Phase 43 - Commander of the Faithful

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 43 - Commander of the Faithful

June 30th, CE 77 - ZAFT Minerva-class battleship Fortuna, near Mendel Colony, Lagrange Point 4

The Fortuna hummed as it sliced forward through space, with the cerulean-painted Absolution, the cherry-red Athens, and the orange Saint Josephine in formation around it. The mobile suits fanned out in front of the four warships, and on the Fortuna's bridge, Lyle Markus settled back into the captain's chair. They had been easy enough to defeat once, with outdated mobile suits. And those new Gundams of theirs couldn't be that special.

Of course, three years ago, the Absolution had joined the Minerva in another attack on a battleship full of dangerous renegades with high-performance mobile suits. Lyle tried to put those thoughts out of his mind.

"The operation will now begin," Lyle said. "All units, move forward and engage the enemy. Absolution, begin your run." He leaned forward and watched as the warships broke ranks and spread out, towards the Minerva.

The all too familiar rush of emotions swirled up Shinn Asuka's throat and threatened to drown out his senses. He clenched his teeth and fought down the temptation to boost ahead and launch into a frenzy. Not this time, no, they had a plan; they'd have to do it together.

He glanced over at the Celestial Justice, storming ahead in its mobile armor mode. How Athrun was staying so calm was beyond Shinn, as the images flashed by his eyes of his parents, of Mayu, of George, of Kika, of Lacus...and it wasn't as though Athrun didn't have people to avenge either.

The equally familiar bolt of warning went up his spine and the two Gundams darted apart as the Vega Freedom Gundam let loose a withering full burst of firepower from its mounted cannons and DRAGOONs. The blue weapons pods blasted off and started spinning a web of beam fire around the Zulfiqar, forcing it away; Shinn stormed through an opening with a scream and raised his sword high, and then slammed it down against the Freedom's beam shield.

"So!" he shouted. "Finally picking a fight, are you?!"

On the auxiliary screen, the battle-scarred face of Kira Yamato scowled back. "You'll need more than a fancy Gundam to kill me."

"Then how about two?!" Athrun added, and the Celestial Justice promptly transformed and showered the Freedom with beam fire. Kira darted away and wove a path through the blasts, as the DRAGOONs returned fire and put the Justice back on the defensive. Shinn charged in close and pounded the beam shield again; Kira stashed his beam rifles in favor of a saber and swung back, parried just in time by the Zulfiqar's sword.

"Don't think I've forgotten," Kira snarled. "I'm going to have to kill you both if this plan is going to work."

The Zulfiqar and Freedom clashed again. The DRAGOONs swarmed around the Justice, but Athrun dove past their fire and swept in from behind. Kira flared the Freedom's beam wings and drove the Justice back, then backed away from the Zulfiqar's furious sword swing and rocketed upward as the Justice opened fire.

"And of all the people I could have fought," Kira added, "I would have thought you two would understand!"

Engine blazing, the Zulfiqar launched itself up after the Freedom, and the two Gundams' blades slammed together again. "I understand plenty!" Shinn roared. "I understand that you're a goddamned monster!"

The Justice lunged back up behind the Freedom, claws snapping towards the white mobile suit's arms; Kira darted away and knocked the Justice back with a hard kick to the head, then whirled around again to block a sword stroke from the Zulfiqar.

"You were better than this, Kira!" Athrun shouted. "We stood together to protect the world, not destroy it!"

"Shut up!" Kira screamed back. "That life is over! I'm not that person anymore, and I won't go back!"

Shinn's eyes flashed with fury. "Perfect," he said, "there's no little kernel of goodness left in you." The Zulfiqar charged forward. "So I won't have to worry when I kill you!"

Beams flew in all directions as one of the Fortuna's VaROZ units and a team of ZAKUs showered the Marduk Gundam with firepower, only to watch it all go sailing off course thanks to the Geschmeidig Panzer. Inside the cockpit, Auel rolled his eyes.

"You guys gotta be more creative than that," he laughed. "Sting! Go for it!"

Abruptly, the Fujin Gundam rocketed out from safety behind the Marduk and fired its gunbarrels into the sky. They darted out of formation and lanced down towards the ZAFT mobile suits. The ZAKUs broke formation, but not before beam bolts claimed two of them, and the rest backed away as the Fujin itself gave chase with a volley of beam shots. The VaROZ lunged up into its path with a vicious beam claw-assisted kick that sent Sting scrambling for distance, and the ZAKUs seized the opportunity to fire again.

The Marduk whirled down into the fight and showered the ZAFT machines with a storm of beam gun blasts, driving them all back. Auel pulled back himself to continue raining fire on the enemy, as Sting pushed forward with a blaze of fire from the gunbarrels.

Suddenly, the VaROZ darted back into the Fujin's path with a beam saber in hand and brought it down against the Gundam's beam shield. Sting blinked in surprise as a brown-haired girl in a red ZAFT flight suit appeared on the auxiliary screen.

"This far," she snarled, "and no further!"

Sting frowned. "And just who the hell are you?"

The VaROZ flung the Fujin back with a wordless shout from its pilot and charged.

Viveka grunted in frustration as yet another blast of plasma missed its mark and the silver VaROZ below gracefully darted out of harm's way. A team of ZAKUs below picked up the slack with a volley of firepower that sent the Aurora Gundam scrambling out of the way just before the gray Judgment Gundam blasted into the fight with a devastating fusillade of its own from its various DRAGOONs.

"Not so tough when you're up against a better machine, huh," Viveka growled, and the Aurora charged again with another wave of fire. The VaROZ danced around the blasts and stormed back forward, beam saber in hand; the two mobile suits crashed together amid a shower of sparks.

"And while you deal with him," Rau said, as the Judgment rocketed past, "I will dispose of his friends."

Viveka ground her teeth. Maybe that was why Athrun hated his guts.

The VaROZ, not to be forgotten, flung the Aurora back with its saber and turned to pursue but Viveka somersaulted into its path and slammed it back with a quick saber swipe.

"Not so fast, buddy," she said with a grin, "you have to get past me first."

A bone-rattling crash went rippling through the Kali Gundam as the white DOM Trooper up above brought its massive leg down onto the black Gundam's chest. Stella grunted in frustration as the Kali reeled under the blow; she jammed the controls back and the Kali pitched downward as the DOM and its comrades followed up with a storm of bazooka shells and beam blasts.

Stella threw the Kali forward and lanced up behind the first DOM, and with a quick backhanded saber blow, sliced it in two. She whipped around to shower the remaining six DOM Troopers with beam fire.

"One," she hissed, and backed away as the rest opened fire. They spread out their formation to flank her; the Kali ducked between their blasts and kept its distance as Stella searched for an opening. One of the DOMs moved forward, bazooka blazing; Stella threw herself beneath its shots and lanced forward, and before it could react, she drilled a beam rifle blast through its cockpit.

"Two " Stella started but an instant later, the Kali lurched back and flung up its beam saber as a third DOM Trooper came down with a crash and a hard overhead saber swing of its own. Stella frowned as the Kali groaned under the DOM's superior strength superior strength, perhaps, but not speed.

With a sudden crash, the Kali lunged forward, rammed the DOM with its shoulder, and then swept its saber through the white mobile suit's waist. Stella darted aside.

"Three," she muttered, and looked back up as the four surviving machines circled her like sharks.

Trojan clenched his fists around the Green Frame Kai's controls as the VaROZ in front of him pressed its saber against the blades on the Green Frame's custom rifle. He surged forward to throw the silver mobile suit back, but it lashed at him with a swift kick aided by the beam claw, and Trojan ducked backward to avoid the blow just as the VaROZ rocketed to safety and showered the Green Frame with beam fire.

An instant later, a web of blasts lit up around the silver mobile suit, driving it back towards the team of ZAKUs approaching from behind. The Twilight Cortana dropped into the fight with two pulsing blasts from its long-range cannons, and Lily cackled with delight.

"I dunno why the others had problems with this bunch of losers!" she laughed. Trojan frowned and boosted ahead, where the VaROZ was already lining up for a blast at the Cortana. Lily ducked aside and the DRAGOONs flashed back to life; Trojan spun his way through their fire and pounded the VaROZ's beam shield with his sabers. The silver mobile suit whirled around again, beam saber in hand, and the two machines clashed in a shower of sparks.

"This one's still pretty good," he grunted. "Lily, get around him!"

The Cortana slid around the VaROZ, beam rifle leveled, but the ZAKUs charged forward with a wall of firepower to force the mobile suits apart. The VaROZ took its chance to fling the Green Frame back. Trojan yelped in surprise as it closed in and fired a shimmering blast from its torso-mounted cannon; he hurled the Green Frame aside and fired back with the beam rifle, but the VaROZ elegantly ducked around his blasts and went back on the attack.

"What the hell!" Lily shouted. "Nobody invited you guys! Back off!" The Cortana's DRAGOONs blazed again and drove the ZAKUs back under a hail of beams. "Bunch of cheaters!"

This was not how Emily had wanted to get out of the brig.

She steeled herself for pain as the Gundam Eclipse circled around the darting DRAGOONs of the Providence ZAKU. They spun a net of beam fire around her; she ducked through the blasts and charged through an opening, and with a crash, she lashed out with the Dragon's Tail. The Providence ZAKU ducked away and fired back with its beam rifle; Emily dodged its shots with practiced ease and swept down, beam sword in hand, and the green blade slammed against the Providence ZAKU's left-hand shoulder shield.

Emily focused herself on the presence. This time there was something else, under the layers of military coldness. That little seed of doubt brought a wave of hope to her and she smiled as she thought back to what she'd told her father. Vindication felt as sweet as ever.

The Providence ZAKU's DRAGOONs swarmed again, but Emily darted through them and then swept the Dragon's Tail through the gray mobile suit's beam rifle. The Providence ZAKU abandoned its ruined weapon and drew a beam saber instead, monoeye blazing furiously. The ZAKU backed away as the DRAGOONs held the Eclipse at bay; Emily tensed as she saw the gray mobile suit rocket upwards and then streak back down towards her, and with a crash, she fired the booster, roared up into her opponent's face, and deflected its blow with practiced ease.

"So," sneered Unit Zero-Two, "I see you've finally decided to stop messing around."

"Yeah," Emily agreed, "and I'm still going to save you."

Zero-Two's eye twitched. "We'll see."

Battleship Minerva

"The modified Parsifals are ready to fire," Chen reported at the weapons station. Meyrin sank back into the captain's chair as the Minerva rattled amid an endless barrage of missiles. All well and good, because sooner or later they'd have to give the CIWS a rest.

"Eternal-class closing off the starboard stern," Burt added. "It's launching missiles!"

The CIWS emplacements automatically came back to life and picked them out of the sky and through the smoke, Meyrin saw her opportunity.

"Parsifals, fire!"

With a blast of exhaust, the Minerva's Parsifal air-to-surface missiles took of and lanced around towards their first target, the red Eternal-class. The cruiser's CIWIS guns came to life and blasted the missiles out of the sky, and the smoke billowed up around the ship and Meyrin narrowed her eyes as the red Eternal tried to fire its main guns and came up against nothing but a cloud of anti-beam smoke.

"Isolde, Neidhardt, fire!"

The Isolde boomed and the Neidhardt space missiles took off and slammed head-on into the enemy cruiser as it veered out of the smoke. The ship lurched under the blows as it cleared the anti-beam particles

"Tristans, target the engine block! Fire!"

And then the Minerva's Tristan cannons opened up, and with a flash of fire, the red Eternal-class cruiser was no more. Meyrin glanced over at the other two Eternal ships and the Fortuna as they circled around. Originally they had been waiting for their comrade to clear their line of fire, but now they would be pissed and that was what she was counting on.

Up above, the Fortuna opened fire with a withering Tristan blast of its own, and Malik yanked the ship to port, ducking down through the ruins of the red Eternal cruiser. Meyrin eyed her three remaining foes carefully. One down, and as for the others...

"Malik," she said, "take us closer to the colony. There should be something around here we can use..."

The VaROZ and Fujin Gundam rattled as beam sabers met, sparks flew, and Sting Oakley wondered just who the hell this kid was and why she was getting so worked up. Maybe her conscience was kicking in. Who knew.

The Fujin slammed the VaROZ back with a knee to the chest. Sting leveled off his beam rifle and fired, slamming blasts against the VaROZ's beam shield and driving it back.

"Making this more difficult than it has to be!" she snapped.

Sting smirked back. "Well I am in the Resistance. Resisting is kind of our thing."

Firing its thrusters, the VaROZ backed away under a hail of beam fire from the Fujin's DRAGOONs. It whipped around, beam saber in hand, and rocketed back towards its team of ZAKUs a team that, Sting noticed, had been reduced by about five. The seven survivors were backing away as the Marduk Gundam pummeled them with firepower.

"Auel, heads up!" Sting shouted. Auel turned around and the Marduk's beam naginata flashed to life, just in time to deflect a saber strike from the VaROZ. The silver mobile suit darted away again before Auel could return the attack and took up formation with the surviving ZAKUs.

"Kind of a pain in the ass today, aren't they?" Auel grunted, as the Marduk turned back towards its foes. "Sting, cover me, I'll use the Callidus cannons!"

The ZAFT machines charged forward with a wave of beam fire. Sting lunged up in front of the Marduk and fired back with the gunbarrels, boxing them in and forcing their formation close together. The VaROZ pitched forward and rammed the Fujin hard with its knee, driving the green Gundam back; the ZAKUs took the opportunity to spread out

"Not so fast!" Auel screamed, and with a mighty blast, the Marduk fired its two Callidus Mk II cannons and three of the ZAKUs disappeared in a flash.

The girl in the VaROZ snarled a curse. "The last time we fought, you were helpless!"

"I know," Sting shot back, "but times change!"

With a hard crash that jarred her bones, Viveka slammed the Aurora Gundam's left shoulder into the VaROZ's chest. The silver mobile suit staggered back, but managed to whip up its saber just in time to block the Aurora's downward hack. Viveka hissed out a frustrated sigh.

She risked a glance around the battlefield. Down below, the ZAKUs were scrambling for safety as the Judgment Gundam's DRAGOONs pelted them with beam fire. She snapped her attention back to the VaROZ as it surged forward and threw her back, then fired a blazing shot from its torso cannon; she threw the Aurora aside and returned the fire in spades with her plasma cannons. The VaROZ took the blasts to its beam shield; an instant later, the Aurora was there with another beam saber hack, and the two mobile suits descended back into a saber fight.

Below, Rau boxed in the ZAKUs with a round of DRAGOON fire, then flung the Judgment up to let loose a torrent of blasts from the mounted beam guns. Two of the ZAKUs vanished in plumes of fire, and the remaining six darted apart through openings in the barrage. One of them moved forward, the beam Gatlings on its Slash Wizard pack blazing only for Rau to back away from its furious horizontal axe slash and blow it away with the chest-mounted Callidus.

The five surviving ZAKUs backed away and struggled back into formation. Rau spared a glance up at the Aurora, still fencing with the VaROZ, and charged back into battle.

One of the Gunner ZAKU Warriors lined up behind the Twilight Cortana for a desperate blast at its back; the Cortana whipped around and Lily laughed triumphantly as she speared it through the cockpit on a beam rifle shot, then whirled around again to swarm the four DRAGOONs around the other ZAKUs.

"Man, I didn't know how cool this was!" she giggled. The Cortana darted aside amid a cloud of afterimages as the ZAKUs returned fire, then charged forward with another DRAGOON blast to drive the ZAKUs further away. They broke formation and tried to split up, showering her from both flanks with beam fire; the Cortana snapped to the left and lanced up towards the three ZAKUs there. They scattered, but the one in the middle was too slow and the Cortana put a beam rifle blast through its chest. Lily whipped around to fire back at the rest, then darted away again to let their return fire catch nothing but afterimages.

The ZAKUs kept coming regardless, pounding the Cortana's beam shields with a wall of firepower. Lily ducked down below them and then lunged up towards their ranks, but they split up again and began to pull back, beam rifles blazing.

Lily glanced over their shoulders and frowned at the sight of the decrepit space colony behind them. "Oh, you wanna play that way? Then we'll play that way!"

Four DOM Troopers blazed along the surface of the Mendel colony in pursuit of the sleek black Kali Gundam. Stella glanced over her shoulder at the four pursuers then abruptly slammed on the brakes, whipped around, and slammed one of the Kali's foot-mounted claws directly into the first DOM's chest. She yanked it out as the mobile suit lurched and shot it through the chest with her rifle, then backed away as it exploded.

"Four," she said, and took off again as the three DOMs behind her opened fire again.

Up ahead, the colony's broken mirrors glimmered in the sun. Stella steered the Kali through one of the holes, then immediately darted to the side, just as the three DOM's plowed through in a glittering rain of shattered glass. She moved in behind them and opened fire, but they whipped around with their beam shields active and fired bazooka rounds up into the glass. Stella squinted as the sunlight reflected in all directions; up ahead, one of the DOMs charged forward, beam saber in hand

Stella lunged forward and then ducked to the right, beam saber flashing to life in the Kali's left hand. She swung it out before the DOM could react and let it slice itself in two at the waist as it shot by.

And as it exploded, the Kali got back to its feet with an icy glare towards the two surviving DOMs.

"Five," said Stella.

Sparks danced across the Zulfiqar's armor as Shinn Asuka slammed his sword down onto the Vega Freedom's beam saber. The white Gundam backed away under the force of the blow, then rocketed upward to avoid the next swing. The blue DRAGOON pods slammed back into their racks on the Freedom's wings

A moment later, the Celestial Justice was there with its claws wide open to slam down onto the Freedom's arms and yank them apart, leaving the mobile suit's torso wide open.

"Shinn, now!" Athrun cried.

"Say goodbye!" screamed Shinn, and the Zulfiqar closed in with its sword raised high

Kira's eye flashed with fury as he fired the Freedom's thrusters into the Justice's face and knocked the mobile suit back. With a shout, he fired forward a full burst that sent the Zulfiqar careening off course, then whipped around for another burst into the Justice's beam shield to send it staggering away. He rocketed after the reeling Justice; Athrun answered with a beam claw-assisted kick to the Freedom's beam shield that knocked it off balance, just in time for Shinn to return to the fight with a scream and a heavy downward sword blow to the Freedom's saber.

"Even if you kill me, our plans will still go forward," Kira warned.

"Oh, shut your fucking mouth!" Shinn snapped.

The Freedom roared upwards with a sudden burst from its thrusters and then went spiraling back down towards Mendel's pitted, battle-scarred surface. Shinn and Athrun followed with a barrage of beam fire from the latter and forced the Freedom to once again launch its DRAGOONs and cast a pulsing net of beam blasts to stop the two Gundams in their tracks. Kira followed it up with a full burst that drove the two machines apart; the Justice stayed back and answered with a volley of its own, while the Zulfiqar moved forward, sword in hand.

"It should be abundantly clear to you by now that I am not your mother!" screamed Unit Zero-Two as the Providence ZAKU and Gundam Eclipse clashed. "So why you persist in spouting this nonsense is simply beyond me!"

Emily clenched her teeth as she parried another saber blow from the Providence ZAKU, and then dodged another wave of beam fire from the DRAGOONs. She ducked through an opening and slammed her beam sword hard against the Providence ZAKU's saber, sending it staggering back.

"I know you're not my mother," she shot back, "but there's still something in you worth saving!" The Eclipse surged forward with a flurry of afterimages and sword strikes. "If you're her clone, then you know this isn't what you were meant to be! You saw what else you could be! I showed you! Remember?!"

The Providence ZAKU stabbed forward with its saber and stopped the Eclipse's sword cold. "That's nonsense," Zero-Two snapped. "I was bred and modified purely for battle. I have no other skills. No other purpose. That life you showed me would have been fine, but it's not open to me." She narrowed her eyes. "And it's the same for you, if only you'd admit it. We are alike because we were both bred for battle. And you know as well as I do that when this war's over, whichever one of us is still alive won't be going back to a normal life no matter what else happens. Neither of us will be anything more than this."

Emily frowned. "You haven't tried."

"And I'm sure you'll tell me that I can be just like her if I wanted to?"

The Eclipse roared forward, thrusters blazing. "I know there's someone else lurking inside you! I can feel it! And I'm going to pull you out! There's more to you than just being someone's soldier!"

Zero-Two glowered back as the swordfight resumed.

ZAFT Minerva-class battleship Fortuna

"Saint Josephine is coming around on the other side of the colony," the sensor officer reported. Lyle fixed his eyes on the Minerva as it ponderously dodged yet another salvo from the Absolution. It swung around, guns angling up towards the Fortuna

"Descend, forty degrees!" he barked. The Fortuna obligingly dipped down below the Minerva's four shimmering blasts from its Tristan cannons. Lyle leaned forward. "Tristans, return fire! Target the engine block!" The Fortuna's own guns opened fire but the Minerva promptly veered to port and escaped harm.

"Slippery bastards," muttered Morales, the XO.

"Not for long," Lyle growled. "Keep firing at their tail. Drive them forward "

"Sir! The Saint Josephine just stopped!" the sensor officer exclaimed.

Lyle blinked in surprise. "What stopped? What the hell are they "

"Fortuna," another voice exclaimed, and Lyle looked up in shock towards the auxiliary screen and the frantic face of one of the Saint Josephine's bridge operators. "We're caught in a bunch of metapolymer strings from the colony! We're dead in space!"

"What what the hell do you mean?" Lyle cried. "The Minerva is practically right on top of you!" He looked back towards the main screen. "Weapons, target the Minerva immediately! Stop them! Before they "

The auxiliary screen went dark as the operator screamed, and Lyle looked back to find the Minerva pouring the full fire of its Tannhäuser cannon into a spot just obscured from the Fortuna's view. Something exploded, and in a blinding flash of fire, the Mendel colony began to break apart. Lyle watched in disbelief in the Fortuna's captain's chair as the wreckage of the Saint Josephine drifted out as Mendel broke up.

"That...that's impossible," he murmured. "How did they know...?"

Morales stared ahead darkly. "They've been running around here for three years," he said. "They know all the nooks and crannies."

"Minerva is coming around again, sir," the sensor officer added.

Lyle leaned forward. "Back into battle! We'll engage them in open space! Move, people!"

Stella Loussier blinked in surprise as Mendel colony bucked beneath her and began to break apart. That certainly hadn't been part of the plan.

She dredged up the memories of her skirmishes in the Debris Belt and that long-ago battle in the Gaia amid the falling ruins of Junius 7. The two DOMs in front of her swerved to avoid a chunk of the colony wall plunging past them; Stella seized her chance, ducked around the wreckage, launched herself forward, and stabbed the first DOM through the cockpit with her beam saber. She darted aside as it exploded and eyed the last remaining DOM Trooper as it circled her.

"Six," she said and the DOM charged towards her and opened fire.

Abruptly, it swung around and fired its bazooka into an oncoming piece of debris, blowing it apart but that was all the time Stella needed to rush in on the attack. The DOM turned again, but too late as the Kali Gundam's beam saber went slicing down through the Gigalauncher. The white mobile suit abandoned its useless weapon in favor of its beam saber and slammed the blade down against the Kali's saber, leaving the two mobile suits pressing against each other as sparks and wreckage flew around them.

Another piece of wreckage came sailing through, and this one clipped the DOM's shoulder, sending it careening away from the Kali. Stella let instinct take over as she guided the black Gundam through the wreckage and landed on one particular chunk of what had once been the colony wall. Down below, the DOM floundered and struggled to regain its balance; Stella lunged off her hiding place and dropped down behind the white mobile suit; it whipped around, beam saber ready

...and instead, the Kali Gundam jammed its saber through the DOM Trooper's cockpit.

Stella kicked the mobile suit away, watched it explode, and sat back with a sigh.


The VaROZ staggered back as Trojan Noiret's Green Frame Kai delivered a punishing kick to the face. It whipped around with a kick of its own, assisted by the beam claw on its foot; the Green Frame merely tilted back and let the leg fly by. Trojan smirked and rushed forward, and with a heavy crash, he slammed the Green Frame's knee into the VaROZ's chest and sent it stumbling back even further.

"And now !" he said, and raised the Green Frame's custom rifle

Suddenly the VaROZ fired a blast from its torso cannon that nearly wiped out the Green Frame's arm. Trojan yelped in surprise and leapt back just as the VaROZ whipped up its beam rifle to shower him with fire. He backed away behind his beam shield, and the VaROZ seized its opportunity to pull back, rifle still blazing.

"Giving up, are you?" he muttered. "That's hardly any fun..."

Auel Neider grinned as the last three ZAKUs backed away from him in what sure looked to him like sheer terror. Always good to remind one's enemies who's boss.

He lined up the guns and fired again, pounding the ZAKUs below with another storm of beam fire. One of them darted to the side and leveled off the cannon on its Gunner Wizard pack; Auel merely backed up and activated the Geschmeidig Panzer, sending the blast flying off into space.

The other two charged next, one of them wielding a beam axe. It brought the blade down with a crash onto the Marduk's naginata, sparks flying; the second ZAKU sidled in from behind, beam rifle pointed squarely at the Marduk's back.

"You think that'll work?!" Auel laughed and then he whipped around, throwing back the first ZAKU and sending his naginata cleaving through the second at the waist. And as it exploded, he whirled around again and blew away the first ZAKU with a point-blank salvo from the Marduk's beam guns.

The Gunner ZAKU below backed away behind a stream of fire from its cannon, but Auel angled the shoulder shells to deflect the fire back at its source. The ZAKU dove aside to avoid its own shots and then Auel charged forward with a grin and chopped it in two with the naginata.

The ZAKU exploded and Auel sat back. "Another satisfied customer," he sighed, and scanned the black skies for a sign of the Fujin. Up above, the green Gundam clashed with that silver VaROZ mobile suit, and Auel heaved a melodramatic second sigh and took off after them.

Viveka yelped in surprise as a chunk of Mendel colony drifted by her, obscuring her line of sight towards the VaROZ and its shimmering beam saber. The silver mobile suit wove its way through the debris and charged down towards her; she swung up her own saber to parry its blow and then slammed it back with a hard kick to the chest. It ducked aside behind another piece of debris as she followed up with a plasma cannon volley.

"Okay, that's just getting annoying," she growled.

The VaROZ rocketed out of hiding with another salvo and the Aurora dove down beneath it, sliding its way through the flying debris. The VaROZ turned its fire on the charging Aurora, but too late, as the red mobile suit darted up through the wreckage and charged up towards the VaROZ. The silver mobile suit jammed its beam saber up to deflect the Aurora's blow.

Viveka glanced to the right, then abruptly kicked off from the VaROZ's chest, and backed away just as a piece of debris smacked into the VaROZ and carried it off.

She frowned as she watched it go. "The hell? That was just getting interesting!" The Aurora transformed to its mobile armor mode and took off in pursuit.

The Gundam Eclipse rattled as the beam sword landed against the Providence ZAKU's shoulder shield and sent the gray mobile suit staggering back into the debris. Emily charged after it, through the fire from the DRAGOONs and a moment later, several of those units went silent as they crashed into pieces of wreckage from the colony.

"This conversation is meaningless," Zero-Two snapped. "You can think I'm whoever you want, but that doesn't change my mission." The Providence ZAKU pitched forward suddenly with a furious beam saber stab. Emily slammed on the brakes and parried the blow with her beam sword but the DRAGOONs flashed to life around her and drove her back with a whirlwind of beam bolts.

"I felt how you responded to me last time," Emily shot back, "and I can feel the doubt in you this time!"

The Providence ZAKU surged forward again and the swordfight began anew. "Imagine what you like."

"I'm not imagining anything," Emily said and with a burst of light, the Voiture Lumiere flashed to life.

"Not again!" Zero-Two started, and then the Providence ZAKU lurched as the Eclipse ripped off its left arm with the Dragon's Tail. The DRAGOONs moved in, spewing beam shots, but the Eclipse effortlessly blazed by them and slashed off the Providence ZAKU's right arm at the elbow. It whirled around again but the Eclipse was behind it, and Zero-Two yelped in surprise as the beam sword slashed through the mobile suit's backpack. A thunderous explosion threw the mobile suits apart and Emily moved in closer to finish her foe off

...and instead, the charred and headless Providence ZAKU's DRAGOONs gave one last burst of fire, slamming into the debris around the Eclipse and lighting up a firestorm. Emily squeezed her eyes shut and jammed back on the controls and through the flashing lights she could see what was left of the Providence ZAKU, slipping away.

Kira Yamato cringed as he dodged both the Celestial Justice Gundam's relentless beam fire and the wreckage of the crumbling Mendel colony. At least this place was destroyed now. One less tie to his past to worry about.

He looked back up and ducked aside from a sweeping overhead blow from the Zulfiqar Gundam, then whipped around to swing at its exposed back. It turned in the blink of an eye to deflect his attack and then went back on the offensive. Kira threw the Vega Freedom to the side again as the Justice opened fire and barely dodged another beam volley.

"Marshal," Lyle's voice spoke up, "we have another heat signature inbound. It looks "

The battlefield stopped for a moment as a blazing column of light lanced out of the blackness and Kira grimaced as it plowed straight through the Absolution and wiped it out amid a cloud of fire. He glanced back towards the source and felt his stomach lurch as the vast black hull of the Charlemagne cruised into battle.

"Nowhere to run now," snarled Shinn Asuka. Kira's eye flicked between his foes, the new enemy, and his flagship, and the bitter taste of defeat welled up in his throat.

The Zulfiqar charged again but this time the Vega Freedom somersaulted over its head, dropped a combat flare between its enemies, and rocketed away towards the Fortuna.

Kira held back the urge to pound his fist on the Gundam's console and the urge to go back to those two roiling points of anger behind him and continue the fight. "Recall our mobile suits to the Fortuna and retreat at flank speed," he said. "We'll...just have to destroy the Minerva later."

A devastated Lyle could only nod and the screen went dark. Kira spared one more look over his shoulder, where the two Gundams were staggering away from his burning flare.

My fight's not important. Not anymore.

July 1st, CE 77 - Earth Alliance Girty Lue-class battleship Ahura Mazda, Debris Belt

Lord Djibril sat back with a sigh in the command chair on the Ahura Mazda's bridge as Crayt Markav took her leave. Arms crossed over his chest, Admiral Stone watched her leave with a disdainful scowl.

"Sir, may I ask why you chose her to be the Phantom Pain's Field Marshal?" Stone asked once the door had closed.

Djibril waved his hand airily. "Little choice at the time, and the religious zeal with which she set herself to the task of eradicating the Resistance was useful." He shrugged. "She is technically a Newtype or whatever, and she brought the Vishnu with her. It's not as though she'll be of no use."

"I suppose," Stone said, "but of hers..."

"I know," Djibril agreed, "but as I said, she has her uses." He looked ahead, past Stone, wistfully out the bridge windows. "In the meantime, the most important thing is to make sure we can retake Daedalus. And to do that, we have to survive."

Stone nodded. "But sir, we do need a safe haven. The Debris Belt can't protect us forever. We perhaps could have used Mendel, but..."

"Yes, not an option anymore. We'll have to see whose side Garcia is on over at Artemis." Djibril scowled. "But in the meantime, we have to remain here, to gather as many allies as possible. Meyers hasn't found us yet."

"And if he does..."

They both trailed off as, outside, one of the massive Destroys drifted by.

Djibril smiled. "Precisely."

A Girty Lue-class battleship was well appointed with corridors that offered a sweeping view outside the ship. Unfortunately, all one could see around the Ahura Mazda were other warships and lots of space junk, but it was sort of striking nonetheless if only to see with one's own eyes just how much trash the human race could produce.

Mudie Holcroft leaned against the wall opposite the windows and stared off into space. Shams was by her side, a bandage wrapped around his head from a hard hit he'd taken in the Vanguard during their escape from Daedalus Crater. At least he'd been okay; she'd fought like a tiger to get him out of there and she still wasn't sure why.

Shams heaved a sigh. "Life on the lam's tougher than I thought." He waved a hand towards the Debris Belt. "Now we're no better than our old pals in the Resistance."

They both fell silent at that uncomfortable thought. "Did we make the wrong choice...?"

"I dunno," Shams said, "do you think we did?"

Mudie stared disconsolately at the floor. "I...don't know anymore." She paused and searched for words. "I don't know what side we're supposed to be on."

"Oh, who gives a fuck what side we're on," Shams grumbled. "Just...being here. You think it was the right choice?" She looked up at him questioningly. "I mean, if we'd surrendered to the right unit, like the Minerva or something, they probably wouldn't be treating us too badly. And it would be better than..." He looked at the Debris Belt again, at the collection of Lord Djibril's last loyalists and the pathetic scraps of a once-mighty empire. "This."

"So, what, we should've defected?"

"Or...I dunno, surrendered, or gone AWOL, or whatever."

Mudie frowned. "Would you have really gone off and jumped ship or whatever?"

"Well..." He shifted awkwardly. "Not without you."

"Not without me?"

"I...wouldn't have left you behind like that." He shrugged again. "Neither of us would be happy like that."

Mudie looked back at him again, feeling the blush rising on her face. She'd fought like hell to get him to safety at Daedalus and now she knew why.

Sven Cal Bayan clenched his fists around the gantry railing in the Ahura Mazda's noisy, cramped hangar. Even here, with mechanics screaming and heavy machinery in near-constant motion, he could still hear that damned little child.

In the last couple wars, in the end, both sides wanted to destroy the world, the child reminded him. And if it weren't for some people, they would have! And you would have well and truly never had a chance to go see the stars again! Is that really what you want this time?

Sven gritted his teeth. The child could not be silenced of late. Especially not after their stay at Althea Crater, where the boy had taken on a new tactic and delighted in comparing him to the husks of humanity strewn about what had until recently been the Earth Alliance's most sinister fortress.

It makes no difference now, he shot back. I will never have that chance anyway. No one will give me refuge if I leave. No one will let me live. I am trapped in this fate forever.

That's not what Danilov thought, the kid replied. I mean, obviously, or else we'd still be having our little conversations on his ship and not this one.

Danilov was a fool. Djibril will not allow him to survive. Even as those words crossed his mind, he knew how ridiculous they sounded. Lord Djibril had a lot more pressing things to worry about these days than Ivan Danilov.

Well, if that's the case, then you're probably gonna die here, the kid said with what sounded like the verbal equivalent of a shrug, and it won't matter anyway. So at least if you left, you'd have a chance.

I would not.

You don't know that.

Sven gripped the railing until his knuckles were white. You are still a child, he snarled, and you do not understand how the world really works.

The child merely laughed. 'cuz you've got it all figured out, I see.

To be continued...