Phase 29 - Swords in the Sand

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 29 - Swords in the Sand

May 20th, CE 77 - Banadiya, Libya

The windswept city of Banadiya was one of the results of the Reconstruction War, as workers and refugees clustered here to escape violence in the larger cities of the Mediterranean coast and wound up turning Banadiya into a major city as well. It had been Andrew Bartfeldt's headquarters during the Valentine War and his old HQ complex still stood, albeit in disrepair, in what had otherwise turned into a slum.

And, as Meyrin Hawke idly reflected, sitting in the backseat of a jeep speeding down the dusty streets, it was now one of Sahib Ashman's strongholds.

The Minerva was in the port, the mechanics hastily repairing what damage they could, but the next course of action was all too clear. The trip down the Nile, skirting past Khartoum and over the Ethiopian highlands to reach the Somali coast, would be a dire test...but there was no other option to get the wounded ship past the Suez canal and the base at Socotra. At least Gigafloat was coming to meet them.

And then there was the Destiny. That one made Meyrin's stomach churn. Shinn had answered their hails, at least, so Stella had taken the Gaia into the deep to dig him out of the sediment and raise his ruined machine to the surface. But even her underwater survey had confirmed that the mighty Destiny, the Resistance's wings of light, was beyond repair. And Shinn...well, those images of his bloody face didn't make her feel any better.

She snapped herself out of the worry at the sound of Sahib's gruff voice. The captain could show no fear least of all in front of this man.

"He's waiting in the old ZAFT HQ," Sahib explained. Meyrin blinked up ahead, at the dilapidated building with a faded ZAFT logo over the front gate. The Desert Tiger had made this place his base of operations during the Valentine War and docked his land battleship here; now it was the Desert Dawn's home, at least until the Alliance caught on.

"I wasn't expecting his assistance," Meyrin said quietly.

"Neither were we. But Tariq thinks he's being sincere, at least, so take that for what it's worth." The jeep came to a stop and its occupants hopped out and Meyrin felt her stomach tighten as she noticed a whole lot more of Sahib's heavily-armed fighters than she knew had been there form a tight circle around Sahib and his guest. Up ahead, a pair of double doors swung open and a man in that familiar blue ZAFT overcoat stepped into the light.

Meyrin swallowed the rest of her emotions as Nathaniel Hatias stepped into the light. The man from the giant ZAFT submarine at Fernando de Noronha seemed almost contrite as he stepped forward and extended his hand.

"You were right, Captain Hawke," he said. "I wasn't on the right side."

Meyrin looked down at his hand, then back up at him and after a moment's hand, took it for a warm handshake. "Well," she replied, "you are now."

With a final, miserable shudder, the maimed remains of the defeated Destiny Gundam crashed down onto the beach, with the Gaia Gundam falling to one knee to keep the ruined hulk from toppling over completely and obstructing the cockpit hatch. The Destiny gave one more spasm of movement from its body and then slumped backwards, dead at last.

The various Desert Dawn operatives and Resistance personnel watching turned away or found some way to pay their respects. Every sword broke at one point or another, but still...

Stella sprinted to the Destiny's cockpit the instant her feet hit the ground and impatiently watched the hatch swing open to reveal a bloodied and battered Shinn Asuka slumped in the cockpit seat. She pulled him out as gently as she could and let out a sigh of relief that he was still breathing.

"What happened to Shinn?" she asked softly.

Shinn smirked back through the pain. "I lost."

"Will Shinn be okay?"

"If you get me to the infirmary, yeah." He tried to get to his feet, but after a wave of nausea hit him like a fist, he decided against that and leaned heavily against Stella. She lowered them both on the zip line to the sand.

"Well," someone else added, to Shinn's surprise, "this wasn't how I expected to find you, Asuka."

Shinn and Stella turned towards the speaker, and found a tall, muscular man in a green ZAFT flight suit and over his shoulder was the kneeling, green form of the Proto Abyss.

"Alec Ladd," he said with a smirk.

"H-Hi," Shinn grunted, and put his head back down. Stella gave the taller man a quick glare as she shouldered past him, heading for a jeep nearby to take them back to the Minerva.

"I suppose this means we won't be settling our little fight," Alec said over his shoulder. Shinn grunted and shot back as cocky a smirk as he could manage.

"Oh, just wait for me to heal up."

Alec smirked back. "That I will."

Standing amid the dusty grounds of Banadiya's port, Emily von Oldendorf wished she had been able to drive off those five Alliance Gundams and gotten back to the Minerva because the dark gray armor, cratered with artillery and missile damage as it was, looked like it sorely could have used help.

Trojan stood next to her with his hands stuffed in his pockets. "At least everyone's still alive," he offered.

"What about Shinn?"

"Lacerations and bruises and stuff, but he'll live."

Emily closed her eyes. Of course, the Resistance's symbol, the Destiny Gundam, had been a casualty here. That wasn't coming back. And if that symbol of the Resistance was gone, then it would fall to her to take up the mantle.

She could already feel the weight bearing down on her. At least until Shinn Asuka could return to the battlefield in his fancy Gundam with its distinctive wings of light, the Minerva's defense and the Resistance's torch would be in her hands, and she hated that. At least before, she always knew that he was out there and had the experience and skills to take care of things if they went wrong. But now she would be on her own.

"You okay?" Trojan asked, and Emily blew out a sigh.

"It's nothing."

"I'm not buying that."

"Really. It's nothing." She turned away, and blinked in surprise at the sight of someone approaching someone with a familiar presence.

Coniel Almeta came to a stop in front of Emily with her fading jacket slung over her shoulder. She glanced over the red-haired girl with a stern, disapproving look, and Emily squirmed under her gaze for a moment before she spoke. "I was expecting the Angel of Death to look..." Coniel paused and searched for the word. "Deathlier."

Emily shrugged. "Sorry?"

Coniel's eyes flicked towards Trojan for a moment before she stuck out her hand for an uneasy handshake. "Coniel Almeta," she said. "We've already met, but I don't believe I've met your buddy here."

"T-Trojan Noiret," he supplied.

"The kid who trained under Barry Ho?"


Coniel looked impressed for a moment. "Well, maybe you guys aren't so helpless after all." She glanced over towards the ship, and that impressed look of hers faded away. "Or maybe you are."

Emily frowned. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"I call it like I see it," answered Coniel. "We will cover the holes in your ship's defenses for as long as you're in port in Banadiya. But it had better not be long."

With that, she turned on her heel and strode away, leaving a chastened Emily and Trojan in the dust.

Viveka cringed at the sight of the damage as she stood on the Minerva's external deck and looked towards the bow, with Athrun nearby. The ship's portside fin on the bridge tower was gone, as was the larger fin to the bridge tower's side, and the portside Tristan was a hunk of twisted metal, fused into a useless lump. The last time the Minerva had been this badly beaten had been...

Well, it had been Terminal, which wasn't really that long ago, so Viveka idly figured this was really just par for course for the mighty Minerva.

Athrun looked decidedly less at ease, and Viveka had her guesses as to why. No doubt he somehow felt responsible for this stupid, really, when he didn't have a mobile suit or any way of altering the battle's outcome but she could understand the mounting frustration of powerlessness. It was a strange position to be in, pining for a weapon so she could have a purpose again, but it couldn't be helped. Not yet. Not until they reached Gigafloat.

She glanced over at him again and risked a conversation. "So what are we gonna do now?"

Athrun leaned tiredly against the rail. "Get as much fixed as we can here in the next couple days and then run like hell to the Somali coast."

"The Somali coast? In range of Socotra?" Viveka frowned at the thought. The Horn of Africa had once been infested with pirates, preying on the vast merchant shipping traffic exiting and entering the Red Sea; the sprawling naval base on Socotra had put an end to that, but not without presenting other problems.

"It's as far north as Gigafloat can go to meet us." He shook his head. "If we can get down there, that is. We'll have to cross the Sudanese desert and the Ethiopian highlands. And Somalia. The coast might be secure but the interior is in chaos."

Viveka glanced awkwardly back at the Minerva's ruined Tristan. "Did you talk to anyone about loaning us mobile suits?"

"Yes," Athrun said, and the way his fists clenched around the railing made the answer clear. "They said they can't spare any."


"Well," added Athrun, "now that they've revealed that they operate mobile suits, they'll probably be attracting greater Alliance attention. So it's not like they won't need them..." He trailed off uncomfortably. "More than us, I guess."

Viveka looked back out towards the ship indignantly. What Athrun said made sense in the ticking, logical part of her head...but that didn't mean the rest of her had to like it.

Because the rest of her had no idea how much longer she could tolerate this powerlessness.

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Mediterranean Sea

Gerhardt von Oldendorf looked on in annoyance as Captain Danilov received his after-action report. Four of the ship's mobile suits shot down, another three damaged, with nothing to show for it. Now the good captain was on his way back to Malta with his tail between his legs to drop off the wounded, before returning to Athens to think of a new plan of attack.

Not that Gerhardt had really harbored any great expectations for this attack. After all, he had actually been there to observe the battle and watched with only the most modestly contained of delight as his erstwhile daughter did battle with five high-performing Actaeon Industries machines. Once again the best lie was the truth.

Her powers had developed so well. No ordinary pilot could hold off five high-end mobile suits with five competent pilots so effortlessly. In that regard the project was a success so he had only to reach out his hand and retake that which was rightfully his own.

And that little bit of intelligence on the flash drive in his left breast pocket spoke well to that. Her talents as a pilot had developed quite well; now her mental stability would be put to the test, and the scientist in Gerhardt could not wait to see how many whacks her sanity could take before it would crumble.

On the other hand, there were...obstacles. "Blasphemer" was what Marshal Markav had called her, something about pretending to God's throne or whatever, Gerhardt had largely tuned her out once he had the information he wanted. But chess with Rau Le Creuset could only prove to be an entertaining challenge, and if Markav's little addled mind was uncharacteristically on target, everything would slide into place easier than Gerhardt expected.

And that, really, was how he liked it.

The darkness was pierced first by the stale smell of antiseptic and the feeling of cold cloth. Next came the hearing, filled with the low hum of machinery. At last, Sven Cal Bayan cracked open an eye and instantly regretted it.

Standing over him with the ship's doctor and two orderlies, Yukiko smiled approvingly. "You recovered in the same timeframe as an Extended. Impressive."

Sven tried to sit up, and as his head swam, he quickly discovered that he was not exactly "recovered." Yukiko gave no appearance of noticing or caring as she turned away, consulting a tablet.

"You'll be pleased to know," she continued, "that the reports are in. You shot down the Destiny Gundam. Based on the damage you inflicted, our engineers believe it will be impossible for the Resistance to repair it. So," she grinned, "congratulations. You won."

Sven put a hand over his eyes. No he hadn't. The Destiny hadn't exploded; it was more than conceivable for Shinn Asuka to still be alive. And after that little intrusion of his, that was well and truly unacceptable.

He saw me, y'know, the little boy spoke up. He knows. He knows I'm in here. He knows you haven't buried me because you don't want to. He knows.

Sven squeezed his eyes shut. Yes, he knew, he had seen into his soul with the walls broken and those damned Newtype senses. And by shedding light on it, it had started to grow, started to claw its way out of the ramparts he had built around it. He pushed it down with all his strength, but it was not enough. Years of solitude had made it stronger.

You never got rid of me for a reason, Sven, the boy added. And you can't get rid of me now.

Sven sat up again slowly and looked up blearily at Yukiko. "If I destroyed the Destiny," he said quietly, "then I don't need to use the system again."

Yukiko looked crestfallen. "I suppose."

He closed his eyes again, head down, and knew it would not be enough.

"So," Merau said with as cheerfully forced a grin as she could manage, "how's your girlfriend?"

Slumped against the cockpit jamb of the silent Hail Buster, Grey glanced over to the cockpit seat, where Merau was supposed to be working on the operating system but apparently had decided that making fun of him was a more productive activity. "Aren't you supposed to be working on that thing?"

"Scan's running."

"Oh, yeah, sure."

"So? You should probably wait until we get leave to take her out somewhere, the galley makes for a shitty place for a first date."

Grey sighed heavily and crossed his arms. "Seriously Merau, just no." He shook his head. "They did say at Volkov that attachments like that were stupid, 'cuz you had no idea who in your unit would be coming back at the end of the day."

Merau frowned at looked back at the screen. "That's true."

"Besides," he went on with a smirk, "can you imagine the shit I would get for it? Alterman would never leave me alone. Lieutenant Maynard would probably bitch at me about it. Jesus, it'd be awful."

"What, you don't want to get made fun of?" Merau scoffed.

Grey's smile faded. "Yeah," he said, "among other things."

May 21st, CE 77 - ZAFT Minerva-class battleship Fortuna, orbit of Earth

As the smoldering wreckage of that latest convoy of cargo ships drifted into the vast cloud of the Debris Belt, Lyle Markus sat back on the Fortuna's bridge with an airy sigh. Another day, another bunch of targets that hadn't been nearly as satisfying to kill as Lyle had hoped.

It was starting to wear thin. Soldiers were supposed to do their duty, but they were also supposed to fight, and these space convoys that still tried to brave the threat of ZAFT attacks did nothing of the sort. This one hadn't even had the benefit of Alliance warship protection. Just four freighters, led by a hulking Marseille III, all of them torn apart effortlessly by the Fortuna's guns.

But the Alliance had not struck back in force. That worried Lyle, deep in the pit of his stomach. Messiah was surely a tempting target at Lagrange Point 5, with only the shoal zone and a skeleton fleet to defend it. Instead Lord Djibril had evidently settled on a different strategy, one of picking off the ZAFT fleet piecemeal as it plied the Earth Sphere, so that eventually, Messiah would have the shoal zone and the skeleton fleet and nothing else. Copernicus had been a fine opening shot in this war, but ZAFT would need another and soon.

But that was the encouraging thing. Behind a Mirage Colloid screen deep in the shoal zone laid the second shot the finishing one. The ZAKU Goliath was complete and undergoing testing in the shoal zone. With that and the Newtype battery unit, it would be an unstoppable force, but the latter would need testing as well. Then, together, they would end this war, and dictate the terms of their new world.

That was what lay in the future, but this was the present, and in the present Lyle was watching the Earth's gravity claim the wreckage of his latest kill as the mobile suits returned to the ship and, impatiently clenching and unclenching his fists, it was starting to get old.

The VaROZ's cockpit was silent as the silver mobile suit cruised back towards the waiting Fortuna. That was bad, because with silence and waiting for landing clearance, Kara Guinness had time to do nothing but think and these days, thinking usually brought her nothing but grief.

Gary and Juarez weren't on very friendly terms with her anymore. She could deal with that from Gary; stupid Martian bastard had no idea what anything here meant.

But Juarez, that was harder to swallow. She knew his story: his entire family, blown away on October 6, himself left in a damaged mobile suit at Solomon's Sword to join ZAFT's exodus from the Earth Sphere. It was so much like her own story, so why didn't he understand?

But he did. That was the worst part. He understood why she was so angry, and why she couldn't just accept living in exile on Mars or just claiming a spot in the Earth Sphere and leaving it at that. He understood why she had to strike back. They had taken her entire world from her. Her mother and father on Maius 2, her sister, her dog back home, her boyfriend, her home, the graves of her grandparents...all of it, ashes. He knew that pain. He had his own.

So why was she on this path alone?

She closed her eyes and thought back to what he'd said. Gary had told her not to become a monster, and when she opened her eyes and looked at the wreckage she had created, she felt the sickening feeling that maybe he was right creep up her throat.

Kira Yamato watched stonily as the wire-grid schematics of the ZAKU Goliath spun lazily on the screen in front of him. The 261-meter-tall behemoth had a beam shield derived from the one on Messiah, a miniaturized version of Messiah's NEO-GENESIS cannon, and enough conventional armaments to stop a fleet in its tracks. It was inconceivable that this thing would not land on the Earth's surface and do its work.

That, he decided, was the worst part. Valentine had crafted a plan that could not fail. The ZAKU Goliath would land and the Earth itself would bleed before its work was done. And he, Kira Yamato, the man to whom so much had been entrusted, would be responsible for it.

He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. At his side, Kayla stopped her report in alarm. "Sir...?"

"It's nothing," he answered. "Go on."

Kayla looked unconvinced, but took up her tablet again. "There, um, there is a problem on the Earth, sir," she said nervously. "All our surface units have lost contact with the Aristotle."

Kira blinked. "The Aristotle?"

"The submarine with the silent drive. When it last reported in, it was in the Mediterranean, pursuing the Minerva. But its next report is nine hours overdue, and..." She trailed off. "Well, sir, one of the spies in the Mediterranean reported seeing them in dock at Banadiya, at Commander Bartfeldt's old command center."

Kira frowned, and pushed down the memories those words brought back. The eccentric desert warrior, the hard-bitten guerrillas, Fllay's warm lips against his... "What were they doing in the Mediterranean in the first place?"

"We don't know, sir."

"What about Banadiya? The old command center?"

"It's...a Resistance stronghold now, sir."

Two and two went together. "So he defected."

Kayla swallowed nervously. "So it would seem, sir."

He leaned forward with a sigh. "Inform every unit on Earth. We'll wait and see if the Aristotle leaves the Mediterranean. If they do, destroy them."

"Yes sir."

Deep inside, he knew that Captain Hatias had probably had his fill of evil, and rightly so but he pushed that part down deeper. Even if he had to be evil, he would build something new, something better, of this world. For her sake.

Kayla quietly excused herself, leaving Kira alone with his memories.

ZAFT Eternal-class cruiser Seraphim, Al Kufrah, Libya

"I gotta say," the Seraphim's chief mechanic said with a heavy sigh, "this thing is less of a mobile suit and more a whole lot of ordnance skating along the ground in perfect formation. It's gonna be a bitch to handle."

Arms crossed, standing on the gantry in front of the hulking mobile suit, Lilith Ramsi looked it over approvingly. The mighty CaVAL would require an adjustment to her usual piloting style, but this goliath the general body of a GINN Assault with the ZuOOT's shoulder mounted cannons, the GAZuOOT's beam cannons on its left arm along with the triple machinegun, the GuAIZ R's railguns, the chest-mounted missile launchers of the DINN, and the two "Pardeus" missile launchers on its bulky legs would be more than enough to stop whole squads of mobile suits with a torrent of firepower. And the two "Falcone" missiles being mounted in their racks on the right arm would give it anti-warship punch.

"I'm sure it will be fine," she said absently.

Lilith glanced to the mobile suit's right. The sleek and knightly close-combat CaZEL would surely need the support.

Silently, she almost hoped the Minerva would just get blown away in an air raid or something by the Alliance. Not with the way Varder had been about that damned ship lately, and its little Angel of Death. Of course her continued insistence on surviving and thwarting his plans to advance up the ranks was frustrating but it was starting to seem like he was losing sight of the real mission. She wouldn't be a factor for long.

And he was starting to drift away from her as well, Lilith mused. That was even more troubling. She looked back up towards the CaVAL and hoped it would do the job.

Battleship Minerva, Banadiya, Libya

"Finally got yourself all messed up, huh?"

Shinn Asuka cracked his eyes open in his entirely too comfortable infirmary bed at the sound of a familiar voice, and blinked blearily at Meyrin Hawke, standing over him with a smile that seemed to be one part concern and one part amusement.

"Yeah, well," Shinn shrugged and then winced as he remembered the shrapnel wound on his shoulder, "in every charmed life a little rain must fall."

"I'm sure you heard by now," Meyrin went on, smile fading, "that they can't salvage the Destiny."

Shinn's mood darkened at that thought. "Yeah," he mumbled, "so...I heard." A flood of memories washed over him, not all of them good because, after all, he had first acquired the machine in a vortex of grief and anger in Antarctica. And just as it had lifted him up to manifest his fury and bring it down onto Kira Yamato and the Freedom Gundam in that debacle of a battle, it had carried him to greatness in this debacle of a war. But now it was gone shattered under the superior technology of an evolving foe.

Well, childish things and all.

"It can be replaced," Shinn said with the facial expression equivalent of a shrug, "once we reach Gigafloat."

Meyrin nodded, and put her hand on Shinn's uninjured shoulder. "And at least you're still here."

Shinn reached up to squeeze her hand reassuringly, and for a moment, he noticed the flicker of emotion in her eyes and the jumble of feelings within her. She tried to bury it so much, because the captain had to be levelheaded and because this war always found ways to hurt people who tempted its cruel caprice but still it burned.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said with a smile.

Meyrin blinked away the tears rising at the edges of her eyes and smiled back. "Of course."

The beach was silent but for the rumble of the sea as a man in white robes with a long, bushy beard packed up the most beautifully bound book Emily had ever laid eyes on. The ragged fighters of the Desert Dawn remained clustered around the ridge above the beach's sands, over a handful of posts and mounds of earth pointed to the east.

She glanced over at Coniel, standing solemnly by the graves of those Desert Dawn pilots who had died in the battle, but her emotions were an unreadable cloud. She finally glanced over at Emily. "We lost some good men yesterday," she said quietly. "Some of our best."

Emily had nothing to say and merely turned her eyes back towards the graves.

"Well," Coniel added, "I suppose that's nobody's fault." She looked towards the clear morning sky. "God takes those who God takes."

Following her gaze, Emily fixed her eyes on a wisp of cloud overhead. Her mother, Kyali, Aza, Isaac, Rax, Anori...and of course, the ones she had killed herself.

Rau's words echoed back into her mind. It would be worth it if all that killing and sacrifice created a better world than this one, right?

"I'm sorry," she said. Coniel blinked. "For...them."

Coniel was silent a moment. "Don't be." She turned away and started making her way down the ridge, with Emily tagging along awkwardly. "Only thing you need to worry about is keeping Banadiya safe until your ship can leave. The Desert Dawn can't do it alone." She glanced back up at Emily. "That's how you can honor them."

With that, Coniel headed back down the slope, and Emily glanced back over her shoulder at the graves, lost in thought.

A ticking counter marked off each mobile suit bested in battle flew over the mobile suit simulator. With an approving look about him, Rau watched the accompanying screen, where a computer-generated simulacrum of the yet-to-be-built Fujin Gundam was tearing apart a team of Alliance Windams with its four gunbarrels. Of course, the designs could change and might render moot any training to be gained here, but at least it got Sting and Auel back into mobile suit combat after nearly a month out of the saddle.

Nearby, Auel glanced up impatiently at the screen. "He's cheating."

Rau smirked. "That would imply there are rules."

"There is a rule. I'm better than him. And he's breaking it."

Sure enough, Sting's kill count was about three no, four higher than Auel's had been when he had taken the simulated Marduk Gundam through the enemy spread. "That's not cheating. That's just incentive to do better."

"You just don't know the rules."

Rau chuckled. "Evidently not."

With a loud crash, the second "Pardeus" missile launcher clamped down onto the DOM Trooper's left leg. At the crane controls, Vino Dupre sat back with a satisfied sigh and retracted the arm. Next someone would check the connections, but that was somebody else's job, so Vino took the opportunity to lean back against the railing for a few moments' rest.

That was not to be, because Trojan Noiret was there too, looking over the DOM awkwardly. He looked tired and as well he should, he'd spent all day with the rest of the crew attaching sand filters to the mobile suit's joints and intakes. Those hover jets in the leg skirt armor were a pain to work with.

"So is this thing almost ready?" Trojan asked tiredly, and Vino only scoffed.

"The legs are ready," he said, "but you still have to shore up the upper body. All kinds of gunk can still get in there." Trojan instantly looked crestfallen and Vino shrugged. "If it makes you feel better, you'll be getting more of the action. We'll have to fly low to avoid radar scans. So all this fitting for desert combat is gonna pay off."

"I hope so," Trojan mumbled, and then got back to his feet with a weary sigh and ambled back towards the service lift.

Vino watched him go with a tired look of his own. Poor kid wanted to do everything, as though it would impress Emily. And Emily was off brooding on her own problems, so his efforts seemed doomed to failure.

He shook his head and glanced back down at the DOM, being readied for the next batch of sand filters.

The infirmary door slid shut and Stella Loussier cast an anxious glance at it over her shoulder. She wasn't allowed in there right now, since they were putting Shinn into surgery again. She didn't know why, but the doctor had assured her that it would help him get better and then he'd kicked her out.

Stella stuffed her hands in her pockets in defeat and glanced down at Lily, who looked similarly annoyed at her side. "I wasn't gonna take anything," she grumbled, "I just wanted to see what a bone saw looks like."

"They said Shinn would be okay," Stella mumbled, and turned to head off down the corridor.

"Well, yeah," Lily said. "Don't you trust them?"


"Then what's the problem?" She paused and then broke out into a devious grin. "Oh, I get it."

Stella paid it no mind as she rounded a corner with a giggling Lily in tow. It wasn't really any good. Shinn had been hurt which meant no one had been around to protect him. And if he was hurt, that meant he couldn't protect her...but more importantly, it meant that he needed to be protected more than ever. And there were even fewer mobile suits around. She would just have to do more.

She straightened up as she turned and headed for the mobile suit hangar. Stella won't let you down, Shinn.

May 22nd, CE 77 - Banadiya, Libya

Shuddering to a halt on the concrete outside the Banadiya port, Meyrin wearily pulled herself out of the jeep with Sahib and a handful of his men. The Desert Dawn was out in force, and only after her trips around the city had she realized that while its mobile suit force was modest, Sahib nonetheless had thousands of fighters at his disposal. The years of battle with ZAFT in the Valentine War and the Alliance in the Junius War and this interminable struggle had forged a professional guerrilla operation out of the ragtag band that the Archangel had met years ago.

It was reassuring but only a little.

"God willing, we'll be able to get you out of here by tomorrow afternoon," Sahib said. "None of my scouts have reported any significant Alliance activity so far, but," he frowned, "we did lose contact with a buggy that had gone southeast on recon. We sent another after them. It might just be interference or bad equipment, but at any rate, don't dawdle."

"Alright." She offered a grateful smile. "Thank you, for everything, Sahib. We "

A quiet rumble echoed out of the horizon. Sahib whipped around sharply, eyes scanning the southeast but an instant later there was a thundering explosion and a shockwave that threw everyone in the port to the ground. Meyrin turned around, eyes wide, towards the Minerva...and the smoking crater in its prow where the Tannhäuser used to be.

"Was that a bomb?" one of the fighters asked, as he helped Sahib back up.

"No, that was artillery," Sahib said. Meyrin leapt back to her feet, heart racing. "Captain Hawke, get to your ship. I think we can tell what happened to that buggy."

Meyrin nodded and sprinted towards the ship while Sahib and his men ran for cover, she and yanked out her headset along the way. "Bridge, this is Meyrin, what happened in there?"

Roxy's sputtering voice answered after a moment. "No idea! We got hit by something that took out the positron cannon, and now we have mobile suits on our radar from the southeast!"

"What is their IFF?"

"ZAFT. What the hell is going on?"

Meyrin spared a quick look towards the horizon and the sound of mobile suit engines rippling out from the distance.

"We should have known they wouldn't let us go too," she muttered. "Scramble the mobile suits and prepare for combat!"

Varder Ehrmacht grinned at the hum of the sleek and knightly CaZEL's engines as the green mobile suit soared into battle. The swords, heat rods, and flight pack of the GOUF Ignited, the shoulder-mounted beam cannons of the ASH, and the extensional arrestors of the GuAIZ would make this thing a formidable foe in close quarters exactly where he worked best.

And it was even better. The spies in Benghazi had sent out word of the Aristotle's treachery. If they too were at Banadiya, or could be drawn into the battle, then they too would be prey for the ZAKU Ranger and for that other toy Esram was packing.

Varder squinted up ahead at the forces arrayed against him, then glanced down at the hulking CaVAL, speeding along the dust towards Banadiya. "Lilith," he said, "hardened enemy position. Let's go introduce ourselves."

"Roger that."

The two mobile suits blasted forward, with four of the Seraphim's red ZAKU mobile suits riding Guuls behind them. The CaZEL dipped down low over the sands and let loose a withering barrage of beam cannon fire. Two mobile suits up ahead, a Dagger L and a dusty GINN, staggered away from the barrage. A handful of vehicles and mounted weapons surrounding a stumpy, dilapidated building let fly an answering salvo of machinegun rounds and missiles just in time for the CaVAL to fire its two "Falcone" missiles straight into the building's lowest floor. The explosion scattered the enemy forces, and the CaVAL mercilessly rained shellfire on them from its two dual cannons. The CaZEL swept down, beam sword lighting up in its right hand, and in a moment it chopped the GINN in two. The Dagger L darted in from behind, beam carbine in hand; the CaZEL whipped around, wrapped its left-hand heat rod around the Dagger's torso, yanked it close, and sliced it in half at the waist.

Varder's eyes darted around the battlefield eagerly. "Come on, where are you..."

A nearby building burst upward and a burst of shellfire ripped out from the smoke. Varder flung the CaZEL towards the ground, beam shield active, as a Duel Dagger in its heavy Fortrestra armor vaulted onto the street. It whipped up its beam rifle but then it threw its shield up just in time to see its entire left arm blown away by a pulsing beam cannon volley from the CaVAL. Varder licked his lips and dove forward, and with a single backhanded sword swing, the Duel Dagger collapsed in a flaming heap at the CaZEL's feet.

"Cooper's sighted the Minerva," Lilith spoke up. "Port, four klicks northwest."

"Nowhere to hide now," Varder chuckled. "Let's go "

Another volley of beam fire interrupted him and sent both mobile suits darting for cover. Varder shot his gaze up towards the sky and broke into a grin as he saw two shapes approaching. One was a Murasame in mobile armor mode, but the other...

"There you are, angel girl," he hissed, and the CaZEL lunged into the sky and took off with a roar.

"Varder, wait !" Lilith shouted, then sent the CaVAL darting away under fire as Varder charged towards the Angel of Death.

Explosions ripped up across the ground as the Gaia Gundam rushed in low over the desert floor, dodging beam fire from a squadron of determined ZAFT BABIs. The one in the lead abruptly transformed and leveled off its chest cannon only for the Gaia to storm forward and run a beam saber through its waist. Stella darted aside as it exploded and fired back at the remaining three mobile suits with her beam rifle, forcing them all on the defensive. Down below, a trio of black shapes was on the move a Kerberos BuCUE Hound in front of two ordinary BuCUEs, speeding over the sands, straight towards the city.

The Gaia slammed down in front of them; they immediately leapt to their feet and galloped towards her, fangs flashing to life. From the city, a team of the Desert Dawn's few remaining mobile suits rose to their feet to open fire and force the ZAFT mobile suits to break their formation. Stella frowned as she watched their approach, seeking an opening

...and suddenly the Gaia sprang forward, beam saber flashing to life, and then somersaulted over the Kerberos BuCUE's furious beam fire. She slammed back down in front of the charging mobile suit and ducked to the side and with a painful shriek of torn metal, the BuCUE continued on through the beam saber and exploded on the other side.

The remaining two BuCUEs jerked to the sides and tried to open fire on the kneeling Gaia, only for the black Gundam to leap off one foot into the air and blast off towards the BABIs as they put their formation back together. The Desert Dawn mobile suits opened fire; a BABI and a BuCUE went down in flames. A second BABI ducked away from its comrade, weapons blazing; Stella ground her teeth as she charged; the sound of artillery rang out from the horizon and she instinctively jerked the Gundam to the side

And then everything stopped, as something slammed into the Gaia from below. Something powerful. The Gaia sailed back and Stella screamed in pain as she was slammed into the cockpit seat and then the Gaia crashed heavily back into the ground. Stella groaned in pain and clutched her bloody head, and realized in mounting fear that the Gaia's entire right side was in tatters, its right leg blown away at the knee, its right arm and head completely gone, and nothing else responding.

A dark shadow fell over the battlefield, and inside the dwarfed and maimed Gaia, Stella looked up in disbelief at the shadowy form blocking out the midday sun. A red light flashed to life at its top and then it came down with a massive, bone-rattling crash.

Stella swallowed nervously at the sight of the massive machine, standing at least twice as tall as the Gaia, with a gigantic cannon looming over its shoulder. A smaller cannon fired a pulsing green beam into the Gaia's left shoulder before it could react and blew off its remaining arm, and then the beam cannon ticked towards the Gaia's cockpit.

"Stella!" a voice screamed and with a blaze of light, the DOM Trooper threw itself into the path to deflect the hulking machine's shot with its beam shield. "Desert Dawn, get the Gaia back to the Minerva!"

"Trojan," Stella murmured, and then slumped back painfully, while a Dagger L jogged up from behind to seize her ruined Gundam and drag it into the city.

Inside the DOM Trooper, Trojan Noiret fixed his sight on the monster before him. That thing's railgun had only clipped the Gaia and look what it had done; no wonder the Minerva had lost its positron cannon.

"Well, asshole," he snarled, "let's see how well you do against a moving target!"

A pulsing red beam blasted through the sky and forced Lily Thevalley to send the Vent Savior Gundam whirling off course. Up above, a squad of ZAKU Warriors on Guuls with a Slash ZAKU Phantom at their head bore down on her with a storm of firepower.

"Jeez, you guys are relentless!" she groaned and then sent the Vent Savior ducking below a wave of fire again, just as the Guuls unleashed a hurricane of missiles. Lily's silver mobile suit plunged down towards the ground, then pulled up at the last second and cut down the missiles with a CIWS burst only to have to throw the Vent Savior to the side again as the ZAKUs focused their fire.

Up above, a Gunner ZAKU Warrior leveled off its heavy cannon and fired; Lily rocketed back into the sky to dodge the blast. Then the ZAKU Phantom came down with a hard swing of its beam axe, sending the Vent Savior staggering back straight into the sights of the Slash ZAKU Warrior and Blaze ZAKU Warrior, which drove her back with even more beam fire against her shield.

"Now you're just pissing me off!" she snapped; the Vent Savior burst up over the blasts, then rocketed forward to break apart the ZAFT mobile suits' formation. The Gunner ZAKU slid up behind her for a shot at her back; instead, the Vent Savior flipped around and answered with a withering barrage from the silver Gundam's plasma cannons that sent the ZAKUs scrambling for distance. And as the Slash ZAKU Warrior dropped in from behind, beam axe raised high, she whipped around with her rifle at the ready and drilled a blast straight through the ZAKU's cockpit.

The Vent Savior roared up over the flames, eyes fixed on the remaining four ZAKUs. Lily spared a glance down below towards the city and hoped Emily would be okay. After all, no one could beat the Blood Knight, and she'd hate to miss a chance to prove it.

The CGUE Assault lurched to the right and darted down the street with a roar of its thrusters, diving between the narrow and short buildings for cover. Inside, Rau Le Creuset idly cursed the local architecture and made another sharp turn. The two BABIs behind him were still on his tail, but if this worked

The CGUE made another right and charged towards one particular building. The BABIs followed, spitting beam fire. Rau clenched his teeth as the CGUE somersaulted over the building which then exploded upwards, and a Buster Dagger rose from the dust and fired its hyper impulse cannon straight through the two oncoming ZAFT machines, blowing them to pieces.

Laser sword in its right hand and beam rifle in its left, the CGUE turned back towards the city's edge and the ZAFT troops still approaching as the Desert Dawn's mobile suits moved in. If nothing else, at least they were persistent

He stopped and blinked in disbelief as a different feeling shot up his spine. He flung the CGUE behind the cover of a building as the ZAFT troops opened fire again and put a hand to the side of his head. That building pressure, still faint, still in the background, but there nonetheless...and getting closer...

He looked towards the sky, where the Eclipse was still in battle with that sword-wielding ZAFT mobile suit. Did she feel this too? It was so powerful if she didn't, she would soon. And it felt like...

Rau broke into a grin before he threw the CGUE back into battle.

Fortune favors those who wait!

Battleship Minerva, Banadiya, Libya

"What do you mean another ship?" Meyrin groaned as the Minerva shook. There was already that Eternal-class on the edge of the battlefield, hurling firepower into Banadiya from the two Tristan cannons mounted on the sides of its prow.

"Lesseps-class moving in from the southeast," Burt elaborated, "and it looks like it's launched the rest of its mobile suit complement."

Meyrin seized the intercom and switched the frequency. "Captain Hatias," she said, "this would be a good time to deploy your mobile suits and reinforce us."

"I know," Hatias answered, "landship from the southeast. Things are still a mess here. We won't be able to launch our full company, since," he shifted awkwardly, "not all of the ship's crew agreed with the decision my officers and I made."

That was not what Meyrin wanted to hear, but she forced down the frustration. "Just help us with whatever you can," she said, and put the intercom back down. Don't tell me you're having second thoughts...

Sparks flew and the Gundam Eclipse rattled as its beam sword met the CaZEL's blade in the sweltering air over Banadiya. Emily flung the Eclipse back, just in time to avoid a beam cannon barrage from the CaVAL down below; Coniel's Murasame immediately transformed and showered the CaVAL with beam rifle fire, driving it back, but not before the CaZEL could charge in for another sword blow.

"How do you like our new hardware?" cackled Varder Ehrmacht. The CaZEL flung the Eclipse away with its sword; Emily whipped up the beam rifle in her left hand, only for the CaZEL's heat rod to snake around it and yank it from her grasp. "Ah-ah-ah, we're fighting the old fashioned way!" The CaZEL charged, ducked the Eclipse's slash at its head, then rammed the black Gundam with its shoulder. Emily swung the sword around again to barely block the CaZEL's downward slice. "But I "

"God you're so annoying!" another voice cut in, and Coniel's Murasame slammed its foot down onto the CaZEL's head. The sleek mobile suit went reeling as Emily backed away to catch her breath, and the CaVAL down below let loose a punishing beam cannon barrage to force the mobile suits back on the defensive. "New models or not, these idiots aren't going to get the best of me."

The CaZEL dropped into a combat stance while on the ground, Lilith chuckled. "I wasn't expecting Murasame girl, but we can handle her pretty well."

Varder grinned over at his two opponents. "Indeed. But for you, angel face, we've got another surprise. Just something to let you know that we," his grin got a little wider, "were thinking of you!"

Emily blinked in confusion at the two ZAFT machines and then the feeling was there.

Her entire body went cold. That feeling the pressure of a Newtype, somewhere in the sky, getting closer, and stronger. There was something distorted about it, like looking at something through a glass of water. But she could tell what that thing was supposed to be, what it was originally, underneath the distortion. That feeling she had only felt that once before. From one other person.

She turned towards the source and her blood froze in her veins.


Off in the distance, the Providence ZAKU's monoeye blazed to life, and in the cockpit, Unit Zero-Two lifted her eyes towards the target and charged.

To be continued...