Phase 44 - The Dawn's Carriage

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

Note: One of the many trifling little things that have dawned on me in the three or four years I've been working on this fanfic is that I'm probably being unrealistic with some of the details of this story, like how the Alliance seems to have completely replaced its Dagger Ls with Windams in about three years. It's a story about giant robots and the psychic teenagers who pilot them, so realism was already chucked out the window a while ago, but nonetheless do not be alarmed if you spot little changes and inconsistencies like the above in the next few chapters. They will be smoothed out later.

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Phase 44 - The Dawn's Carriage

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April 2nd, CE 77 - Onigashima, United Emirates of Orb

"Follow my lead," instructed Shinn as the Destiny and Twilight skimmed low over the sea on the approach to Onigashima. "This fight will be a different beast than anything you've fought before."

Emily cast an anxious eye towards the imposing island, studded with artillery and missile launchers and CIWS emplacements not to mention a large group of mobile suits rising up over the island's craggy summit. There was a large opening in the side of the island, which looked to be designed for ships but that opening was blocked by a huge metal door, and that, she supposed, was going to be her target. But first things had to come first and right now the first thing was the squadron of Murasames streaking straight towards the two Gundams.

"Well, this is where the fun begins," Shinn sighed, cracking his knuckles audibly over the comm. "I'll take care of them and you break through and go tear shit up. Sound good?"

"Sure," answered Emily, swallowing the knot of nervousness in her throat and seizing her mobile suit's controls. This should be easy, she told herself, as long as that golden thing didn't show up.

And if it did, well, then that was Athrun's business.

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"Governor, the Minerva's mobile suits are on an attack bearing," General O'Donnell growled in the Onigashima control room, staring up at the unperturbed Governor-General in the dim electronic light. "This base's garrison has been dispersed and its naval squadron was sunk in battle. We're vulnerable, sir. You need to launch the Lapis Lazuli if we're to have a chance."

"Of course, of course," Jona agreed with an airy wave of his hand.

"And you need to evacuate at once," O'Donnell continued. "A Governor-General of an Atlantic Federation protectorate is simply too tempting a target "

"General," Jona interrupted, gesturing towards the door. "A moment, please?"

O'Donnell anxiously followed the Governor out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. "Sir, this is madness," he protested. "I don't understand why you dragged the Minerva to the "

"And you never will," Jona cut him off. O'Donnell never had the chance to blink as Jona turned with a silenced pistol drawn from his coat and shot the general in the throat.

O'Donnell slumped to the floor in a bloody heap, and Jona merely blew the smoke from the barrel, straightened his jacket, and turned on his heel. He went striding down the hall, flipping open a cell phone with one hand as he slid the gun back into his jacket. "Mara, get going in the Akatsuki," he ordered. "Start opening the gate. The Lapis Lazuli will launch as soon as I'm aboard."

"And what about the Alliance forces that have already launched?" came her response, tinny and slightly garbled.

"Let the Minerva have at them. If they seek refuge with us, kill them. We're burning our bridges here anyway."

"This is a little soon to be playing the heroic separatist, Jona," warned Mara.

"It will do. Soon Djibril will be too busy for us." He cracked a smirk. "He'll have much scarier things to worry about."

A quiet chuckle came through from the other end. "Can't argue with that. I'm launching."

Jona snapped the phone shut and grinned.

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The engines screamed and the cockpit rattled as the Infinite Justice sailed into battle, beam rifle armed. Athrun flicked his eyes over the mobile suit's panoramic screens, feeling the familiar fire of warfare creep into his bones. His quarry, armored in brilliant gold, was impossible to miss and, as a flash of light shot from the ponderously opening doors in the side of the island, it was on its way.

"Viveka," Athrun began, casting a sharp glance towards the Savior, still in mobile armor mode. "Stay back at first. We'll do this as we planned."

The Justice dipped down towards the sea, and Athrun fixed his eyes on his approaching prey. He switched out his beam rifle for a single saber just one for now, igniting the blade with a flourish. No sense wasting time on the rifle but the first task before him was to get rid of the beam rifle in the Akatsuki's hand.

The Akatsuki opened fire; Athrun threw his Gundam towards the water's surface, pulling up just as his Gundam's legs brushed the surf, and the Justice rocketed over the water towards its foe. The Akatsuki ducked to the left as Athrun charged with his saber held high just in time for the Justice to whirl around and slam its own saber down onto the Akatsuki's shield. The golden mobile suit flung its left arm skyward, sending the Justice's saber up with it; an instant later it leveled off its rifle

Athrun snapped his eyes towards the sky. "Now!"

A torrent of plasma burst out of the sky from the Savior. The Akatsuki glanced almost contemptuously at it, the air around it distorting with the rippling waves of the Yata-no-Kagami, as the blasts hit home and instantly shifted towards the Justice. Athrun clenched his teeth. This would be the tricky part.

At Novorossiysk, Emily had managed to alter the properties of her beam saber's blade while in the middle of combat. That, as Abes had explained afterwards, was no small feat; only training so ingrained as to become instinct could provide the skill and knowledge to do something like that without breaking something in the saber's internal mechanisms. A beam shield, Athrun had later noted, was little more than a beam saber with a wide, flat blade, and if beam sabers could deflect incoming fire albeit only if the pilot possessed abnormal precision and skill then so too could a beam shield.

Which meant, Athrun mused as the beams approached and the Akatsuki gleamed in the sun, that two could play at that game.

The Justice's beam shield snapped to life, and Athrun swatted Viveka's blasts hard at the last instant. A shower of sparks tore the air and the plasma stream sailed back towards the Akatsuki, slamming into the golden mobile suit in the lower torso and engulfing it in a ball of light and smoke. Athrun seized his chance, roaring forward with his saber held aloft, and brought it down through the first metal thing he saw the Akatsuki's rifle, shearing it cleanly in two. He swung again, towards the golden mobile suit's waist, and bit back a curse as it instinctively jetted backwards to avoid his killing blow, ditching its ruined rifle in the same motion.

The Akatsuki drew a saber with a flash, the blade shining forth for battle. Athrun brought up his own blade and fixed his gleaming foe with a furious look.

Two can play at that game indeed, hijacker.

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Stella Loussier was an excellent shot, but Auel Neider quite frankly found the idea of sharpshooting to be just plain boring. Waiting for your target to blunder into your sights was no way to fight a battle.

That, he mused, was naturally why he was stuck underwater, where the all-encompassing sea slowed down all his movements and forced him to rely on marksmanship over the brute force the Abyss Gundam brought to the table above the water's surface.

A squad of Deep Forbiddens lay up ahead, tridents held at the ready with their huge backpacks folded down over their heads. The first one opened up its claws, coming to a stop in the water, and Auel's eyes caught the telltale rush of bubbles as it let loose a salvo of torpedoes. They were nothing, of course; the Abyss shrugged off their impacts against its shoulder shells and Auel gunned the booster, closing the distance between himself and the four Alliance machines.

Auel grinned as the four Forbiddens broke for the water's surface. Who said he couldn't fight smart?

The Abyss blasted out of the water with a roar as the rocket thrusters took over for the ZAFT-built hydrojet drive, and Auel let out a laugh as his mobile suit sprang forward, impaling the first enemy through the chest with the Abyss's lance.

The remaining three Deep Forbiddens backed away as their comrade met a fiery end, and Auel risked a glance around the battlefield. To the left, Stella and Sting were doing well enough taking on a squadron of Jet Dagger Ls which left him alone with his quarry, and with the advantage. And with that, the Abyss reared back and unleashed a torrent of beams at the three amphibious enemies

...only for all three of them to turn his salvos into a skyward light show with their Geschmeidig Panzer armor.

Auel ground his teeth. "Oh yeah, forgot about that..."

The Deep Forbiddens raised their tridents to charge, but Auel stopped them short with a strike of his own, igniting the lance's beam blade and plunging into the fray.

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The sky lit up with a fiery explosion as Rau Le Creuset claimed his third kill of the morning, and the charred remains of a Dagger L drifted back towards the sea. Inside the Legend, Rau smirked back at the remaining nine mobile suits of the squadron. Their commander's Windam had been little match for one of ZAFT's finest mobile suits, and these men well, they were just pocket change.

The Daggers split apart and opened fire, aiming to flank the gray Gundam only for the Legend to push them back with a broad barrage of beams from the DRAGOON units. Rau glanced over his shoulder for an instant, finding the Minerva still there, slicing through the air and heading straight towards Onigashima.

"A rather simplistic plan," he sighed, as he returned his gaze to his opponents, "but I suppose poor little Captain Hawke can't be expected to do better." He cracked a grin. "Children shouldn't be fighting wars, after all."

The Daggers opened fire again, pummeling the Legend's beam shields. Two of them swept in closer for the skill, beam carbines at the ready Rau seized his chance, rocketing forward. The two Daggers tried to roll aside, but too late the Legend blasted them both out of the sky with a punishing beam barrage of its own, forcing back their compatriots in the process.

"On the other hand," Rau continued to his cockpit monitor, his grin fading, "this is a rather paltry force you're throwing against us, Governor Seiran." He flicked his eyes momentarily towards Onigashima. "What are you planning?"

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A Windam charged forward, beam saber held high, with three Jet Dagger Ls in formation behind it. Inside the Twilight, Emily tensed, waiting until the instinct guided her hand and, seeing her chance, she threw the black Gundam forward and slammed its left hand down onto the Windam's left arm, letting its saber stab fly clear of its target. The Twilight whirled around, yanking the Windam with it and using the machine to swat one of the Daggers into the rocky walls of Onigashima and crushed its Striker pack. As the remaining two foes broke formation and clawed for distance, Emily wheeled around again, pulling her white-armored foe with her and throwing it up before her just as the Daggers opened fire to save their commander, slicing the Windam in two on a salvo of beam bolts. The cloud of fire perfectly obscured her as she leveled off the Twilight's long-range cannon and shot one of the Daggers clean out of the sky.

The second one burst out of the smoke, beam carbine spewing fire. Emily ground her teeth as the beams pounded her shield, and then lunged forward, somersaulted over her opponent, and shot it in the back with a blast from her own rifle.

An ear-shattering explosion roared up somewhere below, and Emily snapped her attention down towards the island to find the Destiny effortlessly carving Onigashima's mounted defenses in two.

"Emily, that beam cannon twenty meters up is going to pin us down," Shinn instructed. "You know what to do."

Emily swallowed hard. "Right," she answered, and the Twilight charged.

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With sparks flying and splitting the air, the Infinite Justice roared across the sky in a vicious swordfight with the Akatsuki. Athrun had hoped that depriving the golden machine of its long-range weaponry would settle this fight in his favor, but the Akatsuki was proving to be quite the fencer.

Athrun ground his teeth as the Akatsuki slammed down its saber onto the Justice's blade. Well, there was more than one way to win a swordfight.

The Justice surged forward and hurled the Akatsuki back with sheer thruster power. Athrun snapped his glance to the right "Now!"

The white bolt cracked the air before Athrun's eyes as the Savior fired off another round of plasma. Again the Akatsuki deflected it, angled upwards over the Justice's head only for the Justice to leap into its path and swat the blast back towards the Akatsuki.

The bolt appeared again, and Athrun's eyes went wide as the Akatsuki simply deflected the blast straight back at him again. This time it smashed into the Justice's beam shield, driving the Gundam back and the instant the blasts burned off, the Akatsuki lunged down from the sky, beam saber held aloft

Rattling Athrun's teeth with a thunderous crash, the Savior Gundam barreled out of the clouds and rammed the Akatsuki aside with its shield. As the golden mobile suit faltered, Viveka seized the opportunity to pummel its armor with another plasma blast, too quick for the Akatsuki to deflect but still crashing harmlessly against the Yata-no-Kagami. It responded with a beam cannon blast of its own, forcing the Savior back on the defensive only for Athrun to sweep in with a shout and drive the Akatsuki back further with a punishing beam saber blow.

"I didn't spend three years of my life for this," Athrun growled, even as the Justice and Akatsuki traded savage saber strokes. "Not for you to turn her into your puppet..." The Akatsuki brought its blade crashing down onto the Justice's shield; Athrun shoved his machine's left arm out, knocking the Akatsuki's saber to the side, and swiped furiously at the golden machine's waist only to be stopped by its own shield. "Not my childhood, not my life..."

The Akatsuki surged forward, lining up for a diagonal cut down the Justice's torso. Athrun charged back, stabbing forward to stop the blow and leaving the two mobile suits locked together, glowering at each other.

Athrun stared into the Akatsuki's eyes, and clenched his fists around the Gundam's controls as Cagalli's eyes stared back.

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Orb Takemikazuchi-class supercarrier Lapis Lazuli

"Yes, defense only," explained Jona, settled into the Lapis Lazuli's command chair on the bridge and watching as the massive ship slid out of Onigashima's dock. "Just protect the ship. They can do what they like to the island."

Tanaka turned from Jona to begin handing out orders, and the satisfied governor sat back. This would be a bit tricky, but it was Onigashima and not Governor-General Seiran that was the Minerva's target and they did not exactly have the forces to spare.

As the bridge crew set to work, the auxiliary screen flickered. The communication officer started up in his chair and then looked over his shoulder. "Governor, we're getting a signal on the Sigma Line!"

Jona felt his blood freeze. The Sigma Line? Only a handful knew of that line, for secure communication with...Lord Djibril? Impossible, Jona thought; he could not have discerned this plan so quickly. Simply impossible.

"Orders, governor?" the officer asked.

Composing himself, Jona nodded silently, and the officer put the transmission through. Instead of the prim Djibril or an Alliance officer, however, he found himself presented with an entirely different face a scowling man in a white ZAFT uniform, a snakelike scar winding from the corner of his left eye.

"Good morning, governor," he intoned, a voice rippling with something Jona guessed was impatience.

Undaunted, he sat back and put on a neutral expression. "Good morning, sir. Might I inquire as to who you are and how you learned of this channel?"

"You might," the man answered. "I am Commander Argus of ZAFT, and I am the man whose task force destroyed your base's naval squadron. I understand your base is being currently assaulted by the Minerva, correct?"

Tanaka glanced sharply at Jona, who eyed the man carefully. "Yes," he started, "but why, if you are on their side, are you contacting me?"

Argus allowed himself only the barest of grins. "Who said I'm on their side?"

Understanding dawned, and Jona barely suppressed a smile of his own. "Well, commander, my curiosity remains unsatisfied," he continued, "so I must ask again what's going on here. Why are you contacting me, and what do you want from me?"

At that, Argus's smile disappeared. "The Minerva."

"For what?"

A flash of anger rippled through Argus's eyes. "To kill them, governor." He shifted impatiently. "I do not know what is going on at Onigashima and I do not care. I want you to chase off the Minerva. Do not destroy them; force from the field. I and my men will be waiting, and we will destroy them."

Jona quirked an eyebrow. "Why should I believe you, commander?"

Scowling, Argus fixed Jona with a furious look. "Governor, perhaps you do not appreciate the position I'm in. Some of my commands were lost to the Minerva's treachery; some of my men were killed by Shinn Asuka's treachery; my people, my homeland, my raison d'être were destroyed by their treachery. If you think I am willing to overlook those crimes for the sake of expediency, you are mistaken. We have overlooked too much for expediency's sake. Give them over to me, governor, and I will ensure that they never bother you again." He paused for only a moment. "Do we have a deal, governor?"

Jona studied the man's face for a moment, thinking it over, before he cracked a grin. "I believe we do, commander," he replied. "I believe we quite possibly do."

"Pleasure doing business with you, governor," responded Argus, and the screen went dark.

Tanaka whirled around on the governor in disbelief. "Sir, I can't believe you just did that," he protested. "We have no idea "

"Captain," Jona interrupted, grinning a little wider, "let's take a chance, shall we?" He gestured towards the comm officer. "Ensign, send out the order to our mobile suits. All units are to return to the Lapis Lazuli, and we are to retreat at once. Leave the Alliance troops to their fate. We wouldn't want to disappoint Mr. Argus," he glanced at Tanaka with a wicked smile, "now would we?"

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Battleship Minerva

This is too easy, mused Meyrin as her ship plunged through the sky. Not enough mobile suits. Something is up.

"Target is in range of the Tannhäuser," reported Chen. "Charged and ready."

"And Shinn reports that there's a fissure in the third quadrant," added Roxy, "so we can crack this son of a bitch open like a raw egg."

"Lock onto his laser designator," Meyrin instructed, "and fire as soon as we're clear."

No, not enough mobile suits had joined this battle. Could the base's garrison have been depleted by Argus's men? That huge trimaran ship was on the move, but it was clearly leaving and not making a move in the battle and right now, she couldn稚 spare anyone to pursue. Possibly Viveka but Athrun had a plan for that golden thing and required her assistance. And then there was Argus what was he doing?

"Firing solution is ready," Chen spoke up.

Meyrin steeled herself. No more time for questions. "Tannhäuser, fire!"

The red light of the Tannhäuser lanced out from the Minerva's prow, and with an earth-shattering explosion it struck home, blowing off the upper third of the island. A column of smoke and fire rose towards the sun, but through the smoke Meyrin could see that the island was not yet finished. And not until Onigashima was useless would she let up.

"Charge for another shot," she ordered.

She cast an anxious glance to the side, where somewhere beyond the horizon were Commander Argus and his squadron.

You're not going to do what I think you're going to do, are you...?

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Smoke and fire filled the sky as the Chaos Gundam's gunbarrels darted across the battlefield, spewing beam blasts and missiles. A squadron of Dagger Ls, struggling to protect themselves, lost one of their number to the barrage and with the Alliance pilots distracted, the Gaia came roaring in to gut a second one on its beam saber.

Sting grinned as he let loose a beam rifle barrage to cover Stella while she pulled back. "These guys are just small change," he grunted. "Stella, you ready?"

"Ready!" she answered. The Gaia backflipped over the Chaos and leveled off its rifle. "I'll shoot them down!"

"Damn straight you will," Sting muttered. "Go!"

The Gaia opened fire with a withering beam rifle barrage, forcing the Daggers back just as they began to regroup. Sting swarmed his gunbarrels around their flanks, forcing them to compress their formation only for the Chaos itself to streak in below Stella's shots, beam rifle blazing. The Daggers split their formation, sliding around the Chaos and sweeping in for the kill.

An instant later, the beams flashed around them and two more Daggers exploded. Sting immediately whipped around the Chaos, opening fire himself. Between the Chaos, the Gaia, and the gunbarrels, eight of the ten surviving Daggers fell in fiery explosions. The ninth tried to duck under the growing cloud of smoke and mobile suit debris, only to be speared on a masterful shot from Stella.

The tenth burst out of the smoke and roared skyward, clawing for distance. Sting gunned the booster and grinned, effortlessly deflecting the Dagger's beam shots, and with a roar of thrusters he closed the distance and put a beam saber through the enemy's cockpit.

Sting watched with satisfaction as his gutted opponent fell back towards the sea, and glanced back down towards Stella.

"Man, that went well," he chuckled. "What next, Stella? Where's Auel?"

Stella was silent for a moment. "Auel's fighting," she replied quietly. "Stella wants to help..."

Sting glanced over his shoulder and tried not to feel too smug. "That bastard always needs my help. Let's go!"

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"Now!"

The Destiny rocketed by the Twilight's field of vision, ripping open the side of one of Onigashima's large triple-barreled smoothbore cannons and darting aside just as quickly. The Twilight leveled off its rifle, even as desperate missiles, beam fire, and machinegun rounds filled the sky, and squeezed off a barrage of her own. The cannon erupted into a ball of fire, and Emily dropped down beneath a return volley from the two beam cannons on either side of the ruined smoothbore.

A box-shaped missile launcher let loose a salvo of missiles. Emily snapped her attention towards them only for a CIWS volley from the Destiny to tear them out of the sky, throwing up a pall of smoke. The Twilight burst through, pounding two more shots into the launcher and striking its magazine, blasting apart the entire area. The instinct screamed within her; she threw the Twilight into a steep dive, beneath the return fire of another pair of beam cannons.

"I thought the Minerva hit the power supply for these things," she groaned, even as she righted the Twilight and fired back, blowing off one of the turrets.

The Destiny came crashing down, spearing the second turret on its sword. "They must have an auxiliary power supply," answered Shinn. The white bolt snapped at them both. "Split up!"

The two Gundams darted skyward as another beam volley coursed through the air, and Emily turned her attention towards another squad of Daggers. Shinn descended upon them with his flashing sword, ripping one of them clear in two and as they broke formation around him, Emily leveled off her rifle and picked one more out of the sky. The two survivors rocketed upward for distance, only for the Destiny to lunge between their ranks and run them both through with a spinning sword slash.

As the Daggers exploded and their pilots vanished into nothingness, Emily glanced down below at the smoldering base. It still had guns, and they were still operational, but that heavy door had not yet closed.

"Shinn," she said, "I'm going to light up that dock for the Minerva." She cast him a weary glance. "Let's get this over with."

Shinn tossed back a smirk. "I knew you'd make a good soldier yet."

Emily felt her stomach turn at the idea, as her Gundam plunged down towards the dock. Just what I wanted.

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"I denied myself everything for you, Cagalli," Athrun snarled, matching the Akatsuki blow for blow in a dance of beam sabers. The Akatsuki whirled around the Justice, aiming for its waist; Athrun swung backwards, wheeling around to stop the golden mobile suit's saber stroke. "I'm sorry, but I have to move on." His eyes flashed. "And that means I have to destroy you."

The Justice surged forward, throwing the Akatsuki back. It leveled off its own beam cannons, firing them straight into the Justice's beam shield. Athrun grunted, his attack blunted, and hurled the beams aside only to catch sight of the Akatsuki charging straight at him, beam saber held forward towards the Justice's cockpit.

The seed fell, and Athrun glanced towards the left where the Savior let loose another barrage of plasma, slamming into the Akatsuki's shoulder and throwing it off course.

An image of Cagalli flickered into his mind; he willed it away. "I'm sorry, Cagalli," he growled, even as he connected his sabers and drew the double-bladed weapon with a flourish. "I'm not going to let this go."

The familiar white bolt cut the air before him, and he hurled the Justice down towards its stunned foe.

"But I still have to live!"

With an ear-shattering screech of torn metal, the Justice brought its double-bladed saber down into the Akatsuki, shearing off its head, its right arm at the shoulder, its right wing, and its right leg at the knee. As the mutilated mobile suit fell by him, he whirled around to chop off the other arm with his leg-mounted blade. And with a final crash, he pounded two beam cannon blasts into the golden mobile suit's back, striking the unprotected point between the Owashi Striker and the mobile suit's back.

The Akatsuki staggered out of the sky, trailing smoke and fire, and disappeared beneath a fireball at the water's surface.

Inside the Justice, a seething Athrun let out his breath, quietly, slowly, painfully. Cagalli's pendant beneath his shirt felt like lead. He stared with dull eyes into the tower of smoke rising from the water, and blinked away tears.

The Savior drifted down next to the Justice. "Well," Viveka began quietly, "that settles that."

Athrun gave one final glance to Cagalli's last pyre, and removed the pendant, gazing into it through blurry, teary eyes.

To protect me, he thought. To protect me forever.

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Battleship Minerva

Meyrin tensed as the Minerva slid into position over the water. Up ahead lay the smoldering Onigashima and the gaping opening of its internal naval dock, lit up by the Twilight's laser designator.

"Firing solution is ready," Chen announced.

"Tannhäuser, fire!"

With a thundering roar, the Tannhäuser sent forth another red lance of light, slamming it into the island's innards. Fire whipped out of the fortress's openings, the island rumbled, and the world shook as an instant later the antimatter found its way to the base's protected magazines and fuel banks. The Minerva lurched back as Onigashima disappeared under a monumental tower of fire, and with a final shudder, the island was gone.

Meyrin sat back with a sigh as, beneath the smoke, she saw only fragments of what was once a mighty Earth Alliance base. Thank goodness that's over with...

"Captain," spoke up Abbey, "there's still that carrier."

"Leave it," Meyrin instructed, sitting up. "It's too far away and on the retreat anyway. Recall our mobile suits and set course for Carpentaria. Our mission is accomplished."

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Yokosuka Naval Station, Japan, Republic of East Asia

Lord Djibril sat with a look of something like disgust in the main office of the Yokosuka installation, while Danilov delivered his admittedly less than inspiring report. It was a tale of close calls, near misses, and defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. As a professional soldier, Danilov saw a bright side to it: with each encounter his knowledge of his adversary grew, and the Charlemagne was still an intact, functional, and highly dangerous fighting force. But Lord Djibril was not a professional soldier, he was a politician and a businessman and if there was one thing neither politicians nor businessmen tolerated, it was failure. Failure cost politicians elections and businessmen profit, and nobody did that to Lord Djibril without regretting it.

The President of the Earth Alliance heaved a sigh and put his hands together on his desk. "Captain Danilov," he said, "I know you are a talented officer and I know that your scrapes with the Minerva have not been as disastrous as they could have been." He fixed the captain with a chilling look. "I respect you, captain, and I think you are a fine officer. But we sunk over seventy-five billion into developing and building the Charlemagne, and its defeats, as you admit, are not due to a fault with the ship. Therefore the fault must lie with the crew for which you are responsible."

"I agree, and will accept whatever disciplinary measures you deem appropriate, sir," Danilov said, throwing in a servile incline of the head.

Djibril visibly relished that for a moment. "To be honest, captain, you're still more reliable than some people in the Phantom Pain," he said with an airy wave of his hand. "Ordinarily I'd have you dragged out and shot, but, well, we don't live in ordinary times. And besides," a conspiratorial gleam entered Lord Djibril's eye that almost made Danilov shudder, "waste not, want not."

"Sir...?"

"I trust you will keep this under your hat," Djibril went on, "but I will be looking into the issue of shaking things up in the upper echelons of the Phantom Pain's command structure. And of course, the people who get the axe will need replacing. So..." He trailed off and shrugged.

Danilov's head swam for a moment. "I-I'm honored, sir," he started, "but..." He searched for an excuse. "If you make this decision, I will need time..."

"Oh, of course," said Djibril with an imperious wave, "just don't get too used to frontline service, is all I am saying." He offered a knowing grin. "I'm sure you understand."

Danilov felt his stomach turn. "Yes sir."

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The Superior Evolutionary Element Destined Factor.

Sven sneered. Even the name was stupid. "Destined?" What the hell did that mean? The calculating, rational side of Sven Cal Bayan could not help but believe that this SEED factor wasn't really a factor at all, it was just a hallucination produced by combat stress colliding with brain damage from too many high-G maneuvers. Knock the brain around like a pinball inside the skull enough times and anyone would start to think that falling seeds gave them superhuman reflexes. It was either that or someone was sneaking LSD into the water supplies of soldiers everywhere.

Of course, to the young Phantom Pain pilot standing on the Charlemagne's deck and staring banefully at the panorama of Yokosuka's naval port, that did nothing to explain why he had seen that seed in battle at the Strait of Hormuz. Why was he was like those desperate men who had not been trained and drilled and forged to perfection by the Phantom Pain?

The other explanation, he mused the one that actually took this "SEED factor" nonsense seriously was that it represented the brain operating on the level of a Newtype. That itself made no sense. If everyone could access that power, then that made everyone a Newtype, and yet there had been no powers of expanded consciousness or telepathy at Hormuz.

He hated to think about it, but thinking about it was better than being blindsided later on, by his own abilities or those of his enemy. The more he knew about it, the more he could use it to his advantage and against an opponent like the Destiny, every advantage counted.

All of that meant, really, that he had to consider the possibility that he didn't know everything about himself. He was not the master of himself. He was not in control.

Fortunately, he remembered, glancing across the base, that he had a remedy for that. He was trained for control. He was trained to take control. Control was the most precious thing he could have. The man with no control was the man defeated in battle and elsewhere.

Control. He needed control. To gain control, he needed power. To gain power, he needed knowledge of this "SEED factor," and of Newtypes.

And ultimately, he thought bitterly, turning away from Yokosuka, knowledge of himself.

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Battleship Minerva, Pacific Ocean

"The task ahead for us," explained Rau with a sweeping gesture on the Minerva's internal observation deck, with Emily at his side, "is quite simple. We return to Carpentaria and join in the final preparations for Chiao Xu's grand attack on Heaven's Base. We distract Alliance forces across the fleet's course, while the fleet itself steams through the Drake Passage and all the way north to Iceland, where we launch our attack."

Emily cast him a skeptical glance. "And then...?"

"And then we fail spectacularly," Rau said with a grin. "Why, that's all assuming we get a few hundred ships several thousand kilometers from Carpentaria to Iceland. Even if we do, we'll be so far from friendly waters that the very existence of the Earth-bound Resistance as a creditable fighting force will be staked. And even assuming everything else goes well, we'll still need to defeat the Alliance's defenses at Heaven's Base." He smirked back down at Emily. "Any questions?"

Emily blinked. "If this is such a terrible plan, why are we doing it?"

"Because our leaders are fools," replied Rau with a shrug.

"Then why doesn't anybody say something?"

"Because the rest of us are fools too, evidently."

At that, Emily rubbed her temples in frustration. Fools in charge, fools in behind, why didn't any of it make sense?

Rau seemed to sense her confusion and put a hand on her shoulder. "Years of seclusion have probably not taught you this," he began, "but I suppose it's a lesson you'll need to learn." He gestured almost contemptibly at the ocean before them. "That world, out there, is filled with stupid, cruel people. They pursue their own narrow short-term gratification even at the expense of their long-term interest. They dwell on differences instead of similarities; they practice conflict as they promote peace; their words speak of love, but their actions scream of hatred. Right now, Chiao Xu is likely speaking to his officers about the need for restraint and respect for noncombatants; halfway around the world, someone is murdering children in the name of the Resistance, and the Phantom Pain is murdering more in the name of peace." He shook his head. "Even if Chiao Xu's plan worked, the world would not change after this war. And Chiao Xu's plan will not work, so the world will certainly not change or, in fact, it may get worse. If the Alliance thinks they have the upper hand, they will be free to carry out whatever plans they have that have been stopped by the Resistance."

"Like what...?" Emily started.

"Like terrible things," Rau intoned. "You may not remember the end of the Junius War, but the Alliance did not completely destroy ZAFT. A large part of their fleet escaped to Mars. They are not going to stay at Mars forever not after Lord Djibril destroyed the PLANTs and wiped out so many Coordinators. They are going to come back, and that war a war with people who have nothing left to lose will be even worse than this one."

Emily pursed her lips. "Don't they know that?"

At that, Rau smiled. "Humans only know what they think they know. They think they know how the world will turn out if the Alliance wins this war, or if the Resistance wins this war, or if ZAFT returns. They don't. They think the world will be changed by the outcomes of any of these wars. It won't." He turned his smile back down towards her. "No, Emily, the world needs something far more radical than mere politics if it is to change. Something is fundamentally wrong with the world as it is now."

"I don't understand," Emily said.

"No worries," replied Rau. "You will. Think about it. Think about yourself, what you are, what is your place in this world, and you'll understand it perfectly."

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The external deck was quiet as the sun sank below the horizon, setting the sea alight. It was the twilight hour, an hour that Athrun Zala knew well. He thought back a lifetime ago was it only three years ago? when he had stood on the deck of another ship, with Cagalli, as the Megami arrived on Earth on a warm summer night. He had something to fight for then: a home, a country, a haven, a place of shelter while the storms of war buffeted every other shore. It had the power of memory, and as the sun set, the memories came flooding back and Athrun savored them. They were to be savored. They were all that was left. They were the only way his comrades and friends could live on.

The savoring, of course, came to an end as he felt Viveka emerge through the airlock.

He steeled himself as she approached. Abes' words weighed on his mind; the Akatsuki's gleaming armor blazed in his thoughts; Cagalli's fiery determination burned in his memory. But the only thing that had really burned was Orb, their Orb, the Orb she had promised him涌rb, that is, and Athrun Zala's own humanity with it.

But Abes had a point. The Minerva was new. He had lost everything with the Orb Raiders and the Megami and Cagalli, but he still lived. And certainly he had to live for something, or else there was no reason to live at all.

Viveka came to a stop next to him. Athrun frowned as he found her closed off, tightly guarded. Was that his fault too?

"So," she began, "did it work?"

Athrun bowed his head. "Something like that."

"What do you mean 'something like that'?"

"It's a long story," he went on. "One I'm not really comfortable with telling. But maybe I should tell it anyway." He shook his head. "I was Cagalli's bodyguard in the Orb Raiders. We were a little more than that, though, but we kept putting our relationship on hold for our revolution. We were going to make up for lost time once we had secured Orb and turned it back into a haven for anyone who wanted to escape the war." He waved his hand contemptuously. "But, well, that's all up in smoke.

"I put everything on hold," he continued, brow furrowing at the horizon預t Orb. "My emotions, my dreams, my sexuality. I did it willingly, because I had more important things to worry about; but with the understanding that it wouldn't be permanent. And then Cagalli died and Solomon's Sword happened and it all turned permanent." He shrugged. "But maybe it's not permanent. I don't know."

Viveka eyed him carefully for a moment, and Athrun glanced back at her again預lmost wincing at the torrent of conflicting emotions. "Is that why you're so cold to me?" she asked. "Because I'm not Cagalli?"

"Because Cagalli is dead," answered Athrun. "But..." He turned his back towards the horizon and fixed Viveka with the sincerest look he could. "Now she's dead. Completely. For good. And..." He waved his hand with finality. "The slate is clean."

Viveka eyed him skeptically. "So what do you want now?"

"I don't know."

"Ah." She paused for a moment, before taking a step closer. "You know what I want?"

Before he could answer, she seized him by the collar and pulled him close. Athrun blinked and sputtered in surprise.

"I want you to make me complete."

"You want what? I "

At that, Viveka let him go with a laugh. "Oh, you pervert." She waved her mechanical arm as Athrun's face flushed red. "But look at me. I'm half human, half metal and scar tissue. You don't spend three years in the woods with a bunch of terrorists and never wind up taking a long, hard look at yourself. So you can interpret that however you like, although " She pulled him close again, leaving just enough space between their lips to speak and transfixing him with a sultry look and a predatory grin. " I do have a few suggestions."

"I-I see..."

"So," she went on, leaving him with a bit more personal space, "are you up for socializing with others today or do you need some more time to brood?"

Athrun cast a final glance towards the horizon. "After you."

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To be continued...