Phase 37 - Second Chances

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 37 - Second Chances

June 19th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, near Ame-no-Mihashira, Earth orbit

Far ahead lay the combined forces of the Orb Space Fleet and their Earth Alliance reinforcements. To the rear were the six surviving ships of Ame-no-Mihashira's modest fleet, its full complement of surviving mobile suits, and the station itself.

In between them, the Minerva and its Gundams. On the bridge, Meyrin steeled herself. It had been so long since she had been on the offensive, she had almost forgotten how to take it but she had given Malchio her word.

"The enemy fleet's mobile suits are accelerating to attack speed," Burt reported. "Captain...?"

"It's time," Meyrin said. "All hands, move out!"

With a shuddering blast, the Zulfiqar Gundam sawed its way through another Windam and darted forward, letting afterimages flicker across the sky and draw the enemy's fire. The squad of Windams up ahead backed away, just as the Zulfiqar slammed into their ranks and tore them apart with a flurry of sword strokes.

Shinn blinked in surprise at the familiar feeling of danger and flung himself back just as a wave of red beam fire lanced down from above.

"Ah yes, you," he said, "it wouldn't be a party if one of you guys didn't show up."

The bulky body of a Zamzazar mobile armor flashed its eyes and snapped its claws combatively. Shinn glanced over his shoulder.

"Stella, we haven't taken on one of these things in the new Gundams. Wanna give it a whirl?"

The Kali Gundam came down next to the Zulfiqar and hefted its sniper rifle. "Those things are never scary."

"Damn right they're not. Let's go!"

The two Gundams rocketed apart. The Zamzazar backed away and hurled a wave of beam fire after them; Shinn dove through the blasts with a blaze of afterimages, then closed in with a downward sword hack. The Zamzazar pushed itself forward and flung up its left-hand claw to catch the blade; Shinn darted aside as the Kali lunged into the fight with a salvo from its rifle. The hulking mobile armor shrugged off the blow; Shinn pounded it with a blast from his long-range cannon, but the positron reflector deflected the blow and the Zamzazar charged ahead anyway with a furious swipe of its claws.

"Still good for a fight, I guess," Shinn grunted. "Stella, get around it!"

"Well, well, well," giggled Mara Saraba as the Akatsuki turned towards its oncoming foes, "I guess Jona is right to believe in second chances."

Inside the humming Celestial Justice Gundam, Athrun glowered back at the blonde-haired woman who had hijacked Cagalli's legacy. "Second chances, huh?"

Viveka blinked. "You want help with this one?"

"Just back me up," he said. "I have some unfinished business to attend to."

"Oh, don't think you'll get away with that!" Mara laughed. "All units, attack "

The Aurora Gundam blasted forward with a salvo of beam fire, and two of the Windams behind the Akatsuki vanished in a blaze of fire. The rest broke ranks and scattered as the Aurora poured firepower after them.

"Sorry, Blondie," Viveka said with a grin, "but if he wants to rip you a new asshole personally, I ain't gettin' in his way."

Athrun charged forward with a beam salvo that drove the Akatsuki back. Mara snarled in frustration and launched the remote turrets, spinning a web of beam fire around the charging Justice but Athrun easily wove his way through the blasts and came in close, eschewing the rifle for a double-ended beam saber. Mara backed away and flung up her shield to deflect the blow only for the left-hand claw on the Justice's subflight lifter to lash out and rip the Akatsuki's beam rifle from its hand.

"And this time," Athrun snarled, "you won't come back!"

Rau Le Creuset grimaced as he guided the Judgment Gundam into battle, with the Fujin and Marduk Gundams on his flanks. Heavy firepower and darting DRAGOONs would make for a formidable anti-fleet weapon, but the farther away he was from Ame-no-Mihashira, the less of a chance he had to tie up another loose end a loose end that could cause unwelcome complications if not snipped off while the opportunity was still there.

He returned his attention to the matter at hand. Sniveling little scions nosing around where they shouldn't were still less urgent than the wall of beam fire heading straight towards him. He deflected the blasts with the beam shield, just before the Marduk ducked in with its Geschmeidig Panzer armor to send the blasts scattering back towards the Alliance fleet.

"Open fire from long range," Rau said. "They'll have to break formation to evade and they'll be vulnerable."

"Or they'll be stupid," Auel grumbled, but the Fujin and Marduk charged forward anyway, the Marduk providing the shield for the Fujin. The two Gundams darted apart to let the Judgment open fire with its beam guns, and Rau sent the King DRAGOONs forward to fire off the Pawn DRAGOONs and launch a web of beam fire towards the Alliance warships.

The Marduk's eyes flashed and it lined up a blast with its Callidus Mk II cannons but the shots slammed against not a warship, but the telltale shimmering barrier of a positron reflector. A trio of Drake-class destroyers drove forward, the rest of the fleet falling into place behind it.

"Oh, no fair," Auel sneered.

"They've never done that before," added Sting with a shrug.

Rau frowned. "Clever," he muttered. "Auel, Sting, we are changing plans. Engage the enemy ships at point-blank range. The positron reflectors can't protect them there."

"If you say so," Sting grunted, and the Fujin charged ahead with its gunbarrels taking off around it.

Before plunging into battle, Rau cast a furtive glance off in the direction of Emily's flickering pressure. There was another, much fainter presence there too...but perhaps fortune would intervene yet.

The Long Dagger swung up its beam rifle and opened fire, but where the Long Dagger and its heavy Fortrestra armor had firepower and defense, the Windams had speed and as they darted around the Dagger's blasts, they showed its superiority by lancing around the Dagger's defenses and blowing it out of the sky with a wave of beam rifle blasts.

The Windams themselves backed away, just in time for two of them to be slashed in half by the charging Gundam Eclipse. Emily whirled around towards the survivors only for one of them to lurch forward, as though struck by something. A spike burst up from the Windam's cockpit; Rondo Mina Sahaku's custom Gold Frame Amatu materialized behind the stricken mobile suit, claws clamped onto its sides. It whirled around and flung the ruined mobile suit at its comrades. They backed away as it exploded just in time for the Amatu to shower them with beam fire, and for the Eclipse to dive in and slash them both in half.

Mina glowered at the wreckage of the Long Dagger. Those Socius clones had been expensive to procure, more expensive to multiply, and even more expensive to modify and for what? Perhaps she should have sold these old machines while she'd had the chance.

But here was a nice new template, and one that might serve her far better than the brooding shades of that old ZAFT ace, Goud Veia. In the Gundam Eclipse, Emily glanced at the black and gold mobile suit in confusion.

"We shouldn't be stopping like this," she warned.

Mina gestured over her shoulder as the rest of her Socius clones arrived. The garishly colored Sword Calamity drifted down next to the Amatu. "There you are," she said. "Miss Oldendorf, we'd be honored if you'd join us in a counterattack on Governor Seiran's flagship."

"Um, okay," Emily started

A wave of beam fire lanced out of nowhere, and a familiar pressure sliced across Emily's consciousness as an equally familiar voice rang out in her cockpit.

"I'm afraid I'll have to cancel that little date!" roared Morgan Chevalier, and his sleek mobile suit Fenrir spiraled into the battle with a squadron of Windams on its tail and with two blue Exus mobile armors on its flanks. "And what better opportunity to revive an old tradition, too! Endymion Team, attack!"

Emily's eyes went wide as she caught the large orange backpacks on the Windams and then the way they each launched gunbarrels and swarmed after Mina and her Socius clones. And from each of those cockpits was a certain, unmistakable pressure

She whipped around, beam sword blazing to life, and ducked away from the Fenrir's gunbarrel beam blasts. The two Exus units split up to shower her from afar with more beam fire, and they too launched their gunbarrels to send a total of twelve of the things darting around the battlefield. The Fenrir itself charged in with a beam saber in hand; Emily jammed her own saber to deflect its blow.

"It's a regular ace reunion here!" Morgan laughed. "Emily What are you doing with this old witch? I'm rather surprised!"

The Amatu barreled into the fight with a slash from its beam saber; the Fenrir backed away behind a protective screen of gunbarrel blasts. "Moonlight Mad Dog," Mina snarled, and the Amatu took off after its foe with a roar of thrusters. "That's such a fitting name for you! Always chasing whatever your masters want!"

Morgan ducked down beneath the Amatu's furious blade swipes and forced it back on the defensive with a wave of beam fire. "I'm just doing my job, lady," he shot back. "Besides, I've got a fight to settle with little miss Angel of Death over here, so if you'd kindly butt out "

"I think I get a say here too!" Emily cried, and with a crash she slammed her sword down onto the Fenrir's saber and sent Morgan's mobile suit reeling.

The Amatu dropped down with a flash from the blade mounted on its Trikeros shield; Morgan threw the Fenrir to the side and slammed it in the side of the head with a lightning-fast kick. Emily charged forward, intent on intervening but the two blue Exus units flashed by in front of her and sent her staggering back behind a wall of beam fire.

"Well, if Lady Sahaku here will only let me fight you over her dead body, then I guess I have no choice but to oblige," Morgan said with a smirk. "But don't you go anywhere, kid. We've got business to finish!"

Emily scowled back at the Exus units as they wheeled around for another pass. The Fenrir rocketed off after the Amatu, and Emily returned her attention to the mobile armors and their charging gunbarrels.

Earth Alliance Agamemnon-class carrier Henry Clay

"Daedalus Crater, this is Admiral Mathis," the admiral spoke on the quaking bridge of the Henry Clay. "We're taking heavy losses. What's the status of the Requiem?"

A deckhand on the other end adjusted his black Phantom Pain uniform. "Charging is still at eighty-one percent," he answered. "You'll need to wait for approximately twenty-eight more minutes."

Mathis cringed. Holding out another half an hour against this unstoppable team of Gundams... "What about the relay points?"

"Those are in position. You're advised to begin changing your fleet's formation, sir."

"Very well. Clay, out." The screen went dark and Mathis pinched the bridge of his nose, irritation swelling in him. How in hell had the Resistance managed to build mobile suits that so grossly outclassed their foes? What had gone wrong?

The auxiliary screen flickered to life with Jona Roma Seiran's furious visage. "Admiral, where are your friends in the Phantom Pain? We're getting torn apart!"

"Twenty-eight minutes, governor," Mathis growled. "Begin redeploying your fleet. We will end this battle in one blow; all we have to do is hold the enemy off until then."

Jona scowled, but said nothing as the screen clicked off.

"All hands, assume Defensive Pattern Armadillo," Mathis ordered. "Concentrate your fire on the Minerva!"

The Celestial Justice rattled as the Akatsuki's flashing remote turrets showered it with beam fire but Athrun expertly wove his way through the blasts for another savage swordfight with the Akatsuki's shimmering beam saber. The golden mobile suit flung itself to the side to dodge a sweeping saber blow from the Justice's saber; Athrun whipped around, beam shield blazing to life, as he deflected the turrets' fire.

"Quite a fancy number you've got there," Mara snarled, as the turrets came around again and the Justice dove through their fire. The Akatsuki stabbed its saber forward; Athrun smacked it aside and sent the right-hand claw lancing forward to rip the Akatsuki's shield off its arm. Mara hissed a curse as she drew the Akatsuki's second beam saber and lit it up only for the Justice to streak in close and send her reeling under a hail of blows from its own double-ended saber.

"I think you owe that machine more respect," Athrun shot back. "After who piloted it."

The Akatsuki backed away behind a hail of turret fire. "Cagalli? That dumb little girl who thought she could will a revolution into existence?"

With a heavy crash, the Justice brought its saber down and sent the Akatsuki staggering back. "And she was still a far better person than you!" The Justice charged. "Just a petty little usurper!"

Mara grunted in pain as the Justice sent her reeling again. The turrets swarmed into the Justice's path but with a flick of his Gundam's wrist, Athrun ducked between their fire and slashed one of them in half with his beam saber.

"You bastard," she snarled, and the Akatsuki charged again

Athrun flung the Justice downward and its subflight lifter rocketed off its back. The turrets turned their fire towards it only for the main body of the Justice to duck beneath the Akatsuki's saber and then lunge upward to slash off its left arm at the elbow. Mara jammed back the controls just in time to bring her remaining saber around and deflect the Justice's follow-up attack and up above, the Fatum-02 wove its way through the Akatsuki's turret fire and ripped two of them out of the sky with a blazing volley of beam shots.

"As obnoxious as you are, you're not my real target here," Athrun said with a scowl, "so let's just get this over with."

Mara blinked. "Wha what are you "

She said no more as the Fatum-02 lanced up behind her and used its claws to tear the Shiranui pack clear off the Akatsuki's body. The beam turrets went silent and with a shout, Athrun surged forward, flung the Akatsuki's saber aside, and plunged the second blade into the golden mobile suit's chest.

"After all," Athrun said, as Mara stared in horror at the Akatsuki's dying controls, "I have business with Jona."

The Akatsuki vanished in a blaze. Athrun reclaimed his subflight lifter with a crash and scanned the battlefield. Viveka was off somewhere tearing apart the regular forces so he would have to find her before he could go hunt down Jona.

But the black and red Amaterasu was out there. He could see it and it would not be there for long.

A pulsing wave of beam fire coursed by the nimble Fujin Gundam as Sting pressed his attack. A Windam came down from overhead with a beam blast; the Fujin jetted to the side, then whirled around and slashed it in half with a kick from the Gundam's left-hand foot-mounted beam claw.

Sting glanced up over his shoulder. One of those Drake destroyers with the positron reflector was up above, deflecting fire from the Minerva on the Alliance fleet. Well, that wagon could be fixed easily enough.

With a blast of thruster exhaust, the Fujin rocketed off towards the ship. Two Windams moved to intercept, only to be torn apart by the Fujin's gunbarrels; a third slid in from behind, bazooka at the ready, but Sting flipped around to blow it away with a beam rifle blast, then continue on his way. The gunbarrels darted in ahead of him and spread out to draw the ship's fire; Sting plunged down towards the vessel, then stopped short.

"And this," he said, "is always my favorite part!"

The Fujin fired off a full spread of missiles from the launchers in its hips. The Drake's CIWS emplacements lit up and tore some of them out of the sky but enough got through to slam into the ship's hull. Sting stole his chance to sweep in and chop off the positron reflector array with a quick beam saber strike and then darted out of the way as the Minerva's Isolde cannon and Tristans tore the ship apart.

"Well, that was easy enough," Sting chuckled, and glanced around the battlefield for his next target. Two more Windams darted down towards him, beam rifles blazing; the gunbarrels fired back to drive them apart, and Sting backed away and blasted them both apart with his beam rifle. "I could get used to this again, y'know?"

The Fujin Gundam's eyes flashed as it took off back into the battle.

Emily cringed as another bulky Long Dagger struggled in vain to catch the nimble Windams and their even quicker gunbarrels, and instead was torn apart by a barrage of railgun shells. She whipped around, the Eclipse's beam sword blazing, and swept it upwards right through the waist of one of the Windams. None of these Newtypes Morgan had unleashed were particularly strong but the fact that they were Newtypes at all was unnerving enough.

Especially, she noted as the bisected Windam exploded, since they had that peculiar way of dying.

Emily shook off the feeling and wheeled around towards the survivors. The Sword Calamity up above zigzagged its way through a hail of railgun blasts and charged towards one of the Gunbarrel Windams. The white mobile suit backed away with a beam rifle barrage that sent the Sword Calamity diving for cover; Emily seized the chance to lunge in from behind and cut the Windam in two before it could react.

More shells slammed into the Eclipse and threw her back and then a wave of beam fire coursed around it and Emily jammed back the controls as the two Exus units swooped down towards her, spewing beam fire, their gunbarrels swarming in close.

"Miss Oldendorf, don't!" a voice cried; the Sword Calamity flung itself into their path and forced them off course, at the cost of one of its swords.

Emily's eyes widened. "What are you doing ?!"

"My orders are clear," Four Socius answered. "I am to protect you, even at the cost of my life."

"B-But that's insane!"

"Lady Sahaku wills it." The Sword Calamity charged at the six remaining Gunbarrel Windams, and the orange weapons flashed around the battlefield. Emily ground her teeth and threw open the throttle, hurling the Gundam into the fight.

"What does she want with me...?"

The Eclipse darted to the side as the Windams opened fire, but the Sword Calamity slalomed around their blasts and fired back with its chest-mounted Scylla cannon. The Windams broke ranks again but one of them ducked underneath the blast and charged, beam saber flashing to life. The Sword Calamity swung down its sword and smacked the saber aside only for the Windam to lunge up into the Gundam's face and slam one of its Stiletto armor penetrators into the Gundam's torso. It backed away, just as the bomb exploded, and Emily cringed as she felt Four Socius vanish in the blast.

"They're just..." She looked around the battlefield in disbelief, as the Socius clones faltered; another Long Dagger exploded under a hail of beam fire. "They're just dying...for nothing..."

One of the Windams opened fire and forced the Eclipse back on the defensive. Emily shot a furious glance up at the two flickering points of light in the distance, where Mina and Morgan were doing battle.

"You're just throwing their lives away...!"

The Zamzazar shuddered as Shinn Asuka pummeled it with a relentless volley of long-range beam cannon fire. The mobile armor swung itself to the side and fired back with a wave of beams; Shinn darted out of harm's way and a cloud of afterimages lit up the sky as he dodged the Zamzazar's fire

...and from above, another hail of beam fire came down as the Kali Gundam leveled off its beam rifle. The Zamzazar's turrets angled up to open fire and gave the Zulfiqar all the time it needed to charge in close and slash off the mobile armor's two front claws.

"That's more like it," Shinn said, and glanced up at the Kali. "Stella!"

The stricken Zamzazar had no time to react as Stella plunged down and slammed a beam saber into the mobile armor's remaining claws, blowing them apart. The maimed Zamzazar staggered back under the blasts and Shinn charged in with a shout and slammed his sword through the cockpit.

"And that should do it," Shinn said with a satisfied grin. He pushed off from the sparking mobile armor and backed away with Stella as it finally exploded. "Went a lot easier than it usually does, I gotta say."

Stella smiled and turned the Kali Gundam back towards the battle. "There's still work to do..."

"That there is," Shinn agreed. "Ready to kick some ass?"

The Zulfiqar and Kali roared back into battle.

Battleship Minerva

Another Drake-class destroyer up ahead snapped in half and vanished within a cloud of fire, and Meyrin Hawke sat back with a frustrated sigh. Mina's fleet was not budging from Ame-no-Mihashira; Mina herself refused to leave the station vulnerable to a counterattack by moving her ships forward, which left the Minerva and its Gundams on their own. And while they were running rings around the enemy for now, there was no telling how long that bit of good fortune would last.

"My orders come from Lady Sahaku herself," Komatsu, the Izumo's captain, said with an apologetic shrug. "The most I can do is provide fire support from afar."

"I know," Meyrin said, "but we have the advantage. We need to press "

"Captain, heat source!" Burt cried, and all other voices on the bridge went silent. "It's coming from the Moon..." He trailed off in disbelief. "Captain, it's "

All was silent as a vast golden beam swept into the battlefield and straight into Ame-no-Mihashira. Komatsu vanished with a scream and the Izumo disappeared in the depths of the blinding light; the tower buckled under the blast as the mighty Requiem punched its way through the platform and seared off into space. The station shuddered and began to drift out of its orbit; the ships surrounding it melted away within the blast; and then the world shook as Ame-no-Mihashira finally exploded and the Requiem's burning light faded away.

The Minerva's bridge was silent. Meyrin's jaw hung open. All that fighting and it had all been blown away just like that...

"Well," Roxy said quietly, "we had the advantage."

Meyrin gathered her wits. "The Amatu," she said. "Mina. Where is she? Is she still active?"

"Her IFF's still broadcasting, but it's moving towards the wreckage field," Burt said. "I can't tell how many of her units survived. It doesn't look like any of the ships made it."

"The Alliance fleet is moving forward," Abbey added. "We don't really have any reason to stick around "

"Yes we do," Meyrin interrupted. "The survivors will need someone to punch a hole through that fleet for their escape," she scowled at the Alliance and locked away the anger at their once again callously extinguishing lives with that giant laser cannon of theirs, "and that's exactly what we're going to do. All hands, move forward! Break through the center!"

A volley of beam shots lanced down from above and forced the Gundam Eclipse off course. The two blue Exus units pulled up, gunbarrels blazing around the black Gundam; Emily darted back behind her beam shield, just as the Fenrir lunged back into the fight with a backhanded beam saber swipe.

"Well," Morgan Chevalier chuckled, "since Miss Goldfinger back there ran off after the Requiem shot, I guess you'll just have to play with me!"

Emily clenched her fists around the controls. "The Requiem..."

"Pretty nasty weapon, isn't it?" Morgan laughed, and the Fenrir came down with another saber swing. Emily backed away and ducked through an opening in the web of beam fire the gunbarrels had spun. The two Exus units lined up behind her, beam cannons ready; Emily darted aside with a flurry of afterimages, but the Fenrir would not be denied so easily and the two mobile suits' blades met in a shower of sparks. "Not really a sportsman's kind of weapon, the Requiem, but if it saves my men from getting killed, I guess I can't complain too much."

"After all the other people it's killed?!" Emily snapped.

"Oh, don't go all moral high ground on me, Miss Angel of Death," cackled Morgan, and the Fenrir flung the Eclipse back and swarmed its gunbarrels. Emily backed away behind her beam shield. "After all, you've killed quite a few people yourself!"

The Eclipse dove around the blasts, filling the black sky with afterimages; the two Exus units gave chase with a barrage of beam fire from their beam cannons and gunbarrels. "I'm not doing it for something evil!" Emily shouted back.

"Well, don't get mad at me, sweetheart, I'm just doing my job."

"Of course you are," snorted Emily, "and that makes it all okay, doesn't it?!" The Eclipse whirled around and slammed its beam sword down against the Fenrir's saber.

"And I suppose you've found some kind of better way, huh?" laughed Morgan. "Let's just drop the moral pretenses, kid. There's no place for them out here!"

Emily scowled back at the charging Fenrir and eyed the two Exus units. They would have to go before she could deal with him.

The vast hull of an Agamemnon-class carrier loomed up ahead, with one of those Izumo-class ships in front of it, and a couple other warships to the sides throwing up screening fire. To an ordinary man, it might have been daunting but in the cockpit of the Zulfiqar Gundam, Shinn looked it over and shrugged. He had certainly taken care of things like this before.

"Okay, Stella," Shinn said, "first up is that Izumo. You ready?"

Stella nodded; the two Gundams blasted off towards their prey. The off-white and gray Izumo angled its Gottfried guns to open fire and a squadron of Murasames swept down from above with a blaze of beam fire. Shinn snapped up the long-range cannon to fire back and scatter the Murasames; Stella backed away, whipped up her sniper rifle, and blew two of them out of the sky before the rest could react.

"I'll leave them to you, Stella!" Shinn cried, and the Zulfiqar blasted forward with a flash of exhaust and a cloud of afterimages. The Murasames arced around to stop him, only for the Kali to drive them apart again with a barrage of beam fire. The Izumo fired a storm of missiles; Shinn waved them away with a burst of Newtype energy, and the missiles arced back around and slammed into the battleship's hull. The vessel bucked backwards; Shinn seized his chance and roared forward with a shout.

The Izumo's hangar doors opened and a Windam emerged into the linear catapult; Shinn darted to the side and sawed the mobile suit in half as it passed, then lunged into the opening before it closed. Two more Windams were left in the battleship's hangar; they turned in surprise, only to both be torn in two by the Zulfiqar's sword. Shinn leveled off the long-range cannon and pumped blast after blast into the ship's innards and as smoke and sparks began to fill the hangar, he whipped around and blasted his way back out of the hangar.

And, with a satisfied smirk, he turned the Zulfiqar around to watch as the Izumo broke like a twig amid a fiery explosion.

"Come on," he said to Stella, "there's still more work to do." The Zulfiqar pointed towards the Agamemnon carrier, and the two Gundams rocketed after it.

"So how do you know which ship this Jona guy is on?" Viveka asked. The Aurora rocked from a nearby missile detonation and wove its way through a storm of beam fire. Inside the Celestial Justice, Athrun fixed his gaze on the black and red hull of the Amaterasu, the Seiran family's own Izumo-class battleship the one where he knew his quarry would be watching the battle.

"It's personal," he said. "Just keep the mobile suits off my back."

Viveka frowned. "If you say so."

The two Gundams rocketed ahead, both in mobile armor mode, and whirled through the defensive fire. Viveka abruptly transformed and showered the attacking Murasames with plasma fire, forcing apart their ranks and letting the Justice blast through. Athrun keyed open a frequency and glowered back up at the Amaterasu.

"There you are," he said, "Jona Roma Seiran."

The shocked face of the Protectorate of Orb's Governor-General stared back. "A-Athrun Zala? How in the hell "

The Justice swiftly changed to its mobile suit form and plunged through a wall of defensive fire with its beam shield. Two Murasames arced around the Justice and angled in to attack; Athrun whipped around and slashed them both in half with the foot-mounted sabers, then continued on his attack.

"I'm glad we both remember each other," Athrun said with a scowl. "Means we don't have to waste time with reintroductions."

Jona glared back. "And just what are you so smug for? We just destroyed Ame-no-Mihashira! You've lost!"

"We'll deal with Sahaku later," Athrun shot back. "Right now this is between me and you." The Amaterasu's Gottfried cannons flashed to life; the Justice danced around their blasts. "After all, you didn't steal Orb from Sahaku. And you didn't usurp the Akatsuki from her. You stole it from Cagalli."

"T-That's ridiculous "

"And I'm told you're a big believer in second chances," Athrun added, and the Justice roared down towards the black battleship. Jona's eyes went wide in disbelief as the Gundam effortlessly slipped through his ship's fire. "So am I." The Justice's eyes flashed; the Fatum-02 lifted off with a roar and went spiraling up overhead, drawing the Amaterasu's fire. Jona's jaw dropped in horror as the Gundam charged. "But you're all out of those now!"

The Amaterasu fired again, the Justice darted to the side and blasted back with its beam rifle, and Jona Roma Seiran disappeared with a scream as the blast slammed through the ship's bridge.

An instant later, the Fatum-02 poured a wall of beam fire into the Amaterasu from above and broke the ship in half. It slammed back onto the Justice's back as the ship finally sputtered to a halt and exploded, and Athrun sat back, letting out a long breath.

"There," he said quietly. "Orb is with you again, Cagalli."

He glanced up towards the battle, where Viveka was still running rings around the Murasames.

"But as for me," he added, "I belong with someone else now."

The Justice looked up towards the Murasames and charged.

The Gundam Eclipse darted through a web of beam fire as Emily scanned the skies for her opportunity. Morgan Chevalier laughed excitedly as his gunbarrels chased after her; the Eclipse lunged between their shots and smacked the Fenrir aside with a backhanded beam sword strike, then launched itself upward to avoid the blazing gunbarrels as they charged by with shining beam sabers.

"There!" she shouted, and whipped around; the first Exus charged towards her, beam cannons blazing. She ducked beneath it, then lunged up and sliced it in half with her beam sword. As it exploded, she whirled around to face the second Exus and fired an anchor into its side; the mobile armor lurched back, trying to escape, but she yanked it close and slashed it in two as well. Eight of the twelve flashing gunbarrels went silent; the Fenrir swept down from above with a hard overhead beam saber hack.

"Impressive as always!" Morgan cried. "Too bad it's not good enough!"

"Is it?!" Emily shot back

The silent gunbarrels came to life again and went on the attack and this time their beams swarmed in around the Fenrir, driving it back. Morgan backpedaled with a yelp of surprise and took cover behind his beam shield as the stolen gunbarrels filled the black sky with beams.

"How the hell are you doing this...?" he muttered, and glanced back at the Eclipse as it charged forward. "Well, you've just got all kinds of surprises up those sleeves of yours..."

The Fenrir ducked beneath another beam barrage and rocketed away. Emily moved to follow, but a blinding light flashed up in front of her and she backed away in frustration from a burning combat flare as the Fenrir made its escape.

Silence filled the cockpit of the Amatu as Rondo Mina Sahaku stared in open shock at the damage. The Requiem had annihilated everything. Jona Roma Seiran had annihilated everything.

So many years of marshaling resources and biding her time had come to this. The Socius clones were all dead. The Sword Calamity, the Raider Full Specs, the Long Daggers, all of them wiped out by the Alliance. The Izumo, blown away in the blast. Ame-no-Mihashira, reduced to rubble. Mina stared desolately at the wreckage and tried to think of something that could be salvaged, but nothing came to mind. Only a handful of stragglers slipping away through a hole in the Alliance lines, and her faithful Amatu, loyal to the end.

This must be what the end of the world feels like.

"Ah, there you are," a voice spoke up, and Mina turned in surprise at the sight of the gray Judgment Gundam approaching her and Rau Le Creuset's grinning, masked face on her auxiliary screen. "Not very polite of you to run off like that while you had guests."

Mina scowled. "What do you want?"

"Oh, many things," Rau said, "but I've got plans, you see, and I can't afford to have someone sniffing around at the heels of my little apprentice." Mina's blood went cold. "So at the moment, I'd just like to snip off a loose thread "

With a flash, the Judgment's DRAGOONs took off, and before Mina could react, they ripped her mobile suit limb from limb. The dying Amatu shuddered as its arms, legs, head, and claws vanished under an unstoppable beam barrage from the Judgment's DRAGOONs and then the Judgment itself dropped down in front of the dismembered mobile suit, a shocked Mina sitting in the sparking, darkening cockpit.

"...before it becomes a problem," he finished and Rondo Mina Sahaku disappeared in the middle of a beam rifle blast through the Amatu's cockpit.

Rau backed away with a smirk as what was left of the Amatu met its fiery end, and turned the Judgment back towards the escaping Minerva. That had been easy enough.

ZAFT mobile space fortress Messiah, Lagrange Point 5

"The Stargazer has proven to be a very lucrative goldmine of new technology," the ZAFT Black-Shirt said with a confident grin. In the commander's chair in Messiah's control room, Valentine tapped the armrest impatiently, while Kira stood stoically at her side. "As you ordered, Vice Marshal, we've begun conversion of the Stargazer itself into a combat mobile suit. The Voiture Lumiere system has proven to exceed our expectations. But there are other important technologies in the Stargazer as well." He gestured at the images on the holographic screens, where a team of older ZAFT mobile suits was savaging an Alliance Drake-class destroyer and its four overwhelmed Windam mobile suits. "As you can see, the AI control modules work well."

Kira frowned. "They're not as good as humans."

"No sir," the officer said, "but they don't need to be." He pressed a button on his remote and blueprints of several of ZAFT's older, Valentine War-era mobile suits appeared. "As you know, we have many of these pre-Millennium mobile suits left in storage, but no pilots to operate them. The AI control module, derived from the Stargazer's advanced artificial intelligence system, will allow us to correct this waste of resources. Even as I speak, our mechanics are outfitting the ZuOOT and GAZuOOT units for space combat, so we can field the maximum number of units possible when the operation begins." He put on that confident look again. "The project is proceeding exceedingly well."

Valentine glanced up at Kira. "Between these automated units and the secret fleet, we'll have a huge advantage going into the attack."

"As long as these things work," Kira said. "Commander, I expect you to fine-tune the AI to the greatest degree possible, and squeeze every ounce of performance out of these machines as you can. Every unit is going to have to count. Understood?"

"Yes sir," he answered with a sharp salute.

Valentine smiled. "You worry too much, Kira. The Alliance has no idea what we're doing."

"It's my job to worry," said Kira.

"I know. Go out to the Fortuna. We still have much to do."

ZAFT Eternal-class cruiser Seraphim, Earth orbit

"All sensors are clear," the sensor officer reported. "ETA is in twenty-nine hours."

The bridge fell silent and Captain Evers sat back in the captain's chair with a sigh. He wondered if it would even matter this time. The Seraphim didn't have any new equipment, and with only the Foucault and a couple of Laurasia frigates over there for assistance, he couldn't say he rated their chances very highly. Not if what Intel had to say about those new units was true.

But, as the bridge door hissed open and the reason for all this came drifting into view, Evers idly remembered that Commander Ehrmacht had insisted. "Testing opportunity for Zero-Two," he'd called it. Of course.

Varder and Lilith came to a stop by the captain's chair and Evers greeted the former with a salute. "The mechanics just finished switching out the CaZEL's engines for space combat," he said. "In twenty-nine hours we'll be in position to strike."

"Good," Varder said, and cast a surreptitious glance at the Nazca-class destroyer and two Laurasia-class frigates off the ship's starboard bow. "He didn't say anything about other ships."

"Vice Marshal Yamato doesn't want to risk Zero-Two unnecessarily."

"Of course not," snorted Varder. The auxiliary screen came to life with a flicker and the image of a man with long orange hair in a ZAFT Black-Shirt uniform appeared. "Commander Argenshire, I see you made friends."

"The Sonic Doom, at your service," said Neil Argenshire with a dramatic flourish. "Must confess I'm a bit surprised a FAITH unit would have rounded us all up like this. I was under the impression I was supposed to take our little angel-killer back to Messiah."

"Plans change," Varder said. "The Minerva is in our sights. I expect them to be destroyed. Will you make that happen?"

"Commander, please," Argenshire chuckled, "you asked for an ace, you got an ace. If they haven't learned to fear my orange DOM before, they will when this battle's started."

Varder arched an eyebrow. "I should hope so, commander. Seraphim, out."

The screen darkened and Varder turned to stalk off the bridge in disgust. Lilith and Evers shared a look as the bridge door slid shut again.

"I'll...try to talk to him," she offered, and turned towards the doors.

"Don't bother," Evers said with a sigh. "We'll just have to get him back to Messiah when this battle is over."

The doubtful look on Lilith's face did nothing to calm his unease as she left.

ZAFT Nazca-class destroyer Foucault, Earth orbit

Unit Zero-Two drifted through the air in her bunk, the light dossier on the pilot the crew called her archrival in hand. She was supposed to have all this information memorized, but the more she read it and the more she compared it to her library of experience with the Resistance's dreaded Angel of Death, the more she felt her time was being wasted.

They called the Angel of Death her rival, but that open fear and despair she sensed every time she approached the black Gundam made her wonder what they were talking about. The intelligence was clear that she was supposed to be something like herself, a super-soldier designed to destroy on the battlefield and serve her masters. But that in itself was obviously somehow wrong, because it was the Alliance that had forged her, and yet now it was the Alliance that feared her. And if she had joined the Resistance willingly, that made her a weapon with a will of its own.

But they were supposed to be alike. Zero-Two paused to contemplate that idea. Perhaps she could decide for herself whether ZAFT's crusade was hers as well?

Ridiculous. Of course not. If she wasn't ZAFT's weapon, she was nothing, and there was nothing more pathetic and irresponsible than a person without a purpose.

So Unit Zero-One had leapt off her tracks and plunged into the river of existential madness of her own volition. Fine. Zero-Two pondered the dossier further and wondered why that made her apparent rival so fixated on her identity as her mother.

That, at least, was what the dossier suggested. The only reason the girl named Emily even existed was to provide a healthy test subject for her mother's remarkable Newtype powers. And as a genetic backup and further experiment, her mother had been cloned, her genetic flaws corrected, her body slowly built up as that of a Coordinator, a strong and suitable alternative if little Emily didn't work out.

That, after all, was her. Unit Zero-Two. Modified clone of Lorelei von Oldendorf, deployed against her daughter for ZAFT.

But Zero-One seemed to think that she, Zero-Two, was her mother. And that was preposterous.

Well, she mused, I'll have to break her of that belief. If I don't kill her first.

June 20th, CE 77 - Resistance Eternal-class cruiser Alexandria, Debris Belt

The lunar base at Althea Crater was relatively new as lunar installations went. The radioactive remains of Ptolemaeus had been the first base, followed by the rapidly reviving Endymion, then Arzachel and Daedalus, but Althea had been built specifically to hide a dark purpose. It was an open secret that Althea was where the Alliance created its Extended, and some of the most fearsome weapons in its arsenal, like the towering Destroy Gundams.

The thought of attacking that installation, then, was enough to make Joseph Copland's stomach turn.

He sat on the bridge of the Alexandria in his chair above the captain's seat, staring uncomfortably out into space as the ship navigated the treacherous Debris Belt and angled for home at Terminal.

MacIntyre's plan made sense, he supposed. Althea was a place of evil that would have to be captured or destroyed at any rate. It was a source of power for Lord Djibril and his Phantom Pain, and with Daedalus Crater far too heavily fortified for the Resistance's dwindling space fleet to risk attacking, Althea was the next best thing. And, as the old politician's mind worked back into the familiar grooves of power and its distribution, it had a political use as well.

It was an open secret that the Alliance made and used Extended, but few details were publicly known and the mainstream press generally avoided the issue. But if the Resistance were to attack Althea in the course of an Alliance civil war, throw the light onto the evils Lord Djibril had done there, and wield the suffering of the Extended as a bludgeon against Djibril and the Phantom Pain, then the world's opinion would have to change. Copland almost shuddered. He himself had seen what went into making an Extended and what happened to it as it lived and died. And the world was too full of essentially good people not to be horrified at what they would see.

The Extended. He had failed those children once, by allowing them to be mutilated and exploited. And now he would have to exploit them again. But perhaps this would make up for it because if MacIntyre's plan worked, they would never be needed again.

Copland glanced anxiously at the Moon.

If his plan works.

To be continued...