-ship action."

The screen went dark and Joaquin bit back a scowl. "Move the Lucifer to port and resume fire on the Minerva," he instructed. "Let Danilov do as he pleases."

The Lucifer rattled again from another near miss.

Sparks rained down on the two Gundams as their towering anti-ship swords met and the afterimages flared. Inside the Destiny, Shinn glowered up into the cold green eyes of the Crusader Gundam and kept in the back of his mind the familiar presence of Stella, still on the battlefield, still alive, still defiant.

The Crusader surged forward and leveled off its long-range cannon; Shinn threw his beam shield up as the red blast slammed against its surface and drove him back. Afterimages flickering, the Crusader closed in with its sword raised high only for Shinn to jam his own blade up into the path and leave the two Gundams with their swords slammed together above their heads.

Shinn blinked in surprise as a feeling went shooting up his spine a feeling from inside the black and gray armor of that Earth Alliance mobile suit, a feeling from its pilot. Usually he felt nothing from this man but occasional frustration, but this time it was not like him to feel this tension, this fear.

He licked his lips. "What's got you so afraid?"

The Crusader flung the Destiny back with its sword and stormed forward again for another vicious, sweeping swordfight. The Destiny rattled as it blocked and deflected each ponderous blow amid a cyclone of mirages. "I am afraid of nothing," Sven snarled back, and with finality he slammed the Crusader's Schwert Gewehr sword onto the Destiny's blade and drove the older Gundam back. "You are the one who should be in fear. I defeated you with this mobile suit last time we fought."

"Yeah, well, that was then," Shinn answered with a smirk.

Sven scowled and hefted his sword, and the Crusader closed in. "Then I will put the fear back in you!"

Shinn felt the energy before he saw it, flung the Destiny to the side, and then pounded the Crusader's sword with as hard a horizontal swipe as he could manage. The Alliance Gundam staggered back and barely shoved its sword back on the defensive as the Destiny commenced a ruthless series of sweeping sword blows. "You forget, Mr. Devil's Saber, I'm the one who can sense emotions!" Shinn shot back, "including your fear!"

"I am afraid of nothing!" Sven roared.

"We both know that's a lie!" cackled Shinn, and the two Gundams slammed together again amid a cloud of afterimages.

Rattling under a succession of saber blows, the Infinite Justice threw itself backward in front of the relentless Raigo. Athrun tensed as the white and blue Gundam closed in, and he jammed his saber forward to deflect the Raigo's slice at the Justice's waist.

"Stay out of my memories!" screamed ND HE, and the Raigo surged forward with a wave of exhaust from its Arrowhead Striker. "You keep appearing in them! With that green bird, or..." The turmoil from inside the Raigo intensified and Athrun winced at the feeling. "This other're there, in a space suit, and there's fire everywhere...!"

Athrun ground his teeth. "Of course you have Kira's memories," he growled, and the Justice parried a savage saber blow. "Of course this couldn't be easy for me. Nothing ever is."

The Raigo stabbed forward with its saber; the Justice parried the blow, only for the Raigo's shield to throw aside the Justice's counterattack. "Quit acting like you know me!" ND shot back. "You think you know who I am but nobody does! Nobody can tell me who I am! That's why I wear this mask!"

"Not even you, huh?" Athrun asked, and flung up his saber to deflect a swing from the Raigo. He backed away slowly, saber working furiously, as the Raigo pressed its attack. "Never taken off the mask?"

With a crash and a shower of sparks, the Raigo slammed its saber forward into the Justice's beam saber. "Nobody can tell me who I am!" ND snarled. "Nobody, because none of you know! None of you can see through my mask!"

Athrun scowled back. "Well then...!"

Abruptly, the Justice surged forward and slammed its knee hard into the Raigo's torso. The white and blue Gundam reeled just long enough for Athrun to lunge into its path as it sailed backward, whip around, and slam the Gundam again in the back, even harder. A shattering noise split the air in the Justice's cockpit, and on the auxiliary screen Athrun watched as shards of black plastic and drops of blood

A moment later, the face of Kira Yamato, pale skin streaked with blood and its violet eyes wide, lifted up from the console. Athrun swallowed the rush of feelings at his old friend's face and focused his mind on the distortion in the presence the reminder that this thing before him was not Kira...and even Kira himself was no longer Kira.

"My...face..." ND started, as he caught his own reflection in the fragments of his mask's single green eye.

"That's who you are," Athrun answered quietly. "A clone of Kira Yamato. The Strike Gundam's pilot during the Valentine War."

"K-Kira...Yamato..." ND stared down at the drops of blood on his hands, at the shards of his mask floating around him. "Who...who I am...?"

Athrun studied the man's face for a moment the fury, the fear, the confusion, all of it flickering across his features. "So now you have a choice," he went on. "You know who you are. I know who you are. What are you going to do about it?"

The dull, violet eyes of Kira Yamato blazed with fury as he fixed them on Kira's old friend.

" can't..."

Suddenly, the Raigo's eyes lit up and the Gundam charged back into a vicious swordfight with the Justice.

"You can't tell me who I am!"

With the sky filled with beam fire, Stella Loussier's eyes darted between her two enemies one a hulking light blue evolution of the old Calamity, the other a nimble dark green and white version of the Aile Windam. The Artemis Gundam roared in close with a volley of beam fire; the Gaia ducked beneath it and snaked its way amid the Debris Belt.

In the Artemis's cockpit, Mudie smirked. "Don't think you can hide in there forever. Shams, flush her out!"

"With pleasure!" Shams answered, and the Vanguard leveled off its two "Schlag" cannons to open fire

Instead, an instant later, the Gaia lunged out of hiding and squeezed off a beam rifle shot that sliced through the Vanguard's rifle, then darted back into hiding amid the wreckage.

"What the fuck ?!" Shams exclaimed. "Damn you!" The Vanguard let loose a withering barrage from its cannons that sliced its way through the wreckage with a trail of fire and smoke. The shrapnel ripped across the black sky and the two Alliance Gundams backed away only for the Gaia to emerge from the smoke with a blast of thruster exhaust and charge in close, beam saber blazing, to attack the Artemis.

"How ?!" Mudie yelped, and backed away as the Gaia claimed her beam rifle with a saber swipe and switched to her own saber. "Shams !"

"Get away from her first!" Shams shouted; the Vanguard swept in from behind and raised the heavy Kaefer Zwei shield on its left arm, and a silver anchor launched out.

With a crash from the straining metal, the Gaia whipped around and hurled its rifle into the anchor's path to be seized. The punctured rifle exploded and as the Artemis hacked the flames apart, it found the Gaia nowhere to be seen.

"What the hell is that fucker up to?!" Shams snarled as he frantically scanned the wreckage.

"There's nothing worse than an unruly Extended..." Mudie ground her teeth as she caught sight of movement in the wreckage and took after it.

Lily Thevalley yelped in surprise as the Gale Strike Gundam slammed her Vent Savior back with a ruthless series of sword blows against her shield. She threw the silver mobile suit back in time to avoid a scissoring pair of swings towards her waist but a moment later, the sky filled with green bolts of beam fire that forced her even further back, and the white DRAGOONs of the Nix Providence darted around her.

The Gale Strike came down again with another series of hard blows, until Lily flung the Vent Savior to the side, darted away, and started scanning the skies for a sign of Trojan's DOM

Up above, a yellow bolt of energy shot by, followed by the black Hail Buster Gundam materializing. Lily lunged up and armed the plasma cannons to retaliate only for the Hail Buster to disappear again, replaced by the crimson Nebula Blitz and its wide-open claws

A beam rifle blast forced the Nebula Blitz back, and with a blaze of beams and thruster exhaust, Trojan's DOM Trooper dropped into view, the Regen Duel hot on its heels with drawn beam rifle and railgun.

"The hell is with these guys?!" Trojan shouted. The Regen Duel poured fire after the DOM and forced it back next to the Vent Savior, and both mobile suits pulled back behind their shields as the Nix Providence showered them with DRAGOON fire

And then they were gone. Lily blinked in surprise and her eyes darted over the displays and up ahead, the five mobile suits with the Gundams' faces were rushing away...towards the flickering afterimages and furious gunbarrel fire of the Eclipse and its foe in battle.

"Well, I think we've let Emily have enough fun on her own," Trojan said.

Lily grinned back and the Vent Savior transformed and roared off after the Alliance machines.

The GOUF's sword slammed down against its foe's shield and rained sparks down on both mobile suits. Rau shot a glance over his shoulder, and then quickly whipped around, sword at the ready, to smack aside the second Hyperion G's beam saber. The third lunged up between them and leveled off its beam cannon; the GOUF jetted upward, but the Hyperion G's blast still claimed the GOUF's right leg, blowing it off at the knee.

"Not good enough!" Rau cackled, and the GOUF let loose a hail of beam bolts from the guns on its forearms. The third Hyperion G staggered back behind its shield; the remaining two moved in, but Rau slammed down the thruster pedal and roared forward. The third Hyperion G brought its machinegun to bear, but too late the GOUF sawed through it at the waist with its beam sword.

The GOUF wheeled around as the stricken Hyperion G snapped in two and exploded. The remaining two leveled off their beam cannons and fired again; Rau threw the GOUF back with a smirk and fired back with the beam guns

...and instead of making contact, the beam bolts slammed uselessly against the shimmering lightwave barriers that erupted out of the fronts of the enemy mobile suits' beam cannons.

"Ah yes," Rau grunted, "you can do that too."

One of the Hyperion Gs ignited a beam saber and charged, and Rau tensed and steeled himself for another swordfight.

Battleship Minerva

As the missiles, railgun shells, and pulsing green beams flashed around her beleaguered warship and slammed into its hull, Meyrin Hawke racked her brain for a plan to get out of this. The obvious way was back into the Debris Belt, but the obvious way was certainly what those two Alliance ships would close off first.

The other way was back down to Earth...but that meant atmospheric reentry, which became an increasingly untenable option with each hit her vessel took.

She glanced up ahead at the closing Lucifer. "Isolde, fire!" The triple-barreled cannon obligingly let loose a salvo that slammed directly into the warship's starboard leg and central hangar, blasting three blackened craters into the ship's hull but the vessel plowed out of the smoke and fired back with its Valiant railguns to slam the shells into the Minerva's prow.

"What the are they going to ram us?" Abbey exclaimed.

"Malik, descend!" Meyrin ordered, and the Minerva swung down ponderously beneath the charging Lucifer. The legged warship abruptly veered off to the side "Hard to port!" Meyrin shouted, and Malik yanked the ship to the side just as a wave of beam fire lanced out from the looming Charlemagne up ahead.

"And then there's them," Meyrin muttered.

"Archangel-class launching missiles!"

"CIWS, intercept!" As the CIWS rattled to life and the Lucifer's missiles vanished in plumes of fire and smoke, Meyrin leaned forward, an idea coming to mind. "Chen, anti-beam depth charges! Isolde, Neidhardt, prepare to fire on my mark!"

Abbey frowned. "Another plan?"

Meyrin fixed her eyes on the dissipating smoke from the destroyed missiles and the thickening cloud of anti-beam particles. The Lucifer let loose a round of Gottfried blasts that fizzled out in the anti-beam cloud.

"Isolde, aim five degrees off the Archangel-class's port side and fire!" The Minerva's Isolde cannon boomed and the shells lashed by the Lucifer's hull; obligingly, the Lucifer edged starboard, closer to the wreckage in the Debris Belt.

"Ooh, I get it," Roxy spoke up with a grin. "Slick. I like it."

"As long as it works," Meyrin grumbled, and fixed her eyes on the Archangel-class. "Malik, reverse thrust, full. Isolde, continue firing on the enemy's port side. Force them closer to the edge of the Belt." She frowned as the orders went out and the Isolde fired again.

Danilov may not be dumb enough to fall for this, but let's hope you are...

The gunbarrels darted across the inky sky and showered the Eclipse with pulsing beam fire. Emily's eyes darted back and forth between them two of them ignited beam blades and charged in close. The Eclipse batted them aside with its beam sword; an instant later the Fenrir was there with an upraised saber, and it slammed the blade down onto the Eclipse's sword.

"This is a much better fight, I must say," Morgan chuckled as the sparks crackled around the two mobile suits. "Much fairer."

The Eclipse flung the Fenrir back with a forceful swing of its sword and then rocketed upward to dodge a wave of gunbarrel fire. The Fenrir lunged up after the black Gundam; a pair of beam cannons flipped up from its back and opened fire, and the Eclipse backed away behind his beam shield.

"But you don't seem to be taking me seriously!" Morgan continued, and the Fenrir intensified its fire. "I wonder why?" The Fenrir snaked its way through its own gunbarrel fire. "Is there someone better for you to fight?"

Emily glanced to the right, long enough to find those approaching human presences and then she flung the Eclipse to the side, letting Morgan's finishing saber stab pass through a cloud of afterimages. The Eclipse backpedaled as a wave of beam fire filled the space around it

An instant later, the Hail Buster Gundam flickered into sight and pounded the Eclipse's beam shield with a hyper impulse blast.

"You again," Emily grunted; the Regen Duel was there next to pummel the Eclipse with a blast from its bazooka. The Nix Providence's white DRAGOONs filled the sky with more green beams; Emily rocketed up over the blasts, but waiting there and dropping in from above was the crimson Nebula Blitz, the Maga-no-Ikutachi claws spread wide open.

"Finally!" roared Travis Alterman as the Nebula Blitz came crashing down. Emily jetted backward to avoid its blow but the Nebula Blitz ignited its beam saber and promptly swatted it against the Eclipse's beam sword, and then fired its thrusters to drive the black Gundam back. "All talk and no action makes me a very bored man!"

Emily shot a glance over her shoulder and dove to the side as the Gale Strike lunged in from behind with a scissoring pair of sword blows. The blue and the red mobile suits darted apart again, just as the Nix Providence came down with a sweeping slash from the saber mounted on the composite armed shield on its right arm. And as Emily ducked away from that, the Hail Buster appeared from nowhere to shower her with missiles.

At the edge of the battlefield, Morgan sniffed contemptuously as he recalled his gunbarrels. "Nice of you to let me know ahead of time."

"This one is our target, Captain Chevalier" warned Lieutenant Maynard's voice through the comm. "Two mobile suits are inbound. We will handle the Angel."

"Will you now."

As if to emphasize her point, the Regen Duel brought a beam saber crashing down onto the Eclipse's beam sword.

"It's our specialty."

Morgan snorted in disgust and turned his Fenrir towards the approaching units.

Afterimages and sparks filled the starry sky as the Destiny and Crusader clashed, anti-ship swords straining under each other's blows. Shinn licked his lips as he felt the enemy's fear begin to mount.

"Surely you're not afraid of me," he chuckled, "what with all the times you've survived fighting me."

The Crusader slammed its sword down hard onto the Destiny's blade and sent the ZAFT Gundam staggering back. "You would do well to stop the guesswork, Asuka," Sven snapped, and the Crusader leveled off its long-range cannon to open fire and force the Destiny to somersault to the side. He fired again and put the Destiny back on the defensive but his third shot passed through only an afterimage and he threw the Schwert Gewehr up to deflect the Destiny's devastating overhead blow. "You have much to worry about as it is."

Shinn smirked back. "Haven't you been paying attention to the stories about me? Not all of them are bullshit, y'know." The Crusader surged forward; the Destiny somersaulted over its head, but the Alliance Gundam whipped around to block the sword stroke Shinn aimed at its back. "Like the one about how I'm a Newtype! That one's not bullshit at all!"

Sven pounded the Destiny's sword with a snarl. "Don't talk to me about Newtypes, you degenerate!"

"Oh, I think I will!" Shinn shot back, and parried the Crusader's next blow. He jammed the Destiny's sword downward, locking the Crusader's blade in place, and pushed the Destiny's shoulder into the Crusader's chest to leave the two mobile suits stuck together. "For example, fun fact about Newtypes, we can sense the emotions of other people. Happiness, sadness, anger, confusion...and fear." He grinned at Sven's increasingly furious face. "And wouldn't you know, I can feel nothing but fear from you."

"Enough!" Sven screamed; with a blast, the Crusader rushed forward and slammed the Destiny into a piece of wreckage on the edge of the Debris Belt. "Don't presume to think you know anything about me, Asuka!" The Crusader reared back, sword held high. "You will know nothing but death!"

Shinn clenched his fists around the Destiny's controls and jammed his Gundam forward to ram the Crusader in the chest as it brought down its sword. Sven snarled a curse and rocketed over the Destiny's winnowing horizontal slice, and poured fire from his long-range cannon after the Destiny.

"Fair is fair, Devil's Saber," Shinn said with a smirk. "There's more than one way to win a duel."

Sven's eyes flashed with fury, the Crusader charged forward to smack the Destiny back with a sword stroke, and roared after the reeling Gundam.

"Nobody can tell me who I am!" shrieked ND HE as the Raigo's saber slammed against the Infinite Justice's beam shield. Athrun grunted as the Raigo furiously rained saber strokes against the Justice's shield and drove the red Gundam back with sheer force. "Nobody! Not even you!"

Athrun ground his teeth as he saw his chance and jetted backward to dodge the Raigo's next strike but as he lunged forward with the Justice's left-hand leg blade lit up, the Raigo swung its own saber back up to sever the Justice's leg at the knee, and then smashed its shield into the Justice's torso. Athrun cried out in pain as he was slammed back into his seat the Raigo closed in with its saber upraised

A memory flashed through Athrun's mind, followed by another, and another. He saw himself not in the cockpit of his long-suffering Infinite Justice but long ago, in the Marshall Islands, where the man with this face had come at him like this once before. He let out his breath and summoned up that feeling the will to destroy, the memory of what Kira Yamato had done. And it had not just been Nicol. Cagalli. Lacus. Everything.

And this time, as one strand of his mind drifted back to that woman with the red hair on the Minerva, there was something else to motivate him.

The seed burst and Athrun jammed his beam shield forward to spoil the Raigo's saber blow and with an ear-splitting shriek of shredding metal, he swept his saber upward and severed the Raigo's left arm at the shoulder, taking its own shield with it. The Raigo struggled forward, sparks flying from its fresh wound; Athrun flung the Raigo aside and pointed his saber combatively at it.

"You're wrong," he hissed. "I damn well can tell you who you are. You're a clone of a man who's gone mad. I'm going to kill that man," he fixed his dull eyes on the Raigo, "and I'm going to kill you too."

ND HE snarled in rage, the Raigo charged, and the swordfight resumed.

The DOM's sensors screamed in warning and Trojan Noiret responded by instinct. He hurled the DOM out of formation with the Vent Savior, and the silver Gundam did likewise, as a wave of beam fire lanced through their position and up ahead, a single mobile suit came storming into battle, beam rifle in hand, gunbarrels charging around it.

Trojan felt his heart sink as he caught sight of the emblem on the mobile suit's chest.

"Just what I wanted to see," he sighed, "the Moonlight Mad Dog." He glanced over at the Vent Savior. "Lily, break off!"

The two mobile suits darted apart again as the Moonlight Mad Dog brought his gunbarrels to bear. Trojan backpedaled behind his beam shield and raised the DOM's Gigalauncher only for the Fenrir to drive him back with another wave of beam fire. Up above, the Vent Savior leveled off its plasma cannons; instead, the Fenrir's gunbarrels swarmed to drive the silver Gundam back.

Trojan ground his teeth, ignited the two sabers at the end of his custom beam rifle, and plunged forward with a shout. The beams came down onto the Fenrir's beam shield and Trojan found himself face to face with Morgan Chevalier.

"Yeesh, the Resistance's pilots just get younger and younger," he sighed, and the Fenrir flung its bulky green opponent back. "Really such a shame."

"What the hell is this about?" sputtered Trojan; the Fenrir whipped around to swat the Vent Savior back with its beam shield and then showered both its foes with gunbarrel fire.

"I'll give you credit, kid, you're doing okay," Morgan went on with a smirk, "but I'm afraid little miss Angel over there still has you beat."

The gunbarrels swarmed in again and Trojan seized his chance to plunge the DOM Trooper through the blasts and level off his Gigalauncher again. The Fenrir dodged his blasts with expert precision, and as the gunbarrels came streaking in again, Trojan bit back a curse, reared back, and fired a salvo of combat flares into the Fenrir's face.

And with that, Trojan lunged over the blinding lights surrounding the Fenrir and seized the Vent Savior by the arm. "Come on!" he shouted. "This guy's out of our league!"

"What but there's two of us!" Lily sputtered.

"We have more important things to do," Trojan answered. "Let's go. We're finding Emily."

Left behind, Morgan chuckled as the flares died away.

"Very clever, kid, but you forgot to make the getaway as clean as the diversion."

The Fenrir's eyes flashed and the mobile suit took off after its retreating foes.

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne

Clever, Captain Hawke, but too clever by half, mused Ivan Danilov as the Charlemagne's railguns spat shells through the haze of anti-beam particles. The Minerva banked to starboard and let the shells sear by overhead. Danilov glanced over at the Debris Belt. Those missiles they had ejected weren't duds at all; they were live, waiting to be fired into the Lucifer and up ahead, the Lucifer itself forged ahead through the anti-beam particles, and then jerked to starboard closer to the debris as the Minerva's triple-barreled cannon answered with a thundering blast.

Danilov keyed the transmit button on his chair's armrest. "Joaquin, what are you doing? You know they laid missiles in the debris already, to the Lucifer's starboard side."

"Of course they did," snorted Joaquin. "We'll move in close, make their missiles too dangerous to use, and keep the CIWS primed. A simple trick like that isn't going to stop the Lucifer." He cast a contemptuous glance towards the younger captain. "You are being too cautious, Danilov. They can't pull this trick on us if we watched them set it up."

The screen went dark and Danilov pondered the point. Of course they had seen the Minerva eject its missiles into the Belt. captain Hawke must have known that. She knew they had arrived and was turning to fight when she'd done it.

Unless those missiles weren't going to be fired at all...

And then, as though the gods had taken their cue, a blinding chain of explosions ripped through the Debris Belt. Danilov grunted as his ship shook around him and, as he glanced up, he looked on in disbelief as a wave of shrapnel from the Debris Belt came rushing at his ship.

"Helm, ascend, 45 degrees, flank speed!" he barked, and the Charlemagne's engines shuddered to life as the wreckage began to hit. He looked down at the Lucifer and cringed as he saw a giant chuck of wreckage smash off its portside wing, and the dark-hulled battleship rocked and spewed smoke as the rubble rained down onto it.

"You fool, Joaquin," Danilov hissed. "Valiants, intensify fire on the Minerva! Don't let them get away!"

The wave of debris rushed through the battlefield and Stella seized her opportunity to dart into the moving wreckage. Ahead of her, the Vanguard and Artemis floundered as they struggled to dodge the flying debris and Stella paused long enough to fire a volley of potshots with the Gaia's beam cannons, then dart back into the wreckage.

"Did they do it...?" she murmured, glancing around the debris and then a beam shot by her field of vision, and an instant later the Artemis was there with its rifle in its left hand and a blazing beam saber in its right.

"Don't take me for a fool!" shouted Mudie Holcroft as the Artemis blasted into battle. Stella backed away and dodged the Artemis's beam rifle blasts and then, with an ear-piercing shriek of twisting metal, the Gaia lunged forward and brought down its saber, through the Artemis's raised beam rifle. Mudie hissed a curse and swung up her own saber, only to see the blow spoiled by the Gaia's blade, and she flung the ruined beam rifle away. "It's not like there's anywhere else for you to go..."

The Gaia's eyes flashed and it pushed forward, driving the Artemis back. Mudie slammed on the brakes and stormed forward with a final beam saber stab

Instead, the Gaia backflipped over the blow, just in time for a sizable piece of wreckage to crash head-on into the Artemis and send it hurtling away.

Stella let out her breath as the wreckage carried her foe away and scanned the battlefield for the Minerva. Getting rid of them was one thing; getting back home would be another.

Swords clashing and afterimages flying, the Destiny and Crusader did battle amid the flying wreckage of the Debris Belt. Shinn darted around the charred hulk of an old warship and came down with a shout onto the Crusader; the sparks flew and their two swords strained.

"Last time I had you on the ropes," Sven snarled.

"Yeah, well, this time it occurred to me to fuck with your head," Shinn shot back. The two Gundams jetted apart, dodged another chunk of wreckage, and then slammed together again. "But I'll give you credit, that's a pretty nice machine you've got." He smirked. "Bummer 'bout the pilot."

The Crusader flung the Destiny back. "Enough of this," Sven growled. "Our rivalry has lasted long enough, Traitor Asuka. Coordinator or not, Newtype or not, I will destroy you."

Shinn arched an eyebrow as he briefly considered his enemy's flickering presence. "You might have had more of a chance," he said with a shrug, "if you weren't just a Natural."

At that, the fear turned white hot with anger and the Crusader roared forward. "No one will turn me into an Extended!" Sven cried, and the Crusader rained punishing sword blows onto the Destiny's blade. "I will never surrender my control! I will never surrender my humanity! Nobody can take that away from me least of all you!"

Shinn yanked the controls back and threw the Destiny into a dive, just as the Crusader charged forward with a sweeping horizontal sword slash. The Alliance Gundam followed with an army of afterimages at its side; the Destiny stopped short, whipped around, and the two swords slammed together again.

"Struck a nerve, huh?" Shinn asked. He glanced over the Crusader's shoulder and saw his opening in the approaching old hulk of a ruined Drake-class destroyer, its hull torn open to expose a cache of missiles. Let's hope those aren't duds...

"Don't think I'll fall for that, Asuka," hissed Sven. "I will defeat you without enhancements."

"Will you now," Shinn responded

With a resounding crash, Shinn suddenly rammed the Destiny's knee into the Crusader's torso. The Alliance mobile suit darted back to avoid the Destiny's finishing slash only for Shinn to level off the long-range cannon, squeeze off a shot, and back away as it sizzled past the Crusader and sliced through the approaching shipwreck.

A thundering explosion engulfed the Crusader in flames, and Shinn seized his chance to rocket away, while Sven sat inside the quaking Crusader and seethed.

The Infinite Justice rocked as the Raigo's beam saber claimed its left arm at the elbow, and Athrun brought his saber back up again, only for the Raigo to jam its blade into the way and stop the attack cold. Athrun ground his teeth as he stared into that familiar face, the one that had haunted him at the Marshall Islands. But that was not the one who had killed Nicol and Cagalli and Lacus.

"You have no right to tell me who I am," ND HE fumed. "I wear this mask so that nobody knows!"

"Well, I know," Athrun shot back. "You're not Kira Yamato. You're just a clone."

The Raigo charged forward. "Stop staying that!" The two mobile suits came together with another crash and resumed their swordfight. The Raigo ducked beneath a sweeping saber blow and then rushed back up and tore a smoldering gash into the Justice's torso. Athrun backed away and brought his own saber to bear, claiming the Raigo's right leg at the knee; the Raigo rocketed forward anyway and shoved the Justice back, and then lopped off the corner of its right-hand shoulder armor. It drew back its saber for a final stab.

"You're definitely not Kira," Athrun grunted, as his loyal Justice threw sparks and smoke. "And even if you were, I couldn't save you." The Justice groaned in protest as the Raigo repeatedly slammed its saber down onto the Justice's blade. "You're not the man who was my friend."

"I'll kill you!" ND shrieked, and the Raigo closed in for a final slash

Athrun saw it before it happened, the white bolt striking the air before him. He jammed the controls down; the Justice ducked under the Raigo's attack, then swung back up and drove its saber through the Raigo's cockpit. ND HE vanished in a blaze, and the Raigo erupted into a thundering explosion.

Inside the Justice, dimming and sparking, Athrun sat back painfully and closed his eyes. The memories of Kira danced before his eyes at Copernicus, with Torii; at Heliopolis, on the Strike; in space, handing over Lacus; at Orb, fighting the Alliance together.

But those were not his only memories. There was Nicol, Cagalli, Lacus, the entire world gone mad and Kira with his hands on the strings. And if that had to be the case...

He glanced up at the sound of his sensors beeping, and found Trojan's DOM Trooper dropping in from above.

"Jesus Christ, what happened to you?" Trojan asked, as the DOM took hold of the Justice's ruined body. "Are you alright in there, Athrun?"

Athrun spared the Raigo's wreckage one more glance. "I'm alright. Let's get back to the ship."

Rau Le Creuset bit back a curse as one of the Hyperion G's beams plowed through the GOUF Ignited's shield and blew apart its entire left arm. The stricken mobile suit staggered back under the blow, and only Rau's Newtype senses warned him to fling the mobile suit to the side and avoid another cannon blast. One of the Hyperion Gs up ahead leveled off its machinegun

Instead, one of the debris pieces kicked up by the Minerva's missiles slammed into it from behind and sent it tumbling away. Rau turned towards the survivor as it flailed amid the wreckage, and charged forward with his beam guns blazing. The Hyperion G's armor chipped away, its beam submachinegun went spiraling into the distance, and it pulled back behind its shining lightwave barrier.

"That barrier is not impenetrable," Rau grumbled, "but how ?"

The Hyperion G lurched forward, a beam saber in hand, and brought it down with a crash against the GOUF's beam sword. Rau grimaced and slammed the GOUF's knee into his opponent's chest the Hyperion G flipped up its machinegun and opened fire Rau plunged through the blasts even as the bullets shredded his mobile suit's remaining armor

The human life in the cockpit vanished as Rau smashed his sword through the Hyperion G's cockpit hatch and out its back. With a satisfied grunt, he yanked his sword free, but too late the Hyperion G exploded, the GOUF's right arm and backpack vanished in the blast, and the mobile suit pitched backwards and downwards.

Rau glanced over his shoulder and cringed as he reached for the comm.

Into the gravity well we go...

Earth Alliance Archangel-class battleship Lucifer

"Sir, the reactor's been breached!" one of the deckhands exclaimed on the Lucifer's bridge. "It could go critical at any moment!"

Ortega rubbed his aching, bloody head. All systems disabled, engines knocked out, armor breaches all over, and now the ship was listing to port and downward, into the Earth's atmosphere. There was no way his ship could survive atmospheric reentry in this condition, not with the ablative heat gel dispensers knocked out. He looked up, out the bridge windows, at the shattered hull of his command.

"Muster all personnel to the escape launches," he ordered. "Give the order to abandon ship."

The helmsman blanched. "In all this, sir?" he exclaimed with a wave of his hand at the wreckage. "The launches "

"It's better than sitting here to die," Ortega snapped. "Get a move on! Colonel Joaquin "

He turned, and found only an empty chair.

"Captain, one of the launches is taking off!" someone shouted.

Ortega stared in disbelief as a steel gray space launch drifted out of the smashed portside hangar and took off, and felt the fury bubbling up within him.

You son of a bitch...

A moment later, a sheet of fire was the last thing Ortega saw as the Lucifer exploded.

At the launch's controls, Colonel Joaquin sat back with a heavy sigh and pointed his vehicle towards the Charlemagne. The Lucifer was a regrettable loss, but it could be replaced, as long as he lived to fight another day. He glanced up in surprise as he caught sight of the Fenrir falling into formation next to his vehicle.

"Lucifer launch," Morgan Chevalier started, and then stopped in surprise as he noticed that Joaquin appeared to be alone. "Well. Strange that you're the only person on that launch, colonel."

Joaquin narrowed his eyes. "Escort me to the Charlemagne, Captain Chevalier. That's an order."

"You know the Lucifer went down," Morgan continued. "Odd that you're the only man to survive this little disaster."

"Cut the chatter, Chevalier, or I'll hold you for insubordination "

Joaquin trailed off and froze in fear as he saw one of the Fenrir's gunbarrels dart in front of him, beam cannons extended.

"You won't be doing anything, colonel," Morgan Chevalier intoned. "Every man who is confronted with evil is faced with a choice. Consider this mine."

The gunbarrel fired, Joaquin screamed, and all went dark.

Battleship Minerva

This was the hard part.

Meyrin Hawke sat back on the bridge as her ship lumbered into the atmosphere, a thick cloud of anti-beam particles trailing her every move. The Charlemagne was far up above and behind, floundering amid the wreckage and trying to squeeze off railgun shells towards the retreating Minerva but the wreckage was doing its part to shield the retreating warship. Hopefully that would last long enough to get the Minerva down through the atmosphere.

"Mobile suits," Meyrin spoke up. "Which ones have we recovered?"

"Destiny and Gaia, without damage," Roxy read off. "Vent Savior and DOM, without damage. Justice, with, uh, a lot of damage. And..." She trailed off. "Rau's GOUF and the Eclipse are still out there."

"Why isn't Rau back yet?" Abbey demanded. "What the hell is he doing?"

"Send Emily to pick him up, and tell her to get back immediately," Meyrin instructed. "All hands, prepare for atmospheric reentry. Double-time, before the Charlemagne can retaliate."

She glanced back at the main screen and pushed down the nervousness and the doubt, as Shinn's words quietly bubbled up in the back of her mind. Emily would be alright on her own; the Eclipse's beam shields could easily handle atmospheric reentry. But Rau and the GOUF...

Meyrin shook her head and fixed her attention forward. This was always the hard part.

Most satisfying, perhaps, was the piece of wreckage that slammed sidelong into the Nix Providence and sent it sailing out of the fight, its DRAGOONs going with it. Emily let her instincts take over as she guided the Eclipse through the flying debris and enemy fire.

"Emily, we're starting reentry procedures!" Roxy's voice cut in. "Find Rau and both of you get back here!"

"Rau?" Emily echoed, and she took the opportunity to scan the battlefield and pinpointed the telltale pressure of Rau Le Creuset. "Wait, what's going on ?"

Rau's masked face appeared on the auxiliary monitor. "Ah, Emily. I could use a hand here."

"Wait, where ?" She fell silent long enough to dodge another attack from one of the Alliance mobile suits, and then another wave of wreckage that carried one of them away. "Is that oh no, what happened?"

"Enemy fire is what happened," Rau answered, his image on the screen flickering. "My maneuvering system is disabled. The GOUF cannot survive reentry on its own "

Emily felt her blood run hot as she evaded another wave of attacks and fixed Rau's location in her mind. "I'll be there, hold on!"

With a blinding flash of light and a wave of afterimages, the Eclipse's Voiture Lumiere system came to life and the black Gundam rocketed its way through the wreckage, leaving the Alliance mobile suits far behind. Emily's eyes darted back and forth as she scanned among the wreckage the edges of which were starting to glow red.

"There!" she cried and then the Eclipse rattled as Emily lunged down, seized the GOUF with its right hand, and deployed the beam shield with its left. "Okay, let's go !"

"Too late," Rau interrupted. "Watch the altitude. We will have to reenter on our own."

Emily felt the panic rise up in her throat. She shoved it back down and reached back into her memory, groping after the reentry procedures. Activate the beam shield, redirect power to the cooling systems, close down the beam wings and Voiture Lumiere...

"I have done this before," Rau added. "Do as I say and we will survive."

Emily looked up at him, through the imposing mask, and felt a preternatural calm radiating from him. She closed her mouth and nodded and Rau answered with a smile.

"Minerva," Emily said into the comm, "we're reentering separately. We'll, uh, meet you down below."

ZAFT submarine supercarrier Aristotle, Atlantic Ocean

The ocean breeze lilted over the deck and swirled around the man on the conning tower. These nights on the equatorial Atlantic Ocean were never as chilly as Antarctica. Nothing was.

Nathaniel Hatias stood on the conning tower of his command and wrapped his blue service coat over his white ZAFT uniform. The bearded man pushed back his white peaked cap and looked up to the sky at the red streak amid the stars.

The ZAFT Black Shirt with a bushy black beard came to a stop by his side. "So that's the Minerva, huh?"

Nathaniel nodded. "On atmospheric reentry. Projections put them in our neck of the woods." He glanced over at the man. "Is everything ready, Camwell?"

Camwell, executive officer of the ship, nodded. "Ladd has his team ready to go at a moment's notice. And we've got the names of several ZAFT remnant cells on call too, if we want reinforcements." He looked up towards the red streak in the sky and smirked. "Fresh out of the shipyard at Lagash and we're up against the Minerva. Who'd have thought?"

Frowning, Nathaniel fixed his gaze on the approaching warship and pondered.

Amazon rainforest, Brazil, South America

"And here I was thinking we'd have a nice evening to ourselves."

Amid the smoke curling up from a campfire and the quiet noises of the jungle at night, a man and a woman stared up towards the sky, at the fuzzy smudge of red in the sky. A larger one had passed by overhead minutes ago but this one was new.

"Strays from the Debris Belt?" asked the woman.

"Probably not. João called it in on the telescope. It's that new Resistance mobile suit that's been running around on the Minerva."

The woman whistled in surprise. "Well, now you can give her hell for stealing your schtick."

The man chuckled knowingly and looked back up at the sky. "Oh, I dunno, I don't think I've got a monopoly on personifications of death. But as long as she's coming here, I do look forward to seeing what she can do." He sighed. "Well, have Fernando go set up some IR flares to guide her in, and make sure they're on hand to hide the Gundam when it lands. It's gonna be loud and it's gonna leave a big fucking hole."

The woman smirked over at her companion. "Rolling out the red carpet, I see."

The man broke into a grin. "Call it a professional courtesy," he said, "from Ed the Ripper."

To be continued...