Phase 27 - The Witch's Hammer

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

Phase 27 - The Witch’s Hammer

March 13th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Black Sea

" are we going to explain this one to Chiao Xu?"

Even as Roxy's question hung in the air like chlorine gas, Meyrin Hawke could only sink uncomfortably into a captain's chair that was suddenly far too big. How to explain this, indeed when not even the presence of the great Minerva could quell ancient blood feuds and bring victory. But that humiliation paled in comparison to the horrors those Resistance fighters had visited upon their brethren...and onto the already-horror-struck prisoners.

"We don't have to explain anything," Abbey answered, holding her head in her hands and leaning heavily on her console. "It's plain as day what happened. It's not as though it's the first time, either."

Meyrin paused and switched on the intercom. "Doctor, how is Emily doing?"

The weary voice of the ship's doctor answered. "She's still out cold. But these brainwaves are like nothing I've ever seen before..."


Even without a video feed, Meyrin could sense the doctor's grim expression. "At first blush, it looks like Athrun or Shinn's brainwaves when their sensitivities have been activated. But their waves aren't this sustained. Shinn has theorized that it has to do with her sensitivity, but there's so little medical research on this topic that I can't say for certain. I'm going to have to just wing it, pretty much."

"What about those phrases?" Meyrin continued. "Shinn never taught her that, and none of our pilots use jargon like that."

"That's on the end of psychology," the doctor said, chuckling tiredly, "and I'll have to refer you to a specialist."

Even in these circumstances, the doctor could make a bad joke. "Well, take good care of her. I'll have someone else handle the rest."

"I've got Shinn here. He'll see to that."

The line went out, and Meyrin sat back with a sigh. "Emily isn't a normal Natural...but there's so little research on Newtypes..." She paused again. "Roxy, do you still have those contacts within the Alliance's database mainframe?"

"Yeah, although some of them might need to be plied with drugs and hookers," Roxy answered with a grin. "Hey, can I see your credit card?"

Meyrin blanched. "No. I don't believe the Phantom Pain has been sitting on its hands watching Emily tear their troops apart. They're bound to have some information on her. Find it."

Roxy cracked her knuckles and set to work, as Meyrin sat back.

No normal Natural can fight like Shinn was not the first to train her. But if that's the case, then who is she...?

"Shit, she's still too low!"

The world was dimming as the cold and chilling touch of metal went racing up Emily's spine, as she lay helplessly on a slab of stainless steel and watched an army of lab coat-clad men rushing around a daunting array of equipment. The world was drowning around her she could feel nothing, not even the sweat on her brow or the beat of her heart, and even the icy touch of her metal bed was beginning to fade. Everything had gone cold.

Am I...going to die?

"Her blood glucose just went back into the red !" a woman started.

"Goddammit! Is her body rejecting the medication or what?!"

"It's something wrong with her brain, doctor," another man answered. "The brain is sending out its own signals through the neural network. It's like her brain is trying to push her body to keep up with it, and her body just can't."

"Damn you, Gerhardt...introduce the other serum instead, the one that the Director left with us. We have no choice."

Something happened near her arm, but she could not tell what...and a few moments later, the world began to return.

"Jesus," the woman said at last, Emily could see her standing behind one of the control panels. "I haven't seen that kind of hypoglycemia since med school. Doctor, I don't care what the Director says. We've got to keep her here for observation for at least the rest of the week."

"What the hell happened? Her glycogen count is hovering around zero, her blood glucose levels were almost low enough to cause brain damage and they're still at worrisome levels, and her lactic acid levels are through the roof. Did he make her run a marathon or what?"

Emily shivered as she felt the same cold and grim presence of the man in charge, and immediately every joint in her body felt as though it was on fire. "The Director feels that Naturals can be pushed to perform better than Coordinators without genetic or chemical alterations. His men were running extensive combat training." He paused uncomfortably. "But this is why you're not allowed to join the special operations branches until you're well into your twenties. Hell, this is why the training regimens for those branches have an 85% washout rate. A child this young can't handle extended endurance training."

"That bastard," the first man snarled. "This is his own daughter. Who does he think he is?"

"We'll keep her overnight for observation, but the Director may want her back in exercises in 48 hours at the least," the doctor said, turning to leave.

"Doctor! She almost died!" the woman protested.

"Even if she hadn't died today, she came unbelievably close to lasting brain damage that would have made her useless to the project!" the first man added. "He's pushing her too hard! Emily is not a Coordinator!"

"First off, I should remind you that her name is Unit Zero-One, and the Director will have your head if you call her Emily," the doctor answered, with just a touch of sadness in his voice. "Furthermore, I remind you that I have argued your point to him before. Remember when we had to inject her with potassium before her heart exploded, and then electroshock her back to life? I had to spend four hours arguing with him to drop the panic training." He turned again. "The Director does not care that he's doing this to his own daughter. The Director long ago ceased to view her as his daughter, if he ever did. I suspect we'll be trying to save her from the brink of death again soon. The most we can do is to make her as fit as possible, so she can survive."

The doctor disappeared, leaving only the sighing first man and his female colleague.

"For Christ's sake, there's some things that are just going too far," the man grumbled.

The woman sighed herself. "So this is what they mean when they call her the angel of death...?"

Emily awoke with a start, but the dim room, the burning joints, and the reluctant doctors were gone. Instead there was the familiar white metal tiling and bright lights and

"Welcome back to the waking world, Emily," someone said.

Emily turned her trembling, bloodshot eyes to the source, and Shinn Asuka offered a smile.

"Jesus," came the relieved sigh of Viveka, as she slumped down onto a chair next to the ever-stoic Athrun Zala. "Don't do that again! I thought you were " She stopped herself and glanced up at Stella, staring down quizzically at Emily with wide and concerned eyes.

"Wha...what happened...?" Emily started, dismayed that she could only manage to croak out that much.

"We were hoping you could tell us," added Athrun.

"Yeah," continued Auel, leaning heavily against an adjacent bed next to Sting, "so what's Unit Zero-One?"

The words went darting through Emily's mind, and she knew they were connected to something, but that something was hidden in the shadows and she could not reach it. She painfully held her head in her hands instead, as those fragments of memories went trickling through. Against Shoyou, that flash of gunpowder and blood and sweat; in Volgograd, the voices surrounding her and crushing her mind; in Novorossiysk, the man leaning over her and calling her the "angel of death;" and just now, that horrible memory that appeared, from the dialogue therein, to suggest that lying helpless and in the hands of medical personnel was not something unusual for her.

"I guess there's a lot we don't know about you," Shinn said, rubbing his temples in exasperation. "Are you feeling okay?"

Emily slowly put her head back down on her pillow, blinking painfully as the world lagged behind in adjusting. "I...I'm just tired..."

Shinn glanced wearily at the other pilots, and slowly rose from his own seat. "We'll have to get to the bottom of this sometime," he said. "But for now, just get some sleep. We're crossing over the Black Sea and angling towards the Persian Gulf, but that will take us through Mideast Command, and they're not going to let us through without a fight. I'm sure we'll need you."

Emily closed her eyes painfully as the pilots filed out, and tried to remember the source of the words "Unit Zero-One."

The waters of the Black Sea rolled quietly beneath the daunting wings of the Minerva as it cruised south. On the observation deck, even Viveka's sole remaining eye could see the thin sliver of land in the sun-washed twilight sky, that signified the approaching land of Turkey...and the odious world that lay further south.

Athrun was there as well, arms crossed and staring pensively into the horizon. "I take it your family history is kind of mixed up," he started, glancing at Viveka. "It seems safe to say now that somebody was training Emily to be a mobile suit pilot." He paused. "Do you remember anything of it?"

Viveka put her head in her mismatched hands. "I don't remember anything. Our mother was very ill and died when Emily was seven. Emily always seemed to have the same problems as Mom, and every so often she'd disappear for a week or two and everyone would say she was being treated for another illness." She glanced sadly at Athrun. "You don't mean that they were training her to be some kind of super-soldier in the meantime, do you?"

Athrun closed his eyes with a sigh. "Stranger and more horrible things have been done in this world," he said. "Ask Stella Loussier about that."

Viveka squeezed away a tear at the thought of her sister being subjected to the same things as Stella Loussier. "I do remember finding it strange that for a girl who was kept inside and didn't really have any friends because she was sick all the time, she was actually pretty fit," she went on. "But if they were really taking her away for training, why wouldn't she remember it?"

"One of the technologies that the Alliance developed in the Extended program was memory writing," Athrun explained. "It's not easy, but it's possible for them to go into a subject's brain and cover up or submerge memories. They can't erase them, but by sinking memories into the subconscious, it has more or less the same effect." He shook his head. "I guess it explains how she's been able to fight so well, though. She isn't learning anything new; she's just remembering things she's been taught before."

"I can't believe they were doing this to her," moaned Viveka. "I mean, Mom had enough problems, and Dad would bring home mistresses all the time and ignored us." She shook her head painfully. "God...he'd screw those brainless bitches in the next room over from Mom's bedroom. She could hear them and everything. And he was doing this to Emily?" The air rang as she slammed her metal fist into the railing. "Dammit! How can you do this to your own daughter?!"

Athrun turned his eyes towards Viveka, and could only feel sorrow from her. "Humans have quite a capacity for cruelty," he said. "But they also have quite a capacity for kindness."

"Yeah, well, I'd like to get my hands on the guys who did this shit to her," Viveka growled back, twisting her hand around the railing, "and show them my capacity for cruelty."

Athrun smiled thinly. "It's something to fight for," he replied with a shrug. "One man's revenge is another's justice."

Phantom Island, Indian Ocean

Another city in flames. That was nothing new to Crayt Markav, as she sat back in the commander's chair deep in Phantom Island's master control room, staring up tiredly at the screen as yet another news report on the chaos in Novorossiysk unfolded.

"Yeager's brigade was wiped out, and Yeager himself was killed by the Twilight," reported O'Brien, ramrod straight at her side. "But the Resistance forces in Novorossiysk collapsed into internecine warfare and have essentially destroyed themselves." He sniffed contemptuously. "They executed all of our prisoners too, and took to the streets. Such barbarians."

Crayt could only smile. "'Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock,'" she said. "Novorossiysk is no longer a concern to us. What of the Minerva?"

The screen promptly changed to a grid map of Eastern Europe, southwestern Russia, and the northwestern edge of the Middle East. "The Minerva has crossed the Black Sea and is passing over Turkey," O'Brien said. "Their projected course extends through Turkey and Iraq, down to the Persian Gulf. If their ultimate destination is Carpentaria, they will likely pass through the Straight of Hormuz into the Indian Ocean."

"And walk straight into our arms," Crayt finished. "Once we reach Hormuz, drop anchor and wait. What units are there in the Persian Gulf to soften up our winged friends before they run into our claws?"

O'Brien glanced at a crewman, who dutifully brought up a list. "The Onogoro-class patrol carrier Manhattan, ma'am," he answered. "Right now it's docked at Dubai Naval Station, but it's also one of the Rearmament Program test units. It's deploying an -X252 Forbidden unit. There's also a patrol fleet out of Socotra that we could call on as well."

"And Mideast Command?" Crayt continued.

"General Abdulmalik has received his marching orders and is deploying from Al Hasakah." O'Brien shifted nervously. "However, there may be an operational conflict..."

Crayt frowned in annoyance. "Oh?"

"Lieutenant Colonel Tsunomi and her Night Tiger team are in Baku. The Witch's Hammer is there as well."

The frown of annoyance developed into a simmer, but Crayt fought it down with expert ease. Lord Djibril's little assassin was going to step on her toes, but so be it. "The Night Tiger team can exempt itself from even the Phantom Pain's chain of command, should Colonel Tsunomi deem it necessary. Ignore them and proceed with our own interdiction."

"Yes ma'am."

Crayt sat back, grinning at the dotted line that ran down from the northern coast of Turkey to the Straight of Hormuz.

You have long evaded God's wrath, Blessed Minerva...but now you are hunted by angels.

March 14th, CE 77 - Earth Alliance Archangel-class battleship Witch's Hammer, Baku Caspian Sea Naval Station, Baku, Azerbaijan

By all measures, the slender woman in the black jumpsuit with a sword on her back and two daggers tied into her ponytail was something of an oddity. With a fabric mask pulled up over her face, only two piercing green eyes showed to bore into their unfortunate targets like the blades strapped to her body. If she was a stealthy and silent assassin, moving through the world like a fish through water, she certainly did not look the part.

But, as Lieutenant Commander Randall noted as he gave a sharp salute on the gangway before his ship, Lieutenant Colonel Misa Tsunomi could not be read by just any measure.

"The Witch's Hammer is prepared to depart, colonel," he reported. Misa duly returned his salute and brushed by him, towards the massive black Witch's Hammer, with Randall falling in step behind her.

"Lord Djibril wishes to test the Minerva's young new pilot," Misa said, furrowing her brow in annoyance as she delved into her ship. "We shall see if the Angel of Death deserves her name and reputation."

"The Minerva is heading south through Turkey," Randall continued, "and is projected to pass through Iraq. Marshal Markav has ordered Major General Abdulmalik to move in through the desert and cut them off."

Misa arched an eyebrow at her vessel's captain. "The Syrian Hammer himself? Is he out of desert guerrillas to fight?"

"The Minerva is no mere band of God-fearing Arabs."

"I'm sure Marshal Markav won't be pleased that we're involved," Misa chuckled, "but we will move anyway."

The doors to the bridge slid open with a hiss, and the black-uniformed troops inside leapt to their feet to salute. At their head was the iron-jawed man in a mask identical to her own, with the rank tabs of a major and the lined face of a warrior.

"Colonel, we're ready to depart," reported Major Aaron Sanders.

Behind her mask, Misa sighed as she found her chair on the side of the bridge and settled into it. "Randall, command is yours. Set course for Kirkuk. We will plan our next move from there."

Battleship Minerva, Trabzon Province, Turkey

The angel of death.

Because Emily could not sleep, she instead wandered the halls of the Minerva with that baneful phrase ringing through her head. The concept of death was clear enough, but the word "angel" called to mind strange paradoxes. She tried to remember the context of those awful memories that tore at her consciousness, but there was only darkness.

Her memories took her back instead to her father's stately home in Berlin. The angel of death led her to a soul-wrenching moment when she was seven, asking where her mother had gone. Her father did not answer; instead, the two orderlies in virgin white provided it as they carried her mother's wrapped and bundled body out the door.

She had not cried, she recalled at least not right away. But as her father angrily ushered her back into her room, under the steely gaze of another one of those frightening military men, it began to sink in that her mother was never coming back. And that led her to the concept of death, and that was when she began to cry.

Of course, there was no solace in the arms of Gerhardt von Oldendorf; only a slap across the face and an order to "shut up, or else I'll give you something to really cry about." That was the night she had learned the still-useful technique of crying without a sound.

But even as she pondered the possibility of herself as the angel of death, she could not help but find more tattered bits of memory. Her recollections of her mother were few, but she could recall her mother's pet name for her youngest daughter: "angel."

Which made the phrase that much worse. Angel of death; the final cessation of life, and all the hopes and dreams and fears and failures that came along with it, brought in the form of a lovely being sent by a loving, divine god. She mulled over that image of herself, a beautiful woman with her hands soaked in blood, and all at once felt a wave of emotions for it: insulted that she was reduced to merely a pretty face, horrified that she was reduced to the final specter at the end of the road, the reaper that demanded the final toll.

Emily blinked in surprise as she found herself on the Minerva's well-worn observation deck, as the ship sailed lazily over the hills of Anatolia. But the deck was not empty; Stella Loussier was there, staring emptily at a river in the land below, winding tortuously through hills and villages.

Now there was a veritable angel of death. Emily had heard enough stories to chill her blood; of how, after depleting her ammunition, Stella beat two Phantom Pain infantrymen to death with the avulsed arm of a dead comrade. Emily had seen enough firsthand, fighting alongside the Extended girl and watching her sleek and feminine Gaia Gundam rip through enemies as though they were dolls. And yet who could suspect this wide-eyed girl, eyes fixed on the river below, of such feats?

Emily leaned against the rail and wondered if she was meant to be like Stella.

"It's possible in the manual," Matt Abes explained as he stood next to Shinn and Athrun on the gantry before the silent Twilight Gundam, "but not too many pilots have the instincts to start tinkering with the plasma compression without shorting the sabers out. And even fewer can do that in the middle of combat. So I don't know what to tell you."

Shinn regarded the Gundam's dark eyes for a moment. "Well, it's obvious that she learned to fight long before she met me," he said. "I guess the big question is where."

"Viveka said that she remembers Emily being taken away a lot, supposedly to be treated for illnesses," Athrun added, arms crossed. "If the Eurasian Federation had access to the same memory-writing technology as the Atlantic Fed through the Extended program, it's plausible to say that they could have trained her and submerged her training into her subconscious."

"But that would mean that someone recognized her Newtype talents, and that would have had to take place long before Chairman Dullindal's speech," Abes put in.

Athrun cast his gaze over the Twilight again. "Her style is one of someone who was taught to fight in machines with limited power. She combines thrust vectoring and verniers with the momentum of her machine's moving parts, and moves all of the Twilight's parts as though they're extensions of her own body. It's like watching a human moving in zero-gravity." He glanced again at Shinn. "I don't think that's what you've taught her."

Shinn shrugged in response. "It takes a lot of instinct and experience to move a mobile suit that way. Instinct and experience I didn't know she had."

"Either way, she put wear and tear on the Twilight that we've only had to deal with in your machines," Abes said with a shrug of his own. "Guess we'll have to break out some more of that magnetic coating."

"The stuff does work wonders," Shinn agreed. "The Destiny was about ready to fall apart at the joints before you guys applied the solution."

Athrun leaned back against the railing. "That still doesn't explain the power she showed in Novorossiysk, though," he went on. "It's obvious that you're not the first person to teach her how to fight in a mobile suit, but unless this training program we don't know anything about was more extensive than I thought..."

"She's an even stronger Newtype than me," Shinn said. "So she'll be a more formidable pilot, but..." He closed his eyes sadly. "She'll also be more sensitive, and that means more suffering."

Athrun regarded the young Coordinator beside him for a moment. "Are you protecting her for her powers?"

"I'm protecting her so she can bring out her powers and protect herself," Shinn answered. He shook his head. "But now I don't know what the hell is going on."

To use some uncharacteristic parlance, Rau mused, having one's own intelligence apparatus was awesome.

The Rau Le Creuset spy network was hardly as formal and organized as a national intelligence agency, but it would more than suffice. Few of his contacts around the world had any knowledge of this mysterious "Project Evolution," but the few that did had offered him gold.

He read eagerly over the dossier. A military project, a secret of the highest order in the Eurasian Federation, it was founded by then-lowly military official Gerhardt von Oldendorf, who noticed the unusual powers of precognition and communication in his bedridden wife, Lorelei. Where a man with a conscience would have left it at that, Gerhardt turned his wife over to science. Unfortunately for Gerhardt, Lorelei's body was too frail to withstand the rigors of science, and instead Gerhardt forced her to withstand the rigors of childbirth, producing a little girl with cherry-red hair and an equally fiery temperament.

Rau smiled as he felt the presence of Viveka fortuitously walk past outside his room. Clearly, she had been the failure, because that pesky mechanism of genetics called "dominant and recessive alleles" had kicked in to rob Viveka of the Newtype traits locked away in Lorelei's DNA. For some reason, the less-than-compassionate Gerhardt had kept his otherwise useless crimson-haired daughter, and waited for four more years before subjecting Lorelei to the rigors of childbirth once more.

The Newtype presence of little Emily pulsed somewhere on the Minerva. Rau grinned.

Now there was the child Gerhardt wanted, possessing and exhibiting every molecule of Lorelei's Newtype DNA. Even more fortuitously, she had been blessed by the fickle gods of fortune and nature with a brain that could amplify those waves and powers, and a nervous system that could process all of it at higher speeds than average. All she lacked was the enhanced body of a Coordinator, but that would not stop Gerhardt von Oldendorf.

Rau needed no secret files and leaked documents to understand that Emily had been trained in mobile suit combat. Interestingly, the files had mentioned that the standard her Eurasian handlers measured her against was the ultimate yardstick of Kira Yamato in the Freedom Gundam during the Valentine War, and their final analysis of her placed her performance at a comparable level while piloting a Eurasian Hyperion Gundam unit. Now that was a duel Rau was looking forward to watching.

Certainly this explained much, but not everything. Rau sat back, staring pensively at the screen, as a single major thread still dangled loose in the wind.

Lorelei von died when Emily was only seven years old. But if your genes were so important to your husband that he preserved them in two daughters and risked your fragile life in the process, surely he took advantage of less...natural avenues as well.

The thought of contemplating clones was rather repellent to the masked man, but it was nonetheless a necessary track for his thoughts to run down. Surely Gerhardt would not be so foolish as to leave his dead Newtype wife's genes solely in two daughters two daughters who could be wrenched from his control.

So somewhere out there, Rau thought with a smile, you have a clone, Lorelei. And I am going to find it.

"...Emily was scary."

In the Minerva's crew lounge, Sting and Auel looked up from their drinks in surprise at Stella's voice, finding her staring as well into her own drink. They shared a glance.

"What, you mean in the battle?" Auel asked. Stella nodded slowly.

"Stella doesn't like it when people turn scary," she added. "'cuz they're friends."

"Emily's not always scary," Sting said with a shrug, pausing for a slug of coffee. "But she's having problems right now, so we'd better just leave her be."

"Is something scary gonna get her?" Stella asked, eyes wide and tinted with fear.

"Wouldn't be the first time," Auel muttered, stopping only when Sting kicked him in the shin.

"Nothing scary is gonna get Emily," Sting said. "We're all friends and we all protect each other. Remember?"

Stella nodded slowly, and the two more whole-minded Extended sighed and sank into their seats.

"Still," Sting went on, "I wonder what that was all about."

"Athrun and Shinn said that they must've been training her before they met," Auel said. "I guess there's more to her than we thought."

Stella looked up again. "Is Emily like Stella?" she asked.

Sting sighed and finished his coffee. "I guess we'll find out."

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Black Sea

"Are we on the right side?"

Merau looked up in surprise as she sat beside Grey in the Charlemagne's small crew lounge. She looked over at the young Phantom Pain pilot, finding him staring emptily into a cup of coffee that had long ago ceased to be warm.

"You're not thinking of defecting, are you?" Merau hissed, glancing worriedly around. "They'll kill you just for thinking about it."

"I-I know," Grey started. "I'm not. But..." He shook his head. "Are we really doing the right thing if we're the ones who are killing innocent people? I mean, we both saw that prison camp in Novorossiysk."

Merau sat back with a sigh. "Grey, you're still that little boy from California who showed up for training at Volkov. It's just a different world you're talking about."

"Whether or not you grew up with murders and massacres all around you doesn't make it right," Grey shot back.

"But you can't do anything about it," Merau answered. "There's too much evil in the world to fight it by yourself. You're better off trying to make your way through it."

Grey only sighed and returned his gaze to his coffee. "Y'know, back when I was that little boy in California, they taught us about World War II, and how one side tried to annihilate an entire race of people. How they gathered them up out of their homes and sent them to these camps and slaughtered them like cattle."

Merau arched an eyebrow. "I thought you said you spent all history class making out with your girlfriend."

Grey ignored the bait. "It's hard to make out with anyone when they show you clips of genocide." He looked back up at her again. "Is that what we're like?"

Merau sighed again and shook her head. "You're only going to suffer if you keep thinking so hard about this," she said. "I'm not saying it's right, but...just let it go."

Grey closed his eyes and tried not to think of history class.

So you're okay with the mass execution of innocent civilians as well! You're on a roll, Sven! What's next? Rape? Larceny? Exactly how are you different from those Resistance guys your bosses keep harping about?

Standing on the gantry above the Charlemagne's sprawling hangar, Sven Cal Bayan gritted his teeth as the mocking voice of his younger self reached his ears. Always that insufferable brat was standing in his way and inflicting on him the doubts that would one day get him killed.

Orders are orders. My job is to carry them out, not judge them.

Then what are you if you just do what you're told? Aren't you just a piece of machinery? A tool? Come on, you're smarter than that. Right?

I am a soldier.

Yeah, but you're not a robot. The fact that I'm still here proves that.

Sven scowled and turned on his heel, storming deeper into the ship. The child skipped after him.

So let's engage in a few hypotheticals here, 'kay? What would you do if your superiors ordered you to kill Shams and Mudie?

My orders are my orders. I must fulfill them or be killed.

So that makes it okay to kill the only two people who are anything resembling friends to you?

My superiors have no reason to order me to kill Shams and Mudie.

Oh, like they need one. The child could not help but laugh. Come on, you're a smart guy. You know that any reason, including no reason, is good enough for the Phantom Pain to kill someone. You've even done that yourself.

Sven found himself in front of the crew lounge. The door slid open, and Sven blinked over at Shams and Mudie, the former bent over the pool table and studying a shot that appeared hopeless.

"Oh, hey, Sven!" Shams said, looking up. "Hey, get over here and kick Mudie's ass for cheating."

"I'm not cheating," Mudie said wearily, glancing idly over the table. "You just suck. Even still."

Sven brushed past them both.

So would you kill them if they ordered you to?

Shut up.

"Minerva entering Van Province, Turkey," the sensor officer reported.

Danilov sat back, stroking his chin thoughtfully. The Minerva's projected course took it south through Turkey and Iraq, entering the Persian Gulf somewhere by the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where the Euphrates river reached out to the sea. From there they were expected to negotiate the treacherous Strait of Hormuz and head south over the Indian Ocean, angling for Carpentaria.

Against that, Marshal Markav had sent nothing less than Phantom Island itself to the Strait of Hormuz, trapping the Minerva in a natural bottleneck. She also seemed to be gathering other support elements, if recent activity in Socotra was any indication. But the plan relied as well on the softening-up action of Major General Ibrahim Abdulmalik, the premier Alliance Army commander in Mideast Command, who had made his name fighting guerillas from Gaza to Baghdad. Surely he would give the Minerva's fearsome captain a headache or two.

Danilov resolved to make that three.

"We'll follow the Euphrates River south to the Shatt al-Arab and lie in wait for them there. They'll have to pass us if they want into the Persian Gulf, and if they get by us, we'll be able to hit them from behind when they run into Phantom Island." He glanced at Vera, standing at his side. "What do you think?"

Vera smiled helpfully. "They'll have no escape."

Danilov smiled as well and pushed down the specter of doubt. "Helm, take us to the Euphrates river. We have a date with the Minerva."

March 15th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Van Province, Turkey

The Savior Gundam was typical of ZAFT-built Gundams. Despite its heavy firepower and surprising maneuverability, the operating system and internal workings of the Gundam were much the same as the Minerva's other machines. Thus, it was nothing new to Athrun Zala as he delved into the Savior's operating system at Viveka's request.

Viveka, meanwhile, could only watch in surprise as Athrun worked with lightning speed over the intricate computer controls of her loyal steed. She blinked and looked up at him.

"So, that's what it's like to be a Coordinator?"

Athrun stopped, looking up at her.

"I mean, you have to be," Viveka went on, "because I've never seen anybody work that fast before "

"It doesn't matter," Athrun said abruptly.

Viveka paused for a moment. "Of course it does," she said. "It's part of who you are. There's no getting around that."

The words bit into Athrun's brain. Of course he could not escape who he was. He was the son of Patrick Zala, the man who in no uncertain terms wanted to annihilate all Naturals, and was prepared to exterminate every living thing on the Earth to do it, had it not been for a subordinate's intervention. He was the bodyguard of Cagalli Yula Athha, the girl who was going to resurrect the United Emirates of Orb, but could not see into the depths of her brother's heart and find the darkness that had supplanted it. Now he was the man in the Gundam called Justice, and his name and his Gundam's distinctive color sent chills down the spines of the Earth Alliance. There was no escaping that.

But there was also no escaping, then, the blood-soaked legacy of his father, or the grand historical failure of the Attha family, or the fear and hatred that so much of the Earth Sphere had vested in him.

"There will be someday," he said quietly, and set back to work.

"How come you have to stay in bed all the time, mommy?"

The question was simple, and yet the woman in layers of blankets, with unearthly pale skin and wide, sparkling eyes, could not immediately answer. She paused for words, and even Emily could see the difficulty her venerable but bedridden mother had in answering.

"I'm afraid my body just isn't as strong as yours," Lorelei said, settling for a warm smile. "But the doctors said that I'll get better soon and I won't have to stay in bed all the time."

"Okay!" agreed six-year-old Emily. "Then I'm gonna help mommy get better!" She paused as her train of thought ran up against an unforeseen roadblock. "Um, what should I do...?"

Lorelei smiled back. "The best thing you can do," she said, reaching down to awkwardly embrace her young daughter, "is keep being my little angel."

Sixteen-year-old Emily stared at the ceiling as the word clung to her soul.

Angel, huh?

She glanced across her room, at the titanic manual for the Twilight Gundam resting on her table. Angel? She had an angel's wings in battle, and brought death without discrimination or remorse. Was that the kind of angel her mother had in mind?

"Am I still your angel, mom?" Emily asked softly, turning her eyes back to the ceiling. "'cuz I know you're an angel right now, and maybe you know better than me."

The only answer came in the form of baneful memories of the battles she had fought of fighting back Kenta Shoyou, of battling Kyali Sekar, of tearing down Harris Meyers, of descending upon Volgograd and Novorossiysk with an angel's wings and bringing only death.

Emily closed her eyes. "I'm sorry, mom."

Earth Alliance Archangel-class battleship Witch's Hammer, East Azerbaijan, Iran

"Fortress Akre."

The word meant "fire" in Kurdish, and it was clear why. The sprawling military compound called Akre Fortress was officially billed as the compound of the local militia, whose people kept safe the countryside in the Eurasian Federation's Kurdistan province in southwest Asia. But the reality was that Fortress Akre, home of the peshmerga and a powerful base by any measure, was a Resistance stronghold and the last reliably friendly safe house that travelers could find before making their way into the inhospitable desert and the domain of the Syrian Hammer. Beyond that lay local militias and groups whose loyalty lay in doubt.

"The Minerva is likely to stop there," said Sanders, arms crossed as he studied the map with the mien of a veteran general. "It's the last stop before Abdulmalik's territory, so they're sure to stock up in preparation of a tough battle."

Misa stared intently at the map for a moment before glancing at the captain's chair. "Randall, what units in the region are open?"

Randal consulted his display for a moment. "The Siegfried-class plane Zurich recently put down in Istanbul."

"Scramble them," Misa said. "When the Minerva docks at Akre, we will infiltrate and introduce ourselves."

Battleship Minerva, Sirnak Province, Turkey

The craggy mountains and ridges of southeastern Turkey were war-torn guerilla country, where all but the most skilled or most suicidal Alliance units dared venture. This territory was the home of the long-suffering Kurds, who had found it wise to fit themselves into these remote regions and acclimate themselves to the lay of the Cosmic Era's new land. From the captain's chair of the Minerva, even Meyrin had to be impressed with the constitution of anyone Alliance or Kurd who could make war on ground like this.

"We're coming up on Fortress Akre," Burt reported. "Will we be paying a visit?"

"We're going to have to," Abbey pointed out. "We could use a chance to resupply and repair some of the damage we incurred at Novorossiysk and Volgograd."

Volgograd. It seemed so long ago already, in light of the most recent disaster. Meyrin sighed and rubbed her temples irritably.

"Hey captain, you've got mail," Roxy said, sitting up at her own console. "Speaking of Akre, the commandant, Karda al-Imad, sends his regards and says that he's sent a squadron of mobile suits to escort us through his territory, and that he'll offer 'whatever other assistance is in his power to provide.'"

Meyrin sat back herself. "Tell him that we're coming in to dock," she said. "We have a long fight ahead of us."

Beyond the unforgiving terrain of Kurdistan, Emily's eyes could see only burning desert as she stood on the windswept deck of the Minerva. She blinked in surprise at the roar of a mobile suit's engines and looked around in shock, finding four Jet Dagger Ls in mottled desert camouflage falling into formation around the winged warship. On their shoulders, she could see a red, white, and green flag with a yellow emblem in its center.

"They're on our side," Shinn's voice explained. Emily turned, finding him striding out onto the deck and glancing at the Dagger on the Minerva's portside wing. "We're stopping at a base in northern Iraq before we head down towards the Persian Gulf. If you want to set foot on solid ground, this is your chance."

Emily looked back at the Daggers, fixing her gaze on the mobile suit on the Minerva's starboard side. "Are they those kind of Resistance soldiers?"

Shinn came to a stop next to Emily, leaning forward against the railing. "Who knows," he said. "Are you okay?"

Emily knew better than to try to lie to Shinn. "I still don't remember anything. Just little bits and pieces of stuff that happened years ago, I think. But I can't make any sense of it or put any order to it."

"What do you see?" Shinn asked.

Emily's eyes clouded as the emotions associated with the memories made their return. "I mother."

Even Emily noticed the sharp blade of pain that briefly emanated from Shinn Asuka, but chose not to chase it. "What was she like?"

"She was always sick," Emily said, "and she always seemed sad...except when Viveka and I were around. Then she was happy." She shrugged. "But she died when I was little. I don't remember that much of her." Emily cast her eyes towards the desert again. "But she wouldn't want me to be like this.

Shinn smiled banefully.

"No one would."

To be continued...