Phase 38 - Lorelei

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 38 - Lorelei

June 21st, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Earth orbit

"Guess they just can't give us a rest," sighed Sting as he lunged into the air in the Minerva's hangar towards the Fujin Gundam's waiting cockpit. Back on the floor, Emily closed the seals on her helmet's flight suit and glanced up nervously towards her silent Gundam Eclipse. These things all looked the same with their Phase Shift deactivated.

Out there, she could feel the building pressure of Unit Zero-Two. The black Eternal was coming, along with three other ZAFT warships. That meant another showdown with the foe that caused her no end of anguish, and those other two who seemed to delight in pestering her.

She drifted up to the Eclipse's cockpit and took a deep breath. Either way, she still had to go out there and stop that thing. Her friends were counting on her. She thought back to what Malchio had told her, and wondered what fate would have in store for her this time.

The first thing Shinn noticed about his oncoming enemies was the bright orange DOM Trooper charging straight towards him, flanked by a pair of GOUF Igniteds. That made him think back to the last ZAFT pilot he had fought who flew an orange mobile suit and that memory put a sour taste in his mouth.

The DOM Trooper opened fire with two Gigalaunchers and filled the sky with beam fire. Shinn darted down and Stella lunged up from behind with the beam sniper rifle ready. The DOM and GOUFs ducked aside, but the ZAKUs behind them were not so quick and one of them vanished in a fireball as a beam pierced its cockpit. The ZAKUs split up as the Kali Gundam roared after them.

Undaunted, the orange DOM charged in close, bazookas blazing. Shinn dispensed with the beam rifle in favor of his towering anti-ship sword and slashed the DOM's right-hand Gigalauncher in half as it passed by. The DOM whipped around, beam saber blazing to life, and brought its blade down against the Zulfiqar's sword.

"So!" cackled a man's voice, and the image of a man in a black ZAFT flight suit flickered onto the auxiliary display. "At last I get to cross swords with the Traitor Asuka himself, eh?"

Shinn frowned. "Who the hell are you?"

"You haven't heard of me? Neil Argenshire, the Sonic Doom! The man who took out two battleships at Jachin Due!"

"Please. I took out three battleships the other day."

"Oh, a cocky one, are you?" Argenshire cried, and the DOM surged forward. "We'll see how long that lasts! Kamarov, Walker, now!"

The two GOUFs dropped in from above with their beam swords raised high. Shinn glanced up at the two blue mobile suits then slammed the DOM with a hard kick to the torso and lunged off, dodging the GOUFs' sword swings and twisting away from the DOM's retaliatory beam fire.

"I guess they just let anyone call themselves an ace now," Shinn said, and the Zulfiqar pointed its sword combatively at the three mobile suits. "Well, alright, kids. Same old song and dance. Come and get me."

They were afraid. That was the first thing Athrun Zala noticed as the ZAFT ZAKUs broke ranks around his charging Celestial Justice Gundam. Before, these fights against ZAFT had always been against confident enemies who outnumbered and outclassed the Minerva's dwindling supply of mobile suits. But now?

The Justice rocketed forward and transformed with a flash, and Athrun slammed the claws into the chests of two oncoming ZAKUs before they could react. He flung the ruined mobile suits away to let them explode in front of their comrades and then a wave of plasma fire lanced down from above to claim a third mobile suit, and the Aurora Gundam shot past in its mobile armor mode. Athrun charged forward again with a shout; the surviving ZAKUs backed away fearfully, beam rifles blazing. The Justice smashed its way through their shots and fired back with its beam rifle. One of the ZAKUs, sporting a Slash Wizard pack, lunged above its comrades and came shrieking down with its beam axe held high. Athrun scowled back, darted to the side, whipped around, and slashed it in half with a kick from the foot-mounted saber.

The ZAKUs backed away again, only for their ranks to be peppered with more beam fire, and the Aurora whirled back into the fight in mobile suit mode. The ZAKUs broke ranks; a Gunner ZAKU fired off a pulsing beam cannon blast that forced the two Gundams apart, and the survivors darted around on either side to keep the two Gundams separated.

"Ooh, squad tactics!" laughed Viveka. "Looks like they're learning!"

Athrun took cover behind his beam shield as the ZAKUs closed in. "But not fast enough," he added and the Justice burst forward with a blaze of beam fire.

Auel Neider grinned like a schoolboy as the Marduk Gundam's sights lined up and the beam guns blew two ZAKU Warriors out of the sky. The survivors backed away behind a wall of beam fire; instead, the Fujin Gundam's gunbarrels swarmed around them and tore another two down amid a hail of beam fire. Auel stormed forward, through the ZAKUs' faltering lines, towards the two Laurasia-class frigates behind them. The Nazca was already swinging around to fight the Minerva along with that black Eternal-class, but these two wouldn't get a chance to join in.

The two frigates let loose a torrent of beam fire and railgun shells; the Marduk backed away behind its shoulder shells and let the Geschmeidig Panzer system send the beams flying off course. Another squad of ZAKUs rose to challenge him; the Fujin's gunbarrels forced them back with a flurry of beam fire. The Marduk seized its chance to rush forward, and Auel grinned with delight as he swept down onto one of the unsuspecting ZAKUs. The long beam blade of the Marduk's naginata flashed to life and cleaved the ZAKU in two, and Auel laughed triumphantly as he turned back towards the warships.

"Now, if I remember this right, you have a great big weak point somewhere on there," he said, and ducked beneath another wave of firepower from the first Laurasia. "And there we go!"

Thrusters blazing, the Marduk slalomed its way through the frigate's furious fire and parked itself underneath the hull, in front of the point where the ship's mobile suit pod met the main hull. The two guns mounted underneath angled towards the Marduk's back but not before the blue and white mobile suit let loose a devastating barrage of beam fire through the warship's stern section. The Laurasia sputtered fire and Auel made his escape with a gleeful smile as it finally cracked in half and vanished within a billowing cloud of fire.

"Man, that never gets old," he said with a sigh. "Alright! Which one of you fuckers is next?"

Sword met saber as the Gundam Eclipse and the Providence ZAKU battled their way across the black sky, DRAGOONs from the latter flashing through the battlefield and spinning a net of beam fire around the two combatants. Emily gritted her teeth as the pressure assaulted her mind and swung her sword up to deflect the Providence ZAKU's blow.

"Left a blind spot, I see!" screamed Varder, and the CaZEL descended from behind with its swords raised high. Emily ground her teeth and surged forward, throwing the Providence ZAKU back; quicker than quick, she whipped around to swat the CaZEL's swords aside with her own blade, then rocketed out of the two mobile suits' reach as they both opened fire, and ducked down again under the relentless beam fire from the hulking CaVAL overhead.

"Leaving so soon?!" Lilith cried, and the CaVAL poured beam fire into the Eclipse's beam shield. The DRAGOONs swarmed again and forced Emily back further, underneath a horizontal saber blow from the Providence ZAKU; the CaZEL charged in close, swords pulled back for another attack

Instead, a wave of pulsing red beam blasts through the battlefield and forced the CaZEL off course and the Judgment Gundam blasted its way into the fight and drove the two ZAFT mobile suits back.

"Emily!" barked Rau. "I will deal with these two! You engage the Providence ZAKU!"

Emily turned her eyes back towards the gray mobile suit and her hands trembled. "A-Alright..."

The Providence ZAKU charged again and the two mobile suits descended into a swift swordfight. "You may be undistracted now by those two," Unit Zero-Two snarled, "but so am I."

Emily clenched her teeth and swung her sword up to block Zero-Two's downward saber hack. "Is that so..."

"And this time," Zero-Two added, "we'll have to finish this. For good."

The two mobile suits charged again; Emily veered off at the last minute and darted away, the Providence ZAKU hot on her trail.

ZAFT Eternal-class cruiser Seraphim

The Seraphim rocked as the Minerva's missiles flashed by and the CIWS emplacements cut them down. Evers cringed in the captain's chair. They had never been this good before, but the mobile suits were already been torn to pieces, the Ohm had just been destroyed, and the Beckman was under attack by one just one of those damned new Gundams.

How had the Minerva and the Resistance gotten a hold of technology like this? The Seraphim shook again and knocked him out of his thoughts.

"Bow down, angle thirty degrees!" he barked. "Get underneath them! Where's the Foucault?!"

His question was answered as the Nazca-class destroyer Foucault angled its prow above the Minerva and swung down its main guns only for the Minerva to veer to starboard and let its blasts sear by harmlessly. The Minerva's Isolde boomed; the Foucault shuddered as the shells ripped over its engine block.

"All guns, fire!" Evers cried; the Seraphim nosed towards the Minerva and its Tristan cannons sprang to life, but the winged battleship turned out of harm's way and its own weapons turned to target the crippled Foucault. "Missiles! Don't let them "

Evers went silent as the Minerva abruptly raised its prow and the blinding red light of the Tannhäuser lanced out and erased the Foucault from existence.

"How did they get like this...?" he muttered. "Helm, bring us around! Get us behind the Minerva and keep us there!"

"They're coming around, sir! Missiles!" the sensor officer cried.

Evers' blood boiled. "CIWS, respond! Do not let them get us in their sights!" He clenched his fists around his seat's armrests. As long as they had to recharge their positron cannon, he had a window of opportunity where the two ships' firepower was more or less equal and he had comrades to avenge.

"Captain, more missiles!"


The Seraphim shuddered as more explosions went off around it, and Evers scowled hatefully at the Minerva. He was beginning to understand how Commander Ehrmacht felt.

With a flash of exhaust, the Fujin Gundam darted through a wave of beam fire from five desperate, scarlet-painted ZAKU Warriors and pressed them back with a barrage from its gunbarrels. Sting positioned himself above the attackers and unleashed a storm of micromissiles from the Fujin's hip armor compartments; the ZAKUs backed away and one of them vanished in a plume of flame as a missile found its way to the cockpit.

"Four more," he muttered to himself, and maneuvered the Fujin around a pulsing red blast from a Gunner ZAKU. A Blaze ZAKU came whirling in next, beam rifle blazing; Sting darted to the side and swung out the Fujin's leg to saw the ZAKU in half with the foot-mounted saber. The survivors intensified their fire, but the gunbarrels held them at bay and Sting swung up his beam rifle to shoot down another.

The two remaining ZAKUs backed away, the Gunner ZAKU firing off another sweeping beam. Down below waited the second Laurasia frigate, surrounded by another squad of ZAKUs pouring beam fire after the Marduk. Sting sent the gunbarrels lancing down after the two retreating mobile suits; they let loose a cloud of missiles of their own that drove the two ZAKUs back further. And before either could react, the Fujin rocketed in between them, flipped around, and took them both down with a beam shot each to the back.

Sting glanced back down at the Laurasia and the squad of ZAKUs, faltering under the Marduk's unstoppable firepower. "Suppose I should go give him a hand," he said with a sigh, and the Fujin and its darting gunbarrels launched themselves down towards the ship.

A beam saber clashed against a towering anti-ship sword as the orange DOM Trooper struggled to keep up with the flickering afterimages and raw speed of the Zulfiqar Gundam. The Gundam came down from above with a devastating overhead swing that sent the DOM sprawling back; the two GOUFs put themselves in between the orange mobile suit and its shimmering foe, only for another sweeping swing to drive them both back as well. One of them darted around and raised its left arm to bring its beam guns to bear

...but instead, a shining green bolt slammed clear through its cockpit and blew it apart. Inside the Zulfiqar, Shinn smirked as he glanced up at the source. "You're late, Stella."

"There were lots of enemies," Stella huffed, and the Kali Gundam spiraled down into the fight with a volley from its beam rifle.

The DOM roared forward with a blast from its Gigalauncher. "I'll pay you back for Walker!" Argenshire screamed. "Kamarov, go!"

Abruptly, the GOUF lunged up from behind the Zulfiqar and snared the Gundam's right arm with a heat rod. It yanked back the arm, leaving the Zulfiqar wipe open to attack; the DOM showered the Kali Gundam with bazooka shells and drove it back behind a cloud of smoke, then switched course and dove down towards the Zulfiqar with its saber raised for a final blow.

Shinn grinned back. "You thought this would work?" The DOM closed in

And an instant later, the Zulfiqar tugged its right arm back around and pulled the GOUF close, then slammed its free left hand into the cockpit and blew the mobile suit apart with a shot from the palm cannon. Argenshire flung himself to the side in shock just in time for a beam rifle shot to lance out of nowhere and rip his mobile suit's arm off at the shoulder. The Kali gave chase with a volley of beam fire that put the DOM back on the defensive.

And then, with a crunch of crumpling metal and flying sparks, Argenshire disappeared in a spray of blood as the Zulfiqar rammed its sword through the DOM's cockpit. Shinn yanked it back out, sliced the ruined machine in half, and backed away as it exploded.

"Well," he muttered, "that was fun."

"They're so scared," Stella added.

Shinn heaved a sigh. "For now," he said. "It won't take them long to figure us out. Let's get going."

"What do you mean destroyed?!" shrieked Varder Ehrmacht, even as the CaZEL furiously dodged the relentless fire from the Judgment Gundam's flashing DRAGOONs.

Evers shook his head solemnly. "We've lost almost our entire force," he said. "There's no way "

"No!" Varder cried. "Keep fighting!" He whirled around on the Judgment and opened fire with his beam cannons; the gray Gundam elegantly arced around his blasts and answered him in spades with the beam guns mounted on its body.

"Varder, this is suicide!" Lilith shouted back. "We've lost!"

"No! Not yet! Not until we find her!"

Rau Le Creuset's chuckle broke through the chatter. "Ah, it's so amusing, a man who calls himself the Widowmaker trying to conquer Death herself."

Varder's eyes dulled with fury. "Traitor!"

"Yes, yes, well, I was never really on your side to begin with." The Judgment Gundam slammed its saber down onto the CaZEL's swords and drove the green mobile suit back. The CaVAL opened fire with its beam cannons, but the Judgment warded the larger machine off with a burst of DRAGOON fire and returned its attention towards the CaZEL. "So, Commander Ehrmacht, what to do?"

The CaZEL ducked down beneath the Judgment's horizontal saber swipe and then fired a combat flare up into the Judgment's face and rocketed off into the blackness.

"Varder!" Lilith cried, and the CaVAL went after him with a roar.

Rau smirked back at the two retreating mobile suits and mentally traced their flight path and focused on the two points of pressure off in the distance.

Well, well, he said, this should be interesting...

Battleship Minerva

Meyrin fixed her eyes on the jet-black hull of the Eternal cruiser up ahead. The Eternal-class had speed enough to match the Minerva, but it wasn't designed for head-to-head engagements with enemy warships and that was the only way this little trick was going to work.

"Abes just checked in," Abbey said. "They're done with the Parsifals."

"Good. Malik, bring us around; Chen, load the new missiles into the tubes and fire on my mark."

The Minerva groaned as the winged battleship veered through a cloud of beam fire and wheeled around towards the black warship. The Tristan cannons on its prow angled to fire, but the blasts seared by harmlessly through the Minerva's swirling wake, and the battleship nosed up into position.

Meyrin leaned forward. "Parsifal, fire!"

The Minerva's full complement of Parsifal air-to-surface missiles rushed out of the tubes and arced around towards the Eternal. The black ship's CIWS units sliced the projectiles out of the sky and Meyrin tightened her grip on the armrests as the telltale smoke of an anti-beam depth charge cloud billowed up around the ship. The Tristans tried to fire again but shorted out amidst a cloud of beam-dampening particles.

"They're moving, captain !" Burt started.

"Target the engine block! Isolde, Neidhardt, fire!"

The Minerva shuddered and the Isolde boomed and a few shells and Neidhardt space combat missiles later, the black Eternal was ripped apart by a thundering explosion.

Meyrin sat back with a satisfied sigh and glanced around the battlefield. There were still a few mobile suits left, being mopped up by the Gundams, but the last Laurasia frigate finally succumbed to the Marduk's avalanche of firepower and exploded. The battle was won.

But there was still something out there and Emily would have to be the one to deal with it.

The Gundam Eclipse jammed its sword into the beam saber's path to deflect the blow, then surged forward to fling the Providence ZAKU back on its heels. The gray mobile suit launched its DRAGOONs to spin a web of beam fire between the two machines, but with afterimages filling the sky around her, Emily wove her way through the blasts and stormed in close again to leave the two mobile suits locked together, sparks scattering around them.

"I see you've found your nerve this time," growled Unit Zero-Two.

Emily ground her teeth she even sounded like her mother. "That's because I'm looking for something."

"Are you now."

The Eclipse pressed harder against its foe's blade. "Something in you."

With a crash, the Providence ZAKU slammed its knee up into the Eclipse's chest and then drove it back further with a hard kick to the head. "Perhaps you should be focusing on your piloting instead."

Emily flung the Eclipse back, zigzagged her way through another storm of beam fire, then vaulted up over the blasts and came back down with another hard swing against the Providence ZAKU's beam saber.

"If you really are just like me, then I know deep down, you don't really want to be the way you are!" She pushed the Providence ZAKU back again and then, before Zero-Two could react, she fired the left-hand anchor into the mobile suit's beam rifle, yanked it out of its grip, and flung it aside. The Providence ZAKU swarmed its DRAGOONs; Emily ducked around the two charging beam spikes and rushed in close for another swordfight. "If you're really like me, then you know I'm not really your enemy!"

Zero-Two scowled. "If we are so alike, then you also should understand why that's impossible."

Emily thought back to what Malchio had said fate and destiny. She reached out towards the pulsing pressure in front of her pulled tight with determination and focus, but underneath it was churning emotion she couldn't identify. What was it? Anger? Fear? Sadness? Resignation? "It's only impossible if you want it to be."

The Providence ZAKU flung the Eclipse back with a saber swing. "If this is some kind of trick to get me to surrender, it's not working," Zero-Two snapped. "I am here to do my job and I will do it, no matter how much angst it causes you."

Emily cringed as the Providence ZAKU charged towards her. Fate and destiny what was given and what was offered

An instant later, the bolt of energy struck before her and she jerked the Eclipse to the side to dodge the Providence ZAKU's killing stab. The DRAGOONs swarmed again; she blazed a flickering path through their shots and slammed her beam sword down against the Providence ZAKU's blade, crashing the two mobile suits together. Zero-Two yelped in surprise

And then, Emily summoned up every memory of her mother, every good feeling she'd ever known from her, and shoved them towards the pressure in the other cockpit. Zero-Two gasped in surprise at the entirely new feeling radiating from her opponent and those memories, of a kindly, frail woman offering love and compassion to her hurting daughter.

"W-What are you doing?!" Zero-Two cried.

"You don't have to be this," Emily said quietly. "You can be like that."

"There you are!"

Emily's eyes went wide and she instinctively lunged away from the Providence ZAKU as a wall of beam fire sliced through the space between the two mobile suits. She felt her blood boil in frustration as the CaZEL and CaVAL roared into battle.

"I think you've run away from me for long enough!" Varder roared.

Emily turned back towards the Providence ZAKU and felt the walls closing again and the pressure turning rigid and focused once more. Her eyes flicked back towards the CaZEL and CaVAL and the seed fell.

The two mobile suits lunged apart as the Providence ZAKU backed away; Emily ducked beneath the CaVAL's beam cannon blasts and whipped around to face the oncoming CaZEL. It brought down both of its swords with a downward hack; Emily batted them aside and slammed the green mobile suit back with a kick to the chest, then whirled around again to swat aside the CaVAL's beam blasts.

"You two," Emily snapped, "are always in my way!"

The CaZEL slid in behind the Eclipse, beam cannons ready; Emily somersaulted over the blasts, turned again, and slammed the CaZEL with another kick to its chin that sent the mobile suit reeling. And with a third reverberating blow, she slammed her foot down into the CaZEL's torso and sent the machine spiraling into the CaVAL, knocking both mobile suits back.

"What the Zero-Two, do something!" Lilith cried. Zero-Two shook her head and the DRAGOONs took off with a flash

...and their beams passed through nothing, as the afterimages filled the sky and the Eclipse's Voiture Lumiere system burst to life. The black Gundam came down with a scream from its pilot and slashed off the CaVAL's entire left arm. Lilith yelped in surprise and raised her right arm to bring her carbine to bear only for a sweeping sword blow from the Eclipse to sever it at the elbow and slice off the head as well.

The CaZEL charged with a beam volley; the Eclipse ducked around the blasts and slammed the green mobile suit aside with another volley. The maimed CaVAL backed away under a curtain of artillery fire from the two dual cannons on its back; the black Gundam flipped over its shots, came down with another flash, and sliced off both cannons and the CaVAL's entire backpack, then kicked it away and whipped around to face the CaZEL.

"Why won't you just die?!" Varder screamed. Emily narrowed her eyes and seized her chance

Faster than Varder could see, the Eclipse blasted forward and sliced off the CaZEL's right arm at the shoulder, its right wing, and its right leg at the knee. The mobile suit turned with its remaining sword for a horizontal blow but the Eclipse caught its arm in its free left hand and wrenched it off at the shoulder, then hurled it away. The CaZEL backed away, just as the Eclipse sliced off its head; the black Gundam rushed in close with its sword raised for a deathblow

Instead, the Providence ZAKU dropped in to deflect the sword with its shoulder shields, and before Emily could recover, it seized the two mutilated mobile suits in its arms and roared away behind a wall of beam fire and combat flares.

Emily watched helplessly as her enemy made its escape, and hung her head in defeat, the last wisps of Zero-Two's presence still lingering in her mind.

Terminal, Debris Belt

The conference room fell silent, and Joseph Copland held back a sigh. He had seen this coming, really, but that didn't make it any better.

"Althea Crater...?" someone echoed.

The remaining leaders of the Resistance forces in space glanced awkwardly between each other. Finally, Kenaf Lucini leaned back with a derisive snort.

"You're being tricked, Copland," he scoffed. "Only explanation." The others glanced questioningly at him. "Why else would the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs ask you to undertake a suicide mission? I told you this was a terrible idea "

"We know, Lucini," grumbled the octogenarian Admiral Barton at the other end of the table. Copland glanced anxiously at him and that pressed and starched Royal Navy uniform he wore, golden finery and all, exuding the same air of authority as Admiral MacIntyre. It was one of the reasons why he was up here, where he'd put together a formidable, if untested fleet of his own.

"Whether or not it's a trick, there's no way we can do it," added the other admiral in the room, Rear Admiral Buckley, the man who still wore the Atlantic Federation uniform he'd worn at Jachin Due. "We don't have the ships."

At the other end of the table, Meriol Pistis leaned forward. "We do have the Minerva." All eyes turned towards her. "You've all seen the combat footage of their battle at Ame-no-Mihashira, and the battle against that ZAFT squadron."

Oshida arched an eyebrow at his spot next to Barton. "The Minerva can't take Althea on its own."

"They don't have to," Meriol answered. "But we can go with them. The Alliance won't expect it."

"If MacIntyre isn't tricking you," Lucini snorted, "which he is."

"No," Copland spoke up, and the room was silent again, "he is not." He fixed his subordinates with an iron look. "James MacIntyre is not the sort of man who would do that. Now then," he folded his hands on the table, "the question here is not whether we are attacking Althea. It's when and how. We do not have a choice. MacIntyre is lining up reinforcements for us; I cannot go into detail, even with you. But the Minerva alone cannot do this. We will need the best the Resistance has to offer to join them. And that means," he glanced at one place at the table, "we will need you."

Aoma Vedlow stared back, arms crossed. "Fair enough," she said.

June 22nd, CE 77 - Althea Crater lunar base, the Moon

Sven Cal Bayan stared disinterestedly at the towering sight before him. A squad of Euclid mobile armors stretched out in one of Althea's cavernous hangars, and overhead a massive Zamzazar was suspended on a set of heavy cranes. But the center of the hangar was dominated by the Earth Alliance's unstoppable symbol of power, the Destroy Gundam.

Sven had always found the sentiments attached to that thing to be kind of ridiculous. For all its reputation as an invincible juggernaut, it certainly got defeated often enough usually by those damned Gundams on the Minerva. And for all they were hyped, they weren't really all that useful except in a handful of circumstances.

But it was a deathblow to the Destroy's mystique for one to know what really went into the machine's operation. A crazed Extended hooked up to psychoactive drugs made for a very ugly sight when they had to pull the thing out of the cockpit.

It was the Earth Alliance symbolized: a façade of power and terror, hiding hideous crimes and terrible sacrifices. And Sven Cal Bayan had had a front row seat for that twisted underbelly even before Lord Djibril had reshaped the Alliance into his own worldwide dictatorship. Deep down, he knew his precocious younger self was right about this place. They were evil, they were never going to change, and he would just be killed doing their bidding.

But how could it be any different? He had been with the Phantom Pain since its inception, as the private army of Blue Cosmos, answering to the shadowy industrialists and corporate aristocrats who controlled so much of the world. He knew things that could destroy politicians and businessmen the world over. His testimony could destroy empires. If he left their service...well, he would not leave their service except in a coffin. And he would not be able to blame them, for if he were in their position, he would have pulled the trigger as well. Sven Cal Bayan knew too much to live outside the Phantom Pain's grip.

And even if he managed to escape, what else would he do? The Phantom Pain had taken great care to ensure that he had combat skills and made an excellent soldier, but nothing else. There was the private military contractor business, perhaps, but that world appeared to be the province of the ill tempered, the psychotic, the outcasts, the ones that couldn't find a place in the regular military. Even the Phantom Pain's barbarities were not bereft of a greater purpose, but even Sven had had to shudder at the stories of what some of those contractors had done in their off time, armed with heavy weapons, power, and alcohol.

And nothing would piss off his younger self like going from a Phantom Pain thug to a hired thug.

He glanced around the hangar and was suddenly very glad for the lack of windows. The last thing he needed right now was to see the stars and remember that he could have been something so much better than this.

"You know, they weren't kidding when they told you not to let this happen at Volkov," Kelly Maynard admonished.

At her side on the observation deck overlooking one of Althea's many hangars, Erin Gedelberg slumped down in defeat. "It's a little late for that now."

"Of course." Kelly sat back and tapped some ash off her cigarette. "So just do as I said, and don't let this affect your performance. It won't matter either way if you all get killed."

"I understand," Erin sighed. "Thanks." She quietly excused herself and left Kelly behind to sigh in annoyance. Damn kids and their hormones.

She glanced over her shoulder bitterly at the hangar below. Of course, she had been in that boat once before herself. But watching her old flame's Mobius get cleaved in two by a GINN's sword at Endymion had taught her well that a heart given to a fellow soldier was a heart that would probably never come back. They'd told her that in training, and she had nodded and said she'd understood, and then she went and fell in love anyway, because the heart never listened to anyone, and she simply had to let the pain do the teaching.

Of course, she was their commanding officer and it was her responsibility to make sure they all came back alive. So who knew, maybe it would work out. But that was another hard lesson from that day, sitting in the sparking cockpit of a ruined mobile armor and staring in desolation at the cloud of debris before her. On the battlefield, one's control over one's fate was tenuous at best.

She stowed away the memories. They were useful when someone else around base caught her eye for reminding her of where that road led, but dwelling would only lead to madness. Something else the kids would have to learn.

General Hans von Schadt was quite proud of the workings of Althea Crater. A little too proud, in Captain Danilov's opinion. They strode together down an observation corridor and Schadt gestured grandly downward. Danilov followed his arm and felt his stomach churn.

"That's Group 37," Schadt said, "and they've been progressing at a much faster rate than the others. Eliminated half of the unsuitable subjects among their ranks in about three weeks."

Down below, under the steely gaze of men in Phantom Pain uniforms, a group of children was fighting with knives. Several of them lay motionless on the floor atop pools of blood; they all wore shock collars and fought with the crazed tenacity of the condemned. Danilov took a step back as his blood went cold.

"Captain," Schadt said with a disinterested look, "what's the matter?"

One of the children ducked beneath another's haphazard horizontal slash, then stepped forward and slammed his knife into his opponent's chest. The wounded boy staggered back; the first yanked his knife out and slashed open his foe's throat with a quick cut, then whipped around as the dying child collapsed in a bloody heap.

Danilov's stomach turned. "General," he said, "do they...always do that?"

"Of course," Schadt said with a shrug. "Basic principle of evolution, captain. Those least fit for their environment will be purged by those better adapted." He turned away. "I understand that to a frontline officer like you, they just look like children, but I assure you they are not. They came to us as something less than nothing; the ones that survive will become something greater."

In the room below, one of the officers blew a whistle and the surviving children snapped to attention, even those with injuries. Another officer barked orders at them and they promptly answered with a muffled shout and marched off, leaving a handful of soldiers to start collecting the bodies.

Danilov slowly looked back at Schadt, staring indifferently at the gruesome scene below and his blood began to boil.

"Pretty slick, setting him up for a tour of Althea," said Travis Alterman with a chuckle. He kicked back in the Nebula Blitz's cockpit seat and smirked, safe in the knowledge that his transmission was being rerouted through so many proxies and decoys that nobody would think to connect the dots between its recipient and himself and in the meantime, the mechanics would just think he was watching porn or something in here. "Guy's gonna have nightmares for weeks. They do crazy shit here, y'know."

On the screen, Grand Admiral MacIntyre's eyes narrowed. "I am aware, ensign. That is why I'm calling you. I am rapidly running out of ways to force his defection and you are the man in place to judge whether or not I am succeeding. Is he on the verge or not?"

Travis shrugged. "Tough to say. Depends on what they show him on the tour. You think Schadt is dumb enough to have him watch a cage match between children or somethin'?"

"That's what I'm counting on."

"Well," Travis sighed, "if that's the case, then I'd say all this might work out. But the whole 'predicting human behavior' thing starts getting dicey around here. He might just decide that a good soldier doesn't think about the shit that goes on behind the curtain."

MacIntyre arched a white eyebrow. "Do you believe that's what he'll do?"

"Eh. Probably not. But I could be wrong."

"You'd best not be," MacIntyre growled, "because we have far too much riding on this." He sighed. "Continue observing him as you have. If watching the real horrors of the Extended manufacture process doesn't break him, nothing will."

"If you say so, boss," chuckled Travis.

Battleship Minerva, en route to Terminal

Rau Le Creuset smiled as he felt Emily set foot on their little sanctuary on the internal observation deck. The door slid shut and Rau took a moment to savor the little vortex within her.

"So I hear you encountered Zero-Two again," he said. Emily nodded reluctantly. "Did you learn anything?"

Emily squirmed for a moment. "I...tried something new."


"I...I thought that if she understood what I see in her, she'd be more willing to talk. And since Newtypes can understand each other, I...tried to make her understand. Why I feel like I can save her."

Rau frowned. "Save her?"

"I can do it this time. She's not an Extended, like Kyali. She doesn't depend on ZAFT for her survival. And now I know how to use these powers, so I can have a special connection with her, and..." She shook her head. "It will be different this time. I can bring her over."

Silence reigned for a moment as Rau studied her face, his mind churning. "Emily," he said, "you may be on to something."

"I just don't know if I'll get another chance," she continued. "Some other enemies interrupted me when I thought I'd finally, you know, made a connection."

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Rau said with a chuckle. "You'll find in playing this game that even if you don't say all the things you wanted to say, the other person's mind will as often as not fill in the rest for you. It's convenient like that, to be sure."

Emily leaned against the railing, staring into the depths of space. "I couldn't really feel much from her in that moment."

"You'll have plenty more chances."

"I know." She bowed her head. "It's like Father Malchio said. Fate and destiny."

In the three years she'd had it, Viveka von Oldendorf had found an endless variety of uses for her mechanical arm and its curiously strong finger joints. Crushing a man's trachea in one hand was one; punching through wooden doors and the like was another; and pinning Athrun to the bed while she had crazed, animal sex with him was still another. It was a shame they were in zero gravity now, where sex was pretty much impossible without the aid of decidedly un-erotic implements.

Plus, she could use it to intimidate virtually anyone, and as long as she had to play the role of overprotective father for her sister to the hapless Trojan Noiret, it worked better than a shotgun.

Leaning on said mechanical arm in the crew lounge and fixing Trojan with a no-nonsense look, she silently relished his awkward explanation of what he meant about wanting to "be with" Emily on the battlefield, to keep her safe, not that she needed it or anything, but not that he meant to imply he didn't care, because of course he wouldn't do something so inappropriate

He was a good kid, really, and Viveka didn't mind if he started dating her sister. He'd proven that, if nothing else, by jumping onto a moving car at Copernicus to pull her out of it. But she was honor-bound to at least make the little bastard squirm a bit first.

"Besides," Trojan said with a sigh, "I probably can't even keep up with her anyway." Viveka arched the eyebrow over her good eye. "You've seen how fast the Eclipse is. There's no way whatever Lowe cobbles together for me is gonna be that fast."

"You know," Viveka said, "I'm probably the last person to be saying this to you, but she really can take care of herself in battle. You don't need to worry about that. I don't need to worry about." Her small smile vanished. "But if you break her heart, I will introduce you to levels of pain you did not know it was possible could exist. Got me?"


"Good boy," she said, and gave him a playful smack on the shoulder with the mechanical arm, to leave a nice bruise, "so I'll see ya around."

Viveka grinned as she drifted out the door. This overprotective father thing was fun.

"I don't know if Stella will have a problem," Meyrin said quietly, head in her hands in the Minerva's captain's office. Shinn sat on the other side of her desk. "Did she ever go to Althea?"

"I doubt it. They closed down Lodonia in the beginning of CE 73, which is also when they opened Althea, and moved everything up there." He shrugged. "She probably never went there. The records say she got out of the training regimen in 72."

Meyrin tried not to think about what would be waiting for them at Althea Crater and that wasn't counting the defenses. "Sting and Auel won't like it."

"Oh, I dunno, freeing Extended might be right up their alley."

"But not seeing them."

Shinn frowned. "It's not gonna be a cakewalk for any of us."

Meyrin shook her head. "I still don't get why we're doing it in the first place. Copland said he would explain when we get to Terminal, but..." She sighed. "Malchio told me that we've got to be the ones to end the war. He said we'll have to be like..." She squirmed. "Well, like Lacus Clyne."

Shinn's eyes darkened. "Yes," he said, "like Lacus Clyne." His mind took him back to those last weeks of the Junius War the moment when he watched the Requiem destroy the PLANTs, the preternatural serenity as Lacus Clyne threw the dice to save the world.

And here they were again.

Three gunshots ripped through the target poster. With a satisfied grin, Sting Oakley stepped back in the Minerva's internal target range and admired what would have been three lethal bullet wounds in his target, had it been a living human.

At his side, Auel Neider snorted disgustedly. "Lucky shots."

"Oh, fuck you," Sting shot back. "Not my fault you suck with the 67R." He emptied the chamber and ejected the clip, then stepped aside. "Well kid, you're up."

Lily stepped forward with an unsure look and steadied herself in the stall as a new target scrolled down at the end of the range. Auel crossed arms and watched disinterestedly as she took aim

...and three shots later, he blinked in disbelief at the three bullet holes clustered precisely around the bull's-eye. "Wait a minute," he gawked, "how the hell did you do that?"

Lily grinned as she emptied the weapon. "Maybe you really do suck."

"Oh, go to hell, both of you! Accuracy isn't everything!" He pointed accusingly at Sting. "Remember that time at Armory 1? I totally killed a couple guys by shooting the gun over my shoulder!"

"That was a submachinegun and you emptied a whole clip," Sting scoffed.

"Fuck you! It was awesome and you know it!"

As another argument flared up, Lily peered at the target and wondered why she never saw Emily down here. Proficiency with firearms was important. She was important. And Lily would have hated to see something happen to her.

She frowned at the target spread, reloaded the weapon, and called up another target. She could do better.

"So," said Athrun, "in theory it's possible, but in practice you probably won't get a chance to try it."

Standing on the gantry in front of the silent Gundam Eclipse, Emily frowned at the ports in the mobile suit's forearms, behind which hid the Gundam's wire-guided anchors. So much for electrocuting the Providence ZAKU out of action. "Okay," she said tiredly.

Athrun arched an eyebrow. "Why do you want to know anyway?"

She closed her eyes. "That...clone of my mother," she explained. "I think I can save her."

Athrun was silent for a moment and Emily tried not to cringe at the troubled feelings washing out of him. "You know I did went through something similar "

"Yes. Viveka told me."

"But, Emily, you know that clone isn't your mother."

Emily squeezed her eyes shut. "I know."

"Then why try to save her?"

"Why shouldn't I?" She turned towards him. "She's the closest thing I have left to my mother. The one parent who loved me. And she has the same powers I do, so she can understand me, in a way that my sister never could. How could I not try to save her?"

Athrun gestured at the Eclipse. "But she's not going to be like your mother, for the same reason that clone the Alliance used wouldn't have been like Kira. If that's what you're "

"I'm not looking for a replacement," Emily said, balling her fists.

"I didn't say you were," Athrun replied, "but this won't work out the way you think it will. It wouldn't have worked for the Alliance's clone of Kira, because it wasn't Kira's genes that made him who he was, it was his experiences and the clone had had an entirely different set of experiences. It will be the same with Zero-Two."

Emily turned away. "But you already hated the person the clone reminded you of," she said, and drifted off before Athrun could answer.

Left behind, he leaned back against the rail. Of course, that wasn't technically true because at this point, he knew that Kira Yamato was dead. He'd made peace with that and accepted that the man who had killed Cagalli and Lacus was someone entirely different, a twisted homunculus created by Rau Le Creuset. But this one...this one was different. Emily still had good memories of her mother, memories that came back to the surface every time she fought her mother's clone. No doubt someone had known about that. No doubt Kira had known about that.

Athrun watched Emily go with a sigh. She would have to learn for herself and that was the hardest lesson of all.

To be continued...