I don't own anything except Ken DiFalco, his subordinates, and Sophia DiFalco

I also do not own the Odin; it is Deathzealot's creation, and the credit is his, not mine

Millenia Crescent does not belong to me either; she is the creation of arekuruu-inabikari-no-she

Section Nine. A shadowy organization that emerged from the chaos of the Bloody Valentine War, its existence became known to the public at the signing of the Junius Treaty on March 10th, C.E. 72, when its formation was revealed to be part of the Treaty's postwar provisions.

To the world at large, Section Nine was considered a counterterrorist organization, with its initial goal being the prevention of attacks by any radical factions from either side still opposed to the peace treaty; only those in the upper echelons of national governments read beyond that, to find its primary purpose: as a third party paramilitary organization, funded by both Orb and the PLANT colonies, intended as a failsafe against another war of the apocalyptic proportions the Bloody Valentine War reached.

As the mysterious True ZAFT faction before it, Section Nine would fight either side if it had to, in order to preserve the peace so many people had spent their lives to achieve.

The unit consisted of hand-picked soldiers and former police investigators, their identities largely unknown, all led by a mysterious man who wore an ancient, World War II-vintage German-issue gasmask, using it to protect his identity... and, some said, provide an additional safety measure against assassination.

He was known only as "The Major".

Born to take True ZAFT's place, only a handful of people knew that its core membership was, in fact, the remnants of True ZAFT... led by the three surviving members of the elite DiFalco Team.

The Gray Demons of the Grimaldi Front... and their leader, Kenneth "Grimaldi Falcon" DiFalco, known to some as a hero, for his desertion from ZAFT and subsequent destruction of his own creation, the gamma ray cannon known as GENESIS.

Known to others as a traitor for the very same reason.

It was, therefore, no wonder to those in the know that Ken DiFalco vanished after the war... and that, as the Major, he kept his true name and face a closely-guarded secret.

Two years and six days had now passed since the end of the Bloody Valentine War. In that time, Section Nine quietly built up its strength, deployed on several small-scale antiterrorist operations, and continued to prepare for a conflict the Major considered inevitable. A student of history, he did not believe in the "War to End All Wars". In the name of that preparation, one strike he authorized was against a unit of the Earth Alliance which did not officially exist; and this time, plausible deniability proved a liability for the Earth Alliance. The Atlantic Federation protested Section Nine's "high-handed actions" in "launching a strike of dubious intelligence within Atlantic Federation territory without prior notification and consent", but Chairman Gilbert Durandal of the PLANT Supreme Council regretfully informed them that he had no jurisdiction over the matter.

The Earth Alliance, unwilling to risk a renewed conflict at this point, grumbled, but let the matter slide, despite the rumored theft of a top-secret mobile suit prototype. After all, the unit it belonged to didn't exist...

Also in the name of preparation, however, Ken DiFalco authorized an action that made even him uneasy... and led those closest to him -including his fiancé- to openly question his grip on reality.

So things stood on October 3rd, C.E. 73... the day everything began again.

Lagrange Point Four, Armory One, Harbor, October 3rd, C.E. 73

Two individuals stepped off a small, slate-gray shuttle at Armory One's main dock. Both wore slate-gray combat jumpsuits, with sidearms and other equipment on their belts, and long, narrow cases slung over their backs. One was a young man with iron-gray hair; the other a woman slightly younger than he, with emerald hair. Neither of them bore any insignia, save for a crossed-katana patch on their left shoulders.

"We've arrived at Armory One," the man murmured into a throat mic, as they approached the guard post leading to Armory One's interior. "On schedule, Control."

"Copy that," a calm, cultured voice on the other end replied. "Any sign of... untoward activity, Tom?"

Thomas Delaney rolled his eyes, and his companion snorted. "Give us a break, Control, we just got here. We didn't see anything on the way in, no, but we haven't even gotten inside the base facilities yet. Tell Möbius One we'll report when we've got something to report."

"Of course," Control replied smoothly. "Sorry, Leanne; I must admit, I'm not exactly used to this job yet. Bear with me."

"Yeah, sure," Leanne Eldridge said under her breath.

"Cut the chatter," Tom murmured. "Time to make our entrance."

As expected, the ZAFT green coat at the guard post motioned for them to stop, taking careful note of their obvious armament. "Excuse me," he said, politely but firmly, "but this colony is a restricted facility; only those with proper security clearance are permitted entry. And unless you can give me a good explanation for those weapons..."

Tom cleared his throat, delving into a belt pouch for an ID card. "Section Nine, soldier," he said simply.

The green coat took one look at the ID, darted a glance at their shoulder patches, and nodded quickly. "Of course, Sir. You're cleared to enter."

The gray-haired operative, who had himself been a ZAFT soldier only two years before, smiled, and tucked away his ID. "Thank you, trooper."

The reaction the green coat had displayed wasn't exactly a surprise. In the two years since the war, it had been made clear to ZAFT soldiers -and drilled rather firmly into the heads of new recruits- that members of Section Nine had access where they wanted, when they wanted. For some reason The Powers That Were had decided Section Nine served a very important purpose, and thus were not to be hindered. The usual assumption among ZAFT grunts, on the infrequent occasions when the gray-clad operatives turned up, was that a counterterrorism op was either being planned or considered, based on intelligence the operatives were to gather in their visit.

So far, that assumption had proven correct.

"So, ah," the green coat began boldly, "are you expecting any trouble, Sir?"

"That's Commander Delaney," Tom replied, solving the ZAFT soldier's problem of what to call him, "and no, not really. This is ZAFT's newest weapons development base, with all the security that implies. However, tomorrow is also the day you're supposed to be rolling out the Minerva and the new mobile suits, right? Add that to the Chairman himself visiting, along with the Chief Representative of Orb, and..."

"The Major thought we should check things out," Leanne finished, "just to be sure. You don't take chances with all those factors involved."

"Ah... good point," the green coat acknowledged, stepping aside. "Well, good luck, Sir, Ma'am."

"Thank you, Trooper," Tom said politely, and stepped past, Leanne close behind.

"Does the way regular ZAFT looks at us still feel as weird to you as it does to me?" Leanne whispered, once they stepped out into the colony proper.

"Oh, yeah," Tom told her. "If I'd known it was going to be like this back when the Major said he 'had a job for us' two years ago, I'd..."

"You'd have done it anyway," she said quietly. "Because we owe him our loyalty, till death and beyond."

"Yeah," he conceded, "I would have. But like you said, it's still weird." He lowered his voice. "All right, Control, we're inside the colony. Mind telling me exactly where we're supposed to go from here? There's so many hangars and warehouses in this place..."

"The new mobile suits are supposedly being kept at Mobile Suit Hangar Six," Control answered. "Möbius One says to start there; and Captain Chance wishes me to reassure you that Odin will be waiting for you if the situation does deteriorate."

Tom shook his head. "Well, that's comforting... or it would be, except that Odin's out there, and we're in here. This had better be a false alarm..." He sighed. "All right, Control, we're heading in. We'll make contact again once we're at the objective."

"Understood. Control, out."

Lagrange Point 4, Orb Shuttle, Approaching Armory One

Within the passenger compartment of an Orb shuttle, Kira Yamato stretched as much as the seat restraints would allow. It had been a long time since he spent much time strapped into a seat in zero gravity for extended periods, and he still wasn't quite used to it again.

"Looks like we're almost there," he said to his companion, the person he was also guarding... among other things. "Long flight, huh?"

"Yeah," Cagalli Yula Athha agreed. "But we don't have much choice. You know as well as I do what we're up here for; what Chairman Durandal is doing is tantamount to violating the Junius Treaty. Ken's people confirmed what he's up to, remember?"

"Actually, he said that his people had strong indications that he was, and that he was sending a team to check things out," Kira corrected. "He also said that even if the Chairman is doing that, it doesn't technically violate the provisions of the treaty. A loophole, apparently."

"Apparently," she said dryly. She did have to concede, though, that if anyone knew whether or not ZAFT's actions were a treaty violation, it was her old friend and partner. Though it wasn't well known, even among the various politicians, he'd actually played a small but important role in drafting the treaty in the first place. "Still... Hey, do you see that?"

"See what?" Kira twisted his head around to look out the viewport on her side, and his eyebrows went up. "Yeah, it is. I wonder what the Odin's doing out here... unless she's supporting the fact-finding mission he talked about?"

"Probably." Cagalli shook her head. "I still can't figure him out sometimes... Chairwoman Canaver made a good choice two years ago. Still, I wonder sometimes how Murrue puts up with it."

"Excuse me, My Lady," the shuttle pilot called over the intercom, "but we'll be docking shortly. I suggest you and Mr. Yamato prepare to debark."

"We'll be ready," Kira answered. "Thanks."

"At least he's not one of the hero-worshiping ones," Cagalli said, smiling. "Right?"

He shuddered; and the reaction was only partly feigned. "Yeah, that's for sure." Being a well-known war hero had its drawbacks; he got more publicity than he'd have preferred, and too many of Orb's soldiers regarded him with something approaching -or even exceeding- awe. Sometimes he really did envy his friends Athrun Zala and Lacus Clyne, and how they'd quietly retired from public view, living with Reverend Malchio and his orphans. Sometimes, he admitted to himself, I even envy Ken. He might be busier than Athrun, and in a more dangerous job, but at least nobody knows who he is...

Cagalli looked at him shrewdly. "Regretting taking the job?" she asked, almost coyly.

Kira shook his head. "Of course not; there's no way I'd let anything happen to you, or let anyone keep us apart. Still... I could wish to be a little less famous sometimes."

She nodded in understanding. "I know what you mean. Sometimes it seems like you get it even worse than I do, and I'm the noble, not you. Still... I'm glad you're here, Kira."

"Me, too." And glad that this shouldn't be anything more than a quick meeting, Kira added to himself. Places like this just haven't felt the same to me since Morgenroete was attacked, and the G-weapons were stolen... Still, that event had had its benefits; without it, Ken DiFalco would've remained out of the war, leaving things to his trusted subordinates, while the crew of the Archangel would've remained with the Earth Forces to the bitter end...

And one Kira Yamato would never have met one Cagalli Yula Athha.

Lagrange Point 4, Girty Lue, Bridge

In a location Kira would've considered far too close for comfort, yet shielded from view by Mirage Colloid, a ship drifted silently, observing Armory One. Her name was Girty Lue; and on her Bridge sat a man in a charcoal-gray Earth Forces uniform, with white gloves and a gunmetal gray mask over his face. His fingers were steepled in thought... thought about the events of the day to come, which none aboard the colony knew of.

"I take it everything is on schedule?" Captain Neo Roanoke asked.

"Yes, Sir," Lieutenant Commander Ian Lee acknowledged. "Loussier, Neider, and Oakley were inserted into the colony half an hour ago; the operation will begin in two hours."

"Excellent. This should put the top brass in a better mood; maybe it'll make up for Section Nine's Greenland raid, six months ago." Neo snorted to himself; he remembered how badly that attack had shaken his superiors. It simply hadn't occurred to any of them that Section Nine's "Major" might actually be audacious enough to launch an operation within territory claimed by the Atlantic Federation.

Lee, however, found it very interesting that Neo himself had actually predicted the attack the moment the new machine -which had been stolen in the raid- was transferred there. He might have been young -though his mask made it difficult to tell, he appeared to be about twenty- he was clearly a very intelligent officer. Exactly how he'd reached his rank at such a young age, considering that the Earth Alliance wasn't nearly as... unorthodox as ZAFT, was something of a mystery, but Lee had heard Neo was supposed to be their answer to ZAFT's Grimaldi Falcon, assuming the man ever turned up again.

In the meantime, he was doing a stellar job in his current post.

Neo, who had been lost in thought, abruptly looked up. "Sensors, check the nearby space traffic. Is there anything unusual out there?"

His detection officer, though startled by the sudden query, dutifully checked his displays, and shook his head a few moments later. "Negative, Sir. Just the standard ZAFT traffic; the only thing that isn't in the schedule we intercepted is a collier about two kilometers from Armory One. IFF identifies her as Cornelius-class."

"Probably one they captured during the War," Lee offered. It was plausible enough; the Cornelius-class had been intended to act as supply ships for the Archangel-class, but the first ship had been left derelict by the destruction of Heliopolis, and eventually commandeered by the Junk Guild. Eventually, though, more had been built to service other ships, and some had been "lost to causes unknown" during the War.

Still... something about it didn't seem right to Neo. There's no reason for a Cornelius to be here, he thought, frowning behind his mask. Certainly not just hanging out there... Wait. Wasn't there another ship developed at the same time as Archangel and the Cornelius prototype? Yes... the escort ship...

"She's not a Cornelius," he announced. "Get me a visual. They're using a false IFF transponder, and probably altering their emissions profile to simulate one, but that isn't what's actually out there."

"Sir?" The detection officer was puzzled, but he carried out his instructions... and a moment later, Ian Lee whistled tunelessly.

"You're right, Captain," he said, impressed. "That's an Odin-class escort ship; and she's not one of ours. I didn't know ZAFT had captured any... How did you know, Sir?"

"A hunch, Ian. First of all, ZAFT didn't capture any Odins; that one out there doesn't belong to them. No, the false colors trick is more Section Nine's style, which means that ship is the Odin herself." Neo rubbed absently at the left side of his mask; a nervous habit Lee had noticed before, without understanding.

"But what are they doing here?" Girty Lue's CO wondered. "Unless they got wind of our operation somehow..."

"It's possible," Neo pointed out. "The Major is an annoyingly shrewd individual; his attack on Greenland is proof enough of that. However, they may have other reasons to be here. With them, you never know." He thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. "Never mind them for now. Continue the operation; even if they have deployed operatives to Armory One, even if their destination is the same as the Extendeds, I doubt they could affect the operation any. They're not trained to deal with our people."

"What if Odin tries to intervene after the fact?" Lee questioned. "Her firepower may not be as great as some ships, but she does have a positron cannon, and presumably a small complement of mobile suits."

"Let me worry about the mobile suits, Ian; my Exus should be enough to deal with whatever suits they may have crammed aboard. And if it isn't, the Extendeds will be able to mop up after the operation. As for the ship herself, I wouldn't worry too much. We have Mirage Colloid, and more Gottfrieds than they have energy weapons." Neo shook his head. "No, forget about Section Nine for the time being; they're of no consequence."

Armory One, Base Exterior

"I wonder what a base like this would've looked like during the War," violet-haired ZAFT redcoat Lunamaria Hawke mused, as her car drove across the main landing field within Armory One.

"Probably a lot busier," Vino Dupre, mechanic and -currently- driver opined. "Especially near the end, when the Earth Forces were closing in and True ZAFT was gaining strength. The mobile suits probably weren't as well-maintained, either. And speaking of mobile suits- Hey, watch it!"

Luna glanced up in time to see the Ceremonial-Type GINN narrowly miss stepping on them, continuing on its way along the base. "Almost crushed by an obsolete model," she sighed. "That would be just a great end to today, wouldn't it..."

"Watch where you're going!" Vino shouted irately at the GINN. "Just because we're not seventeen meters up... oh, forget it." He shook his head in irritation. "Mobile suit pilots… they're all the same…"

"I resent that," Lunamaria said mildly. "And what, exactly, does that say about mobile suit mechanics?"

The mechanic shook his head. "Never mind…"

Armory One, Office

"Your Excellency, the Chief Representative's shuttle has arrived."

PLANT Supreme Council Chairman Gilbert Durandal glanced up from the desk of his temporary office within Armory One, and nodded to his aide. "I see. Is she alone?"

The aide shook his head. "No, Your Excellency. She's accompanied by a single bodyguard, named Kira Yamato." He hesitated. "I believe it's the same Kira Yamato from the war two years ago, Sir."

Durandal nodded again. "It would be. He and Chief Representative Athha are practically inseparable… Is there anything else I need to know before I meet with them?"

The aide shrugged. "The only other news of note is that a pair of Section Nine operatives have also arrived; their mission is unknown at this time."

The Chairman frowned thoughtfully. "Section Nine… yes, I believe they did notify us that they'd be checking security here today, in preparation for tomorrow's launch of the Minerva, and the rollout of the new mobile suits. Exactly how they learned of them in the first place, I'm not sure I want to know… In any case, ignore them; the Major's subordinates will just go about their business without bothering anyone else. Most likely, they'll be gone before we know they've even finished."

"Probably, Sir," the aide agreed. "What with their ship remaining so close by."

Durandal stood. "Well, I'd best go meet the Chef Representative. I suspect she has something of importance to say, if she came all the way to L4 to do it."

Armory One, Spaceport

As they walked across the spaceport toward the elevator that would take them down into Armory One's administrative areas, Kira glanced at Cagalli's attire and shook his head in fond amusement. "I don't suppose you could've worn a dress just this once?" he suggested carefully. "When you're going to be meeting the Chairman?"

Cagalli shot him a glare. "My suit is fine," she retorted. "I may be a 'princess', but practically speaking I'm a politician, not nobility. Besides, when was the last time you saw me in a dress?"

"Two years, six months, and eleven days," he replied instantly. "The day the Archangel arrived in Orb the first time." He glanced at her sidelong. "You know, you do look good in a dress."

She shook her head. "Oh, shut up…"

Kira smiled, glancing around in what had become habit as his girlfriend's bodyguard. He wasn't seriously expecting trouble… though if trouble did occur, he was fairly confident of his ability to handle it. Tucked into his black, civilian jacket was a very uncivilian automatic pistol… and tied to his belt was a weapon not commonly seen in the PLANTs. A little over half a meter long, with a scarlet scabbard and matching twine-wrapped hilt, it was a wakizashi –a Japanese shortsword- which had been given to him two years before, by the ace pilot who had been his first mobile suit instructor, and his mentor. Kira didn't have the love for the blade that his teacher did –he knew all too well how messily a sword carved someone up- but he knew how to use it, and also knew that it could actually be more useful than the pistol, at least in close quarters.

So his sweep actually was mostly out of habit. The only movement he noted came from a trio of teenagers beyond the spaceport's gates, apparently window-shopping. His mind noted them dutifully, then ignored them.

Lagrange Point 4, Odin, Bridge

The man in the center seat of the escort ship's bridge was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, the very epitome of a military officer and gentleman.

He was not, however, part of any regular military at all, but rather the mysterious third-party known as Section Nine. He had begun his career as an Atlantic Federation officer, stayed with the job when his service was merged into the Earth Alliance Forces… and then, as a young lieutenant, found himself thrust into command of the Odin before she even left dock, after her senior officers were all killed in action within minutes of each other. That event had subsequently propelled him into deserting, along with the entire ship's company.

His name was Jason Chance. And as the slate-gray uniform he wore, complete with crossed-katana patch, indicated, he had no use for national forces any longer. Though I do sometimes think staying with the Earth Forces would've put less strain on my brain, he thought, glancing to his left.

To the left of the captain's chair was a seat normally reserved for a flag officer; and indeed, a rear admiral had flown his colors from that chair during the War. Now, though, the position was occupied by the radio support for the Section Nine operation. As blonde-haired and blue-eyed as Chance, he was actually slightly younger… and his appearance would've startled a great many people, had his face been adorned by the mask that once typified him.

"Fascinating, how these things work out," Rau Le Creuset murmured, almost to himself. "We need to access information within Armory One, and what should happen but the Chief Representative schedules a meeting with the Supreme Council Chairman at that exact location, giving us the pretext of scouting security arrangements… Falcon really is as clever as ever."

"So it would seem… and a little more cautious than he was at Jachin." Chance shivered. "That was a real mess… Say, speaking of the Major, where is he?"

"Making final checks to his maser rifle, I believe," Rau replied absently, frowning thoughtfully at his own small display. "Experimental technology, after all; and while he is a specialist in weaponry design, he's not accustomed to this particular field yet."

The captain snorted. "True enough. He's always been more the giant gamma-ray sort." He glanced sidelong at the ex-ZAFT commander. "But I suppose you'd know even more about the deployment of such weapons than he does."

Rau sighed. "Yes, I suppose I do; but I might point out that all I really did was goad Zala into using it, not activate the weapon myself. And we've already established I wasn't exactly in my right mind back then."

"True enough," Chance conceded. "Forgive me, though, if I still find it strange to have you on my bridge… as an ally, no less."

The other man raised an eyebrow. "You think it's strange? At least you had a history of working with ex-ZAFT soldiers, Falcon in particular. The only contact I ever had with the Earth Alliance was through that incompetent Azrael." Rau turned back to his screen. "Now, if those two can just reach the objective…"

"This is Blacksmith," Tom's voice said over the radio. "We've arrived at Hangar Six; preparing to begin data extraction."

Rau nodded. "Excellent. How's the security?"

"Pretty good, actually; they let us through without a hitch, but then they're supposed to. I doubt any attacker could get through here without a veritable army." The engineer/operative paused. "Lioness will run interference with the guards until my data extraction is complete, then we're out of here. Will make next contact when data begins to come in. Blacksmith, out."

Chance glanced over. "'Lioness'?"

Rau shrugged. "Falcon picked the code; I understand it's because of the friendship Leanne and Lady Cagalli struck up during the War. Beyond that, I don't really have any idea." He leaned back in his chair. "Well, Captain, I believe that's all that we can do for now. All that's left for us to is wait."

The captain shook his head. "Oh joy, oh bliss…"

Armory One, Administrative Center

"I wonder why Chairman Durandal chose to meet us in Armory One?" Cagalli mused, as she and Kira stepped off the elevator. "This is a pretty out of the way place…"

"Probably for the same reason Ken's people are here," Kira offered, keeping pace with her on the short walk to Durandal's office. "Minerva and the new mobile suits are supposed to enter active service tomorrow, after all; he's probably heavily involved in that."

She sighed. "Probably."

They arrived at the door to Durandal's temporary office, and, after a brief knock, the door was opened by the Chairman himself. "Ah, Lady Cagalli, Mr. Yamato. Please, come in."

As they entered, Durandal took the time to look them over. He knew rather more about them than they realized, of course; possibly more than they knew about themselves… at least at the genetic level. So, he thought to himself, returning to his desk, here are two of the four products of those experiments… still alive after all this time. Ulen would be pleased, I think. Heinrich, though… Heinrich would be very disappointed, I suspect. Not that Heinrich is in a position to be disappointed anymore, of course…

The death of Heinrich Metzinger had come as something of a surprise to him, but only because he hadn't been aware the geneticist was still alive in the first place. Durandal had, up to that point, believed that his fellow scientist had perished in the same attack that had destroyed his lab; he'd been rather amused, however, to learn that in the end it was his own masterpiece that had killed him… without even caring to learn the truth of his own genetic background.

A pity, he thought now. I could've used a man like that… but I suppose Commander DiFalco is perfectly happy rebuilding Orb's capital these days. Ah, well…

"So," Durandal said at last, once his guests were seated comfortably, "what can I do for you, Lady Cagalli? I assume you came on a matter of some importance, since you were willing to travel all the way to L4."

"Yes," Cagalli acknowledged, "I did." She gazed at him through narrowed eyes. "It's true, isn't it, that you're using Orb technology and human resources to create these 'New Millennium' and 'Second Stage' mobile suits? Along with the Minerva?"

"Yes," he conceded. "We are. I might point out, though, that some of that comes from Section Nine, which is jointly funded and supplied by Orb and the PLANTs; some of our research, for example, comes from a unit they… acquired, and subsequently turned over to us. I assure you, though, that none of this is intended for offensive deployment."

"Maybe not," she said, choosing her words with care, "but I'm afraid I have my doubts about how our resources are being used here. Section Nine can do what it wants; I've never tried to second-guess the Major. If that involves some of the material we gave them, fine. According to the charter that set them up, what they do is their business, so long as it falls within their mission statement. Resources direct from Orb, however, are quite another matter, Chairman."

Durandal sat back in his chair, considering. It would, of course, be possible for him to point out that Orb had something of its own which went even farther than Cagalli was accusing the PLANTs of; it was an open secret that Orb retained a single mobile suit that violated the Junius Treaty, after all. In the final analysis, though, allowances were made for Orb, given that it had been virtually annihilated by Muruta Azrael's nuclear attack, and was still in the process of rebuilding.

Finally, he shrugged. "I can understand your concerns," he said slowly, "even though I believe they're quite unnecessary. Therefore, why don't I take you to the facility itself? Perhaps seeing the new units with your own eyes will help you understand what it is we're doing here."

Cagalli hesitated. "Well…"

"I'd say it's a good idea," Kira said quietly. "We should at least hear him out, Cagalli; the PLANTs are still recovering from what Zala and Le Creuset did two years ago, remember. The restructuring going on up here must be almost as complicated as the physical rebuilding of Orb."

She hesitated a moment longer, then nodded slowly. "All right," she agreed. "We'll see for ourselves, Chairman. You deserve that much."

"Thank you, Lady Cagalli," Durandal said, standing. "I believe what you're about to see should allay your concerns at least a little." After all, he added silently, one of Minerva's machines isn't even ours, originally…

Armory One, Mobile Suit Hangar Six

"Well," Tom muttered to himself, surreptitiously attaching the cable from his pocket computer to the terminal in front of him, "here goes."

He was in a shadowy corner of Mobile Suit Hangar Six, not far from where three "Gundam-type" prototype mobile suits stood silently. Nearby, Leanne spoke quietly with the senior guard, discussing security details; but her role was primarily as a distraction, while he infiltrated his Boss's hacking program into Hangar Six's computers.

"This is Blacksmith," Tom murmured into his throat mic. "Beginning data extraction… now."

"Understood," Rau said through his earpiece. "How soon do you expect the program to begin cracking the encryptions?"

Lines of text and several images began appearing on the screen, and the engineer smiled to himself. "Now soon enough, Control? Getting data on ZGMF-X24S Chaos, ZGMF-X31S Abyss, and ZGMF-X88S Gaia. So far, everything's going smoothly."

"Excellent." The ex-ZAFT commander paused, as a new thought occurred to him. "Ah, Tom… are you actually supposed to be doing this?"

Tom's smile widened. "Technically? …No. That's why we're hacking the data, instead of just asking nicely. Technically, Section Nine's unlimited access only applies to locations, not data networks; however, Möbius One has deemed this necessary at this time."

He could practically hear Rau shaking his head. "Yes, that sounds just like him… always the maverick, always convinced he's right… Well, since you're not supposed to be doing it, what sort of data are you not supposed to be getting?"

The smile became a grin, almost despite himself. "Complete specs on the three prototypes we already knew about… including pilots. Hm… Chaos is slated to be piloted by Courtney Hieronymus; big surprise, considering that he's been the test pilot for every other unit with remote weapons, except maybe Providence… Abyss is supposed to go to Mare Strode. Not familiar with the name, but I've been out of touch with the ranks for a few years. Gaia… well, now that's interesting."

"Oh? You familiar with Gaia's pilot, Tom?"

"Yeah, actually. It's Riika Sheder; I don't know if you know her, but she's ZAFT's only blind pilot. She uses the same kind of goggles Möbius One did a couple times, back when his eyes were growing back." Tom frowned. "Just a second; I'm getting data on a fourth prototype."

"A fourth?" Rau repeated, mildly surprised. "I thought there were only three."

"So did I; maybe this one just hasn't been announced yet, or maybe they're security's a little better for the stuff already assigned to Minerva. Seems this one, ZGMF-X56S Impulse, is already aboard Minerva, along with its assigned pilot. Some kid named Shinn Asuka."

"I don't know the name," Rau said after a moment's thought. "Probably a new recruit; ZAFT had to rebuild their pilot corps after the War."

"Don't I know it," Tom said quietly. "That last year was a real mess…"

"Indeed… Well, anything else of note, or are those the only machines assigned to Minerva?"

"It's starting to look that way… Wait a second." Tom stared at the new information on his screen, and whistled. "Well, well, well… so that's what they did with it."

"With that?"

"Remember that raid in Greenland? The one that Möbius One authorized six months back? We captured a unit designated GAT-X105E Strike, along with a Noir Striker pack. We looked it over for about a week, copied the data, then gave the machine itself to ZAFT."

"I remember," Rau mused. "I thought they were still studying it, though."

Tom shook his head. "Apparently not, Control. It's been assigned to Minerva… and the designated pilot is Millenia Crescent."

"Crescent?" The older man fell silent for several moments, thinking. "Oh, yes, that's right… one of Möbius One's protégés, right?"

"Right," Tom confirmed. "Unlike Victor or Shiho, Millenia was never one of the Demons –which may have been just as well, given what happened to Victor– but we all knew her. She actually did have the skill to qualify for the team, though; the Boss never did explain why he didn't choose her."

"He always had his own criteria for that sort of thing," Rau reminded him, "and he never explained it to anyone. Still… I'd heard she was killed in action, during Operation Spit Break."

The engineer nodded, forgetting the other man couldn't see him. "She nearly was. In fact, she was worse off than Möbius One was after Endymion. The only reason she didn't die, as I understand it, was because the doctors got wind of George Glenn's continued survival as a disembodied brain, and one of them discretely asked the Junk Guild how it was done. Then they just… built her a new body, using mobile suit technology and advanced prosthetics to create something that looks just like an organic body, based around her brain and part of her spinal cord."

"Fascinating… I'd not heard about that, but at the time I was more interested in causing global chaos. So, what happened to her after the operation? I would've expected to hear about someone of her skill at Second Jachin."

Tom shook his head. "She was placed in suspended animation immediately after she was transferred into the new body, and spent the remainder of the War in a stasis capsule. I didn't know she'd been brought out of it even yet, but according to this she was revived six months ago. If I had to guess, she's spent those months adjusting to her body, and training up for her new assignment."

"I see. Hm…" Rau thought about it for a few moments. "Tom, you spent some hands-on time examining the 105E, didn't you? How would you say Crescent will handle the unit?"

"She was one tough lady in a GINN, Control," Tom replied, "and an even better pilot in a CGUE; we called her 'Black Widow', back in the day. Combine her skill with Strike Noir's performance, and you've got a force to be reckoned with. Not as good as Möbius One, of course… but you know as well as I do that we've only found one pilot who exceeds his skill. Believe me, Millenia is easily one of ZAFT's best pilots."

"Assuming she's been able to transfer that skill to her new body," Rau pointed out. "If she's lost something with the change in physical makeup…"

Tom shook his head again. "No way. You know as well as I do that most of what you need to be a skilled pilot rested in the mind, not the body… and moreover, her cyborg body will have a much higher G-limit. When the only organic component you really have to worry about is the brain…"

"Hm. Good point. Well, carry on, Tom; contact me again when you're ready for extraction."

"Roger that, Control. Blacksmith, out."

Armory One, Base Exterior

"I realize this may look to you like preparations for a war," Durandal said quietly, leading his two visitors past the hangars, "but I assure you, it's nothing of the sort. Or perhaps it is, but not in the way you think." He nodded to a new model in standard ZAFT green, positioned just inside one of the hangars; Kira recognized it as a ZGMF-1000 ZAKU. "The New Millennium series you see here, as well as the prototype Second Stage series, are merely our first line of defense."

"A formidable one," Kira noted. "And I can see where you've had to work around the Junius Treaty's provisions."

"Indeed," the Chairman concurred. "With the ban of N-jammer cancellers in military usage, we've instead opted for a prototype deuterion beam recharge system, at least for the Second Stage series. It's not as effective as nuclear power, of course, but as long as the mobile suit remains in range of the mothership its energy can be replenished as often as necessary."

"I can see where that would be an advantage," the youth murmured. He remembered all too well his own days piloting GAT-X105 Strike. Back then, running out of power in the middle of a battle had nearly killed him more than once, and the use of the FX-550 Skygrasper to deliver new Striker packs mid-battle had been a dubious solution at best. More often, the nimble fighters had used the Striker packs to supplement their own weaponry, and Strike had been left to fend for itself.

"You see," Durandal was saying, "we take the treaty very seriously, Lady Cagalli. We strictly adhere to its provisions, no matter the inconvenience, because we truly do want peace and freedom from aggression… but you need military power to ensure that."

"Sic Vis Pacem, Para Bellum," Kira quoted before Cagalli could respond, recalling one of his mentor's favorite dictums. "If you want peace, you must prepare for war."

The Chairman nodded. "Exactly. I see your teacher passed on his own philosophy to you, as well as the basic truths of war."

"To him, that is a basic truth of war," Kira replied, and grimaced. "Unfortunately, it… took a few arguments for me to see his point." In point of fact, they'd nearly killed each other over it, but as the Earth Alliance's "Dead Zone" ECM field had been in effect at the time, only a handful of people were even aware of it. "He and I still disagree on a few points, and our tactics are often very different, but he was right about that one."

"Even so," Cagalli cut in quickly, "there's a risk to what you're doing. Don't you see? You may need force to protect yourselves, but if you have too much of it, other nations will believe you're intending to start a war yourselves, and take preemptive action."

Durandal shrugged. "I'll concede there's some truth in that, My Lady, but quite frankly it's a risk we have little choice but to take. True ZAFT may've forced a truce two years ago, but not everyone was pleased with that. And since, even now, the PLANTs remain numerically inferior to the nations of Earth, we have no choice but to develop new, better weapons if we're to ensure our own safety."

"That's supposed to be Section Nine's mission, isn't it?" Cagalli pointed out. "They were tasked with dealing with any rogue elements opposed to the Treaty…"

He nodded. "And they've done an admirable job of that. However, as you yourself say, they were intended to deal with rogue elements; should the worst case happen, they simply aren't equipped to fend off the military might of an entire nation. They admit that themselves. Six months ago, they turned over to us a new mobile suit, one they'd confiscated during a raid on just that kind of 'rogue element', on the basis that we needed it more than they."

She sighed. "Look, Chairman, I'll admit you have a point –I spent too much time Kira's teacher not to realize that– but still…"

"As long as there are people, there will never be an end to human conflict," Durandal said quietly. "That's been proven time and time again throughout history. Therefore, it will always be necessary for us to have power. The power to protect ourselves… the power to make a difference."

Kira looked thoughtful, considering the Chairman's words. That's the sort of thing Ken always says… and it's what got me to stay in the War, two years. And it's true, tensions between Earth and the PLANTs have been rising again…

Similar thoughts were running through Cagalli's mind; but she, unlike her bodyguard, remembered something else their mutual friend had said. As a longtime ZAFT pilot, and onetime confidante of Patrick Zala, he'd known Gilbert Durandal. Not well, but they'd met on a few occasions… and he'd warned them when Durandal was elected that something about the man made him uneasy.

Exactly why, Cagalli doubted even he knew. Nevertheless, she didn't take her old partner's words lightly. A brilliant tactician and strategist, he was also a shrewd student of character.

Which, unfortunately, just makes this meeting even more complicated than it already was.

Armory One, Outside Base/ Hangar Six

The three teenagers Kira had noted earlier still stood outside the base, appearing to loiter idly at a street corner. At first glance, they would've seemed normal enough; the girl was idly turning one way or the other, almost as though in a personal dance routine. Her companions were looking just as casual, in their own ways.

But Stellar Lousier, Auel Neider, and Sting Oakley were there for purposes that were anything but casual… as evidenced when a car carrying two ZAFT greencoats drove up right next to them. "It's time," one of them said. "Get in."

"Right," Sting concurred, and the trio climbed into the vehicle with almost military precision.

"So," Auel remarked, once they were underway, "everything's on schedule, huh? I was beginning to wonder."

"We were waiting for the proper moment," the second greencoat replied. "What with the visit by the Chief Representative of Orb, security is even tighter than we expected; and on top of that, two Section Nine operatives turned up in the target hangar."

"Section Nine?" Auel repeated sharply. "That could change everything."

"Unlikely," Stellar put in quietly, before either "ZAFT" soldier could. "They might be expecting trouble, but they won't be expecting us."

"She's right," the first greencoat concurred. "We got a look at them both, and neither of them are equipped for a firefight; just sidearms. Besides, they won't be expecting to encounter troops of your… capability."

"So we take them out along the way, huh?" Sting mused. "Sounds good."

"Don't get cocky," the second greencoat warned. "We don't think they'll get in the way, but while killing them would be preferable, Section Nine operatives are smart. More likely, they'll try to escape, and warn their ship. Even if that happens, though, they shouldn't be able to alter the outcome."

Auel nodded. "Good. So… when does the operation begin?"

"Right now." The first greencoat pulled the car over at a side entrance to Mobile Suit Hangar Six, and gestured for the other infiltrator and the unassuming attack team to enter. "Weapons are right here," he went on, following them in and gesturing to a rather lumpy duffel bag. "They should be sufficient to get the job done."

Sting opened it, and whistled. "Well, well… I think these will do nicely." He withdrew a pair of ZAFT-issue submachine guns, slung one over his back, and tossed the other to Sting, then pulled out three hand grenades, and handed them out.

Auel stuffed one of the grenades into a pocket, and checked the chamber on his submachine gun. "Expecting an army in there, or are we just being thorough?"

"Does it matter?" Sting retorted. "Here, Stellar," he went on a moment later, handing her a pair of combat knives. "You know how to use these."

Stellar hefted them, tossed them, flipped them, and nodded in satisfaction. "Ready to engage," she said coldly.

The first greencoat nodded. "Then go. The mobile suits are just around that corner. Kill anyone who gets in the way, and commandeer the prototypes."

Sting nodded back. "Got it. C'mon, let's go." Never one to wait around, he immediately followed his own advice, charging off… and opening fire on the sign of movement.

Leanne was still talking animatedly with the senior guard –by now they were exchanging war stories; an excellent way to keep him distracted from Tom's actions– when the man's chest blew open.

Instantly, she flung herself backward, rolling to Tom's side. "What the hell just happened?" the engineer demanded; his question was partly answered a moment later by the continued gunfire, and an eruption of screams from the guards and the technicians working on the mobile suits. "Who's-?"

"I don't know," Leanne answered, cautiously straightening into a low crouch, while wiping the dead guard's blood off her face, "but it's not good! Who the hell is shooting?"

"How should I know?" Tom quickly tapped his transmitter, activating the microphone again. "Control, this is Blacksmith; we've got a situation in Hangar Six!" He winced as he spoke; he'd just seen a technician fall back, a small hole between his eyes and a fist-sized exit hole in the back of his head.

"What kind of situation, Tom?" Rau demanded. "Is that gunfire?"

"Big affirmative on that one, Control! We've got…" Tom paused, watching the three aggressors come into view, still shooting anything that moved. "We've got three hostiles entering; two of them have submachine guns, both male, and a third, female, has a pair of knives- Ouch," he said under his breath, seeing said female hostile perform a prodigious leap, landing right behind an unarmed technician and ruthlessly cutting his throat. "Aw, hell, Control, this is bad…"

"Can you identify?" The ex-ZAFT commander sounded remarkably calm, almost cruelly so; the two operatives, however, knew that it was the forced detachment of a veteran soldier. "Origin, objective, anything?"

"Objective is pretty obvious; there are only three things worth this, unless they just want a massacre. Wait one, and I'll see what I can do about origin."

The only silver lining, Leanne reflected as she and her friend watched the terrible carnage, was that none of the attackers seemed to have noticed them yet. Still, she thought, almost looking away as another guard went down with the boneless quality of the dead, they can't win going up against these odds; not even the Boss would be crazy enough to try it!

One of the male hostiles was now running straight at a guard, rushing him in a seemingly suicidal charge. The guard reacted with trained, hair-trigger reflexes, ripping off a burst from his automatic rifle… which did absolutely nothing.

The stunned look on his face before a bullet obliterated the expression mirrored the ones worn by the two operatives. "Did he just dodge bullets?" Leanne hissed.

"Looked like it," Tom said in disbelief, "but that's impossible… Wait." His tone was suddenly flat. "The Boss does that by muscle reading… Control, we're not dealing with ordinary Naturals here. They're just teenagers, but they're tearing this place up like veterans… and their bodies are performing beyond normal Natural capacity." He took a deep breath. "Control, I think they're biological CPUs."

Leanne inhaled sharply, but there was merely a moment of silence on the other end of the radio link. "I see," Rau said at last. "Entirely possible, actually; Section Nine never did locate the lab that produced Sabnak, Andras, and Buer, despite two years of searching, so it's hardly inconceivable… What's your own situation down there?"

"Untenable," Tom said without hesitation. "We weren't expecting trouble; all we have are sidearms and swords. We need to evac immediately."

"Understood. The shuttle will be ready to lift the moment you arrive. Anything else?"

"Yeah. Wake Möbius One up, and tell him we've got a damn war going on down here!"

Odin, Bridge

"What the hell is going on?" Chance demanded of the universe. "Another mobile suit-jacking? And who's behind it?"

"Most likely the Earth Alliance," Rau said absently, bringing up another com frequency (this one intraship), "if Tom's right about the attackers being biological CPUs… Hm; judging from the radio traffic at the spaceport, someone managed to set off an alarm before dying. Good." He hit a final key on his armrest, and cleared his throat. "Falcon, it's me. There's a situation in Armory One I think you should be aware of."

"Understood," the cold, almost detached voice on the other end replied. "I'm on my way up now."

"He doesn't sound very concerned," Chance noted.

"He never does, Jason; you should know that, after serving with him in the War. Believe me, he'll be more intent on the situation than he sounds." Rau shook his head. "No, I know Falcon. His outlook may have improved since the War, but I still know him. He won't be happy to hear about this."

"Neither am I," the other man grunted. "The new prototypes are supposed to be tough customers, at the level of… Wait a second. Our raid, six months ago. Could this be…?"

"Probably, Jason," Kenneth "Falcon" DiFalco said, entering the bridge. "Tensions never went down as far as I'd have liked, but our theft of one of their new prototypes couldn't have helped matters." He grimaced. "It might've been a bit of a miscalculation on my part… but I suppose the 105E will help ZAFT beat off this attack." He looked over at Rau. "What exactly is the situation over there?"

"According to Tom, they're stealing the Second-Stage prototypes," the other man said grimly. "Killed everyone in the hangar except for our people, and now I believe they're laying waste to the other hangars." He, too, grimaced. "Tom also believes they're biological CPUs, or a derivative thereof."

Ken closed his right eye. "I see… Perhaps we should've devoted more effort to finding the lab that produced the first three."

Unlike the others on the bridge, he wasn't in uniform. Instead, he wore a slate-gray trench coat over equally-gray trousers and shirt, with a Section Nine patch on his shoulder and the gold oak leaves of a major on his lapels. Tied to his belt was a katana, twin to the wakizashi Kira Yamato carried; like the wakizashi, it had been baptized in blood years before.

On his face were twin sword scars, one running diagonally down and to the right across his left eye, and the other running almost perfectly horizontal across both eyes. Legacy of wounds inflicted in the War by his own subordinate and student Victor Tempest, most people assumed that one or both of the wounds was responsible for the eyepatch covering his left eye.

In actual fact, he could see through the patch; it was there merely to screen out the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums, which his genetically-modified eye was painfully sensitive to.

"Orders, Major?" Chance asked, after giving his boss a chance to evaluate the situation.

Ken twitched his head from side to side. "No action for the time being; there's nothing we can do as long as they're within the colony. Be ready to recover Tom and Leanne's shuttle… and have the hangar start prepping my Exus for launch."

"Understood, Major."

As the captain relayed the orders, Rau looked at his former nemesis with a raised eyebrow. "You think there's something else out there." It wasn't a question.

Ken nodded. "Obviously. Those three machines will need something to pick them up, unless they're planning a suicide mission; they wouldn't have the supplies to make it to Earth Forces territory. Ergo, there's a ship nearby, most likely under Mirage Colloid."

"Which is banned by the Treaty… but I suppose if they're this audacious, they're not that concerned with the Treaty."

"Precisely. With the outbreak of open hostilities, the Treaty will become moot." The ex-ZAFT ace sighed. "It looks like my input into the Treaty wasn't as productive as I'd hoped, if war is resuming so soon… And they really do have rotten timing. Murrue's birthday is next week, and I'd hoped to be home in time."

"This may not take that long," Rau pointed out. "ZAFT has numerical superiority, at least over this attack force. There's also us, remember."

"I hope you're right… but I still think something bad is going to happen."

Armory One, Base Exterior

The sudden explosions from Hangar Six had startled even Durandal, as he led his guests around the base. "We seem to be under attack," he said, raising his voice to be heard over all the noise. "Lady Cagalli, Mr. Yamato, I suggest you find shelter immediately." He looked over at a nearby group of soldiers. "Do your best to get them out of here, and call Minerva for assistance!"

"Yes, Your Excellency!"

Orders given, the Chairman headed off in another direction, surprising Cagalli. "Chairman, wait! Where are you-?"

"I have my own duties!" he called back. "Go! Find shelter!"

"Easier said than done," Kira muttered. "Let's go!" he called to the ZAFT soldiers. "We need to-"

Before he even finished speaking, the suggestion became suddenly, horribly moot. A ZAKU, crippled by the explosive entrance the three Second-Stage machines had made, stumbled, tripped… and fell.

Reacting on instinct, Kira hurled himself at Cagalli, knocking them both out of the way of the falling mobile suit… but the ZAFT soldiers weren't so lucky. None of them even had time to scream before it hit…

"This is bad," Cagalli whispered, carefully getting back to her feet. "Where do we go now, Kira?"

"I don't know," he replied honestly. "There's shooting everywhere… reminds me of Heliopolis, two years ago." His gaze wandered around the area… and his face tightened with determination as he took in the situation. "We don't have any choice. On foot, we're sitting ducks."

She looked at him in surprise. "You mean…?"

Kira nodded. "Yeah. We're gonna have to find an unoccupied mobile suit. I should've brought the Freedom, but… Well, it's too late to be thinking about that. Let's go."

"Right." The two of them took off running, heading as far away from the spreading devastation as they could… and wondering what had gone wrong this time. The last time they'd be involved in an incident like that, at least there'd already been a declared war going on…

Kira brought himself to an abrupt halt just in time to avoid beheading himself, as the tip of a sword sprang out of the side of a hangar wall next to him. "What the-" he began, and then the blade slashed a rectangular outline in the wall.

A booted foot kicked the cutout piece to the ground, and Tom Delaney charged out, followed by Leanne Eldridge; both carried drawn swords. Tom was favoring his right shoulder, and Leanne had a gash on her right cheek, but they were otherwise intact.

"Tom?" Cagalli said in surprise. "Leanne? What are you two-"

Leanne blinked. "Cagalli? Kira? We might ask you two the same question."

"No time for that," Tom said brusquely. "We've got a mess on our hands here; those three prototypes have been commandeered by what we believe to be biological CPUs."

Kira's eyes widened. "Then this is…"

"An Earth Forces attack," the older man confirmed. "Look, you two need to get out of here; this whole place is going up, and I think they've released toxic gas of some kind."

"Wait!" Cagalli protested. "What about you?"

"We're on our way to the spaceport," Leanne assured her. "We're getting out of here, and getting detailed information to the Major. I'd suggest you come with us, but… well, we're not entirely sure of our own safety along this route, let alone yours."

Kira nodded unwillingly. "Good luck, guys."

"Same to you."

The pair rushed off again, leaving Cagalli and Kira to resume their own escape. "Always in a hurry, aren't they?" Cagalli remarked, out of breath, as they headed off.

"As long as we've known them, yeah." Kira watched the sky above as they ran; explosions were still going off, and he, for one, didn't want to be crushed by falling debris. "The good news," he went on, "is that now we know for sure Ken's out there. If he can get into the action…"

"Yeah," she agreed. "That would be good." After all, she thought, my old partner used to be ZAFT's best pilot… and he's still the highest-scoring ace in their records. Bringing a hand to her chest, she felt the hard shape of the Order of the Nebula her partner had given her during the War, as a memento… and, as he'd said later, as a promise that if she needed help, he'd be there.

And we sure need help today…

"Watch it!" Kira warned, grabbing her shoulder. It swiftly became obvious why he'd stopped her; the huge, black shape of the Gaia stood directly in their path. If they'd continued, it would undoubtedly have crushed them like insects.

The Gaia itself, fortunately, appeared to have no interest in what was happening on the ground; the people running around beneath it seemed to be of no concern to it. Standing on all fours in a BuCUE-like mobile armor mode, it was instead more intent on the mobile suits surrounding it and its fellows. Its gaze was now fixated on an old-model DINN, flying above it.

An instant later, emerald fury leapt from the cannons mounted in Gaia's shoulders, striking the DINN's wings and sheering them off, connectors melting like butter under the onslaught.

Gaia leapt away, resulting in the path ahead being clear… but only for a moment. The falling DINN, its pilot having quickly ejected, slammed headlong into one of the hangars, tumbling mobile suits like so many bowling pins.

Including a ZAKU Warrior… which crashed to its knees in front of the two feeling Orb visitors, battered but intact.

Kira looked over at Cagalli, almost sheepishly. "I think that's our ride," he offered. "Unless you'd like us to keep going on foot."

She snorted. "After that thing nearly crushed us? No thanks, Kira; I think I'll trust your piloting skill, instead." Because, she added silently, you're the best there is…

Minerva, Centerline Catapult

Within the cockpit of the YFX-M56 Core Splendor, black-haired, crimson-eyed Shinn Asuka awaited orders to launch. A quiet sixteen-year-old from Orb, he wore the red uniform of a ZAFT top gun pilot; that prized status was why he was in this particular cockpit, of the only Second-Stage unit still in ZAFT hands. Good thing we were both already aboard ship, he thought to himself, and keyed his radio. "Shinn here. I'm ready to go."

"Understood," a female voice replied from the ship's bridge. Her name was Meyrin Hawke, and she was in charge of directing mobile suit operations. "We're sending the Sword Silhouette with you; launch when ready."

"Got it." Shinn slid his visor down into place. "Shinn Asuka, Core Splendor, launching!"

Minerva, Starboard Catapult

Not far from the catapults deploying the various component parts of ZGMF-X56S Impulse, another unit prepared for launch. Equipped with the same Variable Phase-Shift Armor, or "VPS", as the Impulse and its brethren, this mobile suit's origins were very different… as were those of its pilot.

GAT-X105E Strike, equipped with the AQM/E-X09S Noir Striker pack, had been created by the Earth Alliance, and entrusted to a unit that even Section Nine could learn little of… except that the unit did not officially exist. Because of that, the Earth Alliance had been unable to protest the theft of the Strike Noir without risking an international incident of war-making proportions.

And that had allowed Section Nine to simply hand it over to ZAFT, with no questions asked.

After almost six months of research, ZAFT had finally assigned the machine to a pilot, one who could use it to its full potential… and so the violet-haired, crimson-eyed pilot known as Millenia Crescent prepared to pilot Strike Noir into battle for the first time.

A far cry from Alaska, Millenia thought, breathing deeply in a relaxation exercise. At Alaska, I was hampered by lack of mobility… and by Sensei's presence, fighting for the Archangel. Back then, my body was still… human…

Not for the first time, the ZAFT redcoat's hands unconsciously flexed, as though reassuring herself that her new body, while different from the organic one she'd been born with, did obey her brain's commands as precisely as did the old.

It was at times like these, when Millenia doubted her own body that the martial arts training her teacher had imparted to her became truly valuable. As he had, in times past, used meditation to escape his nightmares, so did she use those techniques to calm herself when she realized again how little of her body was still human.

Maybe it's because I'm about to launch into battle again, she reasoned, for the first time since that day… and the first time in this shell. Well, Sensei… I guess it's time to put your teachings into practice.

"Strike Noir," Meyrin called from the bridge, "Impulse has launched successfully; you're cleared to depart."

"Understood." Another deep breath… and suddenly, the tension was gone. "Millenia Crescent, Strike Noir, launching!"

Armory One, Base Exterior

"All right," Kira murmured, bringing up the ZAKU's main power, "here goes. I wish Athrun or Ken were here, but…"

Cagalli, perched awkwardly behind his seat, nodded in understanding. Unlike the two pilots to whom he referred, he himself had never flown any ZAFT machine other than ZGMF-X10A Freedom, and that unit had been closer to a GAT-series than to one of these New Millennium machines. Experience with a GINN or a GuAIZ would've served him better here. Still… "You'll figure it out, Kira," she said confidently. "You're the best."

"I was the best," Kira corrected absently, fingers flying over the ZAKU's keyboard as he checked and modified the mobile suit's operating system. "But that was two years ago, and I haven't been in combat since Second Jachin."

"So? Your first battle happened before you had any experience in a mobile suit at all, remember?"

"That's true," he conceded. "There. We're online."

The ZAKU Warrior stirred, and rose smoothly to its feet. It was, unfortunately, in standard configuration, without any of the Wizard packs that would give it greater tactical flexibility, but Kira wasn't displeased; it had a beam rifle and beam axe, which was more than could be said for the GAT-X105 Strike's armament the first time he'd flown it. Better than just having Armor Schneiders and CIWS, he reflected. This time… I can fight back properly.

In Gaia's cockpit, Stellar paused, becoming aware of activity behind her. Hm? Who…? Without a flicker of expression, she tapped flight controls, bringing her purloined machine back into its mobile suit mode. Prepare to-

The instant before she could turn, Kira's borrowed mobile suit body-checked her, sending her beam rifle flying away before she could even think of using it. "I don't know who you are," he muttered, "but you're not getting away with this!"

"Merely an insect," Stellar noted, leaping back a few meters. "You won't be allowed to interfere." Now deprived of her rifle, she reached down and snatched out one of Gaia's Vajra beam sabers, and ignited the blade of frozen fire. "Just get out of the way."

Gaia's arm came down, swinging the saber in a vicious slash, but Kira hadn't survived the Bloody Valentine War by being careless. He'd fought better melee fighters than her, and even survived dueling with his own instructor. By the time her weapon reached out, he'd already grabbed and activated the ZAKU's beam axe.

The two energy blades met midway between the machines using them, clashing with a crackle of opposing force. The ZAKU didn't have the strength to push the saber all the way back… but neither could Gaia force its own weapon into the target.

Until, that was, Chaos came up from behind the ZAKU.

Kira's head snapped around, and he swiftly withdrew his weapon from the clash even as he whirled to one side, but his inexperience with the ZAKU, and the Second-Stage unit's superior mobility, worked against him. Sting laughed within his own cockpit, his Vajra arcing down. A flash of vaporized armor, severed, sparking circuits, and boiled lubricants, and the ZAKU's left arm fell away. "Take this!" Sting cackled, and pulled his blade back for the killing blow. "It'll all be over in-"

A knee slammed into Gaia's back, knocking it flying into a nearby hangar. "I don't think so," a female voice said pleasantly. "Don't you know it's not polite to stab someone in the back?"

An instant later, Sting's killing blow was aborted by a swarm of missiles that hit him from behind. "What the hell-!"

"Kira, what's going on?" Cagalli wondered, glancing around. "What just…?"

"I'm not sure." But even as Kira spoke, he saw it. Where Gaia had been standing, a menacing black shape, much like his old Strike, hovered, a long beam sword glowing in one hand. And behind the Chaos… something unusual was occurring.

It looked like a fighter of some sort, but it clearly wasn't; even as Kira watched, it ejected the missile launchers it had used on the Chaos, folded its wings… and hovered in midair as separate torso and leg units drew together around it, forming a mobile suit body with the fighter acting as cockpit. Then a third module, consisting of two antiship swords and a pair of beam boomerangs, snapped into place on the machine's back.

ZGMF-X56S Impulse dropped to the ground, red and white covering it in the distinctive effect of phase-shift armor. Seeming to glare at its opponents, it immediately snatched the antiship swords off its back, snapped the hilts together, and twirled the combined weapon over its head.

"Whoever you are," Shinn Asuka snarled, "you're not getting away with this! If you want to start a new war… then you'll have to get through me first!"

Author's note

Two years have passed since the last war ended… but now the flames of battle flare anew, and Kira Yamato is once again at the heart of the conflict. And standing in the shadows is his teacher, whose role in the first war was to escalate it all, and then fight to atone for his own errors. How will these two soldiers cope with the new conflict?

Well, as promised, here's the sequel to Birds of a Feather. I realize some people may be surprised to see it; I did, after all, state early in Birds of a Feather that it would not be sequeled. However, I also stated later on that I'd changed my mind, on the basis of my own curiosity and more than a little popular demand. Therefore, here it is.

Now, right at the start there's something I'd better make clear. It was stated outright several times in the first story, both within the dialogue and at least once in my author's notes, but since some people still seemed to miss it, I'll say so again right now: for the purposes of Birds of a Feather and Cry of the Falcon, Kira and Cagalli are not related. I want to make that very clear now, so that I don't get people telling me all the reasons why it can't work. I've been through all that already, thanks.

Now then, I hope that the first chapter was satisfactory; I'm well aware it's probably not as good as some things I've written, but then my beginning chapters never are. At the least, I suspect I've managed to surprise you with some of the revelations. I assure you, everything will be explained, including to some things that may seem impossible. For the nonce, though, let me know what you think. –Solid Shark