Phase 29 - Shadows

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

Phase 29 - Shadows

March 16th, CE 77 - Fortress Akre, Akre District, Kurdistan

"The Angel of Death?!"

The words went ricocheting through Emily's mind how could this girl have known those words? It could not be a coincidence was this how she was known?

"It's your nickname..." Aza explained brokenly. Emily could only blink in disbelief.

"My nickname?" The sound of a mobile suit rising to its feet caught Emily's attention, and she glared over at the N Dagger before her instead. "Since when did I have a nickname...?"

"You were the one who killed Kenta Shoyou, right?" protested Aza. "I didn't know "

The Twilight leapt in front of Aza's kneeling Dagger L, deflecting a beam shot with its shield and blocking the N Dagger's furious sword swipe.

"There's no time for that! Get back!" Emily snapped, even as the N Dagger surged forward and ground the Twilight's feet into the pavement. "Get around him!"

Aza's Dagger sprinted to the side, leveling off its rifle, but the N Dagger backflipped over her shots and fired back with its own rifle, plowing a shot against the Dagger L's shield and sending it staggering back.

"The Angel of Death is a feisty one!" roared Sanders, his N Dagger plunging again towards the waiting Twilight. "At least I'll have a worthy foe!" The sword came down with a crash, followed up by a jarring kick to the Twilight's legs that sent it staggering to one knee.

"It'll take more than that...!" Emily started, seeing her chance as the N Dagger snapped its rifle into position. "Aza!"

The Dagger L came barreling out of nowhere with a barrage of beam blasts, showering the N Dagger and forcing it back behind its shield. As Sanders struggled to regain control, the Twilight surged forward with a roar, slamming into the N Dagger with its shoulder and throwing the green mobile suit back. Sanders yanked back on the controls as the Twilight brought down its saber, tearing an ugly gash over his machine's torso and barely avoiding death.

"That other Dagger is going to have to go," Sanders grunted, planting his mobile suit's feet in the ground and raising his sword defensively. "Looks like she just missed the magnetic field emitter, though..."

Inside the Twilight, Emily glanced back at Aza's Dagger. "You had a Jet Striker on that thing, didn't you? Go back and get it."

"But you'll be all alone with this guy!" Aza protested. Emily smiled back reassuringly.

"I'll handle him." She turned towards the N Dagger...

...and it wasn't there.

"Akre is scrambling defenses faster than we calculated," Randall's static-broken voice reported from the Witch's Hammer, filling the cockpit of the Blitz Gundam as Misa strapped herself in. "Major Sanders has reportedly engaged the Twilight. The Zurich has released its own units and is beginning its first attack run."

Misa took a moment to compose herself as the Blitz stood on the outskirts of Fortress Akre. None of her four N Dagger Ns had been reported lost yet, but the Minerva's pilots were launching and surely that would not remain the same.

"Bring the Witch's Hammer in for an attack as well," she said. "The Minerva will probably be taking off soon."

"Yes ma'am." The screen went dark, and Misa bit back a curse as her Blitz unit stepped onto its sub-wing unit and lifted off. Karda survived, the Minerva's captain survived, even Shinn Asuka survived...what a failure

A blazing beam from the heavens nearly wiped out her sub-wing unit as her instincts screamed, and she wheeled around to face a charging mobile suit she knew all too well.

"So," Misa growled, igniting the Blitz's beam saber, "will you kill me here, Destiny Gundam?!"

The Destiny charged, beam wings flashing to life and drawing its anti-ship sword with a baneful crash. The Blitz backed away, beam rifle blazing, and ducked beneath the Destiny's furious opening sword swipe, diving towards the ground.

Inside the Destiny, Shinn scowled as he showered the retreating Blitz with blasts from his long-range cannon. "You aren't the first Blitz unit I've faced," he snapped, "so don't think you can beat me with that Mirage Colloid!"

The Destiny pummeled the Blitz's shield with another blast, knocking it loose from its sub-wing. Misa narrowed her eyes and pierced the subflight system with a beam rifle blast, before kicking it up towards the Destiny only to ground her teeth in frustration as the Destiny effortlessly chopped through it, ducking beneath the explosion and charging towards the falling Blitz.

"As to be expected from the Wings of Light," she snarled, firing her Gleipnir anchor into the ground and yanking herself towards the earth, diving beneath the Destiny's finishing sword stroke. Shinn followed with another burst of beam fire, landing with a crash and pointing his sword vindictively at the Blitz as it retracted its anchor.

The Blitz Gundam, undeterred, took up its beam saber and charged.

The sky was packed with anti-aircraft fire as Sting Oakley scanned the battlefield from the cockpit of the rising Chaos Gundam. A handful of desert-camouflaged BABIs and Jet Dagger Ls were rising into the air, but Sting could already count sixteen Jet Windams in formation before the looming Siegfried-class carrier that was already approaching Akre.

"Sting," called Auel from the Abyss Gundam at his side, "what are we gonna do about those guys back there? Are they coming with us?"

"I hope not," Sting answered. "Last thing I need is a bunch of grunts getting in my way."

Up ahead, the Jet Windams opened fire with a barrage of missiles. Sting responded with the Chaos's CIWS guns, but that was all the time the Windams needed to break formation and spread out around the two Gundams, showering both mobile suits with beam fire.

The Abyss pounded off a barrage of beams from its shoulder shells, forcing the Windams apart again, and hefted its lance. "Where are the others?" he asked, as the Abyss charged into battle with a blast from its solid cannons.

The Chaos charged, beam rifle blazing, as the Windams split up again and began to engage the BABIs and Daggers instead. "Mr. Mask and Stella are dealing with the Windams on the ground, and the rest are handling those ninjas," he grunted. "And who in the hell practices ninjutsu anyways?!" The Chaos stormed forward, releasing a swarm of missiles from its gunbarrels and pummeling a squad of Windams up ahead with beam fire.

"I swear, it's like we're living in a cartoon sometimes," Auel snapped. "Sting, blitz them and I'll pick their formation apart!"

With a roar of its engines, the Chaos charged forward, deflecting beams off its shield and firing back madly. The Windams darted apart as the Chaos sliced through their formation, and a moment later, the Abyss cut down two of the Windams with a crushing beam cannon barrage. The remaining Windams spread out again to shoot back, forcing the Chaos back from their formation behind its shield. The squadron condensed its fire on the Chaos, driving back, until the Abyss lunged up behind the Chaos to fire back and force the Windams behind their shields.

The peshmerga's mobile suits charged from behind the two Gundams, opening fire and picking one of the Windams out of the sky only to be thrown back with three of their number shot down as the Windams returned fire. Sting ground his teeth in frustration this was why he hated it when he had other people to worry about on the battlefield.

"They're sticking tight to this formation," Sting growled. "Auel! Attack Pattern Nu!"

"These things had better not turn invisible on us," snarled Viveka as the Savior Gundam pitched down through the air, dodging the fire from two N Dagger Ns on the tarmac below.

"They won't because they're not alone," Athrun explained, even as the Infinite Justice deflected two blasts with its beam shield and lunged over the rest. "Mirage Colloid makes you invisible to everyone, including your allies."

The Justice came down with a crash, swinging its boomerang blade horizontally for a deathblow at the Dagger's waist instead, it leapt into the air and fired an anchor down around the Justice's left arm, yanking it off its feet.

"That won't be enough !" Athrun snapped, slicing the wire in two with a kick from the Justice's leg blade, and storming forward to ram the Dagger with its right shoulder. The green mobile suit went staggering back, firing a beam rifle blast directly into the Justice's beam shield to force it back and buy itself a moment of retreat.

"They're not made to fly," Athrun said, "so stay in the air and hit them from above!"

The Justice somersaulted into the sky, showering the Dagger below with beam fire and forcing it back behind its own shield. One of the Daggers fired its piercer lock up towards the Justice and an instant later, the Savior came barreling out of the sky to cut the wire in two, while the Justice slashed the piercer lock itself in half with its beam blade.

"I'm getting sick of this...!" Viveka snapped. "Athrun, get back! I'm releasing the King Cobras!"

The Justice pulled away with a volley of beam fire, as the Savior swept in for a second pass and planted a half-dozen massive King Cobra missiles into the ground near the N Daggers. Both machines staggered back before they were engulfed by a blaze of fire, as the Savior pulled back into the sky.

"Did that get them...?"

Athrun shook his head. "I still sense them...but they're retreating, I think," he started. He scanned the craters that were left, finding a charred and dismembered mobile suit arm among the ruins. "I hope that's the last we see of them."

Viveka cast a worried glance over the battlefield. "I hope Emily's doing okay," she said.

A cloud of sand went billowing up around the jet-black armor of the Gaia Gundam, as it took refuge behind its shield. Up ahead, a squad of Doppelhorn Windams were advancing, smoke curling from the barrels of their cannons and beam rifles held at the ready. But they were hardly scary anymore

The Gaia lunged out of the smoke, beam saber held high, storming into their ranks and running through the lead Windam on her saber. The remaining Windams spread apart as their leader fell, but too late Stella went pitching forward, ducking below the rearguard Windam's desperate shots and sliding in behind her beleaguered foe, sawing it in two.

Even as she turned her attention to the right flank Windam, it went down to a beam blast from the sky, and with a roar of engines, the Legend Gundam descended from above, pausing only to spear the remaining Windam through the cockpit on another expertly-aimed beam rifle blast.

"And what are you doing out here all by yourself?" chuckled Rau Le Creuset, as the Legend set down on the sand. "I humbly suggest that you stick closer to your allies, Miss Loussier."

Stella cast her eyes towards the next advancing squad of Windams and the booming sound of their guns. "Stella's okay," she said. "Rau should go back and protect the ship."

"The Minerva is preparing to lift off," he answered. "And at any rate, it appears we have guests "

The Gaia swapped its saber for its beam rifle, extending the scope and settling its shield into the sand. Stella narrowed her eyes through the scope as her foes came into view, opening fire again and pummeling one of the Windams into the dust.

The three Windams leapt apart in surprise and intensified their fire as their leader exploded. Rau fired back with a punishing beam cannon barrage, and Stella took up her shield and charged.

Battleship Minerva, Fortress Akre

The bridge doors of the Minerva hissed open, and Meyrin Hawke leapt down into the captain's chair, donning her headset and ignoring the stinging wound on her cheek. Somebody out there wanted a fight, and the Minerva could not back down from a challenge like that.

"Captain, what happened ?" Abbey started, until Meyrin waved her off.

"Worry about it later. Burt, what's the situation out there?"

Burt paused an instant to consult his displays. "An Archangel-class battleship hovering about four kilometers east, but not doing anything; and a Siegfried-class that's trying to set up for an attack pass. The Chaos and Abyss are keeping it tied up and on evasive maneuvers."

"Keep it that way," Meyrin instructed. "Can we get airborne?"

"Not with all that repair scaffolding all over our hull," Malik answered.

Meyrin paused for a moment, reaching back into the mental archives of experience. "Okay then, Roxy, tell Sting and Auel to lure that plane into our line of fire. We'll take it down with one attack."

"What?! Where did it go?!"

The world shook as something unseen rammed into the Twilight Gundam from the side, throwing the machine and its pilot to the ground. Emily wheeled around, rolling her Gundam over to dodge another crashing blow, and tried to kick up into the air but her Gundam's leg caught only air.

"Don't tell me that thing's Mirage Colloid still works!" she groaned, leaping her machine back to its feet, only for something to strike it in the face and send it staggering back on its heels. "I thought I hit it in the right spot...!"

Emily ground her teeth as the unseen N Dagger N landed another blow. Shinn had warned her about these Mirage Colloid-equipped foes that if they disappeared, she had to rely on her senses and focus on the pulsing presence of human life. No Mirage Colloid could hide that from a Newtype's eye. She struggled to still her mind, waiting for the next attack.

Inside the invisible mobile suit, Sanders sneered. "I can't use the thrusters or the rifle," he grunted, "but that doesn't mean I can't beat you like this!" The N Dagger came swinging in, sword held back for a killing swipe

Emily's eyes went wide in the Twilight's cockpit. "There you are!"

The Twilight slashed back with its beam saber, parrying the unseen foe's blade and cutting another battle scar over the Dagger's chest. With a shower of sparks, the Dagger flickered back into existence.

"She took out the emitter!?" Sanders cried. "Impossible!" The Dagger fell to one knee, ducking a killing beam saber slash, and stabbed forward with the short katana in its left hand

Faster than Sanders' eye could see, the Twilight seized the Dagger's left arm with its own free left hand, and with a shout from its pilot, whirled the Dagger over its head and slammed it to the ground on its back.

"And now she threw me?!" roared Sanders. "You !"

"Gotcha!" screamed Emily, raising her saber for a killing blow only to see her death slash stopped by the Dagger's shield. "Even that Aza, now!"

The desert-painted Dagger L vaulted into the air. "You're mine, ninja!" Aza yelled, leveling off her beam carbine

The Dagger instead leapt backward, rolling over its shoulders and planting its feet on the Twilight's torso. As the black Gundam went staggering back under the blow, Sanders launched himself off the Twilight, roaring up towards the Dagger L with a scream and with a shriek of twisted metal, he slashed off the Dagger's right arm with his katana.

"My arm !" Aza started. "Damn you!"

The N Dagger whirled around, leveling off its own rifle. "And now to get rid of you !"

And then the Dagger went flailing out of the air as a desert-camouflaged GOUF Ignited came rocketing out of nowhere, ramming the Dagger out of the sky with its spiked right shoulder and smashing the green mobile suit back into the ground.

Inside the Twilight, Emily rubbed her head in pain and looked up at the new mobile suit, spying the same golden crescent moon on its shoulder armor, as the wounded Dagger L landed heavily nearby. "Who is this...?"

"I believe introductions are in order," an imposing male voice filtered through her cockpit. "I am Captain Rajan al-Raqeeb. I believe you have already met my subordinate." Up above, the GOUF glanced over at Aza's crippled mobile suit. "Lance Corporal Khaliq, your mobile suit is no longer in any condition to fight. Return to the hangar."

"Y-Yes sir," answered Aza in defeat, as her Dagger turned and sprinted away.

The N Dagger slowly rose to its feet, leaning heavily on its katana as it brought itself up to one knee. "They even have a GOUF..." Sanders grunted. "Well played..."

"Miss Oldendorf, I am needed elsewhere. I will leave this Dagger to you," Rajan intoned.

"R-Right!" stammered Emily. The GOUF motioned to the two BABI mobile suits on its flanks, and they took off back into the battlefield. Emily turned her attention back to the N Dagger, watching her foe carefully and waiting for its next move.

"Motherfuckers think you can beat me?!" screamed Auel as the Abyss Gundam hurtled through the air, twirling its lance on its fingertips and barreling past the desperate fire of an entire squad of Jet Windams. "You're gonna have to do better than that!"

The Abyss spiraled through the firepower, deflecting shots with its shoulder shells and slamming the solid blade of its lance into the first Windam's cockpit. Its compatriots spread out to open fire, but Auel easily jetted back, putting them all back on the defensive with a beam cannon volley.

"Sting! Now!"

The Chaos Gundam roared into the fray with a volley of beam rifle shots, blowing one of the Windams out of the sky and sending the remaining two scrambling for cover. The Abyss opened fire again, tearing down another and as the last Windam pulled back behind its shield, the Chaos came storming into its face, kicking aside its shield and blasting it apart with a beam rifle blast through the cockpit.

"Now for that plane!" Sting growled. "Auel, cover me!"

The Abyss lined up for a punishing volley of beams as the Chaos charged, up towards the Zurich as it drove forward through the sky. The carrier answered with a wave of beam fire and machinegun rounds, pummeling the Chaos's shield and grinding it back.

"Hey you two, word from the captain," Roxy's voice cut in. "Lure that thing into the Minerva's line of fire and we'll light it up."

"Easier said than done!" Auel shot back, throwing the Abyss towards the earth to dodge another beam salvo.

"Yeah, and that's why I'm doing the saying," Roxy answered with a grin. "Minerva, out."

"We'll just have to lead it with our fire," Sting said. "Split up!"

The two Gundams rocketed apart, lining up for a fusillade that went streaking by the Zurich's starboard side, forcing it to bank to port. The Chaos fired back with another beam rifle volley that forced the Zurich to descend and then the Abyss fired off another beam barrage that the Zurich swerved to starboard, slowly corkscrewing towards the ground.

"Wrong way, pal!" snapped Sting, as the Chaos darted into the Zurich's path with a beam rifle shot. The plane lurched to the side

...and with a thunderous crash, the Zurich snapped in two as the Minerva down below fired its Tristans and Isolde into the ship's side, ripping it in half. The shards of the broken plane went streaking down towards the ground, and a roaring explosion filled the sky.

"Well," Auel said tiredly, as the Abyss rose up above the smoke, "that's always fun."

"Just my luck that I have to fight a freaking ninja," grumbled Shinn, as the Destiny shook under a punishing roundhouse kick from the Blitz, barely blocked by the Destiny's left arm. "Way to overcompensate, Djibril!"

The Blitz whirled over the Destiny's head, landing on its left hand and vaulting back into the air. Shinn took off after the black-armored Gundam with a furious anti-ship sword swipe, but the Blitz fired its thrusters to execute a stunning butterfly kick in midair, pounding against the Destiny's arm and sending it staggering back towards the ground.

"Who the hell are you?!" Shinn snapped. The Destiny followed up with a long-range cannon blast, but the Blitz elegantly backflipped over the shot and landed with a crash, showering the Destiny with beam fire.

Inside the Blitz, Misa glared over at the auxiliary screen as Sanders' grim masked face appeared. "Colonel, the Zurich has gone down," he said. "Randall is reporting incoming MS squadrons."

The Blitz swung its saber up to deflect the Destiny's sword stroke. "Are you telling me to retreat?" she asked quietly.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea," answered Sanders. Misa bit back a curse.

The Blitz broke away from the Destiny, somersaulting into the air and vanishing behind its Mirage Colloid. Shinn deployed his long cannon to follow, but the Blitz was already bounding away, making its escape behind a cluster of hangars.

"Shinn," Athrun's voice cut in, "it looks like they're pulling back. Are you going to pursue?"

The Destiny shut down its sword. "Not today," he said, sighing heavily and struggling to melt the tension. "They'll be back."

Fortress Akre, Akre District, Kurdistan

With a shudder, the Twilight Gundam landed on the ground in front of the Minerva, where Akre's mobile suits and soldiers were busy securing the airfield. Inside the black Gundam, Emily scanned over the battlefield. A knot of soldiers caught her attention she zoomed in on the image, and felt her stomach churn as a bearded officer threw a man in a bloodstained Alliance flight suit to the ground and shot him in the back of the head, to the cheers of the soldiers.

The familiar feeling went racing through her brain a life gone, a candle snuffed out, a light darkened. It wasn't painful, but it simply felt so wrong that it shot from her mind to her body as surely as a jolt of pain would rise up in the opposite direction. And Emily hated it.

Of course, as she turned away while the soldiers hoisted their dead captive triumphantly into the air, she could not forget that death was part of her name now. "The Angel of Death." Where Shinn had a seemingly-endless supply of nicknames, now she had one too an image, a symbol that could obscure who she really was behind her deeds on the battlefield. Aza had seen it and clearly, Aza had thought that the woman called the Angel of Death would be a battle-hardened adult.

Of course, as the Angel of Death, that meant she would have to get used to a lot more of that horrible sensation.

She keyed open a channel to the Minerva. "This is Emily," she started. "Is it over?"

Roxy flashed back an encouraging grin. "The Archie to the east is heading south now, and the rest of them went up in smoke during the fight. You can come home now."

Emily turned her Gundam towards the Minerva. "That's what I waiting for."

Phantom Island, Indian Ocean

The sounds of the hangar at work were dull inside the observation room, where Crayt Markav stood with arms crossed, looking down into the sprawling hangar where Phantom Pain's army of mobile suits stood waiting for war. Two full regiments of Dark Windams, 288 mobile suits, with a battalion of Deep Forbiddens and Forbidden Vortexes at the ready, as well as her custom Euclid and a pair of Zamzazar mobile armors, all of it supported by the guns of Phantom Island itself. And added to that equation would be the firepower of the Charlemagne how could the Minerva stand against numbers like that? Indeed, they had arrayed against them the very armies of God.

Speaking thus, there were loose ends to tie up. Rau Le Creuset was a wildcard Crayt would attend to that herself. And then for that little girl, Unit Zero-One for that, there was another mobile suit in the hangar, tucked away behind the lines of Windams, but waiting for its moment all the same.

The Morrigan Gundam, built on the frame of the Eurasian Federation's signature Hyperion Gundam with a large and thruster-laden flight pack, was slumbering in the far corner of the hangar. Crayt knew well where it was from the Eurasian Federation's premier mobile suit, designed to fight to a standstill ZAFT's legendary Freedom Gundam, and built to the exacting specifications of its secret champion, the fruit of Project Evolution, Unit Zero-One.

"'I will not go back, neither will I spare, neither will I repent;'" she intoned, "'according to thy ways, and according to thy doings, shall they judge thee, saith the Lord God.'"

"That's still creepy, Crayt," another voice spoke up. Crayt glanced over her shoulder, at the black-haired woman with glittering blue eyes behind her, clad in the black uniform of the Phantom Pain, crossing her arms in amusement. "I thought you had stopped the random scriptural quotes."

"Such insolence I hear from you, Lieutenant," Crayt chuckled back. 1st Lieutenant Monique du Prey allowed the Field Marshal an exaggerated salute.

"My humblest apologies, Madam Field Marshal," she drawled, with a melodramatic bow. "What's the impetus for this snippet of the word of God?"

Crayt gestured to the sleeping Morrigan. "That thing is named for a heathen goddess of war and death," she explained. "It was meant for Unit Zero-One of Project Evolution, designed to take on ZAFT's Freedom Gundam."

"Oh, you always give me the best toys," giggled Monique. "I'm just so spoiled, aren't I?"

"When the Minerva walks into our trap, I leave it to you to engage the Twilight," Crayt continued. "Break her mind to pieces."

"Sounds like fun," answered Monique. "Does this call for another creepy quote from your King James?"

Crayt paused, reaching back into her vast repository of memorized scripture to pull out the right verse. "'And when the Lord thy God shall deliver them before thee, thou shalt smite them and utterly destroy them,'" came the reply. "'Thou shalt make no covenant with them nor show mercy unto them.'"

Monique flashed a wicked grin. "I can do that."

Battleship Minerva, Fortress Akre, Akre District, Kurdistan

The Infinite Justice was safe in its hangar, with the mechanics swarming over it like ants, and that meant it was time for a report.

Sitting in her office with a square bandage over her injured cheek, Meyrin found it odd that even with as loose as discipline was on the Minerva trying to pry the bourbon from Roxy's hand while on the bridge had not ended well for anyone involved Athrun Zala still carried over these last vestiges of the military he had grown up in.

You can take the soldier out of the army, I guess, Meyrin figured, but you can't take army out of the soldier. "You really don't need to keep filing reports," she said aloud. "It's not like there's anyone who wants to keep track."

"It's habit," Athrun answered with a shrug. "I believe that unit was the Night Tiger team, Lord Djibril's personal bodyguard unit."

Meyrin winced for a moment as her wound stung, malevolently reminding her of its presence. "That ninja woman we ran into would make sense, then," she said. She paused as Athrun seemed to shift uncomfortably three years of fighting with him and trusting him to see the Minerva safely through its many storms made her quite aware of the hidden signals that the Justice's pilot would emit. "What is it?"

"About Emily," he started, although Meyrin could tell there was far more lurking below the surface, "the next time we get the opportunity, I think we should stop by Lodonia Island."

Meyrin blinked. "Lodonia Island? With all those defenses "

"I know it would be difficult," Athrun said, "but Sting and Auel suggested it to me. Emily has powers and skills that she should not have if Shinn was her first instructor in mobile suit combat. If she was instructed in MS combat in some kind of secret program, then Lodonia is the likeliest and most accessible option for getting answers."

Meyrin put a hand to her chin in thought assuredly, he would have a plan for the attention this would be bound to attract. "It's been almost four years since the Minerva visited Lodonia," she pointed out. "The Alliance has probably razed the place by now, or at least gotten rid of whatever of value was left."

"Then our other option is Althea Crater," Athrun replied. "Which is probably not going to happen."

"I have Roxy working her sources," answered Meyrin. "They can give us leads to start with. Until then, though, we need to reach Carpentaria first." She glanced disdainfully towards her white peaked cap, resting on the desk for its next use. "We'll have enough problems there to deal with anyway."

Athrun's eyes darkened. "At least some of the ZAFT Remnant is sympathetic to us," he offered. "I'll keep the MS team on standby just in case, though."

Meyrin smiled sadly. "I guess we can't expect everyone to understand us, huh?"

There was no smile back from Athrun. "No, we can't."

"I-I apologize for my earlier rude treatment of you, Miss Oldendorf!"

Standing on the tarmac with Shinn standing nearby, arms crossed, Emily could only blush and sputter in surprise as she watched Aza al-Khaliq bow deeply, respectfully, and rather embarrassingly before the Twilight's pilot. She glanced at Shinn, who could only shrug.

"It's okay," she started. "I mean, you didn't know "

"I have no excuse!" Aza went on. "I was disrespectful to an ace pilot "

"There are worse things you could have done," Shinn interrupted. Emily stuck her hand forward for a hesitant handshake.

"Is my subordinate harassing you still?" a man's voice interjected. Emily turned, and immediately looked up into the ragged, scarred face of the GOUF Ignited pilot that had saved Aza during the battle from that annoyingly resilient N Dagger N. "We meet in person. Captain Rajan al-Raqeeb." He gave a short bow, to which Emily answered with an awkward smile and wave. "I hope Corporal Khaliq has not been too much of a burden. She shows promise as a fighter, but has yet to learn her place." He cast a knowing glance towards Aza, who promptly straightened up to attention. "And Commander Asuka," he continued, turning towards Shinn. "My unit will be on the Saladin, which will accompany you to the sea. I look forward to fighting alongside you."

"It'll be fun," Shinn said with a courteous nod. Rajan answered with a casual salute and turned to head towards the hangars, with Aza trailing dejectedly behind him. "Your first fan," Shinn grunted. "You like it?"

"N-No," Emily started. Shinn smiled ruefully.

"Good. Get used to it." He glanced back up towards the Minerva. "You'll get used to being the light in the darkness of the Cosmic Era."

Emily sighed wearily and wondered if that was going to happen for the Angel of Death.

Earth Alliance Hannibal-class land battleship Damascus, al-Anbar Province, Iraq

Major General Ibrahim Abdulmalik of the 6th Division, I Corps, 1st Army of Earth Alliance Mideast Command was not a man given to sentimentality. Arcane notions like nationalism and honor were useful for motivating enlisted men that might otherwise spend their time chasing skirts and drinking, but the hawk-nosed man in the desert-camouflaged Earth Alliance uniform, known and feared as the Syrian Hammer, needed not such high-flying ideals to get up in the morning. He fought because that was his job and if his vocation was war, he was going to do it well. His loyalty was to God, and God would expect nothing less.

Nonetheless, Abdulmalik could not help but feel a little pride at the army he had assembled. The Hannibal-class Damascus, supported on either flank by the smaller Hood-class land warships Karbala and Ramallah, cruised forward through the burning sands of Iraq's punishing desert. Those who could make war here were cut from sterner stuff than most, and with the Minerva projected to cruise right into striking distance, he was looking forward to that fight.

The door slid open, and Abdulmalik duly received the salutes of three young officers in similar desert uniforms. The handsome young man at the lead had not bothered to suppress his smile. "1st Lieutenant Xist Elwes reporting, sir. The Ground Windam test units are ready to go."

The Ground Windam, the Earth Alliance's answer to ZAFT's blitzkrieg-oriented DOM Trooper. The Minerva would be hard-pressed to keep up with that. "Good work, lieutenant," answered a gruff Abdulmalik. "The Ground Windams will be crucial to our battle with the Minerva." He glanced back towards the burning sands. "Intel says that the Kurds are sending a ship as well. You may have to fight with the peshmerga."

"We've taken them before," Xist said with almost a chuckle. "And I'm looking forward to the Minerva more, sir."

Abdulmalik allowed himself a thin smile. "We all are."

\Earth Alliance Archangel-class battleship Witch's Hammer, al-Anbar Province, Iraq

"Ayatollah Nasir, I'm so glad you found the time to answer my message."

Misa Tsunomi stood tall on the bridge of the Witch's Hammer, with Sanders and Randall looking on impassively at the white-bearded, turbaned man on the screen, sitting in the captain's chair on the bridge of a Lesseps-class battleship. He narrowed his steely brown eyes at the black-clad assassin.

"You'll forgive me for being skeptical," answered Ayatollah Karim al-Nasir. "Your ilk have never taken well to my people, and I have little reason to believe that that will change."

"Indeed," Misa said, sardonically crossing his arms. "Simply put, I am asking you to attack the Minerva and a peshmerga land-ship as they head south through your territory. The Husam al-Din has clashed before with the peshmerga, so this should not be out of the ordinary."

Nasir frowned behind his white beard. "And under what authority do you make such a request?"

Misa snapped her fingers. "This."

On the other ship, Misa could see Nasir's eyes widen in disbelief. "A satellite in space, armed with ?!"

"A nuclear warhead," Misa finished. "Aimed at the city of Karbala."

"The tomb !" Nasir started, as his men looked on in horror. "You fiend! You would dare destroy the tomb of Imam Husayn!?"

"And I will destroy the slums under your protection in Baghdad and other cities," Misa replied. "Your clinging to this relic of the past is out of place for our new world anyway. Should you do anything untoward, I will launch these missiles and annihilate your people. Should you obey my command, I will spare them. Do we have a deal?"

Nasir clenched his fists over the controls. "You are a fiend," he spat.

"That isn't the answer I'm looking for," Misa said, holding aloft a detonator. "Shall you take back that remark, or shall I incinerate half of Baghdad?"

"No!" Nasir cried, reaching forward and Misa stayed her hand with a smirk, hidden behind her mask. "You want me to attack the Minerva and the Kurdish ship...don't you?" he started.

"That was our wager, I believe," replied Misa. "Your services for your cities. That sounds fair enough to me. Do we have an accord?"

Nasir wavered for a moment, before painfully nodding. "You will swear to leave our cities untouched, and the people under my protection unharmed," he said. "You will give me your word?"

"That's all you've got," Misa responded with a shrug, tossing the detonator over to Sanders. Nasir could only grind his teeth in fury.

"You will rot in the pits of hell for this treachery," he snarled.

Misa smiled again behind her mask. "Hell is an invention I do not fear, Ayatollah Nasir," she chuckled. "Begin your attack when they enter range. I'll be watching."

To be continued...