Phase 39 - The Fortress of Sin

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 39 - The Fortress of Sin

June 23rd, CE 77 - The Capitol, Washington, D.C., Atlantic Federation

Seri Minamoto had carried out many assassinations in the shadowy service of Senator Meyers. Enough to haunt her sleep. But none of them had been quite so complicated and quite so fraught with danger as this one.

The dull roar of a press of politicians, press, staff, and assorted minions masked her footfalls as she strolled through the Capitol Rotunda. President Vasserot and Speaker of the House Rose would be passing through here soon, and when they did, she had to be well out of the line of fire because things in here would be getting nasty in short order.

It had taken four months and over a hundred thousand dollars to get this all set up, most of it in various payments to the Resistance cell through which they had worked. Security would be intense she could already see the black-suited bodyguards taking up their stations around the Rotunda but the wheels of corruption made anything possible.

Seri found her place in the shadows beside one of the statues. The trail was perfectly hidden.

The reporters swarmed towards the door and the flashbulbs went off like a thousand suns as President Vasserot hobbled his way towards the corridor to the House chamber, leaning heavily on his cane. He was supposed to give a speech today, delivered to a joint session of the Atlantic Federation Congress, a speech where it was rumored he would outline a change in the Atlantic Federation's strategy in the Alliance's wars. Whatever that change was, it would be irrelevant.

She leaned back as Vasserot limped towards the center of the room, with the unassuming Speaker Rose at his side. She heard a handful of clicks not from the cameras

And then the Rotunda came alive with gunfire and screams. Twenty-four men in web gear and balaclavas burst out of the corridors with submachineguns in hand. The President and the Speaker went down in a pool of blood; the others parted in terror as the bodyguards belatedly scrambled to their feet. The attackers turned on anyone moving towards them and not away; one of the gunmen went down with a scream as a bullet found its mark in his throat, but the rest kept going and laid waste to the surprised bodyguards.

Seri braced herself for part two and the whole building shook as a bomb in the House chamber finally detonated. It wouldn't kill everyone in there, but it would kill most of the legislators and it would do its work well enough. And Meyers would be safe.

But now it was her turn and as more bodyguards and soldiers in the green uniform of the Earth Alliance Army picked their way into the Rotunda under heavy fire, Seri sprang out of hiding with a drawn assault rifle and gunned down two of the masked men before they could respond. The rest backed away as the Alliance struck back with a hail of bullets, and one man with camouflage pants ducked away into a side office. Seri hurled a smoke grenade into the gunmen's midst and then dove after their retreating comrade.

She flung the door shut behind her and the man in front of her whipped around in terror, still trying to reload his weapon. Seri raised a silenced pistol in her left hand and shot him in the shoulder; he screamed in pain and pitched back, his own rifle clattering to the floor, and she stepped forward and put the gun to his chest.

"Y-You tricked us!" he cried, his hand clenched over his shoulder. "You said you'd be here to help !"

"We didn't trick you," she answered. "We used you. And now we're done."

Four gunshots later, Seri turned away, pocketed the handgun, burst back out the door, and fired a volley of bullets into the backs of two more unsuspecting Resistance fighters. The Alliance soldiers were moving in under cover of smoke. The Resistance gunmen were being killed to a man. All was proceeding as planned.

Heaven's Base, Iceland

"Again, for those just joining us, the latest reports from local hospitals indicate that over two hundred legislators and government officials are confirmed dead in this apparent terrorist attack, including President Vasserot, Speaker Rose..."

Lord Djibril stared darkly at the screen in front of him, as the newscaster droned on about dead legislators, mysterious black-clad gunmen, and a constitutional crisis. The news cameras had courteously shown a clear and bloody image of the dead President Vasserot, with Speaker Rose's corpse slumped next to him, before someone had had the good taste to cut away. And if Vasserot and Rose were dead, then that meant succession fell to the president pro tem of the Atlantic Federation Senate.

Djibril's eyes narrowed. Robert Meyers.

He keyed in a frequency to Althea Crater. He had allowed Meyers to play his bloody game and kill off his own colleagues in the Atlantic Federation Senate long enough, but now this little man was meddling with powers he did not comprehend. And that would have to end.

"Misa," Djibril said, "I'm sure you're aware of what's going on in Washington right now."

"Yes sir," she answered. "Should I arrange for Meyers' disposal?"

"Not yet. We need the casualty reports to come in first, so we know which of the surviving officials need to be eliminated and which can be installed as placeholders until a more suitable candidate emerges." He scowled. "But I want you in Washington and I want you ready to intervene as soon as possible. Meyers has gone too far this time."

"Very well, sir," Misa answered. The screen darkened and Djibril sat back, reaching for his glass for a sip of wine. Perhaps he would have to break out the liquor but in the meantime, he had a few phone calls to make.

Terminal, Debris Belt

Meyrin Hawke sat dumbfounded with Oshida and Copland in one of Terminal's small conference rooms, all eyes on the screen before them and the news feed coming in. A justice was swearing in a grim-looking man the on-screen graphics identified as Robert Meyers quite solemnly took the oath and assumed the office of the Atlantic Federation's President.

"We don't know much about him," Oshida said. "He's a consummate politician. Only believes the sun rises in the east if that's what polls the best."

"Oh no, he has his beliefs," Copland said with a snort, and all eyes turned towards him. "He just keeps them locked up tight." He glanced at the room's other two occupants. "I can tell you he never thought much of the Earth Alliance or of Lord Djibril. He thought the Atlantic Federation should be keeping the Alliance at arm's length. But he was willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted. I can only imagine he did this sordidly."

Meyrin frowned at the screen, as Meyers began to give a solemn speech promising to bring order, security, and justice. "What does this mean for us?"

"For us, it means that we need to win at Althea." Copland gestured to the screen. "MacIntyre needs us to take Althea Crater so that we can show off all its horrors to the world. That will give Meyers the political cover he needs to withdraw the Atlantic Federation from the Earth Alliance and turn against Djibril and the Phantom Pain. Then we can turn the world against them, get rid of them, and turn our attention towards ZAFT."

Oshida shook his head, but said nothing, and Meyrin looked dubiously towards Copland. "What if the rest of the world doesn't go along with us?"

"That," Copland said darkly, "is where the risk comes in."

"I said I'll do it," grumbled Sting Oakley in the Minerva's crew lounge, glowering up at Athrun Zala. "I didn't say I'd like it."

"I'm just saying, it'll...be a lot of triggers," Athrun answered. "You know what they do at Althea."

"Yeah, I do. Look, I know you're just trying to look out for me, but it's not a problem. Really. I'll deal."

Athrun frowned. "If you say so."

As Athrun took his leave, Sting hung his head with a sigh. Of course he'd deal, but marching into the heart of the Earth Alliance's Extended program would take a toll on him, no doubt. The memories were already trickling back of his time at Lodonia. The cage matches, the physical training, the manipulation, the naked terror that coursed through the place...he shuddered at the thought. He had made friends there in spite of it all and the Alliance, to toughen him for their service, had made him kill them.

But he was free. He always had to remind himself of that whenever the vortex of Lodonia threatened to drag him under. He was free. Captain Lee had seen to that and with this lease on life, he could do something with his life now. And here they were, marching into Althea Crater, into the mouth of madness where the Extended were tortured into servants of the Alliance. But he could come here with a new purpose that of a rescuer.

That, after all, was what he'd promised Captain Lee. That he would do something with his life. And he could think of no better way to honor that man's sacrifice at Daedalus than by freeing the children that he hadn't been able to save.

Shinn Asuka noted with a frown that he had set off something of an emotional storm within Riika Sheder, as they both drifted down the halls of Terminal and not all the emotions swirling around her were the ones he expected.

"Well," she said quietly, "that certainly sounds like him."

Shinn let out a sigh. "I didn't really want to kill him," he said, "but, well, you know Mare. Hated my guts even to the end."

Riika shrugged. "Don't beat yourself up over it. If he was really the way you say he was, it probably would've..." She trailed off for a moment, choosing her words. "Probably would've done more harm than good trying to talk sense into him anyway."

"I wasn't even going to bother with that," scoffed Shinn. "You remember Mare. You didn't talk sense into him, you waited out his tantrums."

"Well, that's true..."

"Besides, he finally got to pilot the Impulse," Shinn added with a shrug, "and he finally got to fight me."

Riika frowned. "That's not really the point."

"No, but it's all I got."

They rounded a corner. "Well, who else did you run into on Earth? Anyone else we would've known?"

Shinn thought back bitterly, to the last days spent on Gigafloat, to the feeling of leaving behind Malchio to die as they roared into space, to the all-consuming cloud of evil at Ame-no-Mihashira. He looked back at Riika. She was always too nice for that sort of thing.

"Not a soul."

"Well, here it is," Lowe Gear said as grandiloquently as he could. "Couldn't do as much as I would've wanted, since it was short notice and all, but it'll do ya well enough."

The hangar doors hissed open and Trojan Noiret nearly jumped for joy at the sight on the other side. A white, black, and green mobile suit with a four-pronged flight pack on its back stood at the other side of the hangar, with the green flaming T insignia stamped onto its left shoulder and the familiar battleaxe beam rifle clamped onto its left-hand hip armor.

"I started with a Civvie Astray chassis and packed on that old flight pack the Red used to use," Lowe went on. "But you said you wanted it tuned for hand-to-hand combat, right? So "

"It's awesome!" Trojan cried, and immediately jumped forward and lunged towards the silent, waiting Gundam Astray Green Frame Kai. Lowe watched him go with a shrug.

"Eh, whatcha gonna do," he said, and turned towards the person on his other side. "And as long as I'm playin' Santa Claus here, it looks like you've been on the nice list this year too."

At his side, Emily blinked in surprise. "But...I already have a mobile suit "

"Oh, don't be modest. Come on."

A few minutes later, Lowe was eagerly directing a pair of mechanics in opening up a wide metal crate and Emily, floating next to the ever-enthusiastic Junk Guild tech, watched in surprise as the lid swung open to reveal two weapons packed inside. One was a long rifle with two canisters slung underneath a metallic blue barrel; the other was a short, stubby shield that housed a long, segmented, sharp-edged whip.

Lowe gestured proudly at the two weapons. "Compliments of Dr. Freeman himself," he said, "the 'Dragon's Fire' beam launcher and the 'Dragon's Tail' heat rod. The Dragon's Tail has twice the range of a normal beam rifle and three times the power in exchange for half the rate of fire, so you'll have to be smart about shots. The Dragon's Tail has a laser-cut reinforced edge and it has superheating and cooling coils inside, plus electrodes, so you can deliver shocks or melt things or whatever, and the edge is sharp enough to cut through anything short of Phase Shift. And," he raised a finger, "it has a beam shield on top."

Emily frowned. More new weapons, more alterations to her style. "I guess I have manuals to read now?"
"You know it."

"Well," she glanced over at Trojan, still giddily examining the Green Frame Kai, "then I guess I'll get started. Thanks, Lowe, I know you don't really like making these kind of things."

Lowe merely shrugged. "Eh, ya do what ya gotta. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go have a chat with your boyfriend over there about his new toy." And with that, Lowe pushed off towards the Green Frame Kai.

Emily looked back down at her own mobile suit's two new weapons and heaved a sigh.

June 24th, CE 77 - Althea Crater lunar base, the Moon

Ivan Danilov spent comparatively little time in his office on the Charlemagne, he had often noted. Much of his time was spent touring the ship, making sure people were doing their jobs, interacting with his crew, handing out orders on the bridge...but of late, he had turned his office into a place of sanctuary for his troubled mind.

And now it was more troubled than ever. He had slept poorly the past couple days, as the image of children forced to butcher each other in a cage match to the satisfaction of steely-eyed Phantom Pain officers and amused-looking soldiers with assault rifles and body armor burned itself onto his soul. The vividness outshone the other horror stories he had in his mind, even the cold and detached feeling he'd had at Volgograd and the madness of having to hunt down the Minerva while ZAFT slaughtered people on the Moon.

"So, I have to ask," he said quietly, and glanced over his desk at the other person in the room, "how are we supposed to defend a place like this?"

In the other chair, Vera looked even worse than he did. She had gone on their little tour too, and the nightmares that haunted Danilov's sleep had found hers as well. "What are you suggesting, sir?"

Danilov slumped back in his chair. He had no idea what he was suggesting. MacIntyre's words and the deeds of that ZAFT submarine's captain at Banadiya flashed back into his mind. Was that really the only option left?

"Well," he said, "what should we do?" He leaned forward heavily. "Sit there and let the Phantom Pain keep doing all that?"

"Of course not," Vera answered, "but how? Who's on our side?"

Danilov sat back. There was only one answer he could think of an answer so steeped in irony it almost made him sick.

Someone had arranged for the Charlemagne's officers, including its mobile suit pilots, to have a tour of Althea Crater and its Extended facilities. Someone had evidently thought that such a thing would be of great interest to mobile suit pilots. Someone, in other words, was a horrible person.

But Althea Crater was full of those and there was a reason why this place had been dubbed the "fortress of sin" or something like that by the regular forces the ones who had no idea what went on here and succumbed to all kinds of fanciful tales. The cadets at Volkov had done the same, telling horror stories to keep each other from sleeping and make the next day of training all the more hellish. Erin Gedelberg had never really taken them seriously. Surely the Alliance couldn't do something so inhuman, right?

She hung her head as she heard the door slide open and saw Grey and Merau step into the observation hallway she had chosen for her brooding.

"Hey," Grey started, with an awkward glance at Merau, "there you are. You alright? You seemed pretty upset when, well, you know..."

"I-I'm alright," she started, and slowly got back to her feet, "it's just, in that one room..." She squeezed her eyes shut as the memories came back and the tears threatened to flow. "She...looked like my sister..."

Erin looked back up as Grey put a comforting hand on her shoulder, and then the wall cracked open and she flung herself into his chest with a sob. Grey and Merau exchanged a knowing look and stood back as she wept.

A long row of Calamity Gundam units in the black and red colors of the Phantom Pain stretched down the hangar. Shams Coza cringed at the sight; Gundams were supposed to be unique and even though this had only been a limited production run of a tweaked version of the original X131, it still wasn't cool. Anymore like this and he'd lose the franchise.

He glanced over at Mudie, staring disinterestedly at it all. Of course, this sort of tour was a lot better than the one the base officers had offered. Shams had skillfully finagled his way out of that. He, after all, was a veteran of the Phantom Pain, and he'd spent enough time at the likes of Lodonia. The last thing he needed was the visceral horror that any mentally and emotionally sound human felt at the sight of children in a cage gutting each other like turkeys.

"Well, their problem," he muttered. Mudie glanced at him. "The other pilots. Maynard's little gang. They went on the tour Bancroft was offering."

"Oh," Mudie said, and her flesh seemed to crawl. "That was stupid of them."

"Incredibly." He turned his attention back towards the row of Calamities. "So what are those for?" Mudie shrugged. "I mean, they're totally ripping off my schtick. I was there first."

"Whatever."

Mudie headed off on her own and left behind a frowning Shams. It was getting damn near impossible to engage her in conversation, and he could only wonder what was going on in that pretty little head of hers.

The dock where waited the dark blue and gold hull of the Witch's Hammer rang with the sounds of work as the crews prepared it for a sortie. Mirage Colloid was a useful thing for a force that styled itself as a bunch of ninjas.

Misa Tsunomi watched the final stages of the refit imperiously from her observation deck, arms crossed, mind racing. She had about a day to gather her team and put together a plan to eliminate Robert Meyers. No doubt the new President of the Atlantic Federation would have a ludicrous degree of new security, but if a Mirage Colloid-equipped battleship approached and blasted the White House or something while the President was there, well, there wasn't much they could do about that.

She scowled behind her mask. Of course, she had suggested to Lord Djibril that she should destroy him months ago. She would have done it unhesitatingly. Anything to serve him better. But he had been content to let Meyers play his little games and only destroy him when he became a threat; and then ZAFT showed up and distracted him, and now it was all falling apart.

From the shadows, she would have to support her master again. That was how it had always been. And now, with his grand empire disintegrating...

Down below, the workers loaded her Nero Blitz into the Witch's Hammer's hangar and turned their attention towards the ship's four gleaming new N Windam N units. With the same ninja-like characteristics as the N Dagger N but the successful Windam's frame and improved maneuverability, the N Windams would surely slice through Washington's mobile suit defenses. They could do this, and then track down whatever other officials needed to be killed, until a suitable puppet was reached in the line of succession.

Anything that the master required.

"It's a ZAFT prototype," said Major General Hans von Schadt of the mobile suit before them. Gerhardt and Irene shared a look and both took in the majestic sweep of a mobile suit with a monstrous backpack, folded wings and cannons on its back and hips, and the beam rifle and red shield of the old Strike Gundam. "X08A Liberty. Prototype for the Justice and Freedom." He pointed to the giant backpack. "They derived the Justice's subflight lifter from that, and they tested prototypes of the weapons for the Freedom."

Gerhardt arched an eyebrow. "The Freedom?"

"Oh, indeed," Schadt said with a proud grin. "It's still a formidable machine even six years later. Can hold its own in a fight and everything."

The machine was no mystery to Gerhardt von Oldendorf. Captured shortly after the Junius War, the Liberty Gundam had donated parts and concepts to development of the Alliance's latest and greatest machines, like the mighty Crusader Gundam. And Schadt's boasting wasn't completely off the mark, as the Liberty had held up well in combat trials against small Resistance units. But the Minerva had new, cutting-edge mobile suits. This relic of the Valentine War couldn't possibly help.

Relics. That's all these things were. Relics and atrocities, seething in the blackest pits of Althea Crater. Gerhardt looked around disdainfully as Schadt launched into a discourse about the Liberty's capture. This wasn't the place to find the future.

No, Emily would do that for him.

ZAFT mobile space fortress Messiah, Lagrange Point 5

Messiah's control room was silent as the reports streamed in. Political unrest was bubbling over in the Atlantic Federation. Most of its government officials and legislators were dead; the survivors, cowed by a ferocious terrorist attack that had claimed the majority of their colleagues, had all but ceded their legal authority to the new President. Robert Meyers could mold the Atlantic Federation any way he wished.

And that was the real rub. Already the rumors were flying that President Meyers wanted a fundamental renegotiation of the Atlantic Federation's role in the Earth Alliance. His ambivalence towards Djibril and the Alliance and Blue Cosmos was well known, and now that he had the power, well, that was just music to Valentine Sunogachi's ears.

She smiled as the pundits descended like hawks onto the new president's latest press conference. Robert Meyers was most likely a cunning individual in his own right, but with this new schism among her enemies, she had all the opportunity she needed.

At her side, Kira frowned. "What are they trying to accomplish here...?"

"It's to be expected," Valentine said with a shrug. "Build an empire on the backs of ambitious people and sooner or later you have to deal with their ambitions." She smiled; lucky for her she'd had the last ambitious person of hers executed months ago. "In the meantime, Mr. Meyers here is handing us a wonderful opportunity. With the Alliance so focused on conflict with itself, we'll be able to accelerate our work schedule. What would have taken weeks can be done in a matter of days."

Kira arched an eyebrow. "And if they don't start fighting with each other?"

"Oh, how could they not? Meyers wouldn't have murdered his way to the top if he was just going to kowtow to Djibril."

"Then shouldn't we let them destroy each other?"

Valentine grinned. "We'll do better than that."

Unit Zero-Two clutched her shoulders and struggled against the images in her mind as she tried to sleep in her bunk. It was a good thing they had left her to her own devices in here, now that Commander Ehrmacht's task force was so much scrap metal orbiting the Earth, because she had issues to deal with.

And it was all thanks to that damned brat. Emily. How had she managed to do that? What Zero-Two assumed to be every emotion and memory she'd associated with her mother, the kindly, frail woman who couldn't do much as her mother but did what she could, had come crashing down on her in one concentrated bombardment of feeling. And worst of all, she thought as she thrashed around onto her other side, it felt familiar.

It explained, at least, why Emily was so insistent on seeing Zero-Two as her mother. And it was a rather unexpected way for Vice Marshal Yamato's decision to use her to backfire. But she knew who she was. She was Unit Zero-Two, the perfected version of the unstable and wayward Zero-One. A weapon more perfectly honed and skillfully crafted could not be found in the Cosmic Era.

And yet those images stayed with her still. That was Emily's mother; that was her, the same heart, somewhere underneath all that military training and honing and crafting. That was what Emily saw, and it made her sick to think that somehow her entire life might have been built upon a vast bedrock of falsehood.

She clenched her fingers around her shoulders and blew out her breath. The images would have to be driven out. Whatever she was to some misguided soul, she was Unit Zero-Two and she would not be bent and twisted into something else.

Terminal, Debris Belt

There were many reasons why Shinn Asuka did his best to avoid Aoma Vedlow. One of those reasons was floating in front of him, just out the observation deck and towards one of Terminal's many hidden hangars.

The sight of the Impulse Gundam brought all kinds of memories back to Shinn's mind. He had grown up in that mobile suit, met Stella, saved her from the Alliance, done battle with his own friends...his mind went back to his days on this ship in the uniform of a ZAFT Red, and his days on the Kasselheim, with old friends and with something more.

But now you have a cooler better Gundam! a voice piped up. Shinn blinked in surprise and glanced over his shoulder and there was Lunamaria, her ZAFT Red uniform nearly glowing in the darkness. Really, you spend a lot more time on this brooding crap than you should. It's kinda unhealthy.

"Thanks, Doctor Luna," Shinn grumbled.

So what's got you all emo this time?

Shinn nodded towards the Impulse. "Memories. Seeing that thing reminds me of a lot of people. Like Kika." He paused. "And Lacus."

Why Lacus?

"I first met her when I was piloting that thing. And down there," Shinn nodded in the vague direction of the Earth, "we were told that we have to come up here to do what Lacus Clyne did in the last two wars. Stop the madness before it kills everyone. Y'know," his shoulders drooped, "what we were doing last time."

Well, don't you have to? I mean, everyone is kind of crazy these days.

"They always were. Someone just keeps giving them all guns."

Luna seemed to sigh in annoyance. I just don't want to see you on my side of the fence anytime soon, Shinn. You've got too much to do here.

"I know."

All things considered, Lily Thevalley should have been walking on air. The mobile suit in front of her was the resurrection of Emily's old Twilight Gundam, repaired and refit to replace the rarely used anti-ship sword with a second long-range cannon. Firmly attached to the rear skirt armor was a much larger skirt that held four DRAGOON units. And with the Phase Shift active, it was clear that someone had at long last remembered that she liked her mobile suits red.

The Twilight Gundam Cortana, however, had one rather important hitch.

"They're not saying you're short, Lily," Emily protested, as Lily stewed with arms crossed in front of the crimson machine. "It's a history reference. 'Cortana' is a sword that was used by a big important hero somewhere and got cut down so someone else could use it."

"Yeah," Lily groused, "so they're saying I'm short and they're saying I'm a wimp!"

"No they're not," Emily sighed.

She glanced up towards the new mobile suit and felt a twinge of reminiscence at the sight of her old machine. The poor Twilight Gundam had carried her through so much, it felt a little strange to be handing it down to someone else now. But hopefully this machine and its legacy would extend its protective power to Lily too. Emily hated to think what might happen if it didn't.

"It's really not that big a deal," she said. "If you don't like it, you can change the name. I did." She shrugged. "They called my Gundam 'Gabriel.' I don't. It's not a problem."

"Whatever," Lily grumbled, and turned away disdainfully. Emily rolled her eyes and looked back into the eyes of her old and faithful warhorse.

Well, she mused, you'll just have to be as good to her as you were to me.

"So," said Riika Sheder with a skeptically raised eyebrow, "you're the infamous Stella Loussier."

The infamous Stella Loussier looked up at the sound of her name, a glob of instant ramen noodles waving like tentacles out from her mouth. She blinked at the brown-haired girl in glasses and a red ZAFT uniform, and her confusion didn't get any better as the girl lost her composure and started giggling.

"Wha...?" she started, and then remembered she was eating, and took the time to swallow her food. "What is it...?"

Riika tried to stifle her laughter. "You're what made Shinn go AWOL on us?" Stella looked around and could not find what was so funny, but Riika managed to compose herself as Stella worked up the nerve to ask. "S-Sorry, it's just, the noodles hanging out of your mouth..."

Stella glanced down at her Styrofoam cup of instant ramen. "Stella was eating dinner..."

"I know, I know." Riika took a deep breath. "Okay. Let's try this again." She put a hand out. "Hi, I'm Riika Sheder."

Stella hesitantly shook her hand. "Who...?"

"I was Shinn's friend at Armory 1," Riika supplied, "and I used to pilot the Gaia."

"The Gaia?"

"Yeah, the, uh...the one you stole."

Stella frowned. "The Gaia's gone."

"I know. Don't worry about it, it was getting old." Riika looked around awkwardly. "So, um, I guess you've been Shinn's friend for a while, huh?" Stella nodded slowly. "Cool! So, um..."

Stella offered a smile. "If Riika was Shinn's friend," she said, "then she's Stella's friend too."

That brought a grin to Riika's face. "I can live with that."

"I was in FAITH, yes," admitted Rau Le Creuset, "but I'm sure you understand that Gilbert Dullindal always played his cards close to his vest. I'm sure you were treated the same way. The Chairman only fed you the information you needed to know, always seemed to be playing another angle...?

Meyrin frowned. She'd managed to corner the enigmatic masked ace here in a side hallway in the labyrinthine interior of Terminal. No way was she letting this opportunity slip through her fingers.

"I remember that," she said, "but I'm asking about what you did during the war."

Rau shrugged. "The only thing of note that I did during the Junius War was joining the battle at Cyprus. Covered the Muslim League's retreat during that debacle at Dhekelia." He frowned. "Why do you ask?"

"I've heard some rumors that you were up to less than savory business during the war," Meyrin said. Rau only grinned.

"War itself is unsavory business."

"The rumors say you went further than that."

"And what do the rumors say, captain?"

Meyrin straightened up. "If it's not true, then it's unimportant," she said. "What is important is that I need to know if I can trust you."

"And why would you not?"

A tense silence reigned between them for a moment. "Can I trust you?"

Rau grinned back. "You can always trust me, captain. I think I've demonstrated my unimpeachable credentials ample times over the course of my time on the Minerva. I'm sorry someone distrusts me enough to go spreading these nasty rumors, but," he shrugged, "that's not a problem for me to work out."

Silence descended over them again. "I suppose so," Meyrin said. "I'll see you back at the ship." And with a curt nod, she excused herself and disappeared around a corner.

June 25th, CE 77 - Resistance Eternal-class cruiser Alexandria, en route to the Moon

His entire council of advisors had argued against this. So had Callista. Suicide, they'd called it. Courting disaster. But Joseph Copland knew he could not be absent for this battle. The leader of the Resistance, even if he had not unveiled himself to the public, had to be here to spur on the troops and to swoop in and pick up the pieces once the battle was complete.

Of course, as the Alexandria drove for the Moon in the middle of the Resistance fleet, Copland knew he was throwing the dice. Forty-seven ships and nearly three hundred and fifty mobile suits, including the mighty Minerva and the dreaded Vedlow Fleet, were in this armada. Intelligence put Althea Crater's defenses as roughly half that number of ships, roughly four hundred mobile suits, all kinds of untold horrors connected to the Extended program, and an extensive array of defensive emplacements built into the lunar surface. It was a formidable target for attack.

He glanced over at the Agamemnon-class carrier to the Alexandria's starboard side. Of course, Admiral Buckley over there on the Pennsylvania knew what he was doing. His wing of the Alliance's fleet had come the closest to the ZAFT space fortress at Jachin Due, and he knew what he was up against in an Alliance lunar base. He had helped design the defenses at Ptolemaeus defenses that had proven useless against the might of the GENESIS, but valuable experience all the same.

And yet still, they really did have no idea what they would be fighting. Those who went to Althea Crater never returned. This was where the Alliance manufactured its Extended, and the fearsome mobile weapons with which it armed them. And here he was, throwing the majority of the Resistance's entire space fleet into the fray. If this battle should fail if Kenaf were right about MacIntyre if something were to go wrong...

He shook his head. Those thoughts were not thoughts worth having. Copland fixed his eyes ahead, towards the Moon.

Althea Crater lunar base, the Moon

"Forty-seven warships," said Hans von Schadt with a sigh. The control room at Althea Crater was seething with activity. The defenses had to be activated and reinforcements had to be summoned, but Schadt himself felt no particular worry. Let them come. The Alliance created weapons here the likes of which those puny minds of the Resistance could not dream.

"General," a voice spoke up, and the old, square face of Rear Admiral Connell appeared on the monitor. Schadt blinked in annoyance at the man in the gray uniform of the Space Force. "My fleet is only half the size of theirs. What do you want me to do?"

"Well for God's sake, get out of sight," Schadt scoffed, "and quit worrying. Just keep your ships low to the surface and be prepared to ambush them as they attack." He smiled. "Althea Crater's sleeves are full of surprises for impertinent attackers. They will have no idea what hit them."

Connell arched an eyebrow. "What are you planning?"

"Well, I was just thinking, it's been a long time since we gave the Doll-Maker a chance to stretch his legs..."

At that, understanding dawned across Connell's face and he slowly smiled. "Understood."

The screen went dark and Schadt tapped another key. "Marakov, this is General Schadt. I'm authorizing the release of Subject 0984 in Destroy Unit Epsilon 1." He grinned. "Tell Ash not to hold back."

To be continued...