Phase 31 - Blowback

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

Phase 31 - Blowback

March 16th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Al-Anbar Province, Iraq

"The best part of being in the Resistance is having to fight everybody else who's in the Resistance!" screamed Auel, as the Minerva's cadre of pilots raced for their machines. At the Twilight's cockpit hatch, Emily found Matt Abes shouting orders at a handful of other mechanics, with the whole hangar in a frenzy as the Gundams began to come to life.

"Are we really being attacked by another Resistance unit?" she asked, even as she threw herself into her Gundam's cockpit and strapped herself in.

"Yeah, we aren't real good with that whole 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' idea," Abes answered. "Right now we have no extra weapons, but during the battle we can prepare a Cattus rifle for you or something. But we'll have to launch it from the centerline catapult, so you'd have to catch it in midair."

"I should be fine with this," Emily replied. "I'm going."

Abes ran back, and the gantry slid out of the Twilight's path. Even as she guided her Gundam to the portside catapult, she could see the dim shapes of her foes a desperate collection of mobile suits, armored vehicles, and helicopters.

"Okay, kids," started Roxy, as the Twilight shuddered and dropped into the catapult, "we've got this Lesseps-class and all those choppers and shit directly ahead of us, and three Alliance landships at 4 o'clock. Sound like fun? Of course it does. Twilight, you're clear for launch."

Emily steeled herself. "Emily von Oldendorf, Twilight; launching!"

Lesseps-class battleship al-Muntazar

"Sir," the captain of the al-Muntazar began nervously as he leaned over Nasir's shoulder, "that incoming Alliance unit is carrying Abdulmalik with it. If he should turn on us "

"Then we will be required to make a speedy retreat," Nasir finished. "Send that out to all units, and keep our smokescreens ready."

Of course, even as the captain set to work, Nasir knew in his heart that such orders would be meaningless. They were up against the Minerva, one of the strongest units of the Resistance; and if they managed to survive, they would then find themselves in the teeth of Abdulmalik and his troops. But men could not fear death, and the alternative annihilation by nuclear fire from the Night Tiger was even worse.

So, as the al-Muntazar ground into battle, Nasir resigned himself to fate.

Inside the Destiny Gundam's cockpit, Shinn Asuka glanced back at the troops behind him a motley array of desert-camouflaged mobile suits, with Rajan al-Raqeeb's GOUF Ignited at their head. And then he looked before him, at the Husam al-Din's own mobile suits and helicopters. Hardly comparable to the power of the Phantom Pain, but still a threat…and to think this was what was supposed to be on their side…

"These butchers attacked Kirkuk not long ago," snarled Rajan, as his GOUF fell into formation next to the Destiny. "With us as His sword, God will deliver justice!"

Shinn idly wondered if God was really just an excuse for people to indulge in their darker impulses. "If we deal with those mobile suits first of all, then they'll be helpless with just helicopters." The Destiny's eyes flashed ominously. "I'll attack the center of their formation and break them up; you take down the rest."

"Understood," answered Rajan. "Take heart, men! The Wings of Light are on our side!"

Shinn cringed at the thought and charged forward, switching to his anti-ship sword. The mobile suits and helicopters jerked back, opening fire only to watch in disbelief as the Destiny's beam wings flashed to life and an army of afterimages filled the sky. Shinn plunged through the barrage to smash a 105 Dagger out of the sky with his sword and even as he did, he slammed his left-hand palm cannon down into the DINN at its side, blowing it apart.

The Husam al-Din's mobile suits darted apart as the Destiny tore into the front of their formation. A squadron of mobile suits jetted around the Destiny, aiming for its back only to find Shinn whirling around to pick off two of their number with his long-range cannon, before taking off and painting the sky with afterimages again.

And a moment later, the GOUF Ignited was there along with the other peshmerga mobile suits, opening fire on the Husam al-Din's broken formation. Rajan stormed forward and chopped a DINN in two with his sword.

"All units, flank the enemy! Force them to engage the Destiny in the center!" he cried, even as the enemy helicopters showered him with missiles.

The Destiny somersaulted through the sky, coming to a stop between a pair of beleaguered BABIs and whirling around to slice them both in two with its sword. And even as they exploded, Shinn whipped around again to slice a helicopter in two and then turned again, picking off a 105 Dagger with its beam cannon.

"Once we've destroyed their aerial forces, this battle is ours," Shinn grunted. The Destiny spiraled away from a torrent of firepower and charged again.

Sailing into battle, Emily found herself woefully conscious of the nine lives pulsing behind her. Aza was leading two squads of camouflaged BABIs and Jet Dagger Ls, behind the Twilight and in perfect formation. This, Emily mused ruefully, would be the first time she'd have to hand out orders and it was not an experience she was looking forward to.

"Miss Oldendorf," Aza started nervously, "if you would rather have us take up the front position "

"I can take care of myself," Emily cut her off. "You just keep yourself and your troops alive." She glanced up ahead, noticing three incoming enemies but only three…

"Commander Oldendorf, three enemies incoming from one o'clock. Ground units...but they're moving so fast "

Only Emily's instinct kicked in. "Watch out!" she cried, jetting the Twilight into the sky. Aza and most of the peshmerga mobile suits broke formation, but not before a beam blast came lancing from the desert and plowed through the cockpit of one of the Jet Daggers.

"Mervan!" Aza cried, as the stricken Dagger exploded. "They're already attacking!?"

"Split up and keep moving!" Emily shouted, scanning the shifting sands for their attackers. Down below were three Windams, but with huge attachments on their legs; two of them bore black and desert-brown paint schemes, one toted a bazooka, but the one at their head was a brilliant crimson with an emblem on its left shoulder. "They're hovering over the sands...?"

In the cockpit of his Ground Windam, Xist Elwes could not help but grin. "Cherie, Roberto, split up and attack from both sides! We'll force them down to our level!"

The three Ground Windams rocketed apart, filling the sky with beam fire and bazooka shells. Emily ground her teeth as instinct guided her hands, sending the Twilight dancing through a barrage of beam rifle blasts.

"Aza, pull back and shoot from the sky! I'll go in myself!" she shouted; before Aza could object, she sent the Twilight into a dizzying plunge, pulling up over the sands and squeezing off a volley of beam shots towards a charging Windam. Instinct screamed again, and she whirled around to deploy her left-hand beam shield

The red Ground Windam was there, beam saber slammed against the Twilight's beam shield, with Xist in the cockpit, laughing with glee. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Angel of Death!" he cackled. "I'm looking forward to this!"

The Ground Windam surged forward, swinging back with its saber; the Twilight somersaulted over its head, whipping around and switching to its own beam saber to swing at the Windam's exposed waist. Xist rocketed back, and before Emily knew what hit her, the Ground Windam pummeled her with a pair of rocket-propelled grenades launched from its hips.

"Commander, these things are too fast!" one of the peshmerga pilots screamed. "I can't get " His voice disappeared in a burst of static, and Emily snapped her gaze up to see one of the BABIs exploding.

"I can't even win at Battleship and they put me in charge of people on a battlefield," Emily groaned, even as she ducked under one of Xist's furious beam saber swipes and backflipped over another. "But if you can't fly...!"

The Twilight vaulted into the air, dodging a barrage of beam rifle blasts and a second later, another rifle blast shot by her, blowing away a GUAIZ R mounted on a Guul unit.

"We've lost Ezde too!" Aza cried, as her Jet Dagger took refuge behind its shield, under a hail of beam blasts. "Commander Oldendorf !"

Inside his Ground Windam, Xist grinned wildly. "Cherie, Roberto, back me up and we'll take down the Twilight! Those other ones are just small fries!"

The three Ground Windams came streaking forward. Aza's troops went charging down towards the sands, showering the three Alliance units with firepower only to see them all dance through the blasts, and the red Windam effortlessly shot down another Dagger L.

"They're just going to get slaughtered," Emily groaned. "Aza, stay back! I'll handle them!"

"On your own?!" sputtered Aza; Emily tried to shoot back a reassuring grin.

"Have you forgotten? I'm the Angel of Death!"

The Twilight landed with a crash, beam saber drawn, as the three Ground Windams charged.

"Thirty mobile suits, buttressed by a battalion of armored vehicles and helicopters," Rau intoned as the Legend Gundam set down on the burning desert sands, with the Abyss on its right and the Chaos and Gaia on its left. "This looks like nothing we cannot handle."

Auel sneered in the Abyss's cockpit. "Then let's handle it!"

The Chaos and Gaia charged, as the Abyss and Legend spread out and activated their beam cannons. The Husam al-Din's mobile suit formation split apart; an instant later, the Gaia transformed in midair in a flash, landing in quadruped mode and storming forward towards the force's ground mobile suits.

Auel opened fire with a punishing beam cannon barrage, taking down a Strike Dagger and a GINN in one blow, and forcing the rest back; Sting rocketed into their ranks, whirling around to fire ruthlessly into the backs of the slower mobile suits and picking down a GINN OCHER, a CGUE, and another GINN before they could turn to engage him. A helicopter swung in behind him an instant later, Stella's Gaia Gundam pounded it out of the sky with a beam cannon barrage and lunged towards a LaGOWE, cutting it in two with its wing blades.

The Legend Gundam effortlessly picked off armored vehicles one by one, as the mobile suits struggled to contain the Chaos and Gaia. Sting smirked as he whipped around to take down a CGUE; an instant later, the Gaia vaulted into the air, transforming again and shooting down a BuCUE and a pair of GAZuOOTs.

"Auel, Rau, take out the ZuOOTs!" Sting barked, ducking beneath a Strike Dagger's clumsy beam saber swipe and shooting it through the cockpit. "And as for the rest...!"

The Chaos leapt into the air; an instant later, flashing eyes illuminating the sky, the Chaos's gunbarrels lifted off and darted down below to pummel the mobile suits with beam fire, destroying two ZuOOTs and a GINN.

"They're afraid," grunted Stella, as the Gaia landed on one knee and ducked a BuCUE's furious saber swipe before impaling it on her own saber.

"As well they should be!" Rau cackled.

Beam rifle shots and missiles filled the sky as Athrun Zala guided his Infinite Justice Gundam towards a dozen desperate Jet Windams, eyes narrowed. Such fear, such desperation, such hatred, and yet

The Infinite Justice lunged skyward and an instant later, a wave of beams from the Savior Gundam came plowing through, blowing two of the Jet Windams out of the sky. And Athrun followed up with a scream, plunging down with beam blades active to tear another two in half. The Windams backed away; Athrun instead seized one of them with his Grapple Stinger anchor, swinging it towards its comrades, and then snapped up his beam rifle to spear it on a beam shot and hit a second through the first's smoking carcass.

"Hey, leave some for me," Viveka laughed, moments before the Savior came crashing down with another plasma cannon volley.

The Justice pulled back, eyes flashing, as the Windams clawed for distance. "They only sent a squadron of Jet Windams, but the ships are still hanging back..." Athrun muttered. "What is Abdulmalik planning...?"

"I doubt he was planning for that other militia," Viveka put in. An alarm wailed inside the Savior "Move it!"

The two Gundams jetted apart as the Windam squadron returned with a vengeance, beam rifles blazing. Viveka cast a grin over towards Athrun.

"Hey hero-boy, you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Athrun bit back a retort about being called "hero-boy." "If you're thinking of Attack Pattern Omicron, then yes. Go!"

Earth Alliance Hannibal-class land battleship Damascus

Puffs of fire on the horizon, clouds of smoke in the air...these were the images of battle. But, standing on the bridge of the Damascus, Ibrahim Abdulmalik noted with some concern that several of those puffs of fire and clouds of smoke had formerly been his troops.

"General," the Damascus's captain began anxiously, "shouldn't we move the ships in to engage the Minerva?"

"They would have the advantage as an aerial unit," Abdulmalik answered. "For now, we will simply allow the mobile suits to engage them and gather some information. The Charlemagne is lying in wait for them at the Shatt al-Arab we will force them there and then join the Phantom Pain in a final pincer movement."

The captain seemed satisfied with that, but Abdulmalik most certainly was not. He had not anticipated this militia's attack, and found it odd that one Resistance unit would attack another, especially one with the profile of the Minerva.

On the other hand, at least the Minerva was doing him the courtesy of eradicating these enemies for him. And so he stood back to watch.

The Twilight Gundam rattled as it landed on the burning sands, beam saber in hand, with the three Ground Windams circling it like sharks. Already they had shot down another of Aza's mobile suits, leaving only a Jet Dagger L and a BABI to accompany Aza's machine in the air and now they were all focused on Emily, attacking in rapid succession.

Aza and her two companions came storming in again from behind the Twilight, beam rifles blazing; the Ground Windams split apart, with two taking cover behind their shields as the red one charged forward, beam saber blazing, and carved the BABI in two.

"Aza, I told you to stay back!" Emily cried, lunging forward to swing at the red Windam and grimacing as it ducked beneath her swipe and pounded her in the back again with another grenade. "They're too fast !"

"We're not getting anywhere!" Aza groaned. "Tinok, move in "

Before she could finish, one of the Ground Windams lunged skyward, driving its beam saber through Tinok's cockpit and tearing the mobile suit in two. Aza darted backward to avoid the Windam's second sweep as it returned to the ground.

Inside the crimson Windam, Xist grinned triumphantly. "Alright! Just that one Dagger and Miss Angel of Death to go! Cherie, you deal with the Dagger; Roberto, come with me!"

Xist and Roberto went charging towards the Twilight, beam sabers drawn; Emily tensed as they came streaking in, swinging her saber horizontally to block their downward hacks. Xist's Windam whirled around her, aiming for the Twilight's waist; Emily swung her saber back to deflect the blow, blocking Roberto's attack with her beam shield, and vaulted into the air between the two. Xist followed up with a beam rifle barrage that forced the Twilight on the defensive, and Roberto's Windam charged in from the rear, leveling off its own rifle

"There!" Emily cried; the Twilight abruptly slammed on the brakes, using its beam shield to slap Xist's rifle blasts aside, and landed in the sand with a crash. As the sands rose around the black-armored Gundam, Emily charged forward and smashed her palm cannon through Roberto's cockpit, wincing at the feeling of death before her.

"Roberto!" Xist cried; the red Windam came charging in from behind, but Emily wheeled around to shove the ruined Windam into Xist's path and force him back. She backed away to catch her breath, glancing down at the Twilight's left hand and cringing as she noted that it was covered in blood.

The red Ground Windam came blasting through the smoke, beam saber blazing. "Now you've pissed me off!" Xist roared, his sportsman's smile gone, and stabbed forward with his saber. Emily deflected the blow; the Ground Windam kept going, driving its foe through the sand, engines screaming.

"This won't last forever !" Emily snapped back; the Twilight slammed its foot into the Ground Windam's right knee, knocking it to the ground. Emily brought up her saber for a final blow, but the Windam sprung back to its feet to deflect the blow, and the Twilight vaulted into the air to avoid a third grenade salvo.

Emily glanced over at Aza still in the fight. She returned her gaze to the Ground Windam, dodging its beam rifle blasts and waiting for an opening.

Another gutted Windam went down in flames as the Infinite Justice retracted its Grapple Stinger, daring the five remaining Windams to attack again. They raised their rifles an instant later, a beam blast from below tore one of them apart, and before they could react, the Savior Gundam vaulted into their ranks to tear two more in half with its beam saber, and took off again before the last two could attack.

"So should I take care of the leftovers, or will that solemn duty fall to you?" asked Viveka, as the Savior darted around their fire. Athrun narrowed his eyes at the last two Windams, clawing for distance.

Abruptly, the Justice blasted forward with a roar from its engines, whirling around the Windams' desperate fire. With a flash of exhaust, the Justice somersaulted over the first Windam, wheeling around to saw it in two at the waist with its beam blade; and then, in the same motion, swung around to tear the second in half as well with a beam blade kick.

And, as the Windams exploded, the Justice rose from the smoke and glanced back at the Savior.

"Well, that takes care of that," Athrun said with a shrug. "How's the rest of the battle going?"

"Looks like Shinn still hasn't broken through to that Lesseps-class yet," answered Viveka. "Rau and the others haven't finished off the ground troops yet, either."

Athrun turned his eyes towards the al-Muntazar. "Then let's go help Shinn."

"What's your beef with Rau, anyway?" Viveka asked. "It doesn't seem to be too healthy."

Athrun's eyes darkened as he glanced back at Viveka. "I'll tell you later," he replied, and took off.

A burst of fire tore through the air, sending another DINN spiraling to earth in smoldering pieces. Inside the Destiny, Shinn drew back his sword, eyes scanning the battlefield. Rajan's mobile suit force was making short work of the Husam al-Din's remaining aerial forces. And down below, he could see the al-Muntazar driving forward, with a handful of mobile suits on its deck to augment its guns.

If you're going to be our enemy, he thought bitterly, then I'm not showing any mercy.

The Destiny took off with a flash, brandishing its anti-ship sword and charging in low over the sands. The mobile suits opened fire, filling the sky with beams and machinegun rounds only to watch Shinn effortlessly dive around their attacks. The ship answered with a volley from its main cannons the Destiny somersaulted over it, filling the sky with afterimages and darting down onto its hull.

The first to attack was a Strike Dagger, beam saber held high only for Shinn to tear it in half with his sword, plowing through its wreckage. The al-Muntazar's starboard gun turned towards him the Destiny ducked aside from its blast, seizing a GINN standing next to it and slamming it down into the cannon with a palm cannon blow.

Shinn glanced to his right a CGUE came flying towards him, sword raised high. A moment later, the Destiny whirled around to chop the mobile suit in half, and then followed up with a beam cannon blast through the ship's portside main turret.

"And all that's left," Shinn grunted, "is you!"

The Destiny whirled around, whipping its beam rifle up in its left hand and leveling it off at the bridge. Shinn narrowed his eyes and pulled the trigger.

The Destiny Gundam's wings of light shone as the al-Muntazar's bridge tower exploded. Shinn vaulted off the ship's deck, glancing over his shoulder at the Minerva and an instant later, the shimmering beam of the Tannhäuser tore through the ship from bow to stern, wiping it out in a furious inferno.

Shinn watched the smoke rise and sighed.

Across the battlefield, inside the Twilight Gundam, Emily ground her teeth as her Gundam batted away a storm of beam rifle shots from the two remaining Ground Windams. Xist's Windam came blazing in close, beam saber drawn, only to see its slash spoiled by a vertical slice from the Twilight.

"Cherie, get around her!" Xist snapped. The second Ground Windam came whirling around the Twilight

"I won't fall for that!" Emily shot back, drawing her second boomerang with a flash and severing Cherie's Ground Windam's right arm at the elbow.

"My arm !" Cherie started. Her Windam jetted back as Xist surged forward, pushing the Twilight through the sand. "Xist !"

"Abdulmalik is telling us to retreat, isn't he?" growled Xist, pausing to dart aside as the Twilight stabbed forward with its second saber. "And I couldn't even draw blood?!"

The Ground Windam deflected another saber blow with its shield and whirled around, darting away with its companion across the sands. Emily switched to her long-range cannon to fire after them, but the two Windams skated effortlessly around her shots, disappearing into the desert.

"Commander, are you alright?" Aza asked, her Dagger setting down next to the Twilight. Emily heaved a sigh, shutting down her saber.

"Did all of your soldiers get shot down?" she asked. Aza only nodded somberly; and Emily cast a rueful glance towards the horizon, where the Windams had escaped. I guess I am the Angel of Death, huh...?

Battleship Minerva, Al-Najaf Province, Iraq

"The Savior just landed," Roxy reported from her console, feet up and a celebratory bottle of bourbon whiskey in hand. "That's all of them."

In the captain's chair, Meyrin sat back to stare at the smoking wreckage of the al-Muntazar. It was certainly not unknown for Resistance units to do battle with one another as the ghosts of Novorossiysk reminded her but this one had done so without provocation. Had they mistaken the Minerva for someone else? Impossible it became all too clear when the Gundams charged into the fray. Had they betrayed the Resistance? The hearts of men, even men who claimed to love God more than anything, could be swayed by threats or gold or promises.

"The Saladin reports that its mobile suits have returned," Abbey added from her own station. "We'd better get going before they regroup."

"Malik, resume our previous course."

The Minerva's engines rumbled to life, as Meyrin watched the wreckage pass her by.

Athrun Zala emerged from another hour's work on the Infinite Justice with a sigh, stretching to uncoil his cramped muscles. Every ounce of power and speed and responsiveness that the Justice was capable of would not go untapped this Gundam was his power, his purpose, without which he would just be a body floating through the world and waiting to be destroyed, by time or by war.

As his muscles returned to their natural state, Athrun's eyes fell upon the silent Savior Gundam across the hangar. Right now it was a dull metallic gray, but when it was in battle indeed, when it was fulfilling its nature the Savior was a brilliant scarlet.

And red was fitting for a host of reasons. It was the color of passion, of courage, of war and of her hair.

Athrun shook his head. Viveka fit that symbol all too well, throwing herself into battle and enjoying every second of the fight, matching her wits and skills and reflexes against the best the Alliance could throw at her. And Athrun hated it. He did not doubt her skills Natural or no, she could more than hold her own and made good use of the Savior's unique speed and firepower. That was not the problem.

What Athrun hated was that every time she charged through the face of superior firepower, he saw himself; he saw his own hands, nailing himself to the cross so that his friends and allies would not have to suffer. He, the man who could not stop the wars, the man who could not protect Cagalli, the man who could not protect the Orb Raiders, was the man who was supposed to sacrifice himself and throw himself onto the Alliance's sword. He had failed to protect that which he had dedicated his life to time and time again; did that not merit consequence? It could not have been sufficient for him to simply feel those holes in his heart when he looked at the world that Cagalli and Lacus and Yzak and Dearka and Mwu had left behind.

Of course, only a simple image of her in his mind's eye was enough to dispel those thoughts anyway; because what did he have to complain about? Anyone who tried to nail Viveka von Oldendorf to a cross would have to drive the nail through a titanium prosthetic. Her very body, ornamented in scars she made no obvious effort to hide, was testament enough to her sacrifices. And she still found a way to function like a normal human being.

In the end, Athrun could not help but fear that even for all her scars and skills, someday he would have to watch her die, like he had everyone else he had wanted to protect. He always had the power to save his own life, but never anyone else. He could not control her or hide her away; she would do what she would, she would ride into battle on his wing, and he would have to try to protect her until that day came when he would fail.

Athrun sighed and tore his eyes away from the Savior. Protecting people was always so painful.

Stella Loussier was a creature of habit. After every battle, once she had finished the obligatory maintenance on her jet-black war steed, she proceeded directly to her bunk, where she kept a small aquarium with a small, brilliantly colored fish. And Stella Loussier, to the surprise of many, was diligent and exacting in her care for this fish, which probably explained why it had survived for almost three years now. No one could tell what species it was least of all Stella but that did not appear to matter to her, because regardless of what species it was, she fed it and cleaned its tank and changed its filter with military precision.

Shinn was typically the one responsible for helping her clean the tank, even though Stella could field-strip and reassemble an Alliance standard-issue assault rifle in a little less than a minute. And Shinn was always impressed with the diligent care Stella took off that fish a fish that, as far as he knew, had not even a name, but certainly an excellent caretaker. He had asked her why she kept the fish once, and she explained, "it's sorta like the sea."

Today, Shinn was watching her scrub the inside of the tank with a sponge. The blessed fish was waiting in a water-filled plastic bag, looking rather anxious to get back into its tank. Shinn supposed that her explanation made sense. After all, Stella loved almost nothing more than the sea, and nobody had the heart to tell her that it was a freshwater fish.

"Is Shinn okay...?" she asked suddenly.

Shinn sat up with a start. "Err, yeah, why?"

Stella did not take her eyes off her work as she put together an answer. "Shinn is all sad again," she replied. "Shinn's always sad."

At that, the traitor Asuka merely shrugged. "Why do you think I'm sad today?"

"'cuz Emily is sad," came Stella's answer.

Heaving a sigh, Shinn leaned back in his chair. "Emily will be okay," he assured her. "She's just, um, hitting a rough patch in life."

Of course, Shinn did not need Stella to point out that ever since Emily met him, her life had turned into one long rough patch. It seemed he was hard at work paving the road to hell.

Stella appeared to be finished scrubbing the scum off the inside of the aquarium's walls, and turned to pour in a tank of fresh water. "Everyone keeps saying Emily's an angel," she continued, half to herself.

"It's a nickname," explained Shinn, choosing his words carefully and ruing Stella's block word. "Sort of like how people call you the Dark Wolverine."

"But Stella's not a wolf..." Stella protested. Shinn smiled and decided not to try to explain it to her; and besides, all the Alliance soldiers she had torn down inside the Gaia Gundam and out would probably beg to differ. "Is Emily an angel?"

Stella did not appear to be particularly interested in the answer, as she soon devoted all her attention to transferring her fish back to its home. And that was good, because Shinn had no answer to give.

"I'm not sure if Vino is aware of this or not," grunted Viveka as she sat in mounting frustration in the Savior Gundam's cockpit, staring helplessly at the operating system's screen, "but I don't fucking know how to fix this thing, so it would have been real nice if he hadn't taken the fuck off on me."

Standing on the cockpit hatch, Emily suppressed a sigh. That was the Viveka she remembered.

Viveka glanced up powerlessly at her younger sister. "I don't suppose you know how to program quantum computers," she sighed.

"I just let the mechanics do that," Emily answered. Viveka heaved a sigh and slumped back in the cockpit seat.

"Well, it's 1930 hours," she said, "so Athrun Zala the Boy Hero should be by soon. He could rewrite the OS in his sleep." She glanced up at Emily again. "So how do you like having a reputation?"

Emily squirmed under the attention. "Mom always called me 'angel,' so I don't really like it..." She paused, and Viveka sat up, shooting her sister a concerned glance. "And in my memories...Father kept calling me his 'angel of death.' So..."

"He can't get you now," Viveka told her, crawling over the Savior's console to drag Emily into a protective embrace. "You're on the Minerva now; you're not his angel of death, you're the Angel of Death. You can take control of your destiny and make the power he put in you your own."

"I'm trying," Emily murmured, pausing to relish the feeling of closeness to her long-lost sister. "I guess I don't have a choice."

A devilish grin flickered over Viveka's lips. "Well, look at it this way," she said. "You've got the most protective boyfriend in the world."

Emily's face flashed red. "W-What?! What are you talking about?"

"Oh, come on, millions of girls would kill to hang out with Shinn Asuka."

Suddenly, Emily was very glad that she was the Newtype and not Viveka. "We I'm not he's not my boyfriend!" she sputtered. "Why does everyone think we're dating?!"

"All successful relationships are built around shared mobile suit combat experience," laughed Viveka.

Emily sighed in defeat. "How come I'm the one who gets made fun of? What about you and Athrun?"

At that, Viveka offered only a sarcastic laugh, although Emily noticed a touched nerve and made a note not to go here again. "Athrun wouldn't know if a girl was his girlfriend if she jumped his bones in the middle of the hallway," she snorted. "He's got his virtues, but he's kind of a dumbass when it comes to interacting with other human beings."

"I um, okay," Emily answered, deciding not to go there.

"And besides," Viveka continued, her grin returning, "I'm your sister. It's my job to tease you."
"And you do your best," Emily sighed, pushing Viveka's flash of frustration out of her mind.

Compton-class land battleship Saladin, Al-Najaf Province, Iraq

Karda surveyed the scene before him, eyes grim and dark. The desert sands were pockmarked with the black, smoking wrecks of cars and trucks. It was obvious, from the scattered belongings and the bodies, that it was a civilian caravan; and the broken remains of an Alliance Swallowtail attack helicopter were all too telling as well.

"Those flags are of the Husam al-Din," Tekman observed from his haunt near the captain's chair. "But what did they have a civilian caravan out here for...?"

"Nasir must have been moving them out of their slums," Karda answered. He turned grimly towards Tekman. "I'm starting to get the feeling that he was doing the Alliance's work."

"Nasir?" Tekman asked, an eyebrow arched. "A collaborator?"

"He wouldn't have simultaneously attacked us and moved his people out of Baghdad unless he had some kind of deal," replied Karda. "Maybe the Alliance promised them protection, and obviously went back on their word. Maybe they threatened him and he tried to move his people out, using the battle as a distraction. I wouldn't know; but his attack was so sudden and unprovoked that I must question it."

Tekman was silent for a moment. "So what does that mean for us?"

Karda glanced bitterly back towards the ruined caravan. "We will find out when we reach the Shatt al-Arab."

Earth Alliance Hannibal-class land battleship Damascus, Al-Muthanna Province, Iraq

"She's not so cute anymore, is she?"

Standing on the gantry overlooking the Damascus' sprawling hangar, Cherie glanced over at Xist. The two pilots looked down over their two Ground Windams, as Cherie's Windam had its severed arm replaced.

"We rattled her cage," Cherie offered. "And next time we'll know what to watch out for, like getting too close."

Xist shrugged. "That's true. What's our next course?"

"We're following them to the Shatt al-Arab. That giant Phantom Pain battleship is waiting there for them. We'll come crashing down on them all there."

Xist's characteristic sportsman's grin finally returned, and Cherie stifled a sigh of relief. Xist was never easy to deal with when he brooded over a lost comrade. "Well, I wouldn't be too great a soldier if I didn't jump at the chance for a rematch, huh?" He glanced over at Cherie. "Next time we fight her, we'll take her on together. She can't keep getting lucky."

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Shatt al-Arab, Iraq

The sky was a brilliant orange, the sun sinking beneath the horizon and painting the sky with the color of flame. Standing on the bridge of the Charlemagne, arms crossed over his chest, Ivan Danilov stared pensively into the sky. It was approaching twilight yes, twilight, twilight for the Twilight Gundam. For that little girl. For Unit Zero-One.

Word was spreading around the world of the little girl who had joined the crew of the mighty Minerva and piloted a black Gundam with wings of light. She was the one who killed Kenta Shoyou, the Sky Samurai; she killed Harris Meyers, son of the Atlantic Federation's powerful Majority Leader; she had fought down even Marshal Markav, defeated the Alliance at Volgograd and Novorossiysk, and stood against the Night Tigers themselves. To the world, she was a gift from above; to the Alliance, she was a menace; to everyone, she was the Angel of Death. But to Ivan Danilov and those who knew the secret, she was Unit Zero-One.

So much power had been concentrated on the Minerva. It was his job, his duty, to see to it that such power was shattered.

"Captain," Vera started from his side, interrupting his thoughts. "The Minerva has been sighted on advance radar. ETA is forty minutes."

Forty minutes. That would be long enough for the sun to slip beneath the horizon such an ill omen.

"So we face the Minerva and their Angel of Death at the hour of twilight," Danilov murmured. "Very well, then. Order all hands to prepare for battle."

Vera saluted and turned away to fill her orders. Danilov looked up to the sky once more and made the sign of the cross.

От имени Отца, и Сына, и Святого Духа. Аминь.

He cast his eyes towards the sky one last time, before turning towards the captain's chair.

To be continued...