"It is only with the heart that one can see clearly, and with the spirit that one can understand properly. What really matters is invisible to the eye and beyond the reach of the mind."
- Isaac Cunningham

Chapter 25: Alice's Heart

- June 8, UC 0084 -
- 0710 hours (CST) -
The briefing room lights dimmed, the pilots and crew lit only by the glow from the monitor from all the recon images. The Agamemnon's sliced open flight deck was a favorite, along with the two damaged cruisers and the mobile suits they had destroyed in the last raid. Another image overlapped the others, a grainy still of the Dogos Gaia as it passed a section of colony wreckage, framed by explosions in space around it. "Things have taken a turn for the unexpected," Brian said stiffly, pointing to the largest image, "These images were taken by an assault team launched by an anti-Federation sect known as the Spacenoid Liberation Party. They attacked the Dogos Gaia with two Musai class cruisers, supported by a Bigro mobile armor and ten AMS-57 Hercules mobile suits. We have no idea where they came from, but we're certain the attack has something to do with a shooting incident in Bunch 13 during one of yesterday's rallies. This is the first time the S.L.P. has ever taken part in any combative action that we know of." Brian tapped a button on the consol and the image switched to a single frame from the CNN broadcast barely two hours earlier. "It is also the last."

The mangled wreckage of two Zeon vessels floated side by side, their mobile suits torn to pieces around them. The pattern of damage was familiar to all of them, the total ship-wide destruction and of the two cruisers and the almost freeze-frame manner in which the mobile suits were dispatched, as if every one of them had been destroyed at the exact same instant. "The battleship dispatched them in less than four minutes, and the surviving members of the S.L.P. were promptly arrested in their homes less than an hour later. We believe all four Flash Gundams were deployed as their front line, but based on some eyewitness accounts they've replaced one of the Gundams with something new, something we haven't seen before. Our contact in Bunch 13 described a mobile armor of an unknown type, possibly a large command unit with capabilities similar to the Flash Gundam, but reduced mobility to sustain a more powerful psycommu."

"Do we have time to gather intelligence to assess a weakness?" Duncan asked, his pen already jotting down notes for later.

Brian frowned. "Time is about the only thing we don't have. The Agamemnon's fleet is combing Side 2 for any sign of rebel activity, and it's only a matter of time before they discover our hiding spot. We have no choice but to go on the offensive while we still have the initiative." He tapped the control panel on the wall again, switching the images over to mission data and highlighting the objectives in front of them. "Our best chance is to draw the Flash Gundams into a mobile suit battle and lead at least one of them to a pre-arranged location. Vanessa will be waiting there with the mega beam launcher for a clear shot. A direct hit against a distracted Flash Gundam should be able to at least disable it, even through the protection of a low-intensity I-field."

Ryo popped up from the crowd, "And just how exactly are we supposed to draw out those four Gundams? As soon as they see our mobile suits they'll fill the sky with Hizacks to intercept us..."

"That's actually the easy part." Brian's eyes darkened just a bit, "The Tarawa will move to a position here, just south of Bunch 17 near the old mining operation on the resource satellite. We'll present ourselves as a visible target, and maneuver as if preparing to leave Side 2. Admiral Carter likes to stick to his patterns, so if he sees us retreating he'll surely send the Flash Gundams to destroy us before we can escape."

"And what keeps them from doing exactly that?" Lucy said with a nervous flutter in her stomach.

"That's easy. At first sight of them we run like hell." Brian changed the image again, showing a close up of the asteroid and a small alcove near one of the mining tunnels that had once stored labor pods in rows. "With the orientation of the asteroid, this area is always in shadow. We'll have Vanessa camp here and wait for the Flash Gundams to come into range, then your mobile suits will distract it while Vanessa draws a bead. A direct hit should be enough to destroy it, but if it doesn't, it's up to the supporting mobile suits to finish the job."

Vanessa huffed in complaint, "I've run a few simulations with the beam cannon, and I think the damn thing's a lemon. There's no way to generate enough power, and half the time the reactor overloads and blasts you into next Saturday."

Brian nodded in understanding. "Lucy flew a recon of the asteroid last night. Its reactor should still be operational, and I believe there's a power shunt in that alcove you can tap to supply the beam cannon..." He paused for a just a moment, and Vanessa braced herself for the bad news, "Unfortunately, because of the nature of this mission..."

Vanessa nodded, already ahead of him. "It's not like it matters, Captain. If I get spotted by one of those Gundams, I'm dog meat with or without a support unit."

"Then we'll try and keep them focused on us as much as possible."

Commander Wilson had been silently brooding in the corner for the duration of the briefing, but without so much as a warning she erupted from her chair and paced in front of the lot of them, "I want to remind you all," She said in a powerful tone, "The Titans are about to replace the Zeon as the most dangerous threat to the space colonies. They have no reservations on causing damage to our colonies in the course of battle, but WE cannot afford to risk civilian lives. Whatever happens in this sortie, do not involve any of the colonies."

All of them nodded, and Naomi gestured for Brian to bring the lights back up. "Suit up! We're launching in one hundred minutes. Vanessa, you launch immediately and get to that asteroid."

The room cleared out as if by the touch of a button, all of the pilots scrambling out towards the mobile suit deck to make final checks for what all of them now half-believed was a suicide mission.

- 0930 hours (CST) -
"Ensign Nine, I'm only going to repeat one more time that I will not tolerate any more of your sass. I could overlook it with a bunch of second-rate guerillas like yesterday, but this is the Tarawa we're fighting."

Nine powered up the mobile armor and adjusted the fit of her normal suit. Unlike the Flash Gundam, the psycommu interface on the Lucifer mobile armor was built directly into the cockpit. She was still getting used to the light-weight normal suit helmet she had traded for the transmitter-headgear. "I know that, Carter. This is my mission, remember? Now quit distracting me."


"Nine Murasame, moving out!"

The entire battleship gave a heavy shudder as the mobile armor moved out of the Gogos Gaia's large shuttle hangar in the aft of the command tower. The Hizack squad launched at the same moment, followed shortly by the four Flash Gundams from the two hangar pods along the flanks. The Hizack squad moved to a flanking position alongside the battleship as the Newtypes moved forward, and Carter glanced over at Dr. Adams at his control board on the side of the bridge, "Her emotional states are becoming more and more extreme."

"I know. It's a side effect of her enhancements we haven't been able to overcome yet. The more powerful her senses become, the more erratic her behavior."

"You mean to tell me her senses have already increased since the last sortie?"

Adams looked at the data on one of his monitors, careful with his words not to give the Admiral the wrong idea. "Sir, Nine's sensory abilities have almost overcome her lack of eyesight. Her sensitivity to energy patterns is already responding logarithmically, which means at her current rate of development..."

"I know. She won't even need her eyes anymore."

Adams nodded. "It wouldn't be true vision, more of an awareness of objects and conditions of..."

"The uncertainty principle teaches us that kind of awareness is impossible. Therefore, Doctor, what Nine Murasame is about to accomplish violates one of the most fundamental understandings of modern science."

Adams nodded again. "Seems that way."

Admiral Carter thought for a moment, then at last made his decision. "Nine has become a liability. As soon as we're finished with the Tarawa, I want you to send Nine a termination order."

"What?!" Adams came half out of his chair, almost leaping across the room to throttle the admiral before his reflexes caught him, "What the hell for?! Nine's the most advanced subject we've ever...!"

"You've already demonstrated that the more they develop, the more unpredictable their behavior. And Nine is already flaunting the laws of physics by her very existence, and that to me is a power I don't believe we can keep in check for very long. Not to mention, her telepathy is becoming increasingly invasive. Even I can't block her at times."


"The decision is final, Doctor. Nine Murasame is to be terminated on completion of this mission." Adams seemed on the verge of a mental breakdown at the comment, and in sympathy Carter added, "I'll allow you to dissect the body for conclusionary studies."

"Don't you get it, Carter?" Adams said bitterly, "These are human beings we're dealing with, not just test subjects you can terminate on a whim! Nine is not a danger to you, in fact she's the most powerful asset we have ever cultivated...!"

"Are you refusing to send the termination order, Mr. Adams?"

The Doctor hesitated to answer, waiting just a moment too long.

"In that case," Carter reached into his pocket, drew his side arm and aimed it directly at Adam's head, "You've just become a liability, Dr. Adams. I think it's time you departed."

Adams' face turned a shade of ashen white, then immediately deepened to a dark red as his fear turned into rage, "Fine," He said through clenched teeth, "I'll do it."

"Good man." Carter tucked the pistol back into his pocket and adjusted his posture in his chair, slouching lazily and crossing his legs almost in an expression of boredom. "Lieutenant Belatine, begin a full sensor sweep of the area. I want to be informed the moment we or the Agamemnon locate the Tarawa."

- 1052 hours (CST) -
Simone wiped the sweat from her eyes and stared again at her radar screen, scrutinizing one by one the endless array of intermittent signals from the ship's radar and spectral scanners. With the sensors on such high power the ship was picking up every object for ten thousand kilometers and garbling it together like so much gibberish, clutter of useless data she was forced to sift through like a cosmic "Where's Waldo" book. She tugged at her collar to loosen it, glancing over her shoulder to see Admiral Dyson glaring at her for lord knew how long. "Something bothering you, Ensign?"

"Wha? Uh... N-no sir," Creepy son of a bitch, quit staring at me!

Commander Passaroff managed a backward glance from his helm station without being noticed, taking in the awkwardness of the situation. Whatever twist of fate had brought the otherwise perfectly synchronized crew of the Albion under the command of a sadistic power-monger like Juan Dyson, he couldn't say for sure, but from the look of the officers and crew around the room he was not the only one permanently warped by the experience. "Admiral," He said, checking his navigation board, "We're now approaching Bunch 17 airspace."

"Good. Lieutenant Harrida, scan all frequencies for..."

"Sir," Simone's radar panel sparkled for a moment, then began to fade out. The computer analysis confirmed what she already knew, "Minovsky particle density is rising."

Dyson raised a brow. "Trace the jamming waves. Back track to the source."

"Right, Sir. Scanning now for..."

The Agamemnon lurched heavily to the side as a blast of energy crossed over the bow; the crimson beam of luminous energy blinding the entire crew for a few moments. After a moment the ship's thrusters stabilized, and the alarms rang out on all decks to bring the ship to battle stations, "I've got it on thermals! Just inside maximum firing range!" Simone shouted, putting the image on the forward screen, "Midway class assault carrier, and two heavy cruisers. They're moving away from us at full combat speed..." The thermal image on the monitor switched to a visual from the ship's long range cameras, and then just as the Tarawa's mega particle guns fired again. This time the twin blasts of energy missed by a wider margin, and the Agamemnon's guns fired back immediately.

"Signal the Gaia that we've located the enemy ships! Launch all mobile suits in a screening formation and continue firing..."

Something massive passed directly over the bridge of the ship, followed shortly by three smaller objects, all moving at tremendous speed towards the Tarawa. His eyes couldn't identify any of the shapes, but only by their movements did he recognize what they were, "Flash Gundams... and that new monstrosity... Would be nice to see how they fare against the Tarawa."

On the bridge of the Tarawa, Kelly read the radar panel in earnest, still un-used to his knew post but for some reason finding comfort in being able to see everything that was going on around him. Even as the return fire from the Agamemnon streaked past them as they retreated, four massive heat sources appeared on his screen and the computer immediately identified the silhouettes, "We've got incoming. Three Flash Gundams, and one unknown mobile armor."

Brian clenched his fists anxiously. "Maintain full combat speed! AA-defenses, standby for close combat! All mobile suits, launch immediately!"

Down in the hangar deck, Naomi and the other pilots were already locked into catapults. At first sound of the order, she slammed the throttles forward and leaned into the catapult, "801, launching!"

"805, launching!" Lucy said half a second later, firing his catapult at almost the same instant. Both of the mobile suits shot from the mobile suit bays of the Tarawa, then rolled back on a wide ark that would bring them in perpendicular to the Flash Gundams.

Ryo launched right behind Naomi, followed in short order by Mike and Rico in the Galbaldys and Duncan in the GM Custom. The five GMs from the escort cruisers circled in the other direction, setting up the approaching Flash Gundams in a pincer movement.

And scanning ahead, Naomi immediately noticed something that amused her, "Ryo, there's a squad of Hizacks moving to engage as well."

"Damn. Like it wasn't already hard enough..."

"We can take em, but watch your tail." The enemy suits were just coming into her maximum firing range now, and at this point their sensors noticed her approach. The Flash Gundams were sticking together in a tight formation wile the Hizacks around them seemed to be acting as a screen. "I think they're trying to get through to the ship."

"Fat chance of that," The Hizacks in the distance locked on as the Tarawa's mobile suits approached. The decision of how to attack and where rattled around in her brain until she met the most logical consensus, "We need to draw them into Vanessa's sights... Lucy, take your team and take out those pinheads down below. Take Duncan with you."

Lucy groaned slightly, "How come you and Ryo always fly solo?"

"This new model's too damn fast. No one else can keep up with me."

"Roger." Lucy adjusted her approach angle and pulled away from the two Gerbera's, zeroing in on a squad of Hizacks from the Dogos Gaia. She locked on at maximum range and fired a single shot from the beam rifle; the first Hizack dodged the attack, rolled to its side and fired back. Immediately all four of the Tarawa's suits plunged into a spiraling battle with all six of the Titans suits, dog-fighting in space in calculated movements designed to spread the battlefield across as wide an area as possible.

Three Hizacks stood in their way, even as the Flash Gundams broke from their formation to engage. Naomi quickly locked onto the first suit and fired a burst from the her beam machinegun, blowing off both of the suit's legs as she passed it at high speed. Two other Hizacks moved in closer, firing with machineguns, but no sooner did they move in to engage did a massive spray of energy beams cut the space around her from one of the Flash Gundams in the formation. Naomi easily dodged the attack, but the two Hizack pilots were far less fortunate. "Such a clumsy attack... is that you, Miranda?"

"I have nothing to say to YOU, Seven!" The Flash Gundam released all twelve of its bits at once, swirling up to surround the Gerbera as it moved through space. Naomi rolled on her back as she flew and fired a wide spray with the machineguns in her forearms, dodging fire from both the bits and the Gundam as she went. Four of the bits exploded behind her, and she accelerated again to put some distance between them. "You betrayed us! We were all in this together, remember?!"

"Who's "we?" It was the four of us, Miranda! You were my friend, I was trying to help YOU! You think I had any loyalty to Carter?!"

This stopped her for a moment, but from behind her Ulyana's Gundam released its own bits to swarm up around her. For some reason Miranda felt her adrenaline pumping with more intensity, her thoughts becoming more erratic until she herself could no longer control them. She felt herself loosing control; everything about it felt more and more unnatural... "N-Naomi... y-you have to..."

Something that felt like a fist closed around her mind and gripped her tightly in her control. She recognized the source of the energy; a hundred kilometers behind them, Lucifer's psycommu was hammering them all into submission. "Target identified," Nine said coldly, "Commence attack sequence,"

"Roger," Miranda moved to the side, clearing Ulyana's line of fire.

Her forearm guns screamed a barrage of beam fire at the Gerbera, but Izumi's beam machinegun caught her from a blind side and chopped away a section of her armor on the left shoulder. "Naomi, I'm picking up that unknown mobile armor. It's headed straight for us."

"Keep your distance, Ryo! Draw them to the rocks!" She reversed back as she fired another long burst, first against Miranda's mobile suit and again at Ulyana's unit. The quick pulses burst against both of their I-fields and dissipated into space, but a return fire from somewhere below them shot the beam machinegun from Naomi's hands. She looked down in that direction just in time to see Ashitaka's Gundam moving up from below, firing away with all of its weapons as it closed in, "Shit, that's the last thing I need!"

"It's okay, just switch to your auto-cannons!" Ryo put a burst in Ashitaka's direction to slow his approach, then joined Naomi in what had become a high-speed run for cover.

Even as the two of them turned and made a dash towards the asteroid, Lucy's mobile suits and the supporting GMs began to regroup further below, a second wave of Hizacks moving up to replace the squad the nine of them had just driven off. "Reinforcements are coming, but we don't have time to worry about em." Lucy said quickly, changing packs on her beam rifle, "Where's Naomi and Ryo?"

Rico scanned in space for a moment and spotted the exchange of fire, "There! Moving towards the resource satellite!"

"Excellent! Let's get in there and given them some support before..."

"Lucy!" Mike shoved the Gundam to the side just as a massive energy beam would have sliced it in half. All of them turned at once as another, larger target loomed against the star field, this one making no effort to pursue the other mobile suits but heading straight towards the Tarawa. And Lucy's squad was directly in its path.

Duncan's jaw fell open as his weapons locked on; even as he watched it, the shape of the mobile armor appeared to be shifting before his eyes. The armored panels on the side slid back and revealed arms, the drive pylons on the underside unfolded and formed into oddly shaped legs. A port for a beam cannon on the chest shifted upwards and became a head; in seconds, what had been a terrifying mobile armor had transformed into an even more terrifying mobile suit, easily thirty meters from head to toe. "What the hell is that thing?!"

Lucy's reaction was one of action; she quickly aimed and fired several blasts from the beam rifle directly into the torso of the mobile suit. Instead of dodging, the mobile suit took the blasts in the chest, all of which struck an energy field and deflected off into space. Now a diamond-shaped emitter on the chest began to sparkle and Lucy's instincts screamed in her head, "Get clear!"

All of them fired thrusters to evade, but the sweeping pattern of the scatter beam caught two of the GMs and Duncan's GM Custom before they could escape the cone of fire. One of the GMs exploded immediately, Duncan's suit and the other GM disintegrated and fell away in pieces as their pilots clung to whatever was left of their machines. Lucy and the other pilots scrambled to clear out of its way, and the giant mobile suit charged past them without hesitation, diving towards the Tarawa at fantastic speed.

"Damn, she broke through... 805, calling Empty Nest, enemy mobile armor headed your way!"

On the bridge of the Tarawa, Brian took a deep, slow breath, "I was afraid of that... Erin, lay in a new course. Head for bearing 1-2-7 mark 1-5."

Ensign Garcia started to turn the ship, then stopped in amazement at the new direction, "Captain, that takes us directly towards the asteroid!"

"That's right, Ensign! Take is directly into that resource asteroid! Tell the Adelaide and the Brisbane to remain on course!"

Even Kelly was puzzled by the order, "Leaving our escorts behind, Brian?"

"Carter's only interest is in the Tarawa. He'll follow us to hell and back again." He paused a moment and chuckled, "Though he might not follow us out."

Naomi and Ryo came over the top of the resource satellite just as another swarm of beam cannons chopped up the rock face behind them; the two Gerberas fired a burst from both pairs of auto-cannons in the forearms into the chest of Ashitaka's mobile suit. Most of the shells bounced off harmlessly, but one lucky shot punched through the radiator on the left side and split open the mobile suit in an explosion of sparks. He started to redouble his evasive efforts when several more shells punched through the armor on his right knee and his mobility began to fall as his systems crashed one by one. After a moment the psycommu system also failed, and Ashitaka's mind suddenly cleared and his thoughts returned to him, "Shit," He muttered, "This is Eight Murasame, I can't stay in the fight! Pulling out!"

Ulyana moved immediately to cover his retreat, until another burst from Ryo's beam rifle raked across his vernier pack and rendered him completely immobile. The Flash Gundam began to drift helplessly in space, and Naomi took this opportunity to refocus on her other foes. "We need to buy more time until the big one gets here!"

"Not sure how long I can buy you..." Ryo dodged laser fire from a trio of bits, then fired a burst from his beam rifle across Miranda's face, turning her away from attacking Naomi.

No sooner did the distraction turn her attention did Naomi's beam saber slice a chunk out of her chest armor, disabling the scatter cannon above the cockpit. Miranda reacted sloppily, leaning inwards and throwing a punch in a desperate bid to push Naomi back. As a reward, she took another swing of the beam saber and cut off her arm at the elbow. "C'mon, Miranda, you're better than this!"

"You're in my way, Naomi!" Two bits popped out from the launchers in the shoulders and moved to a position directly above them, both opening up with a barrage of pulse lasers that sent Naomi backpedaling evasively.

Miranda moved quickly to press the attack, but was stopped in her tracks as another, much larger energy beam struck from above, hitting the asteroid in front of her in a powerful explosion. All eyes looked upwards in shock and amazement; the Tarawa was racing towards the resource satellite at its top speed, one of its cannons firing forward against the Flash Gundams near the asteroids, the other two port and starboard aimed rearwards towards the onrushing giant mobile suit behind it. Lucy's team brought up the rear, pouring firepower into Lucifer in a bid to slow it down until the Tarawa could get into range of the asteroid for what Captain Anderson undoubtedly planned.

"So that's their new mobile suit?" Naomi said, scanning Lucifer at maximum range and recording the image, "Not too subtle, are we Carter?"

A burst of fire struck the giant mobile suit from behind; Lucy and the two Galbaldy's poured their beam rifles into it as they charged in, their beams bouncing harmlessly off an I-field to its back. At full speed, Alpha Gundam physically collided with the mobile suit and held on for dear life while the Galbaldys moved to attack from the flanks. Naomi need only watch for a few moments before she noticed the pattern that Lucy had clearly noticed herself, Not enough energy... she has to cut the shields to fire beam weapons! "801, to Eagle Eye, Tarawa's gonna pass right over you! Target that behemoth on the rear and wait for an opening! Her I-field will shut down right before she fires!" A few quick pulses flashed through space around her and she twisted in place in a series of evasive maneuvers as the Flash Gundam's bits zeroed in for the kill.

With the quickest of movements she spun around and cut down one with her auto-cannon, then fired thrusters and pushed straight up as Uylana's scatter beam hit the asteroid beneath her, taking the other two bits with it. Ulyana charged for another another blast until Ryo appeared behind her, slashing deeply across her back with the beam saber before she could react quickly enough to evade. The Gundam's main pack exploded, and the mobile suit began to tumble in space as the pilot stabilized with its secondary thrusters. "Main engines are gone!"

"Hold on, Uly, I'll be right there...!" A burst of fire from the distance beat her to the punch; three different beams from three different mobile suits rained down on Ryo's mobile suit from the distance as he pressed in for the kill, one of the shots shooting away his beam saber along with the hand that carried it. Ryo rolled back and returned fire with his own beam rifle, and all three of the enemies scattered.

"Empty Nest to all units," Came the call from the Tarawa, "Enemy reinforcements approaching. Fall back within range of the ship's defenses!"

I hate it when this happens, Naomi disengaged from the Flash Gundams, pulling back to the onrushing assault carrier as it neared the asteroid. The behemoth mobile suit chasing it was even now closing in, but delayed heavily by its continuing wrestling match with Lucy and the Galbaldys. The surviving GM unit had already come up around the Tarawa and was trading fire with the new groups of approaching mobile suits, but even now the sky was filling with enemies.

Ryo and Naomi both fell back and landed on the end of the launch ramp of the mobile suit deck, firing with whatever weapons they had left at the enemies all around the ship. Quick-thinking mechanics in the starboard bay opened the hatch and pushed a beam machinegun into space; Naomi grabbed it as it passed and put her auto-cannons to rest, firing now off the beam rifle.

Tarawa now passed directly over the asteroid, and as it did the ship banked up sharply and rocketed into space for its last mad retreat from Side 2. In another minute Vanessa would spring their trap, but Brian transmitted one last order first, "Lieutenant Marquise, once you fire the shot, send a feedback wave through the energy feed to the asteroid's fusion reactor."

Vanessa did a double take at the request, breaking radio silence for the first time, "Captain, that'll cause a...!"

"I know, Vanessa. Just do it!"

"Roger." Lucifer was coming into her sights now, with Lucy and the others still dogging it in a vain effort to distract it from destroying the Tarawa. She focused her senses on the enemy there, tuning her soul to the enemy pilot to predict her moves perfectly. Even as she watched, Lucifer seemed to be gaining ground; a quad-blast from its arm cannons blew off the legs of one of the Galbaldys, and with a powerful swing of its arms sent Lucy tumbling into space. Rico's mobile suit fired its missiles at nearly point blank range; Lucifer fired back with its scatter cannons, blasting through his shield and knocking off one of his arms, along with a sizeable section of armor from his torso.

I can feel you... She thought, homing in on the pilot in her mind's eye, Just give me one good opening... c'mon...

Nine sensed a burst of pressure in the sides of her head, sudden intensity but growing with every second. This was a new threat, she realized, not from the Tarawa or any of the other pilots. Who's tracking me? Tarawa's mega particle cannons fired to the rear against the behemoth; Lucifer's I-field caught both of the beams, and evaded the next barrage as she moved to change her firing position. The pressure increased, with such intensity that her heart was now pounding in her chest, Where is that coming from? Where is it...? Her frustration overwhelmed her, and in a snap decision she tapped a switch on the control panel. The psycommu system immediately shut down.

"88%.. 94%... alright..." The force chamber in beam cannon was at full capacity, enough, she suspected, even to blast Lucifer out of the sky. Vanessa sensed a change in her target, but didn't have time to ponder the implications. With the system deactivated, Nine could see clearly now; a brilliant red light in the darkness of her world, beaming on her like a spotlight, waiting to make its move. Ahead of her she sensed the Tarawa as well, but without the interface even that had changed somehow... She cut the I-field and powered up her scatter beam for a concentrated blast.

"Gotcha!" The scatter beam flickered as it began to fire, and Vanessa squeezed the trigger... but just a split second too late she realized that the scatter beam was no longer aimed at the carrier.

Their attacks passed each other in space. Vanessa's beam cannon scored a direct hit, slicing across the torso on the left side and tearing away a large section of the giant mobile suit under the left arm. The scatter beam that answered it rained down on the GM custom in a tight concentration, dozens of tiny particle beams slicing through every section of the armor and even boring into the rock face it stood on. Vanessa just managed a squeak of surprise before the mobile suit vaporized around her and the fusion reactor detonated, adding to the fireball of molten rock as the beams drilled deeper into the asteroid, reaching the core of the facilities below.

The brilliant fireball that erupted from Vanessa's firing position was the first of many as the asteroid begun to tear itself apart. From deep within the rock the fusion reactor detonated with the force of a hundred nukes, and the vaporized materials pushed their way out of the asteroid until the entire mass of it was consumed in a fireball. A scattering of rock fragments and space dust buffeted the Tarawa as if raced away from the scene, forced the Titans mobile suits to pull back and provided an ample screen from the radars of the warships in the distance.

Even with the damage from Vanessa's cannon, Lucifer was the only mobile weapon to move through the debris. "Damn snipers..." Nine grumbled, homing in to finish her fight, "You're next Tarawa!" Nine locked onto the ship through the chaos her beams had caused, fired again in a wider pattern. The beams hit nothing but the scattering of asteroid fragments, but cleared a path all the way to the ship for her to move in closer. Tarawa's rear guns fired again and again to drive her off, but this time there was no one between her and her goal. "Finally!" She shouted, "Finally I can..."

Her psycommu still deactivated, she sensed suddenly a new light in the center of where she sensed the Tarawa was moving. There was a presence there, identical in nature to the one she had just destroyed, but when she focused on it she sensed it was moving towards her... a woman, standing between her and the Tarawa with her hands up defensively, "Stop it, Alice!" Vanessa shouted in desperation, "You don't want to do this!"

"I have to! Get out of the way!" She charged up another blast, and now a new presence appeared in front of her... and a third... and a fourth and fifth. Connor was there, and Eric, and a young girl she had never seen before who very much reminded her of Naomi.

"Don't do it, Nine." Connor urged, "They're not your enemies."

"Of course they are! They're the ones who..." But when she thought about it, the realization struck her that Connor was telling the truth. Whatever it was that had caused her to hate the Tarawa so much was no longer present in her mind, "Aren't they?"

The other girl pointed, directing Nine's attention to the distance. Somehow she could see them; the Dogos Gaia and the Agamemnon alongside. And Carter, standing on the bridge, with the same obnoxious grin on his lips, "There's your enemy, right over there. Do you see?"

Nine turned back to the others and saw that a new presence had joined them: a tall man in a Zeon uniform with gentle eyes and black hair. She had never seen this man before in this life or the one she had forgotten, but something in her soul told him this was Major Isaac Cunningham. "Don't you let anyone tell you who you are, Alice." He said softly, "Find yourself in the things you left behind. The things that matter to you most are the things that define you."

"What matters most to me?! I want my life back, that's all that matters!"

"Carter is not the one who can give that to you." Connor said.

"Then who can?"

The six ghostly images disappeared again, plunging her back into the darkness she had known her entire life. But in the fading images one face flashed before her eyes, at once answering her question before consciousness left her, "Duncan...?"

- 1803 hours (CST) -
Captain Larson groaned and set the handset back down on her desk, leaning back in her chair in anxiety. Sayla read the gesture properly, and groaned likewise to match. "Didn't go well, did it?"

Larson shook her head. "Eight mobile suits were destroyed, all of the others were heavily damaged. Tarawa even lost two of her own."

Sayla felt a nervous twinge in her stomach. "Which two?"

"Duncan and Vanessa. They said Duncan managed to bail out in time, he'll make a recovery in a day or so."

"I see." Somehow she breathed the faintest sigh of relief, though not for herself, but for Larson's peace of mind. "Your dau... er... Commander Wilson is okay, isn't she?"

After the longest hesitation, Captain Larson nodded. "A little shaken up, but she's okay."

Sayla thought for a few long moments, any way that might help the Tarawa in what was increasingly a one-sided battle. The request for reinforcements came at a time when AEUG resources were stretched to their limit. All construction facilities were hard at work building the new ships, new mobile suits, new facilities to build both. None of these things would be ready in time to assist the Tarawa, and yet the Titans would be able to reinforce with powerful new weapons any day of the week.

But they did have one trump card. "I think we have no choice but to send to Tarawa that monstrosity Marquise was hiding."

Larson sat up rigid in her chair, partly in surprise, partly in frustration, "I was led to believe that mobile suit would be used only as a last resort."

"If the Titans continued to develop new weapons, it will be entirely obsolete in a matter of months."

"It's ALREADY obsolete. It's not the technology we need, it's the firepower."

"And who needs that firepower now more than the Tarawa does? We can send them spare parts for their mobile suits, but as for reinforcements, we just can't do it. That mobile suit is the only assistance we can give them now."

Larson thought about it for a few long moments, but just as she was coming to her final decision a new call buzzed on her monitor and she picked up the handset and switched on the video monitor. "Larson speaking."

Brex Forra appeared on the other end, Lieutenant Quattro a few feet behind him as always, "Greetings, Captain. Is Dr. Mass with you?"

"Yes, she's here."

"Can I speak with her please?" Larson gestured the phone over to Sayla, and she stepped forward and took the handset and looked directly into the monitor, "Dr. Mass, we've finally received a reply from Mr. Winn in Hong Kong. They'll be shipping our package in seven days."

Sayla nodded, and looked over at Gwen, "We'll have to pick it up from orbit. We'll only have time for one pass."

"But it will be more difficult than we thought," Brex added, "Reports indicate Titans surveillance is intensifying. We estimate chances of the package being intercepted are about 80%."

Gwen shrugged. "Well, tell em not to send it then."

"We can't afford to wait," Lieutenant Quattro added from behind him, "Our window of opportunity is seven days away, during a solar flare when their tracking capabilities will be reduced. We won't have another opportunity like this for another six months. If we wait for Titans surveillance to loosen up, Anaheim is likely to default on the contract."

"Can't we borrow from investors until we can recover the package?"

"The investors are already past their limit and waiting for returns. This recovery is time-specific. Either we do this in seven days, or we don't do it at all."

It was a truly remarkable thing the way Lieutenant Quattro could be so calculating at times, yet Larson knew already that he was entirely correct. Despite her better judgment, her choice was clear. "We'll set off in three days for the rendezvous point. With any luck we'll slip past without being spotted."

"Very well, Captain. Make all the preparations you need."

Larson was about to end the transmission when Sayla snatched the handset from her and stared into the monitor, "Quattro Bajina," She said gently.

The Lieutenant hesitated for the longest moment, and then in a surprising gesture, took off his sunglasses and stepped in front of the Commodore. "Hello, Dr. Mass. It's been awhile."

Larson couldn't be sure, but for just a moment she thought she heard a tremor in Sayla's voice. "I, uh... I just wanted to tell you... No hard feelings from... from last time."

Quattro's normally blank face manifested the faintest of smiles, "Thank you, Doctor. And also, thank you for finally taking my advice."

Sayla returned his smile, and gently hung up the phone and ended the transmission. She walked back around the desk without a word, heading for the door out of the office. "Captain Larson," She said, pausing in the doorway, "We might need to call in assistance for this mission."

"What kind of assistance?"

"One ship won't be enough. If the Titans discover us, it would be a big help to have an assault carrier on hand."

It was an idea she normally would have dismissed offhand, but somehow she sensed a hidden meaning behind Sayla's words. After a moment of thought, part of that message became clear. "You're right. The Tarawa could act as our reinforcements."

Sayla nodded, both of them understanding just what was being left unsaid. But for the matter at hand, Sayla made one more thing clear, "Captain, I really don't know the history between you and your daughter, but please, take my advice, don't let that history keep you apart. It's a mistake that you'll end up regretting." She pushed through the door of the office and then she was gone, leaving her words hanging in the air for Larson to chew on for countless hours while the ship made preparations to depart.