Phase 48 - The Ghosts of Solomon's Sword

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 48 - The Ghosts of Solomon's Sword

July 7th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Debris Belt

There were perks to being the captain. And then there were drawbacks. And right now, Meyrin Hawke was most assuredly experiencing one of the drawbacks.

Wings spread and engines roaring, the Minerva rocketed along the rear of what had become the combined lines of the Resistance, the Earth Alliance, and the Phantom Pain, of a sort. They didn't seem to be cooperating well, but they did at least seem to appreciate the overarching need to direct their fire at ZAFT instead of each other. But in a battle like this, the nebulous lines of the fleet's positions were as dangerous at the rear as they were at the front. The ZAKU Goliath, after all, didn't appear to discriminate.

That meant the captain could not leave the bridge as the mobile suits were reloaded and the pilots grabbed a quick bite to eat before charging back into the fray. Time was of the essence.

She forced the other thoughts out of her mind. There was far more at stake than her own anxieties over the Minerva's erstwhile star mobile suit pilot. That was the sort of sacrifice Lacus Clyne would have made, because there was more at stake here than she had any right to jeopardize with her own interests and worries. And the Minerva had gotten by for three years already on faith in Shinn Asuka to make the impossible possible or whatever. What was one more battle?

Meyrin closed her eyes for a moment as the Minerva raced towards its next position. Being Lacus Clyne was such a burden; she could scarcely imagine how Lacus Clyne had dealt with it.

Shinn Asuka blew out a tired sigh as he slumped against the wall of the pilot lounge, a water bottle in hand. It would only be a few short minutes, not even an hour, before they went plunging back into battle again. He had already slain one dragon. There was another one still out there.

Stella landed softly next to him. "Is Shinn gonna fight the Freedom again...?"

She always had a way of seeming to read his thoughts. He nodded solemnly. "Somebody has to."

"For...Miki," she said, eyes growing misty, "for our friends."

"For our friends," Shinn agreed.

Stella gently took his hand. "Will Shinn be okay...?"

"I've fought him before."

"But...will Shinn be okay?"

He offered her a small smile. "I'll be fine, Stella." He put his other hand over hers and gave her a reassuring squeeze. "I promised you I'll never let you be alone. And you never will be alone. But this fight..." He shook his head. "I have to fight him. I have to beat him. Otherwise, I'll..."

Stella frowned. "Shinn will always be sad."

Of course she understood. She always did. "Exactly."

Stella gave him a warm hug. "Just come back," she murmured.

"So," sighed Sting Oakley as he watched Abes and his crews frantically reload the Fujin Gundam's missile tubes, "this is it, huh?"

Auel shrugged, his arms crossed. "Fuckers still have to go through us."

Sting frowned. "You know they were using Extended out there."

"Of course they were."

"Which leads me to ask..." He paused and searched for the words for a moment. "After the war, I was going to go back to Althea. They offered me a position to help...rehabilitate them, I guess you could say." He looked awkwardly back at his mobile suit. "It's what Lee would have wanted. I know it. I'd help Dr. Coast and the others get the Extended surgically repaired, and I'd help try to set them up as much as possible for foster parents and living as normal children." He shrugged himself. "Something we never had, y'know?"

Auel arched an eyebrow. "So what's your point?"

"I was going to ask if you're interested in doing that."

Silence descended over them both for a moment, before Auel looked away. "I...don't know if I can do that." He shrugged again. "I mean, honestly. You think I can rehabilitate someone?"

"It doesn't matter," Sting replied. "What matters is that we're both examples. Examples of Extended who broke free from the Alliance's grip and made their own way in the world." He gestured towards the Fujin and Marduk, down below. "If the life of an Extended was always hopeless no matter what, we wouldn't be here; we'd be in one of those Phantom Pain machines getting butchered out there. Those kids at Althea don't know that it's possible to break free, but you and me? We're proof. And they're going to need that."

Auel stared down at the Marduk's darkened face for a moment and cracked a smile. "Well, when you put it like that..."

The silence was crushing as Athrun Zala stared out the pilot lounge windows, over the vast sweep of the Minerva's hangar. The mechanics were reloading the Aurora Gundam's missile launchers for another round of battle.

He glanced over at the crimson Gundam's equally fiery pilot. "Are you sure you wanna go with me on this?"

Viveka turned up her nose. "I can't believe you still think it's necessary to ask me that."

"Just making sure." He looked back down into the hangar. "I didn't think killing comrades is your thing."

"Athrun, if you say he's really so evil and has to be destroyed, then I will go with you. And I'll do it. And besides," she clenched her mismatched fists, "if he's really screwing up my little sister's head "

"I don't think she's as screwed up as he thinks she is," Athrun interrupted. Viveka blinked in surprise. "Not quite." He turned around to face her again. "It won't matter if we get this right. But, well, you've seen what Rau Le Creuset can do with a mobile suit. You know he'll be a dangerous foe. And he's a Newtype. I can deal with that, but you..."

Viveka arched an eyebrow. "This better not be the prelude to asking me to stay out of it 'for my own good' or some bullshit."

Athrun smiled back. "As if you would anyway."

He turned back down towards the Celestial Justice, his own distinctive war steed. The impulse to protect her was still strong, but if there was anything the past seven years of war had taught him, it was that he could not protect everyone.

That was the most painful lesson he'd ever had to learn, and even now, putting that knowledge into practice hurt as well. He looked over at Viveka and saw so much finally, after seven years of postponement and punishment, a glimmer of happiness was edging its way through the clouds.

"Well," he said, "either way, just be careful out there." And with that, he turned around and kissed her lips.

"Of course I will, you dummy," she shot back with a grin.

Under Trojan Noiret's nervous gaze, Emily finally cracked and glanced sadly over her shoulder at him.

"It's not like I'll get another chance," she said. "I...I have to."

Trojan nodded solemnly. "But if she doesn't want to go over..."

"She will," Emily insisted. "I'll convince her." She looked back at him again. "I've spent my whole life either cowering from my father or missing my mother. I've finally got a chance to have her back, even if she's just a clone. I can't let that slip away."

"I know," Trojan said, "but...just don't risk what you already have for something you don't."

Emily stared down into the hangar, where the mechanics made their last-minute adjustments to the mighty Eclipse. "You don't have to come with me "

"But I will anyways," Trojan said, and pulled her close with his arm around her shoulder, "because that's what I'm here for."

Emily closed her eyes. "I know..." She glanced back up. "And you too, Lily."

Trojan blinked in surprise but then Lily popped out of hiding behind one of the couches with a loud groan, and Trojan whirled around in surprise.

"How did you even know I was there?!" she sputtered.

Emily tapped the side of her head. "Newtype."

"The hell are you doing in here?!" Trojan wailed, only to be interrupted by Lily's maniacal giggling.

"You two are just so cute together "

"Haven't you ever heard of privacy?"

Emily smiled as they descended into an argument. Of course she would save Zero-Two. She would have no choice. If she didn't, she would never be able to forgive herself. But if she failed...well, if she failed, at least there was something to which she could always come back.

Rau Le Creuset nearly shuddered with anticipation as he strapped himself back into the Judgment Gundam's cockpit seat. The Minerva was nearing its first staging point for an attack on the ZAKU Goliath. Pilots were to standby; destiny was about to begin.

He passed his senses briefly over the Minerva's various pilots. All of them tense, none of them looking forward to this battle...because, after all, they all knew what was ahead of them. The cream of ZAFT's crop. The most terrifying of their superweapons. The most fanatical of their soldiers. Of course Valentine would employ no less in her master plan.

But Rau had one of his own, and his thoughts settled on Emily, in the Eclipse's cockpit. She would have to learn that the world was not as gentle as she thought. Seeing her delusion that she could save that clone of her mother shatter would be the final straw. And conveniently, Valentine had lined up a weapon for her vengeance on a world gone mad. It would all come together nicely, and once again, all he had to do was stand in the shadows and pull the right strings to make his puppets dance.

He sat back with a sigh. All the Minerva's pilots could do now was wait for the ship to reach its position and for the counterattack to begin. But waiting and the quiet thrill of manipulation had served him well over the years. At long last, he knew, he deserved this. The world had wronged him in a most terrible way. No world that created human refuse like himself could be corrected. No world populated by creatures such as these would ever rise above hatred and bloodshed.

The world was sickly. It was dying. And it was the task of the Angel of Death to bring an end to those whose time had come.

Rau sat back with a smile.

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne

"I can do this for you," said Meyrin Hawke, her determined face on the Charlemagne bridge's auxiliary screen. "I'll spare you three of my mobile suits. They'll go with you to attack the ZAFT flagship and Messiah. The rest have to come with me; I'm going up against that giant red thing."

Danilov arched an eyebrow. "On your own?"

"Whoever has a death wish can come along."

"The very picture of confidence, you are." He sat back. "As long as we can get past Messiah's beam shield, we should be alright. But they still have that NEO-GENESIS array "

"Which charges twice as fast as the original GENESIS," Meyrin added. "You're going to need a lot of troops to get past that, and the fleet."

Danilov glanced out the bridge windows, at the warships coalescing around him. Most of them were from the Alliance member nations' fleets, the rest from the Resistance...and then there were those of the Phantom Pain, falling into formation among their erstwhile enemies. At least even at the end, Lord Djibril's loyalists could see who the world's real enemy was, if only for a moment.

"Well," he said with a smile, "we are from the Phantom Pain."

Meyrin smiled back wryly. "Good luck," she said, and the screen went dark. Danilov's own smile faded as the Charlemagne roared forward. They would need far more than that.

The crosshairs passed over another city. Casablanca, Morocco. Population of about three million. Well, not for long.

Valentine Sunogachi sat back in the ZAKU Goliath's control room as the targeting system locked on and the crimson monstrosity brought its Armageddon cannon to bear. The Goliath had effortlessly blown through three Destroy Gundams, two Zamzazars, and four Euclids, along with countless mobile suits and warships.

Nobody could stop the colossus on its inexorable path of destruction towards the Earth, its wake littered with the remains of those who had tried. And now the path of destruction would cover the smoking craters on the Earth where there had once been cities, burned away by the might of the ZAKU Goliath and the divine justice of the Coordinators.

Casablanca was only the beginning. Soon they would reach the dense population centers and administrative complexes of Europe. The world had already trembled as it watched the light of the heavens erase Dakar; now they would know fear again.

"Charging is complete," the weapons officer said.

Valentine leaned forward with a smile. "Fire."

It had been a long time since he had used one of these, but as the Vega Freedom Gundam lifted its wings and backed into the opening braces of a waiting METEOR unit, Kira Yamato did his best to crush the memories. The last time he had used one of these things was Solomon's Sword, and the time before that...

He shook his head. There was too much to do.

"The enemy lines are falling back in all sectors," Admiral Harkill said from the CIC aboard the Rodinia, "but their defense is beginning to stabilize and there's been a lot of movement around the rear of their lines. They may be gearing up for a counterattack."

Kira scanned over the battlefield in frustration. "Of course they are. We only caught them by surprise. They weren't going to be on their heels forever." The Vega Freedom shook as the braces locked into place and the METEOR system quickly came online. With this machine, in two wars, he had laid waste to entire fleets; now he was needed more than ever. "Keep pressing the attack," he ordered, "and close our formation around the Goliath. Above all, we need to get it to Earth. What about Messiah?"

"NEO-GENESIS recharging is underway. Charge is at thirty-one percent."

"Then tell Commandant Reeves to move Messiah in closer. We'll begin the next phase of the operation now." He glanced over at the team of ZAKUs that had opened up the shipping crate containing the METEOR unit. "I'm going. Return to your posts."

"Yes sir!" the squad leader exclaimed, and the four ZAKUs rocketed back into the battle. Kira turned his eye back ahead, the enemy fleet already massing again in the distance. He would have to clear a path through those hundreds of ships and thousands of mobile suits a path to the future.

Being on the offensive had a different feeling than the defensive. Defense was characterized by reacting to threats, by letting things happen and then dealing with it. But offense...that was all about making things happen.

With that thought somewhere in the back of his mind, Trojan Noiret charged ahead with a shout at the head of a swarm of mobile suits and warships. A wall of fire lanced forward into the advancing ZAFT lines and sliced machines out of the sky, one by one. Up ahead, a Nazca-class destroyer bucked under the full fire of an Alliance warship squadron and vanished in a blaze. Trojan ducked between the flying debris and charged, down towards the Laurasia-class frigate moving up to replace it.

Down below, the Laurasia, a squad of ZAKUs, and a full dozen older ZAFT mobile suits rushed forward, guns blazing. The frigate let loose a withering barrage from its beam cannons that sliced through an oncoming Drake-class destroyer but from the thundering explosion emerged the Twilight Cortana, and its DRAGOONs blazed down like hornets to lash the lime-green warship with beam blasts and ward off its mobile suit defenders.

Trojan charged through their fire and shot down one of the ZAKUs, then darted around their return fire and brought his sabers down through an incoming GINN. The rest of the mobile suits backed away into a tighter formation only to get showered with beam fire from the Cortana that forced them back apart, and the Green Frame seized its chance to blast between their ranks and rake the Laurasia with fire across its dorsal side.

The frigate swung its railguns around but the Green Frame darted up over their range, and with a triumphant yell, Trojan plunged the custom rifle's sabers into the ship's bridge. The Laurasia bucked backward as the Green Frame pumped a round of beam blasts into its hull, and Trojan backed away and rocketed to safety as the ships behind him opened fire and ripped the frigate out of the sky.

Up ahead, ZAFT's warships and mobile suits began to falter and Trojan grinned at the sight. It was good to be back on the offensive.

A Nazca-class destroyer buckled under the Earth Alliance's overwhelming firepower and exploded up ahead. ZAFT mobile suits, manned and unmanned, scattered before the blast and Rau Le Creuset went to work. The DRAGOONs lashed out and blew them apart one by one, and the Judgment Gundam moved in with its rifle at the ready.

Up ahead, a DOM Trooper came streaking out of the flames, Gigalauncher in hand, and showered the Judgment with a hail of bazooka rounds and beam blasts. Rau darted to the left as the DOM circled around him and then smirked as it was torn to shreds by the oncoming forces of the Alliance and the Resistance. Having the bigger army made all the difference.

He turned at the sight of the ZAKU Goliath, far up ahead. A Euclid mobile armor had broken through the ZAFT lines and charged towards the Goliath; the colossus merely flung it back with a concentrated barrage of fire that knocked out the positron reflector, and let the warships and mobile suits wipe it out themselves. So much destructive power tied up in that thing...

Rau whipped around at the sight of an oncoming squad of ZAKUs and blasted them apart with a barrage from the DRAGOONs. "I suppose we'll have to bring Zero-Two out to play first," he muttered, and set about searching the battlefield for her distinctive presence. She was surely out here somewhere, and once she was found, it would be child's play to lead her to Emily.

"So, uh, how are we going to do this?" Viveka asked quietly. "Going after Rau, I mean."

The Celestial Justice and Aurora Gundams roared across the battlefield, both in mobile armor mode. Athrun frowned. "We'll keep our distance for the time being and wait for an opportunity where he's more or less alone," he said. "He won't go down without a fight."

Viveka smirked. "Between the two of us, he won't have a chance."

"I hope so." Athrun glanced up ahead. "Watch out!"

The two Gundams veered apart and swiftly transformed as a squad of ZAFT mobile suits went on the attack up ahead. The mobile suits behind them scattered and Athrun charged forward with a salvo of beams that broke their ranks apart. The Aurora Gundam shot through, whipped around, and shot down two of them before they could react; it darted away as they turned and Athrun seized his chance to destroy another two. The ZAFT mobile suits broke ranks and fled in opposite directions, only to fall into the raking fire of the Alliance and Resistance mobile suits to the rear.

"In the meantime," he said, "we've still got work to do here!"

Engines roaring, the two Gundams lanced down into the ZAFT formations and peppered them with beam shots. The mobile suits took cover behind their shields as the Alliance and resistance forces descended upon them; up ahead, a Laurasia-class frigate lurched back as waves of fire slammed into it head-on and sliced it apart.

Unseen by the other combatants, the two Gundams slipped away in the inferno, and Athrun set his senses to work searching for Rau's presence on the battlefield. He was edging closer to the ZAKU Goliath, and that only confirmed Athrun's fears.

"Hey," Viveka spoke up, "what would happen if Emily just didn't do what he wanted her to do? Would he try to kill her?"

"Probably." Athrun sighed grimly. "He would want to cover his trail."

"Oh, well that fucking does it," Viveka snarled. "His ass is history now."

"I know I said this before, but Rau is a force beyond anything you've fought before," Athrun said. "And I know you can handle yourself out here, but that's not going to stop me from worrying. Please, don't push your luck against him."

Viveka smiled back. "You're cute when you worry."

"I mean it, Viveka. I don't want to lose you." He looked away sadly. "I've lost too many people as it is."

"But," Viveka said, "I'm not like the rest, now am I?"

He thought back to those days with his old friends to those days with Cagalli. "No," he said, "I guess not."

The Gundam Eclipse's engines hummed as the black mobile suit roared forward into the fray. The ZAFT fleet up ahead was condensing its formation around that vast red machine and behind them, Emily could see the dark outline of Messiah creeping towards the battlefield. The feeling that they were walking into a trap gnawed at her, but trap or not, there was no choice. Not at this point.

Up ahead, a squadron of unmanned machines led by a team of ZAKUs charged forward, and a Nazca-class destroyer trailed behind them. The warship unleashed a full salvo from its main guns; Emily steeled herself and threw the Eclipse down into the fray.

The mobile suits darted apart to rake the Eclipse's flanks with fire; the black Gundam's beam wings flashed to life and the mobile suit roared between their ranks amid a storm of afterimages. Caught off guard, the ZAFT machines turned to follow and up above, the Nazca turned its railguns on the charging Eclipse. Emily let instinct guide her hands as she wove her way through the warship's railgun and CIWS fire and then the ship turned one of its main guns towards her. The Eclipse lunged out of harm's way, leveled off its Dragon's Fire launcher, and squeezed off a blast; the blinding column of blue light swept down over the ship's prow and punched clear through. The destroyer shuddered under the blow; she turned the gun to the side and fired again, straight through the cockpit. The ZAFT mobile suits opened fire again, but too late; the Nazca snapped in two and vanished in a thunderous plume of flames, and before the enemy mobile suits could react, Emily had lanced into their ranks and wiped out four of them with one long sweep from the glowing Dragon's Tail heat rod.


Emily snapped her attention upward in surprise and whirled around just in time for a hard swing from an anti-ship sword to land against her beam shield and send the Eclipse reeling. She scrambled to switch to the beam sword and looked on in shock as the headless blue Destiny Impulse, still missing its left arm and now missing its right leg below the knee as well, pointed its sword furiously at her.

"You," snarled Lilith Ramsi, "you took him away from me!"

"Wha " Emily started; the Destiny Impulse plunged forward and brought its sword down again, stopped only by a timely counterstrike from the Eclipse.

"You took him away, piece by piece!" Lilith screamed. "Day after day, you took away all his goals and dreams, until the only thing left was killing you!" The Impulse surged forward, beam wings blazing to life. "And now you've made sure he'll never come back!"

Emily scowled back as she regained control over her tumbling mobile suit, just in time to deflect another sword slash. "Don't lecture me about losing people "

"You didn't kill him! You killed him slowly, bit by bit, and then you killed the possibility that he'd ever get better!" The Impulse closed in. "So now I'll take something from "

Her image on the auxiliary screen disappeared as a flurry of beams sliced the Destiny Impulse apart. Emily blinked in disbelief as the shredded mobile suit vanished in a cloud of fire and then she looked up as a familiar point of pressure approached.

"Impressive skills, but you could stand for some battlefield sense," said Morgan Chevalier as his Fenrir and a battalion of white and blue Windams dropped in around the Eclipse. "What are you still doing here? I thought you Minerva pilots were going to go deal with that red thing."

Emily looked around helplessly and eyed the Windams surrounding her carefully. "I um, I was distracted "

"Yeah, well, get undistracted," Morgan said. He frowned as he studied her face for a moment. "And no, we're not going to shoot you. As far as I'm concerned, if you're going to kill that red thing for us, that makes us friends." The Fenrir pointed towards the ZAKU Goliath, still on the move. "Now get. We'll have your back until you get there."

Emily stared back at him for a moment but there was no deceit in his eyes or in his presence, and with a nod, she moved the Eclipse past the Alliance units and took off. And true to his word, Morgan and his troops were right behind her.

Another bisected ZAKU exploded and Shinn turned his eyes towards an oncoming pair of unmanned GINNs. He launched the Zulfiqar between them; the beam wings sawed them both in half. A GuAIZ R lunged up behind him, beam rifle leveled; the Zulfiqar whipped around, sword in hand, and slashed it in two at the waist.

There was a presence up there he knew all too well. He had felt Courtney vanish and that had told him all he needed to know. There was only one left now besides himself and it was going to stay that way.

The Zulfiqar charged forward with a scream from its pilot, and up ahead, a Resistance Strike Dagger exploded under a hail of beam fire. A handful of other machines backed away behind their shields with Riika Sheder's blue ZAKU Phantom at the lead. A GOUF Ignited roared out of the ZAFT ranks and lunged up over her beam blasts; it came back down with a hard sword swing that ripped the ZAKU's right arm clean off and severed the right leg at the knee on the way down. Riika backed away; another swing took off the ZAKU's head. One of the Resistance's GINNs threw itself into the fight, heavy sword drawn back; the GOUF whipped around, ducked beneath the clumsy blow, and tore it in half with a sword blow to the waist. The ZAFT mobile suit turned back towards Riika's sparking ZAKU

And then Shinn came down with a scream and smashed his sword through the GOUF's shoulder, tearing it in two. He kicked the sparking pieces away and whirled around to activate his beam shield and deflect fire from another pair of oncoming ZAFT ZAKUs and before they could react, he snapped up the long-range cannon and vaporized them both in a single shimmering blast.

"Riika," he said, "you can't fight in that thing anymore. Get out of here."

"I can't!" she cried. "They...they killed Courtney, Shinn! I'm not gonna let them get away "

"No!" Shinn snapped, and turned his furious eyes towards Riika, shocking her into silence. "Don't say that! Never say that!" Up ahead, another team of mobile suits went on the attack; Shinn plunged forward with his sword and slashed one of them in half before they could react. The rest broke their ranks and backed away. "Don't wind up like me, Riika! I've been living on revenge and anger for three years and look where it's gotten me!" The Zulfiqar darted past a ZAKU Warrior's fire and sliced it in two. "Yes, he died, and that's wrong but you're still alive! So get out of here and don't fuck it up!"

Riika stared in disbelief through her tears as Shinn butchered the last ZAKU. A white bolt of energy burst before him and he turned the Zulfiqar around to face something out in the middle of the chaos. "Shinn..."

"Riika, despite everything that's happened, you're still my friend," he said. "There's a man out there, on his way here, that I have to kill. The fact that I have to kill him is why you should never care about revenge. It's turned me into a wreck." He switched to the Zulfiqar's beam rifle and clenched his fists around the controls; he was on his way, he was so close... "And besides which, even if your machine was intact, he'd kill you anyway. So go."

Riika swallowed. "You're going to fight him on your own?"

"I wouldn't have it any other way. Go."

She stared after him for a long moment, before firing what was left of the thrusters and rocketing away towards the Resistance's dwindling fleet. In the Zulfiqar, Shinn turned around and fixed his attention on the presence before him. The pressure, the little kernel of sorrow and horror buried under layers of steel and resignation...but that kernel wasn't worth saving. He didn't even know if it could be saved. And either way, his soul, so blackened by vengeance, would have no rest if he did anything else.

Up ahead, the Vega Freedom Gundam, nestled in its METEOR unit, came to a stop in front of the waiting Zulfiqar. Kira Yamato's battle-scarred face appeared on the auxiliary screen.

"Getting in the way to the last, are you?" he asked.

Shinn licked his lips. "I've been waiting a long time for this."

The Zulfiqar's beam wings came to life with a flash, the METEOR's beam sabers lit up, and the two mobile suits charged.

ZAFT Minerva-class battleship Fortuna

"There they are."

Lyle Markus shivered with anticipation as his sensor officer finally located the Minerva. The Fortuna's delinquent older sister had run around the margins of the world and interfered in ZAFT's affairs long enough. And now was his opportunity.

"Tannhäuser is charged, sir," the weapons officer spoke up.

"Then target the Minerva and fire."

The Fortuna shuddered as the shining column of antimatter lanced forward from the warship's prow, down towards the winged battleship

...and instead of making contact, the Minerva suddenly veered upward and fired back with its Tristan cannons.

"Evasive maneuvers!" Lyle roared, and the Fortuna lurched to the side as the Tristan blasts seared by the Fortuna's starboard wing. The Minerva righted itself up ahead and charged forward with another Tristan salvo, forcing the Fortuna on the defensive.

"Minerva is increasing to flank speed!" the sensor officer exclaimed.

"Helm, increase to flank!" Lyle barked, and glowered up at the red and gray warship as the two vessels began to circle each other like sharks. "So, you want to fight before you die...?"

The sights of the battle were moving further away from their position as Shams and Mudie tended to a wounded Sven in the shattered cockpit of the broken Crusader Gundam. He'd lost a great deal of blood and his flight suit was a veritable quilt of adhesive patching material, applied as much to staunch the bleeding from his body as it was to seal the holes in his suit. Sven himself, pale faced and drenched in a cold sweat, stared forward numbly as Mudie finished applying the last of the patching.

"Well," Shams said quietly, "we've still got the transponders. Someone will pick us up."

Mudie frowned. "But who is 'someone?'"

"That I don't know."

Sven stared past them, out at the stars, and Shinn Asuka's words echoed in his mind.

Am I really just a monster?

And then that kid piped up.

So far, he said, but, you could change that.

Even now?

Even now.

He blinked away his blurring vision. There they were, all stretched out before him the stars. He reached back, after the memories of his childhood, and recalled again the wonder he'd felt for what lay out there and the courage it had taken to go looking for it.

Courage. The word flooded through him. That was what he had lacked. Courage. For so long, it had been so easy to just acquiesce to his fate. To do what his commanders told him to do, rather than what was right. To accept his life as a minion of Lord Djibril, rather than try to reclaim his stolen dreams. To let that little boy bounce around the edges of his consciousness and remind him of what he could have been, rather than try to crush him once and for all. Courage had sustained everyone who had stepped out of humanity's Earthly cradle and explored the cold and unfeeling abyss. Courage was what he would have needed to succeed out there. Maybe that was why he'd never gone in the first place.

An explosion far away burst across his field of vision. ZAFT. They were still out there too and they wanted to destroy the world. Burn it all down. And if they could do that, why would they stop with the Earth? What would stop them from moving on to make the whole universe kneel in submission?

Nothing, the kid inside him answered. They'll burn down the stars.

"The stars," he murmured; Shams and Mudie both blinked in surprise.

"What?" asked Shams.

"The stars," he said again, and pointed with a trembling hand. "I...when...I was a boy," he went on, "I wanted to be an...astronomer. Explore outer space. other planets."

Mudie looked at him with an expression of disbelief. "Why are you telling us this...?"

"I...wanted to explore," Sven said. "But now..."

"Sven, don't waste your energy," Shams said, and gently pushed him back into the seat. "Just relax "

"They're...going to destroy the stars," Sven gasped. Shams and Mudie shared an incredulous look.

"You don't have any sedatives or something " Shams began.

Sven blinked away the blurriness again and then gathered his strength and shoved Mudie and Shams out of the Crusader's cockpit.

"Hey what the fuck?!" Shams sputtered. "What are you "

The cockpit hatch slammed shut, the battle-damaged Crusader shuddered to life, and the Gundam took off with a halting roar.

"Oh my God," Mudie breathed, "he's...he's still going to fight?"

Shams swallowed the lump in his throat he couldn't explain. "No," he said, "he's doing something else."

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne

"Three Gundams from the Minerva's stable, huh?" Ivan Danilov said with a skeptically raised eyebrow as the Charlemagne drove forward into battle, a small fleet of warships right behind it. Standing on the hull in front of the bridge, the Fujin, Marduk, and Kali Gundams stared back and the man who had called himself Sting merely shrugged.

"I assume we're all on the same side, here."

"Oh, we are," Danilov said. "I'm just savoring the irony."

The other man, the one Sting had called Auel, put on a contemptuous sneer. "As long as it fuckin' stays that way."

"Anyway," Sting said, loudly and pointedly, "first target is that giant warship thing, whatever it's called. Then we take out Messiah. That's the plan as it was given to me. Sound good?"

Danilov smiled. "It will do."

Sting grinned back. "Then let's kick some ass."

"Emily!" cried Trojan Noiret as the Green Frame Kai and Twilight Cortana rushed across the battlefield. Up above, Emily blinked in surprise at the sight of the two mobile suits falling into formation and at her side inside the Fenrir, Morgan frowned.

"Friends of yours?" he asked.

Emily nodded and turned back towards them. "I thought you two were taking a different route in."

"We were, but we got pushed back, so we're going with you," Trojan explained. He glanced at the Alliance mobile suits around them. "Who are these guys?"

"Friends, for the time being," Emily answered. "So where "

"Uh, don't look now," Lily spoke up, "but I think we've got a few more coming in."

All eyes went to the front and Emily cringed at the sight of a whole squadron of ZAFT warships and dozens of mobile suits rising to meet them. Just what they needed...

The Fenrir abruptly moved forward. "We will handle that," he said. "You three have a bigger fish to fry. All men, form up!" The Windams fell into formation around the Fenrir. "We will create an opening in that formation. You slip through. Don't look back, don't stop for anything. Is that clear?"

"R-right," Emily answered.

"Good. Then move out!"

The mobile suits charged down with a cloud of thruster exhaust and opened fire on the advancing squadron. The mobile suits immediately broke ranks; a squad of Doppelhorn Windams lined up to pummel the Nazca-class destroyer in the lead with artillery fire and drive it back. The ZAFT mobile suits let loose a storm of firepower that took down two of the Windams before the Fenrir's gunbarrels sliced into their ranks with a volley of beam fire.

Up ahead, the destroyer in the lead buckled, even as its CIWS fire shredded one of the Doppelhorn Windams. The three survivors fired again to tear smoldering black holes into the ship's hull and then a squad of regular Windams rushed in, beam rifles blazing, to take advantage of the breach. The Nazca finally shuddered and broke apart in a bone-rattling inferno.

"There's our chance," Emily said, "go!"

The Eclipse, the Green Frame Kai, and the Twilight Cortana darted amid the flames and wreckage and rocketed through the hole in the squadron's line. Emily spared one last glance back at the Fenrir and then fixed her eyes back on the ZAKU Goliath. After all, Morgan was right. There was something else she had to do out here.

Battleship Minerva

Meyrin Hawke clenched her fists around her seat's armrests as the Minerva shot down the Fortuna's swarm of missiles. The warship plowed through the smoke, then fired back with its Isolde cannon. One of the shells clipped the Fortuna's portside wing but the blue and gray battleship fired back with its Tristans, undeterred, and the Minerva quickly dove to avoid the blasts.

"Tannhäuser charge is still at sixty percent," Chen reported.

"Enemy is launching more missiles," Burt added.

"CIWS, respond!"

Again the CIWS cut down another salvo of missiles; again the Minerva had to swerve off course to avoid a pulsing volley from the Tristans. Meyrin wracked her brain for a way around this enemy. It was another ship of the Minerva-class; it had all the same armaments, the same speed, the same capabilities as her own. She would have to outsmart herself to beat this thing.

Well, if that's the case...

"Malik, get us closer to a dense region of debris," she instructed. "Chen, instruct Abes and his men to get the anti-beam depth charges ready. Every single one of them."

"It's too late to go setting traps," Abbey warned.

The ship shook again as the CIWS sliced more missiles out of the sky. "We're not setting traps," Meyrin said. "We're playing a different game."

Up ahead, the Fortuna charged forward with a blast from its Tristans.

A crackling set of beam blasts seared through space in front of the three VaROZ units and their squadron of ZAKU Warriors. Inside the cockpit of her own machine, Kara Guinness blinked in surprise and then everything went to hell.

The green and white Fujin Gundam's four gunbarrels lanced out of nowhere and showered the ZAFT units with beam fire, and one of the ZAKUs disappeared in a thundering explosion. The VaROZs promptly split their formation.

"Jesus, where did they come from?!" Gary exclaimed.

"Hadley, fall back!" Juarez barked but too late, as the gunbarrels claimed another two ZAKUs. Kara threw her VaROZ down beneath another blast and came face to face with the Kali Gundam, which rammed her head-on with its shoulder, flung her aside, and pummeled Gary and Juarez with a round of beam fire.

Another wave came in from above the Fujin Gundam dropped into battle with a crash and shot down yet another ZAKU. The survivors began to back away behind their shields, only to be wiped out by a storm of green bolts as the Marduk Gundam's shoulder shells let loose a torrent of beam fire. Kara swung up her own rifle to fire back but the Fujin blocked her blasts with its beam shield, and then the Kali was back in her face with a blazing beam saber, and before she could react, the VaROZ's right arm went spiraling away. She fired back with the chest cannon; the two Gundams darted aside and the Marduk slapped the blast away with its Geschmeidig Panzer, then fired back another wave of beam fire.

Up above, the Kali stormed down into the face of Gary's VaROZ and sliced off its entire left arm. The VaROZ brought its beam rifle to bear, only for the Kali to slash it in two. Gary backed away; the Kali lunged forward with a backhanded saber swipe, claiming the rifle and the VaROZ's head

And then the Fujin's gunbarrels lanced in and ripped his mobile suit apart. Kara's jaw dropped as she watched it explode, as all the ire he'd ever drawn out of her evaporated

"How did they get like this?!" Juarez screamed. "They weren't "

His own VaROZ lurched as the Fujin slashed off its left arm with a beam blade-assisted kick. He flung away his rifle and charged with a beam saber in hand; Kara moved in next to him with a saber of her own. The Fujin backed away; the Kali lunged up in front of it to deflect both their blows with one blade, then knock them both back. Juarez grunted as the gunbarrels ripped off one of the VaROZ's leg; the two Gundams darted apart

And then Kara screamed as Juarez's VaROZ rammed itself into her...just as a blinding wave of red energy came rushing out of the ends of the Marduk's shoulder shells. She watched in horror as Juarez's mobile suit vanished in the blast and her own had its left arm, leg, and wing blown away. Sparks and smoke filled the cockpit, and tears filled her eyes, as Juarez Recardo disappeared.

What was left of the VaROZ rocked as the gunbarrels blasted away its head and its right foot, and then the Kali slashed out its chest cannon. The black Gundam raised its beam saber for a killing blow; Kara squeezed her eyes shut

Nothing happened. She cracked an eye open. The Gundam stared at her impassively for a moment and then backed away and joined the other two in taking off towards the ZAFT fleet.

Kara gaped after them, and then looked back at the wreckage that was left of her two friends and finally broke down and cried.

A storm of beam fire flashed through the black sky around the afterimages of the Zulfiqar Gundam, diving through the chaos and squeezing off return shots with its beam rifle. Far down below, the Vega Freedom Gundam lined up for a devastating full burst from its mounted weapons and from the METEOR; Shinn flung the Zulfiqar to the side to avoid the torrent.

The METEOR unleashed a swarm of missiles. Shinn easily redirected them but before he could veer them back towards their source, the Freedom charged forward with a sweeping swing of its beam swords and sent him back on the defensive. The missiles exploded around the Zulfiqar and sent it reeling back; Shinn dove away as the METEOR and the Freedom inside opened fire again.

"Athrun is the one I thought would've understood," Kira snarled, as the Freedom closed in. "You, on the other hand, were always just a rabid dog that needed to be put down."

The Zulfiqar hefted its sword. "Then come put me to sleep, jackass."

The Freedom charged again with another swing of its swords. "It's a real shame, too," Kira went on. "You might have done good for the world, instead of just chaos!"

"I thought I already did!" Shinn shot back, and paused long enough to squeeze off a long-range cannon blast that forced the Freedom to dodge with its cumbersome METEOR unit. The weapons platform fired back with another salvo of beams.

"And what a world you created!" Kira cried, as the METEOR sliced after the Zulfiqar with wide blows. "Blue Cosmos slaughtering Coordinators, civil war ravaging the planet, atrocities at every turn "

"Oh, you wanna talk about atrocities?!" Shinn cut in. "How about we start with Copernicus?!"

The METEOR and the Freedom pounded the Zulfiqar's beam shields with a full burst. "You would not understand "

"No, I wouldn't!" Shinn screamed. The Zulfiqar wove its way around the beams and fired back with its rifle, but came up empty as the METEOR veered out of the way and sent the Zulfiqar back on the defensive with another sword swipe. "In fact, that's why I've been fighting against people who slaughter innocents!"

"A whole lot of good you did!" Kira shot back. "All you did was create more chaos! Nothing changed! You don't understand this world, and you have no place in the next!" The METEOR charged forward, beam swords blazing. "I'll pull the stars out of the sky before I let you "


Both combatants stopped short in disbelief and then the battlefield split in two as the broken, sparking Crusader Gundam charged out of the darkness, anti-ship sword in hand, and plunged it into the Vega Freedom's METEOR unit. Kira hastily ejected the Gundam from its impaled weapons platform, darted away, and whipped around in shock.

Inside the Crusader, Sven slumped forward, blood trickling from his mouth.

Am I still a monster...?

His younger self smiled back. Not anymore.

The Crusader disappeared as the METEOR exploded.

Inside the Zulfiqar, Shinn Asuka stared in shock as his persistent rival vanished in the flames. The pressure in front of him reclaimed his attention. Sven Cal Bayan could be mourned later. Right now, there was something else to be done and now it was up to him to ensure that his old foe had not died in vain.

After all, the Vega Freedom floated in front of the Zulfiqar, beam rifles in hand, completely intact and with its eyes glowing bright gold.

"A level playing field," Shinn said with a smirk.

"I don't think so," Kira sneered back. "I have righteousness on my side."

Shinn's smirk only grew wider. "We'll see about that."

The two Gundams' eyes lit up and their duel began.

To be continued...