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

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

Also, all references to characters and events from the Equatorial Union Civil War are property of Ominae; for further information, see his story "Rebellion"

Indian Ocean, Truman Base, Tarmac, March 5th, C.E. 74

Neo Roanoke felt grateful for his mask as he gazed into the bright afternoon sky, watching the last mobile suit transports arrive. Bright sunlight… both painful to the unshielded eye and thoroughly ironic, under the circumstances. Given what we're planning, a driving rainstorm might be more appropriate…

In any case, whatever the weather, he was simply grateful that the final transports were finally coming in. This last group had had the longest journey; Allen Hamilton's people had simply needed to come from Orb, and his own Phantom Pain had had a relatively short flight over from North America, whereas these last arrivals had crossed two entire continents to reach the rendezvous.

With a deafening roar, the massive mobile suit transports touched down on the base's long runways, tires squealing against the concrete as they fought inertia to bring them to a gentle halt… a less than simple task, considering their sheer size and the weight of metal aboard them.

"This must be the most dangerous assembly of firepower we've ever mustered into one place," Commander Allen C. Hamilton remarked at Neo's side, shouting to be heard over engines firing at full reverse. "From a practical standpoint, this dwarfs even the Peacemaker Force for sheer combat effectiveness."

Neo nodded in agreement. Nuclear weapons had long represented the ultimate in firepower, but recent events had relegated them to the dustbin, at least for the time being; and no one would ever say that they were selective destruction. Mobile suits, on the other hand, were selective, yet could also be used for mass destruction under the right circumstances.

And destructive or not, he had to admit the assembly on this small island was impressive. Standing at the edges of the tarmac and visible through opened hangar doors were numerous mobile suits, ranging from basic GAT-02L2 Dagger Ls, GAT-04 Windams, and GAT-01A1 Daggers to the three prototypes of Hamilton's newly-christened Zeta Squadron… and the dark, winged form of Neo's own GAT-X505 Nightwing.

And, of course, the new 509s, Neo thought, glancing at the small group of new models within the Phantom Pain hangar areas… and five of the suits being unloaded from the newly-arrived transports. Somewhat resembling a typical Dagger-line unit, it didn't take long to distinguish between the two. These suits all had integral wings, two sets of three arranged in much the same way as Nightwing, Preybird, or Freedom, with railguns set where Freedom or Nightwing would carry plasma cannons… and on the right arm was a curious shield assembly, consisting of the usual antibeam-coated outer surface, but with a switchblade on the lower edge and beam rifle on the interior surface.

Phantom Pain's models had the addition of a single beam saber, stored on the left hip, and wore the standard black of that unit; by contrast, the weapons loadouts on the machines on the transports was much more varied, and the machines themselves were painted black with bright silver trim.

They were the GAT-509 Strike Katanas, the culmination of Project Zeta. Incorporating much of the same technology as Preybird and the previous units of the X500-series frames, they were hideously expensive, to the extent that, so far, only Phantom Pain and the Third Covert Tactical Assault Team had been equipped with them at all.

But they're out trump card, Neo mused, catching sight of a tall woman exiting one of the transports. With all the tricks ZAFT and Section Nine have sprung on us lately… and, of course, that new mass-production unit that blitzed Ophanim last month…

"Hello, gentlemen," the woman greeted, as she walked over to the waiting officers. "My welcoming committee, I suppose?" she added, extending a hand.

"You might say that," Neo agreed, shaking her hand. "I'm Captain Neo Roanoke, with Phantom Pain; we're the other unit with the 509s… and the unit involved in that nasty business at Break The World."

"Nasty business, indeed," she agreed, turning to Hamilton. "Frankly, that alone would've been enough to win my approval for what they did to Djibril, Desai, and Bunansa. I'm Major Karen Willet, by the way," she went on, almost as an aside. "Commander of the Frighteners."

"Commander Allen C. Hamilton, Zeta Squadron," Hamilton replied, shaking Willet's hand in turn. "I've heard of you… vaguely, at least," he amended with a small smile. "They don't say much about what you actually do."

"That's because about half we do is off the record," Willet said, amused, "while the other half is so touchy the brass doesn't even want to think about it. At least, that's the way it's been till now… till we got Reaver and the 509s."

"Something tells me your reputation is going to be spreading soon enough, Major," Neo said dryly, and gestured toward the tall headquarters building, some distance from the tarmac. "Shall we? We've got a lot to discuss, especially considering our targets this time around."

"Agreed," Willet replied, and fell into step with her fellow spec ops commanders.

As they walked, she took stock of the two men. So far, Hamilton appeared to be more polite than she'd expected; everything she'd heard about the man indicated that he had an obsession with duty that scraped the nerves of just about everyone he ran into, from the newest ensign to the most grizzled admiral. Of course, I've only known him for two minutes, but everything I've heard would suggest he irritates everyone within ten seconds of first meeting… Oh, well. Even if my first impression is off, all I need to is work with him; and considering that nasty business I handled for Azrael, I've worked with worse.

Neo was, in some ways, a complete enigma to Willet. His black uniform was completely unlike any Earth Alliance uniform she'd ever seen, and with the gunmetal gray mask covering the upper half of his face she couldn't even begin to guess what he actually looked like. All she could tell was that he had blonde hair; beyond that, she hadn't the foggiest idea, and the mask also made it difficult to even read the man's facial expressions.

One thing's for sure, though: the man is very young for his rank. It's hard to tell with that mask on, but he can't be more than twenty or twenty-one. Either he's got close connections to someone in the top brass, or he's very, very good at his job.

For his own part, Neo glanced surreptitiously at the Englishwoman, his observation concealed by his mask, taking stock of her as they neared the HQ. So this is the CO of the Frighteners, eh? Looks tame enough… but if the stories are true, she's not one to take lightly. Those people are the very definition of flaky spec ops, and the rumors about her personally are enough to give anyone pause.

"By the way," Willet began, as they reached the door to the HQ, "has there been any word from General Müller? Our deployment orders didn't say one way or the other, but considering the import of this operation, I'd think Admiral Chernock would want his people in on this, as well."

Neo shrugged. "I'm told a representative from his battalion arrived just before you did; I didn't see him on the way out here, but he's supposed to be waiting for us inside." He gestured to the door. "Shall we?"

Truman Base, Headquarters Building

Willet had to admit that the base was surprisingly well-equipped, considering the haste with which it had been constructed. From what she recalled of internal announcements, construction hadn't even begun until after the ultimatum had been issued to the PLANTs, in late October; with that in mind, the progress here was remarkable.

When she said as much to her companions, Hamilton simply nodded. "This place had top priority for resources," he explained. "What with Orb and Carpentaria being… well, not close, exactly, but within shouting distance, the bigwigs in command figured we needed a new strategic base in the region. Moreover, the Equatorial Union has a history of violence against the Alliance -which makes their signing of the WSTO proposal rather intriguing- so there was plenty of reason to be concerned."

"Concern which appears to have been justified," Neo put in, and guided them to an office door. "Orb is basically in our hands now, but the EU is still a potential wildcard, and of course we took heavy losses against Carpentaria the other day-"

Conversation was abruptly interrupted when Neo opened the door, for the office was already occupied.

Lounging in an office chair, arms pillowing his head and booted feet up on the desk, was a very idiosyncratic individual, wearing Eurasian combat dress, with khaki BDUs and a wide-brimmed hat with one side turned sharply upward. His combat boots were worn and dusty, battered, fingerless gloves protected his hands, and an eyepatch concealed his left eye socket.

Moreover, to Allen Hamilton's disgust, the man was smoking a cigarette, and his dark blonde hair was worn in a long braid trailing down behind the chair, both of which were traits that offended his professionalism.

The man glanced up with a smile. "Ah, you're here," he noted, evincing a French accent. "Captain Luc Bernadotte, ace pilot of the Letzte Bataillon, at your service." He tossed off a casual salute, still not bothering to remove his feet from the desk.

Willet was the first to react, wrinkling her nose with a snort. "The Mutt Brigade," she said contemptuously, prompting surprised looks from her companions.

Bernadotte's remaining eye narrowed. "Hey, hey, show a little respect, mignonette," he advised coolly. "Your government's little trap at Alaska killed a lot of my friends, you know, and my bosses weren't real happy with you. It took a lot of time to build up our forces enough to be useful again… and it took President Copeland a lot of sweet-talking to get us to cooperate at all." It was his turn to snort. "And 'Mutt Brigade'? Mignonette, we're not like our freaky little cousins from before. We're a lot of things, but crazy isn't one of them." His one-eyed gaze fixed on Neo. "And anyway, I seem to recall you still using some of those freaks yourselves, like in that raid of yours last October… and, if I'm not mistaken, on this very base."

Willet's lips drew back involuntarily in disgust. "Freaky little cousins… You know, I've got nothing against Coordinators, but that sort of thing is where I usually draw the line… and a Frenchman of that sort is ten times as bad."

He sighed. "Major, you're taking this whole national rivalry way too far, if you ask me; it's been centuries since Napoleon, all right?"

Willet looked at him as though he were some kind of particularly disgusting insect. "Napoleon? Sorry, but it was more Vichy France and Charles de Gaulle that I was thinking of."

Bernadotte sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Okay, so we've had our share of problems… but even that idiot de Gaulle was two hundred years ago. And, I might add, we graciously refrained from invading England again even during the chaos of the Reconstruction War. So, since we're supposed to be allies here, perhaps you could at least pretend not to hate my guts?"

She opened her mouth to make another caustic remark… but Neo, tiring of the exchange, raised a hand. "Enough," he said sharply, tacitly reminding them that he was the ranking officer present. "Major Willet, I understand your historical rivalry with France, but we have more important concerns. And yes," he added wearily, when she opened her mouth again, "I realize Captain Bernadotte has undergone procedures you disapprove of. That, however, is neither here nor there, and this is not the time or place for these disputes."

Willet gritted her teeth… but nodded, albeit slowly and unwilling, anyway. She had very little respect for the French -several generations of her direct ancestors having fought in wars between England and France- and the revelation of the man's participation in a certain project made her even more wary… but Neo was right.

Which does not mean that I intend to drop the matter altogether, she thought darkly. It wouldn't be the first time the Frighteners removed someone without official sanction…

"Thank you," Neo said pleasantly, when he was certain no more outbursts were imminent. "Now, Captain Bernadotte, I believe you have a message for us?"

Bernadotte nodded, and snapped out of the chair and onto his feet in a smooth, blindingly fast motion. "I do indeed, Captain Roanoke. I am afraid that I must pass on General Müller's regrets, for the Letzte Bataillon is unable to participate in this operation."

"Unable?" Hamilton repeated sharply. "I thought your Battalion was finally up to the target force level? With the completion of the Nosferatu program…"

"Our force levels are optimal," the Frenchman confirmed. "Unfortunately, the Drakens aren't ready yet; the final unit was rolled out last week, but they're still undergoing final prep for their individual pilots. As such, General Müller has deemed it… unwise to dispatch any of the Battalion at this time."

Willet -predictably- gave a slightly twisted smile, though whether it was born of contempt or amusement was unclear. Hamilton, on the other hand, merely felt resigned. This is why I don't count on Eurasians, he mused. Though I suppose there's only so much they can manage, after what my father and the others pulled back at Alaska…

"I see," Neo said simply, absently rubbing his left eyepiece. "Would I be correct in thinking, however, that you've got just a bit more to say?"

Bernadotte cracked a smile. "Perceptive, Captain, very perceptive. Yes, I have one more message: if you'd like a bit of extra help, and you happen to have a spare mobile suit… I'm at your service for this operation."

Oceania Union, Australia, Carpentaria Base, Conference Room

"Well, people," Raquel Carver said, turning from the window now that everyone had arrived, "new orders have finally come through from the Homeland."

Talia Gladys tilted her head, raising an eyebrow. "They've finally finished analyzing our after-action reports, then? It's about time."

Considering that it had been a good nine days since the chaotic escape from Orb, Murrue Ramius had to agree with her counterpart's sentiments. It was true that there had been a lot of data to go over; the revelation of two other "Zeta-series" machines, the use of nuclear weaponry, and the sheer volume of combat data from the attack on Section Nine's headquarters, the assassination attempt on the Clyne family, and the ferocious sea battle certainly represented an enormous amount of information, after all.

But still… nine days was, in her opinion, a bit excessive. They hardly needed to consider the full implications of it before giving instructions to one mobile assault ship. Well, two, Murrue amended, since we're effectively tied to them for the time being. Still, the point stands.

Raquel nodded. "Yes, they've finally come to a few conclusions; they haven't decided what all of it means, but they've at least sent along a few tentative determinations, as well as new movement orders for Minerva." She walked over to the table, and tapped the folder in front of her unoccupied chair. "First off, it's pretty obvious the Earth Forces have decided you people are a major threat to them. That operation was apparently the work of one Blue Cosmos bigwig and a couple of rogue admirals, but it still shows the threat level they've assigned to you."

Standing near the back wall, Mu La Flaga snorted. "Like that's a surprise? They've been trying to blow the Archangel up ever since Alaska; considering that we're still alive, it's no wonder they're getting frustrated."

The base commander smiled. "They don't call her the 'Indestructible Archangel' for nothing, I guess. But this was probably the largest array of forces they've ever deployed for that purpose. Over sixty mobile suits, an orbital bombardment, two Archangels, and an Odin… Even when you throw Minerva into the target list, that's a lot of firepower for just one operation." She shook her head. "Of course, they did shoot the admirals responsible for it afterward, but still…"

Sitting next to Murrue, Cagalli Yula Athha sighed. "That's true," she said quietly. "But I'm almost more worried by the way they were able to pull it off in the first place. It's true that Unato and Yuna are in the Alliance's pocket now, but… I just can't believe the entire Orb military would just sit by and let the Earth Forces act so freely."

"Chairman Durandal had a personal message for you about that," Raquel said grimly, losing the smile. "Exactly how he got this info, I'm not sure, but he's managed to dig up some very interesting financial data. It looks like the Seirans have been working for the Earth Alliance for at least the past two years… with some evidence suggesting it may go all the way back to the First War. Combine that with evidence of pay-offs to certain Orb commanders, who were recently reassigned to certain key positions…"

Cagalli closed her eyes, slumping back in her chair, and a disgusted sound emanated from the wall to Mu's left. Clad in his typical trench coat, eyepatch firmly in place over his modified eye, and red-lacquered scabbard at his side, Kenneth DiFalco didn't much resemble an experienced pilot and military commander; to the uninformed eye, he looked more as if he were some kind of mysterious swordsman, ready at any moment to cut off someone else's head… but appearances, as everyone in that room knew, could often be deceiving.

The only person in the room whose combat experience equaled his was Mu… and that combat experience -among other things- had left him with a profound distaste for most politicians.

"Well," Ken said now, rubbing his eyepatch, "I suppose that solves at least one problem. I'd guess it the jury deliberations shouldn't take more than an hour, tops, at the end of the treason trial."

"You've got that right," Cagalli muttered wearily. "When I get my hands on those two…" She sighed, then straightened in her chair again. "All right, so now we now how it all went down. And ZAFT Command thinks the policy behind it still holds, even with what they did to the people responsible for this operation?"

"Right," Raquel confirmed. "It's not that much of a surprise, really; hunting down the Archangel has been one of their favorite pastimes over the years, and they've deployed some serious resources to do it in the past. I'm sure you all remember Operation Zantetsuken."

Ken made a face, displaying an unusual expression of self-disgust at the reminder. The trap set by Vice Admiral Castor Truman -from which Lewis Halberton and the Odin had rescued them- had not exactly been his finest hour; it had had the effect of kicking him out of his complacency, but it hadn't been a fun lesson.

"Yes," Murrue said now, "we remember. They used several Q-ships, some kind of EMP weapon, and the Dead Zone effect there, none of which came cheap. I get your point, Commander." She tilted her head. "But do you really think they'll be able to continue to devote such resources to hunting us even in the middle of this war?"

"If you're going to be in the thick of things anyway, then yes, I'd have to say so… which is one reason, I suspect, for the exact nature of the orders we've received." The base commander turned back to the window. "Exactly how much they can devote specifically to your destruction is uncertain; certainly you'll be a priority target, but by the same token, they have to worry about ZAFT forces attacking in other theaters… and this isn't like the days when Truman set his trap. Back then, ZAFT had effectively retreated to the PLANTs, in preparation for the final battle everyone knew was coming, so the Earth Alliance was able to act with greater than usual freedom in other areas."

Talia nodded in comprehension. "And since we're currently on the offensive…"

"Exactly," Raquel said with a nod. "So we're taking the threat seriously, but not jumping at shadows. To wit: in addition to new movement orders, we've received word that an additional mobile suit will be joining Minerva during the journey."

Minerva's captain blinked. "A new mobile suit? What model? And who's the pilot?"

"The model is one I've never heard of," the other woman admitted. "Some kind of new prototype, apparently; something that managed to avoid involvement in that business at Armory One. As to the pilot… You ever hear of Heine Westenfluss?"

Mu leaned back against the wall. "ZAFT redcoat, I think," he mused, thinking back. "He was at Jachin… Oh, yeah." He grinned. "Might be just as well Odin's busy right now. Westenfluss had a nasty run in with Morgan and Alicia, back at Jachin… So, he's still around?"

"Evidently; and he's apparently the first member of a new organization called 'FAITH': the Fast-Acting Integrated Tactical Headquarters." Raquel shrugged. "Some kind of special unit reporting directly to the Chairman, bypassing the usual chain of command in pursuit of greater tactical flexibility."

Ken's face abruptly went blank, hearing that description. Reporting directly to the Chairman… and with advanced prototypes at their command, piloted by aces like Westenfluss? …I don't like this. That sounds too much like a "Praetorian Guard" for my liking. All right, on the face of it the idea sounds good, especially for situations where you just can't afford to take the time to consult with higher authority, but considering the concerns we have about Durandal…

Oblivious to her fiancé's thoughts, Murrue was nodding thoughtfully. "Well, that won't hurt; we can use all the mobile suits we can get, these days, even with the extra Fianna Headquarters is sending down here in a couple days." She looked up at Raquel again. "Well, with that out of the way, what are the orders, Commander?"

In answer, Raquel walked over to the east wall, tapped a control panel set there, and brought a large display to life, depicting a world map. "Well, with your forces bolstering our own, Command has decided to send you to the Middle East. Forces stationed in Suez have been trying to break out into Eurasia, but they're obstructed by a heavily-fortified Alliance base… one which guards the only practical pass with a Lohengrin."

"They put a positron cannon in place as a theater-defense weapon?" Kira Yamato, heretofore silent, said incredulously. "Are they out of their minds?"

"Environmentally, probably," she replied dryly. "Strategically, though, it's been working very well, which is why Minerva and Archangel are being sent to help out Suez. Should be 'old home week' for you guys, though."

"Yeah, you might say that." Andrew Waltfeld, also silent up to now, shook his head wryly. "It'll be like going home again… and we might even get some extra help, if some of the old resistance groups are still active. Well," he amended, "active and willing to overlook a few past actions on ZAFT's part. Cagalli?"

"…Ordinarily, I don't think the Desert Dawn would help us," Cagalli said slowly, remembering her old friends Sahib Ashman and Ahmed al-Fazi. "They've got long memories, and they fought some bitter battles against ZAFT during the War. But… if the Earth Forces are using a Lohengrin there, then they might make an exception. For all that Commodore Waltfeld burned down Tassel, at least he didn't irradiate the entire area."

Andy looked only slightly abashed; he was willing to acknowledge that he might have gone slightly overboard with that action, but the fact remained he'd been fighting a war… and that, even then, he'd made sure the town was evacuated before torching it.

"Well, then, that's another possible advantage," Raquel said with a nod. "In any case, you're not being sent out alone. We don't expect trouble along the way, but there's still a possibility of it, so you'll be accompanied by two Vosgulovs and our captured Spengler during the journey across the Indian Ocean. Considering the importance of your ships and their mission, the Vosgulovs will be carrying BABIs; the Spengler can only accommodate flightless machines, but they'll be ZAKUs, not GuAIZs or GINNs. Oh," she added, "and we're also providing Minerva with several Guuls."

"Guuls?" Talia's eyebrows went up, and she nodded appreciatively. "That'll increase our tactical flexibility; Rey and Luna didn't have much impact on the last battle, because they were confined to Minerva's deck. I'm sure they'll both be delighted… as am I. Thank you, Commander."

The Guuls would, indeed, greatly expand their options. Normally, even Rey Za Burrel's ZAKU Phantom would be little more than a glorified gun turret in a gravity well, but the subflight platforms would provide even that and Luna Hawke's ZAKU a reasonable degree of maneuverability… which might well prove critical in the coming battles.

"You know," Cagalli murmured, almost to herself, "I might be able to call in a little more support, too."

Talia glanced over at her. "Commodore Athha?"

"I know a couple of mercenaries who might help," Cagalli explained. "A brother and sister team, from Orb. Their parents weren't nobility, but they were business magnates, heavily involved in Orb's arms industry, so they went to the same high school I attended. They dropped out, though, and left the country after their parents were killed in a Blue Cosmos bombing; they joined up with Serpent Tail shortly after the War started, and were involved at Nova and a few other places."

Minerva's captain frowned. "Then wouldn't they be more likely to fight for the Earth Forces…?"

"Not really," Ken put in. "I met their boss, Gai Murakumo, when we were preparing to set up shop at Mendel. Mercs like them work for whoever pays for them, though I'd guess this particular pair would never work directly for Blue Cosmos."

"Right," Cagalli agreed. "They're also freelance, these days… and they might just be willing to do a favor for an old friend. They're also very good pilots," she added.

"Okay, that's another thing to keep in mind," Raquel said, nodding once more. "And if anybody has any other ideas, now would be a good time; it'll be over a week yet before your ships are ready to deploy, so let's put our heads together and see how we can make these deployment orders work even better, shall we?"

"Good idea," Murrue agreed, and stood up. Walking over to the map display, she went on, "We -the Archangel, I mean- learned a few things from our battles in Libya and the Indian Ocean, so first, I'd suggest we-"

Carpentaria Base, Tarmac, March 15th, C.E. 74

Shinn Asuka's blade snapped up, interposing itself between his throat and the enemy just in time for his opponent's blade catch its tip; the redirected momentum sent the opposing blade flashing over his head, and Shinn took advantage of the momentary opening to drive forward, pulling his sword down to mid-torso level and thrusting forward in a vicious stab.

His opponent reacted even faster than he'd expected, his blade coming down in a flashing arc than crashed into the spine of Shinn's weapon, forcing down and to one side; a quick twist of the other man's wrists, and it whistled up again, in a brutal slash that would open him from hip to shoulder.

Shinn responded by spinning away, accepting the momentary risk to his back as the price of quick recovery from his own failed attack. His opponent's katana missed by a millimeter, almost tearing open the back of his shirt, but then he was facing him again, his blade slicing through the air in a beheading cut-

The other man altered own grip with blinding speed, reversing his left hand and using it to shove his sword's hilt sideways, into the path of Shinn's stroke, while simultaneously ducking his head; Shinn's blade, deflected by the impact of the other's hilt, hit nothing but air, and the man continued his downward motion, falling onto his back.

Shinn immediately flipped his own weapon, swapping end for end, and drove it down toward his opponent's prone body… at which point the man rolled into a backward somersault, with Shinn's blade hitting the hard ground, and came out of it with knees bent. Pushing off hard, the man catapulted over Shinn's kneeling form, landing behind him.

Before Shinn could recover and turn, his opponent's leg scythed through his, dropping him to the ground with a grunt… and a bare instant later, he found himself looking a sword tip pointed directly at his throat.

The man let him lie there like that for several moments, long enough to firmly establish Shinn's defeat… and then Ken pulled the wooden practice blade away, thrusting it through his belt, and extended a hand to the youth.

"Not too shabby, Shinn," he remarked. "For a beginner, anyway."

Shinn winced at the qualifier, but allowed Ken to pull him to his feet anyway. It was, after all, the truth: had that been a real battle, he would be lying dead on the training mat, and Ken would only be slightly winded… if that.

"It's a lot different from fighting in a mobile suit," he commented now; not as an excuse, but a partial explanation. "There's a lot more flexibility here, and I think that's throwing me off."

"It is indeed," Ken agreed. "No operating system yet devised can grant a pilot the sort of fine movement control that is taken for granted in any form of sword style. That makes it a great deal more complicated… and is why it takes many years to truly master the blade."

Shinn nodded, still breathing heavily, and stuck his own practice blade into his belt with one hand while wiping sweat from his forehead with the other. He'd known going in that it would be different from anything he'd ever attempted… but that didn't stop him from throwing his all into the effort.

In point of fact, Ken had been surprised when Shinn asked him to give him some lessons in the blade. Pointers on piloting he could well understand, since Shinn was a ZAFT pilot assigned to their newest machine aboard their newest warship, and would doubtless be thrown into the very thickest of the War. Considering that Ken had once been one of ZAFT's top aces himself -and the obvious fact that Shinn looked up to him- that seemed quite logical to him.

For Shinn to want to learn the Ganryu School, though, was most unexpected. Most pilots seldom bothered to learn ground combat skills at all -outside of his own Demons and Millenia Crescent, the only exception he knew of was Athrun Zala- and the few who did usually trained with firearms. Martial arts had their place on the battlefield as well, of course, as there was always the possibility of being shot down and finding oneself with limited to no pistol ammunition, but the blade… That was archaic, to put it charitably.

Partly, Ken suspected, it was because he himself was a swordsman; he wasn't sure Shinn could quite be said to have a case of hero worship toward the elder pilot, but it was obvious Shinn did consider him something of a role model.

It was a fact Ken was quite willing to take shameless advantage of. In Shinn he saw the makings of an extraordinary pilot… if his emotions could be better kept in check.

"Well," Shinn said presently, when he'd recovered some of his breath, "at least it doesn't take that long to master it well enough to use it practically."

"True," Ken agreed, crossing his arms in a pose Kira Yamato would've recognized instantly. "I wouldn't care to enter you into a tournament any time soon, but considering how few people actually bother to learn the art of the blade these days, you could easily take the average soldier apart with that thing. Of course," he admitted, "the primary lesson to learn in that regard is simply how not to cut your own arm off, but you do show promise, Shinn."

Shinn contemplated snorting; he wasn't sure just how much of a compliment that was, particularly since he knew perfectly well Ken would've sliced him in half an instant into the battle had it been a serious match. But… Ah, forget it. There are worse accolades than being told you have promise by one of the two or three best swordsmen around.

"So, you knew this even before you joined ZAFT?" he remarked, half-collapsing onto the tarmac; unlike Ken -who wore his trademark trench coat even in the heat of the Australian day- he'd doffed his red coat, choosing shirtsleeves for both added ventilation and greater mobility.

"Right," Ken acknowledged; predictably, he wasn't even breathing hard, and so chose to remain in his "lecture" posture. "I began studying the martial arts when I was about six, and met Master Sasaki two years after that, so yes, I would've been a student of the blade for a good six years before I entered ZAFT." He grimaced. "Not, unfortunately, long enough to make me as skilled as I might've liked by the time I was assigned to the Grimaldi Front. Victor came entirely too close to killing me."

Shinn nodded thoughtfully. He'd heard about that incident. In fact, it was required study at the Academy, under the topic "Mutiny"… as was another, lesser-known -and far more controversial- action Ken had taken during the First Battle of Jachin Due.

That study, though, was just of dry fact: that Victor Tempest, alias Huckebein the Raven, had engaged in a reckless, headlong charge at the enemy during one of the Grimaldi battles, requiring the Grimaldi Falcon to lead the rest of the Gray Demons after him. Considering the strength of the defenses they were rushing directly at, it had nearly gotten the entire team killed, and had severely injured one member, who subsequently vanished from ZAFT entirely.

After that, it was unsurprising that Ken, furious, had requested that Tempest be transferred -despite their long-standing friendship- and that the transfer had been instantly approved. The surprising part came when Tempest subsequently tried to assassinate his own friend and commander, and that was something which the official record did not comment on.

Nor, for that matter, did it comment on the rumors that Tempest, then going solely by the name Huckebein, had later returned to ZAFT service somehow, expressly assigned to terminate the rogue Ken DiFalco.

"…What did happen back there, Major?" Shinn asked carefully, looking up at the older pilot. "Back at the Eyrie?"

Ken was silent for a long, long moment, leading the obsidian-haired pilot to wonder if he should've just kept his mouth shut. Memories flickered before the Demon Lord's mind's eye, recalling his furious argument -with Tempest and, before that, with the vanished Demon- and the brief, ferocious duel which followed it. Recalling the moment he realized, when trying to protect the Archangel and the forces sent ahead from the Eighth Fleet, that Victor had somehow survived… recalling his final encounter with his onetime friend and student, when Victor blinded him, when he finally ended the Raven's tortured existence… and when he finally learned the truth behind truths.

"It's… a complicated story," Ken said at last, his voice as distant as his mind. "The beginnings of it actually go back some twenty years, and are still classified for what I assure you are very good reasons. But the simple fact of the matter is that Victor Tempest was… mentally unstable." He didn't like admitting that about a friend even now, but he did so without flinching. "I had known it for a long time, but I chose to befriend him and teach what I could of the Art anyway, and it was very nearly my undoing… multiple times."

The ace rubbed his eyepatch in thought. "That instability is what led him to launch his solo attack against Tycho Base. Admittedly, even now I'm not entirely sure of his motives, but since he did have a death wish, I presume that was involved. Either way, he lost control, took off on his own, and I had to either let him die or take the whole team in after him. I chose the latter course… and even now, I'm not sure it was the right one."

Shinn blinked. The very concept was anathema to him; the primary reason he himself had joined ZAFT was to protect others, including his comrades. The idea of just leaving one of them to die, no matter the circumstances… That's just not right, he thought. If you're a team, you're a team. You don't just let one of your own die without even trying to help him! And didn't one of the Major's own maxims…?

"But, Major," he protested, frowning, "didn't you yourself say, 'Leave no one behind, never abandon your own'? You couldn't just leave Tempest to take on those kinds of odds alone…"

"I remember Lesson Seven perfectly well, Shinn," Ken assured him, lips twitching as he remembered the incident that had led to him spouting the aphorism in the first place. "As a matter of fact, it was probably the deciding factor in my decision to go after him. But consider: given the heavy defenses of Tycho Base, it's a miracle any of us came home alive. As it was, one of my people, the one I'd served with the longest, was badly injured, and actually deserted the moment he could walk; and in the aftermath, I was left with the task of personally killing Victor." He shook his head. "Lesson Forty-six: Doing the right thing at the time sometimes means you have to do the wrong thing later. Had Victor died at Tycho, he would've been remembered as a courageous maverick, not a mutineer."

Even as he spoke, his thoughts flashed back to a time before Endymion, remembering the events he now related to Shinn.

"Are you out of your mind, Falcon?! You know what Victor did back there; it could've gotten us all killed, and it almost did kill me! How can you just sit there and do nothing?!"

"I'm not doing 'nothing'. I've already gotten confirmation on the transfer order. He'll be out of here before the next operation… and, in all probability, out of uniform shortly after that." A pause. "I don't like doing that, but friend or not-"

"Transfer? Transfer?! Ha! Even getting him cashiered isn't enough for what he did, Falcon! You should've killed him and had done with it! You see my face, Falcon? You see this? It's because of that maniac! And you won't even-?!"

A moment of deathly silence. Then, "I'm not in the habit of killing my own men. Even for something like this."

"Oh, yeah? What about Dix, huh? I don't remember you showing any hesitation back there!"

"Dix is half the reason I didn't execute Victor. That was a very different situation… and if you'll recall, that action brought me entirely too close to being executed myself by the Board of Inquiry!"

Shinn, oblivious to the ace's reminiscing, was frowning again, thinking hard about Ken's words. He'd never thought of it that way before; as far as he was concerned, allies were allies and enemies were enemies, and that was that. While he was willing to concede things weren't always quite that simple -else Ken would never have had to desert ZAFT in the first place- the situation revolving around Victor Tempest on the Grimaldi Front was something else entirely.

Something important, he told himself. But… it'll take time to think about. For now…

"What happened after that, Major?" he asked intently. "The rumors about Tempest coming back…?"

Ken, pulled back to the here-and-now by the question, allowed himself a small, brief grimace. "The rumors are, unfortunately, correct," he said grimly. "I'm afraid the ending to that story is something you don't have the need to know for, but yes, Victor was brought back -in a similar fashion to Rau Le Creuset, incidentally- and yes, Patrick did so essentially for the sole purpose of eliminating me. One of the many… questionable decisions he made after the Bloody Valentine. Although," he granted, eye taking on the faraway look again, "I do have to admit that, in the end, it provided me with some very valuable information…"

Exactly what that information was, Shinn would've loved to ask; some of the older pilot's statements had made him vaguely uneasy, which, coupled with how… murky many of the events late in the War remained, meant having some of the mystery cleared up would've been at least mildly reassuring.

Whether or not Ken would've answered the question was, itself, a question, considering his notorious secretiveness, but personal hero or not, Shinn had more than enough self-confidence to ask outright… had he the chance.

Before he could do more than open his mouth, however, another voice preempted his. "There you are, Falcon," Millenia Crescent called, striding across the tarmac toward them. "I've been looking for you."

Ken turned, face slipping back into his usual mask of impassivity; ever since the revelation of Rau's survival the night they escaped Orb, he'd been less than entirely comfortable around her… and to judge from the barely-discernable tightness in her own manner, the feeling was very much mutual.

"Something up, Millenia?" he asked, leaving unvoiced any mention of their disagreement.

"You could say that," Millenia confirmed, after an indecipherable glance at Shinn's practice sword.

"Partly from Captain Ramius -which is why I came looking for you in the first place- and partly from Commander Carver. News on two fronts, Sensei." She paused to nod at the pair of mobile assault ships still being worked on at the docks, over a week after their arrival at the base. "First of all, we've got final confirmation on our movement orders."

Ken rubbed his eyepatch in thought. "A date's been set for our deployment, then?" he said interestedly. "Good," he went on, after she nodded. "The time we've had to repair and recuperate has been nice, but I do think it's about time we got moving again. The Earth Forces aren't going to just wait around, and I don't want us getting too complacent."

"Not much chance of that happening," Millenia replied, a little tartly, "with you and the Desert Tiger running everyone ragged… in simulations and out." Her expression turned abruptly serious. "Which brings me to my other piece of news. We've lost the Von Braun."

Shinn drew in a sharp breath. "The Earth Forces have made a move in space?" he guessed; he didn't know the Werner von Braun, but he did know she was a Laurasia-class, and even the old frigates didn't go down that easily.

And the idea of a move being made in space while he and Minerva were still stuck in dry dock put a sudden chill in Shinn's heart, born of tension and the realization he could do nothing to protect those beyond gravity's grip.

To his surprise, though, Millenia shook her head. "No. Fact is, there's no sensor data, even from distress signals; the ship just seemed to fall into a hole in space, with debris appearing as suddenly as the ship disappeared about an hour later. And that lack of data tells Command it probably wasn't the Earth Forces… especially combined with Von Braun's cargo."

"Cargo?" Ken repeated, raising an eyebrow.

"Von Braun's been assigned to R&D for the past year," Millenia explained. "She was en route from Armory One back to the Homeland with a METEOR unit when contact was lost; part of a new project attempting to adapt METEORs for use with mass-production mobile suits. Not really of much interest to the Earth Forces, since the basic technology isn't exactly new. So…"

The ace closed his eye. "Queen Anne's Revenge," he said flatly.

"Probably," she agreed. "Definitely their modus operandi, anyway, and I don't know of any other group that could've pulled it off."

"Wait a minute," Shinn protested, confused. "How can a ship just disappear like that? And what's 'Queen Anne's Revenge'?"

"Queen Anne's Revenge is a pirate ship, Shinn," Ken said quietly, turning to the younger pilot. "She used to be the Spartacus, an Earth Forces Agamemnon-class. Back in early 72, though, the Yggdrasil Pirates captured her, and named her after the most infamous pirate ship to sail the oceans. Since then, she's been quite a holy terror, though they normally avoid military shipping." He allowed himself a small grimace. "And she's been effectively impossible to pin down, because Spartacus happened to be one of the first ships built to replace the jamming ships lost with Fourth Fleet at Second Jachin."

"Oh." Shinn winced. "Dead Zone."

"Exactly. And what the Yggdrasil Pirates might do with a METEOR unit…" Ken shook his head. "I do, however, begin to understand our expedited schedule. The sooner we take our the Lohengrin Gate, the sooner ZAFT can free up some resources to track down the Revenge."

"Right," Millenia confirmed. "The Revenge may seem like a minor issue compared to the Earth Alliance, but I think the loss of the Von Braun was the last straw; Command is getting worried that the Earth Forces will try taking advantage of the situation somehow. Orders have come through for Carpentaria to draw as much resources away from their own repairs as necessary to finish our repairs. They've decided the risk of another attack on the base is less than the need to get us moving." She gestured with her chin toward the HQ building. "Deployment briefing in ten minutes, Falcon… and we deploy in five days from right now."

Carpentaria Base, Docks, March 19th, C.E. 74

"Is it always this way, Murrue?" Talia asked, gazing up at the now mostly-repaired bulk of the Minerva. "You fight one battle, head to port for repair and re-supply, and then head right back out again?"

"Pretty much, Talia," Murrue admitted; by now, a day before they were to depart once more, the two captains were on a first-name basis. "Although," she added thoughtfully, "you and Minerva actually have it luckier than we did, when we made our first trip across the globe. Back then, we were one ship, on the run, without an allied port for over three months. Compared to that, this stay at Carpentaria has been a vacation."

"Yes, I suppose it would be."

Talia herself wasn't exactly a veteran. She'd been in ZAFT for the last six months of the First War, but she'd been stationed at PLANT Defense HQ, in Aprilius One; the exigencies of being out in the field were new to her… though she was catching on quickly, after several skirmishes and one outright pitched battle.

One thing I do know about, though, she thought, turning her gaze toward the now-pristine hull of the white vessel once called the "Legged Ship" by ZAFT, and that's politics… and intrigue. And several things about this trip promise too much of both.

"Murrue," Talia said quietly, turning to look directly at her fellow captain, "there's something I need to talk to you about."

Murrue looked at her sidelong. "We mostly settled the issue about Rau before we even got here… so you're talking about Lacus, right?"

"Right," Talia confirmed levelly. "You and I both saw that broadcast last week. Yet both Miss Lacus and her father are supposed to be on your ship at the moment." She tilted her head. "Far be from me to accuse anyone of lying… but one of them has to be the real thing." She had a suspicion about which person it might be, but it was only a suspicion… and not one she wanted to believe.

"The real Lacus Clyne is the one aboard my ship, Talia," Murrue said calmly, without hesitation. She had discussed this matter beforehand with Ken, Athrun, Siegel, and Lacus herself, and they'd decided, albeit with reservations, the way this would have to be handled. "As you no doubt know, she and her father were both on the Eternal for the last few months of the War, so I assure you that I know I'm dealing with the real thing."

Talia sighed. "I thought so," she admitted. "Especially when I remembered that former Chairman Clyne was also supposed to be aboard. If the Lacus in the PLANTs were the real one, he'd no doubt be there as well, and publicly." She didn't like admitting that; for several reasons -most of which she preferred not to admit even to Murrue- she didn't want to think Gilbert Durandal was up to anything at all duplicitous. "But in that case… who is the one in the PLANTs?"

"Ken believes she's a young woman named Meer Campbell," the other woman replied with a shrug. "I wouldn't know; the only time I've been in the PLANTs at all for any length of time was just after the War, and that was for business. But Campbell's cousin was one of the original Gray Demons, and Rau backs up the ID, so I'm not prepared to disagree with them." She shot a shrewd glance at the ZAFT captain. "I'm also not prepared to speculate on just why Chairman Durandal might've resorted to this tactic."

Murrue paused then, waiting for Talia's response. She wasn't certain, but things Ken and Kira had told her about the voyage from Armory One had birthed a tiny suspicion in her mind, a suspicion that, just perhaps, Talia knew Durandal rather better than a "mere" ZAFT captain would be expected to. As such, her next words could be very interesting indeed.

"…I don't think the Chairman knows where the real Miss Lacus is," Talia said, after a long pause. "I didn't mention it in my report -that's more your business than ours- and I'm fairly sure he didn't know before we left Orb. And under the current circumstances, he may well have felt that the only one whose voice could convince the PLANTs' citizens not to act rashly was Lacus Clyne; in which case, he presumably decided he had no choice but to use a double."

"That's quite a liberty to take, Talia," Murrue said quietly, meeting Talia's gaze levelly. "He's putting Lacus' name and reputation on the line without even asking her; if something goes wrong, she'll end up blamed for something she had nothing to do with. But," she added, raising a hand to preempt Talia's response, "we won't challenge that now. We're in the middle of a war, and Chairman Durandal isn't here for us to ask. I've talked it over with Lacus and the others, and we've decided to let it slide for now. We'll deal with the matter when we can see the Chairman personally."

Talia let out a barely-audible sigh of relief. That's good, she thought. We don't need that kind of disagreement now. Not when we're about to head right into the European Theater. At the moment, Section Nine's assistance is critical.

"So, there's nothing to interfere with our scheduled launch, then?" she said aloud.

"Right," Murrue confirmed, turning back to the docked ships. "Chief Murdoch and your Aves agree that everything will be ready by tomorrow afternoon, as scheduled." She closed her eyes. "And, according to our latest intelligence data, there shouldn't be any problems on the way to Suez; the Equatorial Union is the closest 'Alliance' nation to our course, and despite public appearances they're staunch supporters of Section Nine."

"So we can use the time to work up again," Talia said thoughtfully. "A few drills along the way won't hurt. Maybe a few simulations of land warfare? So far, Minerva's combat experience has been exclusively in space, except for one battle over the ocean, so we should probably start familiarizing ourselves with the conditions involved."

"Especially if we end up in desert warfare," Murrue agreed wryly, remembering Archangel's first -and nearly disastrous- experience with the unique conditions of desert combat. "We can give you a few pointers on that." She paused. "Oh… and Talia? Since we'll have the time, there's a favor I'd like to ask you…"

Minnerva, Millenia Crescent's Private Quarters

Hey, Millenia can you keep a secret?...

Of course, Laura, it's not about Ken is it?...

No! No, its just I want to share with you this dream of mine….


Yeah, its one of the reasons why I joined ZAFT in the first place….

and here I thought Falcon was your only reason, so why are you telling me this?….

because I need your help to make it happen…

Tell me what it is first…

I want to live in a kind world….

"Laura…" whispered Millenia as she opened her eyes, awakening from her 'sleep'.

Easily sitting up, she looked at her monitor by her bed and saw the gathered data from the analysis made during her 'sleep'. Like clockwork, Millenia sent the data to her friend, who was responsible for her body's maintenance and upgrades. Millenia couldn't help but mentally frown at her recurring dreams as of late, ever since her confrontation with Rau.

One small part of her still human mind, wondered if she was slowly going insane from the guilt of her sins, or from feeling trapped like a ghost in a perfect shell. Still, Millenia banished those worrying thoughts away, as those dreams helped her refocus and reprioritize herself. Vengeance against Rau would have to wait… for now.

The violet haired commander stood up from her bed and walked across her Spartan room, unmindful of her nude state to dress in her uniform.

Less than twenty-fours left before we head out, Millenia thought to herself as she put the finishing touches to her uniform and headed towards the door.

However, she hesitated to leave and went to the small dresser by her 'bed'; opening its drawer, Millenia gazed silently at the picture frame that she had not shown to Ken in his early visit to her room.

The picture showed a young Millenia together with a young Laura both caught in a pose giving flying kisses to a clearly flustered and embarrassed Ken with their friends cheering, whistling, catcalling, and/or laughing in the background. It was one of the happiest and most treasured moments in her life.

Millenia looked at it silently for a couple more minutes before putting it back again inside the dresser and exited her private quarters.

"I will break this cycle, Laura, and create the world you want…" promised Millenia, "…whatever it takes to make your dream into reality…"

I will be the bringer of death to my enemies… even if that enemy is you… Ken……

Truman Base, Headquarters Building, Special Operations Command Center

"…I see, understood. Thank you." Neo closed down the intercom link, leaned back in the desk chair, and looked over at his fellow special operations troops. "Well, it's official," he announced. "Com Center just relayed a message from Heavens Base: according to R, the combined ZAFT/Section Nine force will be departing Carpentaria Base tomorrow afternoon."

Willet and Bernadotte exchanged a rare, shared expression: one of puzzlement. "'R'?" the Englishwoman questioned.

"Our agent within Section Nine," Hamilton explained, casting a disapproving glance at Bernadotte's perpetual cigarette as he spoke. "Even I don't know who he is; only the brass do. But his -or her, I suppose- information had always been reliable." He shrugged. "Anyway, does it matter who R is? At least now we can do something, instead of this endless waiting."

"Tell me about it, comrade," Bernadotte said sourly, leaning back against one wall. "After the Nosferatu training, I thought dull would be good. Two weeks of dull has changed my mind."

Not even Willet disagreed with him there. Neo had been on standby since Break The World, five months before, and Hamilton's entire squadron now had something of a score to settle with both factions they would be fighting. And as for Willet herself, there was nothing she and her team craved more than a challenge… something which had been sorely lacking for them ever since the First War ended.

And this time, they would be going in with the advantage of complete surprise -Truman Base still being completely unknown to the enemy- and every single technological trick the Earth Alliance could bring to bear. Some of them had been encountered by Section Nine before, and others by ZAFT, but never in a situation quite like this one… and none of them had encountered a few of the new developments that R&D had devised.

"Same assets as in our original brief?" Hamilton asked, getting down to business.

"Yes," Neo answered with a nod. "Everything we've got on hand is going into this operation; even with their nuclear-powered machines, the ZAFT/S9 alliance should be flattened quite nicely." He stood.

"Captain Hamilton, Major Willet, brief your teams immediately. Captain Bernadotte, make sure that Katana of yours is properly calibrated; with your… unique status, I want no mistakes. I've got to set the Fleet in motion." He gestured sharply with one hand. "We leave in eighteen hours."

Gulf of Carpentaria, SNS Archangel, Bridge, March 20th, C.E. 74

Three weeks after arriving at Carpentaria Base, the Archangel was pulling out once again, hale and robust after extensive repairs.

"It's nice to be leaving without stealth or haste, for a change," Murrue remarked from the center seat, glancing at the brown-haired youth on the bridge's forward catwalk. "I think the last time that happened was when we left the Eyrie before Second Jachin… for that matter," she added thoughtfully, "I think that was the only other time."

"You may be right," Kira agreed quietly, his right arm wrapped lightly around Cagalli's waist. "Heliopolis and Artemis were both going to pieces, we were trying to avoid Athrun on the way out of Orb, and we were under direct enemy attack at Alaska, Kaguya, and Mendel… Well, we did leave Africa without too much trouble, too, but I see what you mean."

"War seldom gives soldiers the chance to take things easy," Athrun Zala said sagely, standing with Lacus on the other side of the catwalk. "Especially one on this scale. But," he went on, glancing back at Murrue with a small smile, "things do occasionally work out for the better. Congratulations, by the way."

Murrue saw his gaze was on the gold band on her left ring finger, and she smiled -with a tinge of a blush- herself. "Thank you, Athrun."

For his part, whether or not Ken was even slightly embarrassed was difficult to say; Athrun, however, had known the ace long enough to recognize the way he suddenly became even more expressionless than usual, and he grinned at his friend and former enemy. "Still getting used to married life, Falcon?"

"Just imagining how you'll look when you finally give it a try," Ken shot back evenly.

Athrun suddenly looked more thoughtful, provoking a giggle from Lacus.

The marriage of Ken DiFalco and Murrue Ramius had been something of a rushed affair, considering the wartime situation -certainly more rushed than the event Dearka had come down to Earth to attend- but it was, so felt many in the crew, a rather overdue event. The two had been engaged since the day the Junius Treaty was signed, over two years prior.

Talia Gladys, though only recently acquainted with the couple at all, had gladly performed the ceremony in her capacity as Minerva's captain. As she noted at the time, it was a sign of life going on, when they all knew they were heading right into danger once again.

It had also resulted in Kojiro Murdoch becoming wealthier by an unspecified but apparently sizable amount, which the newlyweds carefully overlooked.

"Well," Mu La Flaga drawled into the silence, lounging against the platform behind Murrue's chair, "how about we get going, eh? The sooner we make the impossible possible, the sooner this war is over, and we can all go home."

"Right you are, Mu," Murrue agreed with another smile. "Flay, patch me through to Minerva."

"Right away, Captain," Flay Allster acknowledged, tapping quickly at her keyboard. "Link established, Ma'am."

"You called, Murrue?" Talia asked, appearing on Murrue's right armrest.

"Yes, I did. Is the fleet ready to get underway?"

Talia nodded. "I just got confirmation from Commander Carver and Captain Monkoto on the Yamamoto. Any time you're ready, Murrue."

"All right. In that case…" Murrue looked forward, to where Arnold Neumann and Andrew Waltfeld sat the at the helm stations. "Lieutenant Neumann, take us out of port."

"Yes, Ma'am!" Neumann replied, voice betraying his own pleasure at finally getting underway again. "Ahead one quarter, Commodore?"

"Sounds right to me," Andy agreed. In tandem with Neumann, his hands moved across the console, more hesitantly -as he was still a relative newcomer to the ship- but with equal precision.

LCAM-X01A Archangel's engines rumbled to life, and Neumann smiled widely. "Launching Archangel!"

Just as the trio of Archangel, Odin, and Minerva had been the oddest formation to ever enter Carpentaria Base, the task force which now departed was the strangest that had ever set out from the base. Led by the pair of mobile assault ships, moving first like ponderous behemoths and then like the sleek, graceful ships they truly were as their engines spun up, other ships followed in their wake. Two Vosgulovs swung gracefully from the dock, pushed out for open waters, and slid neatly beneath the waves; taking up the rear was the Yamamoto, a carrier formerly of the Earth Alliance and now crewed by the very people she had been sent to kill.

Carrying mobile suits of varying but generally high lethality, led by two ships of formidable firepower themselves, the impromptu ZAFT/Section Nine task force was more than enough to crush any opposition they believed likely to engage them on the journey across the Indian Ocean.

Even so, Kira Yamato, Cagalli Yula Athha, Athrun Zala, and Ken DiFalco were afflicted with a faint trace of tension… but then, they had cause to remember the Indian Ocean well. Kira recalled all too well his fear as he searched the trackless ocean for Ken and -especially- Cagalli, after the born-in-space ace had gotten the pair of them lost after a battle.

Ken, Cagalli, and Athrun remembered an encounter on a deserted island, one which almost ended in tragedy.

Had they but known it, there was more reason to be tense than merely bad memories. From the secret Truman Base, a force even greater than theirs set sail, equipped with weapons neither ZAFT nor Section Nine even suspected… and less than a kilometer out from the base, the fleet sailed into fog, and vanished without a trace.

Lagrange Point 5, PLANTs, Aprilius One, Chairman Durandal's Office

"So the task force has set sail?"

"Yes, Your Excellency," Ray Yuki confirmed in response to Durandal's question. "Minerva, Archangel, and their escorts are now on their way to the Middle East, and should be at Gulnahan within the week, assuming no unforeseen obstacles."

Durandal nodded thoughtfully, half-turning toward the chess table that sat to one side of his chair. "And what do you think are the chances of such an obstacle arising, Commandant?"

"Relatively low," Yuki replied cautiously; having barely survived Second Jachin by departing Jachin Due itself when he realized Zala had lost his mind, he had become a very cautious man indeed. Even as the uniformed leader of ZAFT, directly below the Defense Committee Chairman, he took great pains to be precise… and, he hoped, accurate.

"The Earth Alliance still seems to be in some disarray," he went on after a moment. "They're holding the line at Gulnahan, and appear to be preparing an offensive against Gibraltar, but Intelligence believes their Asian theater is still recovering from the botched attacks outside Orb and Carpentaria."

"That was my assessment, as well," the Chairman mused. "Still, one never knows with them; their resources are much greater than ours, and they've shown themselves to be very clever in the past…"

"True, Your Excellency," Yuki agreed readily. "Which is why we've sent three additional ships and their attached mobile suits along. Even if they do run into trouble, it shouldn't be insurmountable."

Durandal smiled faintly. Yuki was a fine officer, he reflected, but not quite in the league of Patrick Zala, or Roy Ames. Or, for that matter, DiFalco. None of those men would even think of accepting "should" in their calculations. There's no certainty in war, but they'd be as vigilant as possible, even against the unlikely…

As if sensing his leader's thoughts, Yuki cleared his throat. "We do have the Savior on its way, as well, Your Excellency. Westenfluss will be departing Gibraltar later today; according to schedule, he'll meet up with Minerva somewhere out in the Indian Ocean. And I believe Archangel finally has a pair of Fiannas, which they're fitting out now."

"Hm…" Durandal allowed himself a few more moments of thought on the matter, then nodded sharply. "Yes, I think you're probably right, Commandant. That array of forces won't be defeated by mere force without a great deal more than the Earth Alliance is likely to have available in the region. Very well; that'll be all. Notify me if anything else happens."

"Yes, Your Excellency!" Snapping off a salute, Yuki turned on his heel and strode from the office. He was eager to get back to work; Third Jachin had left him paranoid, and nearly a nervous wreck. He preferred to keep an eye on things personally as often as he could, since that maelstrom.

After the ZAFT officer had departed, Durandal turned his full attention to the chessboard. "So… they've made another step," he murmured. "So far, everything is going as planned… but this Queen's Gambit is risky. If the coming battle should prove to be a defeat, instead of merely a challenge…"

He closed his eyes, and nudged one of the white knights forward on the board.

Indian Ocean, SNS Archangel, Aft Deck, March 22nd, C.E. 74

Two days into Archangel's journey across the Indian Ocean -effectively retracing the path she took three years before- a blonde-haired man limped out on deck, bandages still wrapped around the sword wounds on his arms and legs.

He'd been fit to move around for several days now, despite how deep the cuts had gone, but this was the first time since Archangel's first night out of Orb that Rau Le Creuset had dared to leave the interior of the ship. Millenia Crescent's wrath was not something he cared to test again, even with Ken's assurances… and he'd no desire to find out any earlier than necessary how ZAFT at large would react when they learned he still lived.

Hmph. Ironic, Rau thought, walking carefully to the rail at the deck's edge. Once, this ship would've been the last place I could find welcome, a time when I was trying to destroy her. Now, she's my only refuge from my own former comrades. The world truly is mad, at some level.

Now, as he'd tried many times since being revived and rehabilitated, the masked man thought back, trying to remember just when things had begun to go so wrong. It had started when he realized that he was not only a replacement, but a flawed one at that; that had led to setting the fire that killed his "father" Al Da Flaga. Yet after that, he'd managed to contain himself for a time, fighting the madness. Meeting Gilbert Durandal years later had provided the key to at least temporary stability, in the form of the medication the man provided.

It must've been the War, Rau thought heavily, and rested his arms on the railing. Copernicus, the Bloody Valentine, the Grimaldi Front… those senseless acts and the increased deterioration…

"You know who you remind me of right now?"

Rau twitched, and turned to see who had intruded on his brooding solitude. "Mu La Flaga," he said dryly. "I should've known. No, I don't know who I remind you of, but I suppose you're about to enlighten me."

The Hawk of Endymion smirked, leaning back against the bulkhead next to the hatch. "As a matter of fact, you remind me of Falcon, three years ago. He used to brood a lot, too." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Actually, I don't think he even lightened up at all until after Second Jachin."

"After he found his redemption," Rau said with a nod, and turned back to the sea. "And I suppose you're going to mock me now, for not having any means of redemption myself."

"Wrong." Mu shook his head. "Whether you can redeem yourself or not, I don't know; I'm skeptical, but I've known Falcon long enough to give at least a little weight to his judgment. No, I just wanted to ask you something." He tilted his head, expression unusually grave. "Why'd you do it?"

Another, stronger twitch went through Rau's body. The few who knew of his continued existence had said a lot of things to him since he'd been revived, ranging from sympathetic to distrustful to outright violent… but no one had asked him why.

Ken, he was sure, already knew, or suspected; the man was too devious for his own good, and also haunted by enough of his own demons to have some understanding. No one else he knew, though, had seemed to care. They either condemned him for it without question, or preferred not to bring up such an… awkward subject.


"…Of all the questions you could've asked me, Mu," Rau said slowly, after a long pause, "that may well be the hardest to answer."

"Somehow I don't think any question about you would be an easy one, Le Creuset," Mu retorted.

The other man allowed himself a small smile. "Maybe you're right… All right. You want the simple form? I thought humanity was comprised of stupid, greedy, self-destructive individuals, who strove simply for their own deaths, whether they knew it or not."

"Sounds simplistic."

"I did say it was the simple form," Rau said mildly. "But perhaps so… It was the view of a man who knew from a very early age that he was created in someone else's image, to be the 'perfect' heir another was not. It was the view of a man whose creation was flawed because his maker chose to play god without properly understanding the science he was meddling with." He glanced sidelong at Mu. "It was the view of a man who lived through the early days of the Bloody Valentine War from the perspective of the PLANTs."

Mu nodded pensively. His own view in those days had been a simple one, and while he'd borne his own share of anger from the use of N-jammers on Earth, he knew the PLANTs' had carried a much deeper reservoir or rage, beginning even before the War. Almost from the day the PLANTs had been completed, the sponsor nations had taken advantage of them, and things had escalated badly after the Blockade.


"Falcon lived through the same events," he pointed out. "And he turned into a robot, not a psychopath."

"He had a very different experience at the Battle of Endymion," Rau pointed out, "and you didn't even meet him till after he'd realized the enormity of his error in creating GENESIS. He also possessed a sound body… I should also note that he headed in my direction, psychologically speaking, for a short time after the Bloody Valentine; why do you think he created GENESIS in the first place?"

"Point taken," Mu conceded. "So, having a disintegrating body and watching people slaughter each other on the battlefield made you think it would be better if everyone died?"

"Something like that." Rau shook his head. "Ironically, it was probably my discussions with Gil that finally convinced me of what I 'needed' to do. He agreed that mankind has is corrupt, but he believed there was a way to change that. How, I don't remember; the operative point is that, through these discussions, I grew to believe that it was either too difficult to bother with, or more likely wouldn't work at all."


"Realist," Rau retorted. "One thing Falcon and I agreed on even then, Mu: over the entire course of human history, mankind's basic nature has never changed. The difference between us was that I saw no redeeming qualities in Man. As my body deteriorated at an ever-increasing rate, as the War grew ever more brutal, I grew fixated on Man's errors, and could not see Man's virtues. As far as I could see, Man existed only to kill each other, to cause one another suffering, and so I sought to end them at the same time I ended my own suffering."

"So you set out to trick both sides into blowing each to bits?" The Hawk whistled. "You sure didn't think small… or sane."

"I don't deny that. Nor do I deny, now, that I was the source of a good deal of the suffering I observed." The masked man stared out into the distance, his eyes seeing not the ocean but rather the blackness of space, the conflict between Providence and Freedom, and then Preybird. "Ironic, that I would seek to destroy the pointless cycle by becoming the very worst part of it. Too late did I understand…"

The man's every word, every gesture, and very demeanor screamed of someone who wanted someone to kill him, to Mu's eye. Someone who had recovered from insanity only to realize the entire world wanted him dead… and with what appeared to be very good reason.

"No wonder you didn't fight back against that Crescent woman," he mused. "I don't know whether to be glad Falcon stopped her, or disappointed you didn't just throw yourself on her sword. Personally, I'm inclined toward the latter, I must admit…"

"As am I," Rau said unflinchingly. "You don't know what it's like to come back from insanity and death only to realize you'd have been better off if you'd stayed that way. Unfortunately… I still have things I need to do before I go."

Mu raised an eyebrow. "I thought you didn't believe you could be redeemed."

"I don't, and this isn't about redemption." Rau turned toward his old enemy. "I don't remember just what it is that Gil's up to, but I'm quite certain it's very ambitious, and that he hasn't given up on it. Rey's presence on the Minerva is clearly part of Gil's scheming, and from what little I do recall, that scheme is something none of us would like. As the best clues we have are locked somewhere in my head, my survival is still important… and as I helped shape his plans, one way or another, I have an obligation to do my best to stop them. Only then can I rest."

Taken aback, Mu's only comment was, "Sounds like Falcon, three years ago."

"He and I are very alike, in many ways," Rau acknowledged, turning back to the ocean. "And he and I understand something Gil does not, perhaps cannot." His gaze went back to the unending, unchanging sea.

"It's not about changing the world. It's about doing our best to leave the world the way it is…"

SNS Archangel, Bridge, March 23rd, C.E. 74

Reclining in the captain's chair, Natarle Badgiruel stifled a yawn. It was past zero hundred, local time, and on top of that the journey across the ocean had been almost entirely smooth sailing so far. The only excitement so far was that neutercane the other day, she mused. The last voyage this uneventful was… the trip from Ame-no-Mihashira to Mendel? Something like that…

Not that she wasn't insisting that the night watch crew keep a close eye on things. For all that she'd loosened up some since leaving the Earth Forces, after the Battle of Alaska, Natarle had never forgotten that discipline and watchfulness kept life and limb intact.

"Ship's status?" she asked idly, more to be doing something than because she thought anything might be amiss.

"Still on course for the Persian Gulf, Ma'am," Neumann replied, reclining in his own chair; at this point, hands-on piloting was unnecessary, barring an unexpected storm… or another neutercane, like the one that had sent Minerva climbing skyward, Archangel plunging for undersea safety, and the Yamamoto's people hanging on for dear life several days earlier. "ETA unchanged."

"Clear sailing according to radar," Jackie Tonomura chimed in; as detection officer, he was also the ship's de facto meteorologist. "Doesn't rule out a neutercane, but there's no sign of a normal hurricane."

Natarle nodded. She didn't expect another such event; the storms were essentially unpredictable, short-lived hurricanes, and were so uncommon that some people still believed them to be myths. The chances of the same task force running into two in the same voyage were effectively nonexistent.

"Task force still in formation, Commander," Miriallia put in, from Natarle's own usual position in CIC. The young lieutenant had been steadily assuming greater responsibilities since the Archangel returned to the scene; Natarle suspected the younger woman was being groomed for duty as executive officer aboard one of the other Section Nine ships, once she was experienced enough. For now, she was doing an excellent job overseeing the Combat Information Center.

"Yamamoto also reports repairs to storm damage complete," Mir went on, glancing down at the display mounted on the movable arm in front of her chair (a recent modification, giving the exec easier access to CIC's information). "Looks like everything is normal for now."

"Good." Natarle sighed, allowing her muscles to relax even more. "We'll need to save our energy for Gulnahan; that's not going to be an easy objective to take…"

Mir, remembering several of the hairier messes Archangel had gotten into in the First War, couldn't help but agree. She forced her own muscles to relax, trying the shed the tension she felt at assuming full control of CIC, however temporarily, for the first time.

I sure have moved up in the world, she thought to herself, idly watching a fog bank approach the bow on her monitor. I started out as a second-class crewman, acting as little more than a relay between the bridge and the pilots, and now I'm a lieutenant, fully qualified to take the watch in CIC. She smiled wryly. Of course, this isn't exactly what I was expecting to do with my life, back when Kira and I and everybody else were still at the college on Heliopolis…

Inevitably, the reminiscences brought back memories of another student from those days, a cheerful, brown-haired youth by the name of Tolle Koenig. Her boyfriend, once… until his reckless entry into a battle in the Marshal Islands resulted in his death at the hands of Athrun Zala.

It brought a pang to Mir's heart, even now, but it was a familiar pain, one she'd learned to live with. Her good friend Ken and current boyfriend Dearka had helped her see that life went on, even in the face of terrible loss…

Mir allowed herself a sigh of her own, and started to genuinely relax at last.

That was when, on the monitor, the captured Spengler-class carrier slipped into the fog ahead of the Archangel, and vanished.

At first, she thought nothing of it; it was, after all, an unusually thick bank of fog, so it wasn't too surprising that the Yamamoto couldn't even be seen. Then, though, the ship's telemetry vanished from Mir's status display.

She frowned, straightening in her chair. That's odd… Malfunction? I mean, we've got ships built by two different factions here; Yamamoto might be Earth Forces, too, but the ZAFT signals might be interfering… Wait!

"Sai, activate ECCM now!"

Sai jerked upright, startled by the sudden command, but instinctively obeyed. "ECCM coming online now!" he reported, hands darting across his console.

Natarle's head snapped around. "Lieutenant Haw, what are you-?"

Archangel penetrated the fogbank, and Neumann let out a strangled gasp. "Commander-!"

The exec's gaze came forward again… and her face paled. "How did they…?"

On the other side of the fogbank's edge, there was no fog. There was, however, an entire fleet staring them in the face. At least a dozen Danilov-class destroyers, two Spengler-class carriers… and two Archangel-class mobile assault ships, accompanied by a single Odin-class escort ship.

Already in the air were over a dozen Windams, with more launching, and Natarle had an uneasy feeling she knew what would be coming out of one of the Archangels.

How did they… Wait. Dead Zone; it has to be. I didn't think it could work on Earth, because people would notice a hole in the ocean, but with artificially-generated fog…

An explosion off Archangel's port bow, about where Yamamoto should've been, shook Natarle out of her stunned stupor. "Captain to the bridge!" she snapped, tapping a command into her armrest panel. "Captain to the bridge immediately! All hands to Level One Battlestations!"

"All hands to Level One Battlestations!" the intercom system relayed. "All hands to Level One Battlestations! All hands to Level One Battlestations!"

Without waiting for orders, Mir started barking out commands of her own. "Initiate Dead Zone countermeasures," she snapped to Sai. "Odin Protocol Alpha-Three. Load Sledgehammer missiles; Gottfrieds and Valiants online. Prepare for antiship combat. And get all pilots to the hangar immediately!"

Natarle spared a brief instant to give the younger woman an approving look, before glancing at the duty radio officer. "Get me a link to Minerva," she ordered, "and get the Day Watch crew up here at once!"

"Yes, Ma'am!"

As alarms began to ring throughout the ship, officers and crew bailed out of their bunks, and weapons popped out of their compartments, the first cannon shells and energy bolts from the oncoming fleet reached out for the combined task force…

SNS Archangel, Captain's Quarters

"Captain to the bridge! Captain to the bridge immediately! All hands to Level One Battlestations!"

Murrue jerked awake in an instant, reflexes honed by similar messages during the War. Rolling off the warm pillow she'd been using, she hit the intercom panel next to her bunk without even looking. "What's going on?!" she demanded. At the same time, ignoring her duty uniform, she snatched up her combat suit.

"Incoming enemy fleet, Captain," Natarle replied tautly. "At least seventeen ships, two of them Archangels, and an Odin. Over a dozen mobile suits already in the air, with more launching as we speak; probability is high that Zeta Squadron is present, as well." A rumble that filled the ship punctuated her statement. "We're already under fire, Captain, and we're unable to fully compensate for the Dead Zone effect they're currently employing."

Ken swore softly, coming off the bunk in a near-leap; ignoring his own uniform, he yanked out his flightsuit and started pulling it on with almost painful haste. "Get all our pilots to their machines, and recommend to Minerva that they do the same," he said sharply.

"Already done," Natarle assured him. "Point-defense net with Minerva is also set up. We'll launch mobile suits as they're ready."

"Good," Murrue told her, fastening the formfitting suit's collar and reaching for the helmet. "Engage at your discretion until I arrive; we can't lose any time."

"Lieutenant Haw is already on it, Ma'am," her exec said.

Murrue smiled briefly. "Good for her. Ken?"

"Already gone," the ace told her, keying the hatch. Pausing to give her a quick kiss, he charged off down the corridor toward the hangar, with Murrue speeding off in the other direction.

Minerva, Bridge

Talia arrived on the bridge at a dead run, still fastening the collar of her uniform. "Status?" she barked, striding quickly to the center seat.

Arthur Trine shot to his feat, vacating the chair with grateful haste. "Tentative estimate of twelve destroyers, two carriers, a pair of mobile assault ships, and an Odin-class escort," he reported, stepping to one side. "Twelve Windams already airborne, with additional units believed to be on the way."

She nodded curtly, and slid into the chair. "Lower bridge to battle position," she instructed. "Arthur, how did they get this close without us noticing them?"

"Dead Zone, Captain," he answered with a wince. "According to Commander Badgiruel, their Lieutenant Haw first noticed it when the Yamamoto entered the fog and vanished from sensors; apparently they're using the fog to hide the visual discrepancy that would otherwise have betrayed them here on Earth."

Talia grimaced. Dead Zone had been a favorite tactic of the Earth Alliance since its efficacy had nearly destroyed the Archangel in an ambush; it had been used to deadly effect at Second and Third Jachin, as well. We still haven't figured out how to counter the Colloid effect, and every time we get a handle on the jamming, they introduce a new variant. Still… there should be one weakness to planetary use of the system.

"Fire control jamming?" she asked, turning to Chen; her query was punctuated by a flash as a bolt from a Danilov's forward turret spattered against Minerva's hull.

"Minimal," the FCS officer replied, tapping at his console. "Radar is a fuzzy mess, but it looks like gravity prevents the laser-jamming particles from remaining a problem. We can still target just fine."

Talia nodded sharply. "Excellent. Concentrate your fire on those Danilovs; the carriers aren't much of a threat, and we can better handle the Archangels and Odin once they're out of the way."

"Understood, Ma'am."

"And get our machines into the air immediately," she snapped over at Meyrin Hawke. "Get Luna and Rey out on Guuls, and have Commander Crescent guard Shinn till the Impulse is fully assembled."

"Right away, Ma'am!" Meyrin cupped one hand over her headset. "Commander Crescent?"

"I heard," the violet-haired commander replied, appearing on Meyrin's monitor. "I'm going out immediately." Her expression was grim. "We'll need as much cover as you can give us; there's a lot of hostile fire out there, and I strongly suspect worse is on the way."

"We'll do our best," Meyrin promised.

Earth Alliance Mobile Assault Ship Ophanim, Bridge

Vice Admiral Cyril Kimmer smiled thinly, seeing the sudden flurry of activity on the target ships. Yamamoto was already blasting itself apart, victim of Thor's Gottfried -he made a mental note to recover the ship's survivors after the battle; he wouldn't leave even an enemy to drown- and the other ships of the enemy task force had clearly been taken completely by surprise.

"The ambush seems to be going well," Neo Roanoke observed, standing at the admiral's side. "At the least, we have the advantage of surprise well in hand."

"That we do," Kimmer agreed, glancing over at the young captain. "Not heading out yourself, Captain?"

Neo -clad in a black flightsuit with matching helmet tucked under his arm- shook his head. "Not yet, at any rate. Admiral, there are a number of G-type mobile suits on those ships, but we still hold the advantage in numbers, even of those. Unless the situation changes, I'll let my Extendeds, Zeta, and the Frighteners handle this."

Kimmer nodded approvingly. "I like an officer who isn't afraid to delegate."

"Victory is the objective, Admiral, and the only heroes I know are dead ones; glory doesn't exist in war." Neo smiled sardonically. "I don't need to get my own hands dirty to feel that I've done my part."

"Stick with that attitude, and you'll be in my chair soon enough," the admiral remarked, with a smile of his own.

"No thanks. I can do more good here, as a pilot." Neo gestured toward Kimmer's communications panel. "May I?"

"Be my guest."

Neo reached over, punched in a combination, and waited until a helmeted face appeared on the armrest screen. "Status, Commander?"

"My people are good to go in thirty seconds, Captain," Hamilton replied from the Thor, closing his faceplate. "And yes, I've made sure Scar is leaving his bazooka behind today; I don't think Director Azrael is likely to repeat Djibril's idiotic stunt, but I don't want any chance at all of accidents."

"Prudent," Neo agreed. "Especially since the vast majority of the Atlantic Federation's 'special' units are here today." He absently rubbed the left eyepiece of his mask. "Oh, and Commander… try and keep an eye on my people, will you? The Extendeds are good, but they're a little…"

"Flaky?" Hamilton snorted. "Not as bad as the previous Director Azrael's crew; I remember seeing those guys shooting at each other as often as at the enemy… I get your drift, though. I'll tell Jonas to keep half an eye out. I'll probably be too busy with Freedom and Justice."

"That's all I ask." Satisfied, Neo nodded once, and switched links. "Stellar, can you hear me?"

"Yes, Neo," the blonde, shy pilot responded. "We going out soon, aren't we?"

"As soon as the Katanas launch," he confirmed; her quiet, almost innocent demeanor didn't worry him in the slightest. As soon as the battle was joined, Neo knew, she'd be as fierce as anyone, and more than most… a fact which obscurely saddened him. "Now remember, stay calm, keep an eye on your surroundings, and rely on your teammates; do that, and you'll be just fine." He smiled for her, an expression he wished he could truly mean. "Nothing bad will happen."

Stellar smiled back. "Thank you."

"Report from Kyriotite, Admiral," Lieutenant Ogden reported from Communications. "Captain Bernadotte is launching; the Frighteners are right behind him."

"We're launching, too," Hamilton called, appearing on O'Malley's flight ops screen in CIC. "Zeta, launching."

Kimmer and Neo both looked toward the bridge's forward viewport, where mobile suits could be seen streaking off into the night from three different ships. And, beyond them, bright shapes could be discerned rocketing off the catapults of the enemy mobile assault ships, as well.

This would be a slugging match. The Earth Forces group had several technical advantages, including at least one they were fairly sure the enemy knew nothing about, and another they were quite certain neither ZAFT nor Section Nine had any real information on; they also the advantage in overall numbers.

Neo kept in mind, though, that there was a reason one of their opponents was called the "Indestructible Archangel". He was also aware that the team of Freedom and Justice had smashed almost everything they'd ever faced, even without the addition of Preybird to form a triad. And, of course, the other pilots they faced -at least the veterans- had not survived so long by being easy targets, either.

Still, he told himself, this time, they're going to get hurt, badly. They have no inkling about Major Willet, they don't know about the new rifles, and for that matter even Bernadotte should come as a surprise, assuming they haven't heard of the Nosferatu yet.

"Cry havoc," he whispered, gazing out into the night, "and let slip the dogs of war…"

Indian Ocean, Dead Zone

ZGMF-X10A Freedom hurtled into the sky, followed closely by its brother suit, ZGMF-X09A Justice.

"Here we go, Athrun," Kira called, glancing at his best friend's mobile suit. "This isn't going to be easy… It's going to be a lot harder than even last time."

"I know," Athrun acknowledged somberly. "The odds are against us. But we can still- Whoa!"

Justice spun to one side, letting a crackling blue bolt scorch past. A follow-up shot nearly caught the machine dead center, but Athrun had located the source now. Gritting his teeth, he snapped up his rifle, spitting an emerald dart across the darkened sky.

The Windam, caught full in the face, seemed to stagger in the air; a perfectly round hole had been melted through its visor, and after a split second of sparking, it blew apart, spraying melted metal all over. Before any secondary cameras could kick in, Athrun's second shot speared it in the chest, and the entire mobile suit blew apart.

"What on earth was it firing?" Athrun demanded, raising his shield to fend off a more conventional green dart. "Kira?"

"I don't know," Kira replied, as his targeting computer snapped up. "I think I've seen that effect somewhere before, but I can't… Blast it!"

Athrun's head snapped around. "What's wrong?"

The other pilot swore. "They've upgraded Dead Zone again," he said grimly, letting his targeting display slide down again. "I can't get more than two or three locks, and even those are iffy. We'll have to do this the old-fashioned way."

"Great." Athrun noticed Kira's voice was even flatter than it might've been, and he didn't have to think on it long to realize why. Kira tended to use his "multi-beam attack" to disable multiple opponents simultaneously; without it, he was going to have to use more direct measures, which meant more people were going to have to die to get them out of this insane trap.

Well, the ex-ZAFT pilot thought to himself, he can't be too surprised; his battle with Falcon at Jachin taught him something about the nature of battle…

"Okay," he said presently, feeding power to his verniers for a steep climb, "we're gonna have to pick them off one by one. There's still… looks like fifteen or sixteen Windams airborne now. We can handle…" He trailed off, seeing more signatures appearing on his thermal display. "Kira, we've got company-"

An all-too-familiar, staccato burst of emerald light peppered the sky, stray shots melting furrows along both Freedom and Justice.

"Time for a rematch, Aces of Orb," a voice said calmly. "This time, there won't be any… unforeseen cataclysms to interfere, either."

When Kira looked down, he saw exactly what he knew he would: a wedge-shaped craft blazing across the sky toward them, climbing up from Ophanim. "Hamilton," he breathed. "You again.. Athrun, where's-"

As had become almost a given, he wasn't given a chance to finish the sentence. "If you're hoping for assistance from the Demon Lord," Hamilton said easily, "I'm afraid it's for naught. He's about to be… occupied."

Reaching their altitude, Zeta transformed, transitioning smoothly to mobile suit mode; and, watching it, Athrun's eyes narrowed. "You didn't come off very well last time," he said evenly. "I really think you should reconsider this."

"Not happening, Coordinator. You see, there's this small concept that I adhere to, one that -judging from your absence from ZAFT- you're not very familiar with. It's called 'duty,'" Hamilton explained. "And my duty is to destroy you, and your friends, and every other member of your organization and your allies until they finally surrender to the inevitable."

Athrun's fist clenched. "You call that duty?" he said tightly, remembering the face of someone who had once been family… but had died as a very, very different man. "Duty, Hamilton, is a lot different from what you think it is."

"Then I suggest you prove it, Zala," Hamilton said, lifting his rifle. "Idealism means nothing on the battlefield… and the same goes for this chatter."

The air around them was suddenly rent with bullets and energy blasts, as all three combatants opened fire simultaneously. Kira's favored full-assault, though hampered by Dead Zone, still wasn't something any sane pilot wanted to get in front of; the same went for Athrun's salvo of rifle, cannon, and machine cannon fire.

By comparison, Hamilton's rifle shot and grenade launch were almost pitiful, and a lesser pilot would've died.

Allen C. Hamilton was by no means a lesser pilot.

Firing leg and back verniers simultaneously, he flipped Zeta onto its back, letting himself fall away from his opponents; machinegun fire crashed into his armor and ricocheted, one of Freedom's plasma bolts melted a chunk off the bulky armor of his left shoulder, and one of Athrun's Fortis beams spattered off his shield… but the machine survived.

Athrun managed to snap up his shield at the last instant, letting Hamilton's emerald dart smash itself into green sparks against it; Kira was not so lucky, and he grunted as both grenades slammed full into Freedom's chest, consuming the machine in a fiery explosion and blasting it off balance.


Swearing under his breath, Kira wrestled with his controls. "I'm all right," he called through gritted teeth, shoving his thruster pedal to the cockpit floor. "Just nicked… Whoa!"

Freedom flipped and awkwardly spiraled to the left, narrowly evading another pair of green streaks. Zeta was taking advantage of Freedom's unbalance, and Hamilton smiled tightly, triggering another pair of grenades while Kira was still recovering.

Kira cried out involuntarily, thrown against his restraints by the grenade's collision with his left arm… but this time, the other grenade simply vanished a bare two meters from Freedom's fuselage, disappearing in a puff of smoke and a flash of green light.

Hamilton's smile disappeared with it, and he kicked Zeta into a roll only barely in time to avoid being skewered by a follow up shot. He shot it down?! If he'd missed, he would've killed Yamato himself! Is he insane?!

"You shouldn't have tried taking us on all alone, Hamilton!" Athrun shouted. "Now it's time to end this!"

Justice hurtled down into a dive of its own, chasing after Zeta, and Athrun was not deterred even when it switched to mobile armor mode. Though the Earth Alliance machine poured more power into its verniers, thrust aiding aerodynamics in Hamilton's attempt to gain distance, Athrun merely narrowed his eyes, and detached his subflight lifter.

The Fatum 00 flight pack lifted away from its mount, letting Justice fall away even faster, and darted ahead of its parent machine. Freed of the mass it normally supported, it swiftly gained on Zeta, firing its machine and beam cannons as it arced toward its target.

Hamilton swore softly, knowing that even bullets could hurt him, if aimed properly. He snapped Zeta onto its left wing and hauled back on his controls, pulled a bone-bruising turn. Bullets and beams scorched past all around him, still closing; unmanned and dealing with far less mass, the Fatum could out-turn even Zeta without much difficulty.

Which is why I won't get into a maneuvering duel with this thing.

He didn't know if the flight unit was being remotely controlled, or operating via limited AI, but he suspected the latter; even a Coordinator would have difficulty controlling it and his machine at the same time. And if that was so… he could predict it.

So we do it… now!

Zeta rolled over, transforming mid-maneuver. Now flying backwards, face to the sky, Zeta's rifle snapped up, aiming for the space Hamilton knew the Fatum would be occupying in an instant, and spat a green dart across the sky.

It missed.

At the exact moment Zeta transformed, Freedom had landed on the subflight lifter, using its mass to drop it out of the line of fire… and back onto the Justice's backpack.

"What the-?!"

Exchanging a brief, sharp nod over their comm screens, Kira and Athrun opened fire as one, their paired machines sending out a veritable wall of red-orange and emerald beams, and a hail of tungsten penetrators…

The Core Splendor rocketed out of Minerva's central catapult, and was almost flash-fried before it got more than a dozen meters out.

Acting more on instinct than conscious thought, Shinn broke hard right, letting the crackling blue bolt blaze past. "What was that?" he demanded of the battlefield at large, rolling to reverse his turn.

A precisely-targeted emerald bolt scorched through the space he'd occupied a moment before, and skewered the Windam that had fired the shot. Smashing in through the cockpit hatch, the beam blast punched out through the Windam's main thrusters, accompanied by a gout of flame, and the machine dropped toward the ocean.

"Some delightful surprise the Earth Forces have prepared for us, no doubt," Millenia said grimly, her Strike Noir flashing through the airspace its victim had attempted to dominate. "We'll compare notes with the others when we have the chance. For now, get Impulse together, Shinn; I'll cover you."

"Roger that."

Well, Millenia thought, taking up a guard position in front of the now-combining Impulse, I guess we can't blame this on being overconfident. I don't think any of us could've anticipated them moving in this strength, or with this kind of stealth. They must have a pretty good read on our satellite coverage, though, if they were able to get out of their base and into Dead Zone's cover without anyone noticing…

Even in the midst of her musing, though, she kept an eye on the battlefield… a fact which saved her life, and very possibly Shinn's as well, when bursts of green fire started raining down from three directions at once.

Reacting purely on machine-enhanced instinct, Millenia flung Strike Noir backward, colliding with Impulse. The newer machine had, fortunately, just finished assembling itself into its Force configuration, but the impact sufficed to destroy the fine balance keeping the two machines aloft.

Exactly as Millenia had intended.

The two fell, out of control, but the very randomness of the fall threw off the targeting of the trio of Windams that had surrounded them. Emerald energy continued to fall down toward them, but it lacked the coordination of the initial barrage; and neither ZAFT pilot was inclined to give them time to recover.

Though Shinn hadn't anticipated his commander's unorthodox maneuver, he was quick on the uptake. Mid-fall, he fired his leg verniers, shoving Impulse away from Strike Noir, then touched off his main thrusters to pull out of the tumble.

Bringing up his targeting computer even in the midst of the tumble, Shinn snapped up his rifle, forced himself to ignore the green dart that ripped into his right shoulder, and pulled the trigger.

At the same time, Millenia's linear cannons snapped up, even as her thrusters wrenched her out of her own twisting plunge, and her hands moved across her controls with machine-like precision and timing.

The first Windam got off one more hasty shot, narrowly missing Impulse's pelvis, before return fire took it full in the face; the avenging blast blew a hole clean through, then ripped the machine's head to shrapnel, before a second shot smashed into its flight unit's starboard engine.

The turbine, suddenly melted partly away, swiftly ripped itself to shreds, blasting pieces of itself into the remaining engine, fouling it. Metal and machinery screaming in protest, it flung the Windam into an uncontrolled spin; with a shout of surprise and anguish from its helpless pilot, the machine careened into a downward spiral, its trajectory terminating in the ocean.

Millenia's target, by contrast, suffered a much more prosaic fate. The twin linear projectiles smashed into its torso, brutally abusing it, and it simply exploded into fire and molten metal without doing anything more than launching a salvo of missiles.

Mostly ignoring the missiles -unable to penetrate her machine's defenses- Millenia glanced over at Shinn, and nodded approvingly. "Nice shot."

"Still one left," he replied curtly. "I've got him." Juking left to let another of the strange blue bolts crackle past, he stowed his rifle, snatched out a beam saber, and launched himself up toward the remaining Windam.

"Close combat?" the Earth Alliance pilot sneered. "Don't try it!" Throwing aside the bulky rifle it had been using, the Windam pulled out one of its own sabers; its ignition was like the lighting of a torch against the moonless night.

Shinn didn't even blink; he'd fought blade to blade before, and had received additional training since his last battle in simulator runs against one Ken DiFalco. I can take this-

The Windam's shield hurtled down, bashing Impulse in the left shoulder before whirling down toward the sea. The blow did absolutely nothing to the VPS-protected limb, but it did throw Shinn's aim off… just long enough for the Windam's now-freed left hand to pull out its conventional rifle, and fire off a green dart.

Shinn, given a bare instant to react and with his shield arm still recovering, did the first thing that came to mind: he attempted to swat the energy bolt aside with his beam saber, in mimicry of a move his mentor had pulled more than once in the past.

The good news was that it prevented him from getting instantly fried by the bolt of raw energy. The bad news was that, having never attempted the maneuver before, he caught the emerald streak with the hilt of his saber, instead of the blade.

Shinn cried out, startled, and the Windam pilot smiled. Taking advantage of the weapon's destruction, uncaring of Impulse's attempt to reach for its remaining blade, he took careful aim for one final shot…

Suddenly, the Earth Forces pilot felt his cockpit growing hot, and he started to whirl. "What the- Aaahhh-!"

On the heels of the pilot's final scream, the Windam's torso warped, melted, and blew apart, leaving heat-warped limbs and other scraps to fall to the ocean below.

Hovering behind the near-vaporized Windam, the crimson and gray form of ZGMF-X00A Preybird lifted its maser rifle off target, and looked down at the Impulse. Shinn, now recognizing that his move had been somewhat… ill-considered, expected some kind of rebuke from the other pilot, but instead the machine simply waved the tip of the rifle minutely.

"Nice move, Shinn," Ken said calmly. "Just a little high. Practice."

"I will, Commander," Shinn promised. "Thanks."

"De nada." Preybird's thrusters flared, turning the machine ninety degrees… and then it halted. "What the…?"

Rocketing up to their altitude, Strike Noir came to a hovering stop between Impulse and Preybird.

"What's going on, Falcon?" Millenia demanded, forgetting their mutual tension in the heat of the battle.

"I'm reading a thermal pattern I don't recognize," Ken replied absently, gazing intently at the display that had superimposed itself over his visuals. "Several of them, in fact, launching from Kyriotite… It's almost like…"

Shared instinct sent the three machines scattering to the four winds a bare instant before a pair of powerful emerald darts and a streak of red-orange light could wipe them from the universe.

"You were right, Jonas," Scar Goldberg gloated, scorching through the sky from Thor. "It's those guys we fought last time, and the stolen machine!"

"It wasn't exactly a hard deduction to make, Scar," Jonas Pike replied calmly, his Sigma following Nova more cautiously. "Impulse is distinctive… and Preybird isn't hard to spot, either." His eyes glinted coldly behind his visor. "I have a score to settle with you, Demon Lord."

Ken started to move to confront the new opponents, but Impulse unexpectedly side-slipped into his path. "Commander Crescent and I will handle them, Commander," Shinn snapped. "Go! Find out what's going on with Kyriotite!"

"He's right," Millenia agreed, drawing one of her beam swords. "We've got them. Go."

Ken hesitated another moment, but no longer. One of the harder lessons he'd learned at Second Jachin was to delegate. "…Right. Protect the ships; and be careful." Feeding power into his thrusters, he launched Preybird forward, blazing past the two Zeta Squadron machines.

Pike started to turn to follow, but a green streak from Strike Noir's left-hand rifle nearly tore Sigma's head off for his pains. "I don't think so, Pike," Millenia said softly. "Don't even try it."

"Taking me on without even a shield?" Pike snorted. "You've got guts, getting in my way like that… but if you insist on my destroying you before going on my way, I'll oblige you."

"I don't mind at all," Goldberg interjected, hefting his plasma rifle. "I've got a score to settle, too… after what that brat made me do at Orb!" His lips curled back in an angry snarl. "I nearly got killed, or cashiered, for that one, kid."

"Too bad," Shinn shot back, and brought to life his remaining saber in a flash of red fire. "You started this war, but we're going to finish it!"

Archangel, Corridor

Another explosion rocked the ship, and Rau Le Creuset stumbled against a bulkhead. Swearing under his breath, he shoved himself upright again, glancing up and down the corridor. Which way? he wondered. I've got to find out what's happening around here, but just about everyone on the ship will be too busy trying to stay alive…

Sighing, Rau allowed himself to lean against the bulkhead for support, recognizing the truth. Once upon a time, he'd have been right in the thick of such a defense; even aboard the Odin, he'd at least had a place as controller for off-loaded operatives. Here on the Archangel, though… Here he was a complete outsider, neither required nor really trusted by the regular crew.

After what I've done, there's no other way, he acknowledged to himself. They respect Falcon's judgment, but still refuse to trust me themselves any more than they have to… as is only fitting, for someone such as myself.

Rau sighed again, and turned to return to his quarters… only to be stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

"You're not thinking of giving up, are you?"

Surprised, he turned, and found Siegel Clyne looking directly into his eyes. "Chairman Clyne…?"

Clyne waved his free hand. "Chairman no longer," he corrected. "Even before Durandal took power, I willingly gave up politics. But that doesn't really matter right now."

"No," Rau agreed slowly, "I suppose it doesn't… Can you tell me what's going on?"

"I've only overheard bits and pieces myself," Clyne admitted. "But apparently, the Earth Forces managed to pull off another Dead Zone ambush somehow… and we're facing heavy opposition. Heavier, I think, than anything Archangel has ever faced directly." He shrugged. "We do have Minerva and the other ZAFT ships on our side, but still…"

"It's not looking good for us," the former ZAFT commander finished. "The Earth Forces are getting smarter…" He sighed, turning away again. "In that case, I suppose you and I should be getting out of the way. There's no sense blocking the corridors in the middle of a battle."

"So you are just going to give up?"

Rau froze. "…I'm not sure what you mean, Clyne," he said carefully.

Clyne snorted. "Le Creuset, I won't deny that I thought DiFalco was insane for bringing you back. My first reaction, in fact, was very similar to Commander La Flaga's, except that I don't keep pistols handy. My second reaction was to strangle either you or DiFalco with my bare hands… but I've had a little time to think about it since then. Do I completely trust you?" he asked rhetorically. "No. That will take a lot of time, if it ever happens at all. But…"

"But?" Rau prompted warily, a strange feeling rising in the back of his mind.

"But… I know a man seeking atonement when I see one." Clyne smiled faintly. "I spent enough time in planning sessions with the Major, three years ago, to recognize that. And if atonement is what you're looking for… then go out there and find it."

Rau's eyebrows went up. "Go out there?" he repeated. "In what? All right, so we're still hauling around that Spearhead fighter Falcon picked up for reasons known only to Falcon three years ago, but that's-"

"Use your imagination," Clyne suggested, smile widening slightly. "You've been a bit out of touch, brooding in your quarters; things have changed a little. So… use the intellect that allowed you to manipulate the entire world during the War, and figure something out." Finally releasing Rau's shoulder, he turned away. "As for me, I am going to stay out of the way… but you don't have to."

The who had once been -and, he admitted to himself, probably still was- the most reviled figure of the First Bloody Valentine War watched him go, head suddenly whirling. Go out there… Even if there is something else aboard that I don't know about, can I actually do this? Fight once again… I haven't even touched a mobile suit's controls since Falcon nearly killed me at Second Jachin. Do I even still have what it takes to fly in combat?

And even if I do… have I the right? It's like I've told Falcon, so many times: it might well have been better if he'd just left me dead. My greatest accomplishment is coming with millimeters of successfully destroying mankind…

And yet, he thought abruptly, what better way to use my borrowed time than by helping to defend the ship that stopped me? At the least, I'll finally find death in a way that I need not be ashamed of, and if I survive…

Hesitating a moment longer, Rau finally turned, and -ignoring the lingering pain from his wounds- started jogging down the corridor… toward the hangar bay.

Archangel, Bridge

With Murrue's arrival, there was a brief flurry of activity -Natarle vacating the captain's chair, Miriallia shifting hurriedly to her own usual station to make room for her, and then Murrue taking her place in the center seat- before things settled back into the controlled chaos of battle.

"Report!" Murrue barked, even as an explosion from a missile intercepted close to Archangel's hull rocked the ship.

"Bad," Natarle said frankly. "In addition to the forces I reported earlier, Thor's launched Zeta Squadron. Kira, Athrun, and two of Minerva's pilots are engaging, and at least three Windams have been downed, but there's still new machines launching. Some of them, we don't even recognize, but there's something…"

"Möbius One is checking that, Captain," Miriallia interjected, using her friend's callsign for clarity. "Preybird is heading for Kyriotite now."

Murrue nodded tightly. "And the others?" An blast of emerald light from Ophanim crashed into Archangel's bow, splattering against the ship's laminated armor, and she shook her head quickly. "Never mind. Get clear of Ophanim's guns, and start killing those destroyers! The sooner those are out of the way-"

"Right away, Ma'am!" Neumann acknowledged, and hauled back on his controls. "Commodore-?"

"I'm on it," Andy Waltfeld replied; once again filling in at the copilot's station, he started cross-feeding hostile fire-control data into the navigation systems. "Twenty-three degrees to port, and bring us down twelve meters!"

In accordance with the command, Archangel heeled over, swinging out of the path of a pair of linear cannon shells from Thor. At the same time, her Gottfried cannons swiveled smoothly to starboard, compensating for the ship's maneuvers, as Romero Pal tracked in on his target.

Staring out into the dark night, Murrue's gaze bored in on Ophanim, as if by sheer force of will she could read the intentions of the devious maniacs commanding the ambush. As she did, a Windam flew into view, racing in to make a pass at Archangel's bridge, a tactic which had been tried before… usually with rather more success.

This mobile suit didn't even get a chance to raise its rifle before a blade of frozen fire crashed into its right arm, melting through the elbow in a shower of liquefied metal. The blade ripped out the underside, pulled back as limb and rifle alike tumbled away, and plunged forward again, piercing the Windam's head.

A subsequent kick slammed the machine down and out of sight, ripping its head off in the process, and Strike Rouge paused to flash the still-impaled metal cranium like a trophy, before darting off again.

Well, Cagalli's doing well, for her first time back in battle in three years, Murrue thought distantly. Mu must not be far behind-

A concussion greater than any previous crashed through the Archangel, the sound resounding loud enough to nearly deafen the crew. "Hull breach!" Sai shouted over the din. "Sledgehammer missile, after starboard! Two Igelstellungs gone, fire in Block Fifteen-"

Light lanced out from beyond the viewports, this time going toward the enemy fleet, and another explosion split the heavens. "Direct hit on enemy destroyer!" Tonomura exclaimed. "One Danilov confirmed destroyed!"

Indeed, even in the darkness, the result of Pal's careful shot were visible. The foremost of the Danilovs had turned hard to starboard, bringing fore and aft weapons to bear, and had paid a price when the greater surface area resulted in both cannon bolts skewering it. Chunks of the ship's hull vaporized, leaving bow, stern, and amidships in three separate pieces; for a few seconds, they seemed likely to keep floating on their own… and then they, too, blew apart, showering the sea with debris and burning lubricants.

Archangel had struck the first retaliatory blow… and it would not be the last.

Kyriotite, Catapults

The big, bald man gave his luxuriant mustache a last stroke, then sealed his faceplate and took his machine's controls in hand. "So, it's finally time, Major?"

"Yes, Walter," Karen Willet confirmed, from her own machine's cockpit. "Yes, the time for total secrecy has ended. Soon, the name 'Frighteners' will spark fear in more than just the hearts of those in the shadows. Today, we show the world our strength."

"And," another woman's voice put in dryly, "you get a real test, eh, Major?"

"That's right, Eva," Willet said, smiling thinly. "The Butcher Bird and the White Knight… today I will see for myself just how much of their superiority is skill, and how much is their machines. Reaver will give me the answer… and I'll finally face a worthy opponent."

It was something she'd craved for a long time, controlled though that craving was by discipline. Her training had long since grown dull, as had even bouts with her hand-picked team of specially trained killers. No opponent had seriously challenged her on the field of battle before… yet today, perhaps, she would find her ideal foe.

Reputedly, the triumvirate of the Demon Lord, the White Knight, and the Red Knight was nigh unbeatable, with only Coordinators and "enhanced" Naturals even staying within shouting distance. And to be sure, the fact that they were still alive and the vast majority of their foes were not lent credence to that idea.

Karen Willet and her Frighteners intended to shatter that idea to pieces.

"Third CTAT, this is the captain," Vadislav Stiles said over the radio. "It's time; you're cleared to launch." Even through the speakers, Willet could hear the feral smile implicit in his voice. "Frighten them to death for us, will you?"

"My pleasure, Captain," she replied, and sealed her visor. "All right. Karen Willet, Reaver, launching!"

The black machine rocketed out into the sky under the impetus of the electromagnetic slingshot, and spread its wings as it began its long-awaited hunt…

Indian Ocean, Dead Zone

ZGMF-X00A Preybird hurtled across the sky toward Kyriotite, unease in its pilot's heart. For the first time in three years, Ken DiFalco was faced with a battle where the odds were terribly against him… and those he was sworn to protect.

The so-called Demon Lord knew again a fear he'd not experienced since the Second Battle of Jachin Due.

Remember, Falcon, he told himself, boosting to one side to allow an errant energy barrage from Thor scorch harmlessly past, this isn't the same as back then. The fate of the entire world no longer rests on your shoulders; you need worry only about your friends and comrades.

And this time… you're not alone. Those same friends are fighting just as hard -and just as well- as you are.

Closing his eyes for a bare instant behind his narrow visor, Ken nodded to himself, sharply, and then threw Preybird back in a punishing braking maneuver as one of the new machines he'd come to investigate suddenly appeared before him.

"What in space-?"

The strange machine didn't communicate, didn't indulge in any of the anti-Coordinator insults Ken recalled Dagger pilots oft-using during the War. Instead, its right arm simply snapped up, the blade attached to the strange shield assembly on the forearm whipped into position, and the enemy slashed viciously.

Whoa! The slice seemed to cut the very air itself, its swiftness enough to catch even the veteran ace off guard, and it bit deeply into his maser rifle's barrel before he could compensate. Displaying an incredibly keen edge in addition to brutal swiftness, the switchblade cleaved through outer casing and inner circuitry alike, sending fully half the maser's barrel twirling off into the darkness.

Without even a pause, the new machine twisted its wrist, and launched another lightning-fast cut, aiming to bisect Preybird with one, clean blow.

Sheer reflexes and not a little luck saved Ken's life. In the instant it took the stranger to move into the next blow, he released the rifle's remains -reflecting inconsequentially that he never seemed able to use the thing for very long- and yanked out his Gerbera, interposing it a bare three meters from his cockpit.

The flash along his blade's edge told him just how lucky he was; the Gerbera's barebones sensors had activated its VPS in reaction to another's phase-shift armor… meaning that if he hadn't blocked the strike, he would've been dead in very short order.

For a few, precious moments, the two machines held the clash, and Ken had -barely- time to examine his opponent. It was clearly a descendent of the Dagger series, visible in details such as a visor-style optical system and what were clearly hardpoints for extra weapons, yet it was also unique unto itself. It bore a pair of wing binders, separated into three wings each, a system bearing far too close a resemblance to those of Preybird and Freedom to be coincidence. The shield-blade combination was also a departure -with the PSA feature showing the Earth Forces had learned a few tricks from their enemies- and the railguns visible amide the wings were another ominous similarity to other units.

The machine's matte-black paint was enough to tell Ken that the machine belonged to the same unit he'd fought outside Armory One and during Break The World… yet he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the pilot was something very, very different.

"You're good," he said, breaking radio silence when the enemy did not. "But… you're no Natural, are you?"

"Au contraire," the other replied, speaking at last, with a pronounced French accent. "I am, indeed, a Natural, Demon Lord… and yet, I am not. I am Nosferatu. Remember that name as you freeze in the Ninth Circle, Butcher Bird." Abruptly boosting back and away from the clash, the self-proclaimed "Nosferatu" raised his blade again. "In Nosferatu, you will meet your own equal… and in the 509, your Preybird will meet its own nemesis!"

Ken tensed, readying himself to take the blow he knew was coming. Watch the angle of his strike, he told himself, falling back on his Master's lessons. Even in mobile suit combat, some truths remained. Concentrate, and counter…

Relying on the trained instincts born of nearly fifteen years studying the art of the blade, Ken waited for the moment the blow would come… a moment that never came.

At the instant the Nosferatu started his charge, another shape blurred into existence between him and his opponent, moving with a speed even beyond the stranger's machine. Like a piece of the night itself taken wing, it placed itself directly between the two combatants.

And Ken heard again a voice he'd heard only once before, but could never forget.

"Find yourself other prey, Bernadotte," the Englishwoman said coolly. "This is a battle I've long awaited… and I stand a better chance than even a 'Nosferatu', even one in a Katana."

There was a pause that seemed, to Ken, to be rather sullen, and then the "Katana" lowered its blade. "Don't expect me to yield next time, Willet," Bernadotte said quietly. "The Letzte Bataillon has its pride, too."

"I'm sure." Willet's contempt was thinly concealed, a fact which did not escape Ken. "At any rate, go bleed the Strike, perhaps; that should be a satisfactory victim."

"Hah." Despite the acrimony, however, the Katana turned, fired its thrusters, and rushed off into the night, leaving Ken able to devote his full attention to the newcomer.

And when he gazed at it fully, his breath caught in his throat, and his mechanical heart seemed to skip a beat.

All black, with a sheathed sword on one hip, kept where another machine would've clipped a Lupus beam rifle… and ten wings, arranged in pairs of five, stretching out from its back…

Before his mind's eye, Ken saw a face framed by black hair, one of its blue eyes closed, a scar running down where it once was… a face that resembled a black-haired Rau Le Creuset, and one taut with near-constant pain…

"No…" Ken breathed. "I thought it was beyond repair, after that incident. That's…"

"Surprised, Demon Lord?" Willet said, clearly amused. "You were careless, you know. You recovered Huckebein's body, but left his mobile suit behind. Did you think we'd gain nothing at all from it, once we found it? Did you think it couldn't be repaired… or upgraded?" She barked out a brief, harsh laugh. "I'd heard your skill sometimes betrayed you into overconfidence, Demon Lord, and now I see it for myself!"

He swallowed, fighting back the memories of the day when he'd first seen that mobile suit… memories of pain, and painful revelation, and the death of a man he'd once considered not simply a protégé, but one of his closest friends. "You rebuilt it… Victor's machine…"

"Yes." Willet smiled. "And now, Demon Lord… have at you!"

Ken's blade arced up, his enemy's flashed out with a longsword of blue-shot black, and Preybird and a machine once called Freedom Mark II clashed blades in a flash of steel…

Author's note:

After weeks of repair, Archangel and Minerva have finally moved out again, joining together in their efforts to stop the Earth Alliance in its tracks and end the war before it can once again escalate to cataclysmic proportions. Their destination, along with the vessels escorting them, is a frontline engagement in the Middle East… yet even as they move, the Earth Alliance, weary of the "Indestructible Archangel" and her new ally, finally bring their own full might to bear, in a trap more dangerous than any they have ever faced…

Amid it all, one man schemes, another learns more of the art of war from a veteran, and one soul seeks the path of redemption… or self-destruction…

Hey, guys. Nope, I'm not dead after all; just had a boatload of internet troubles, and a job I hate with a passion approaching firestorm level. I'm deeply sorry this chapter is seven months late, and I'll at least try not to let it take so long again… but I'm afraid I can't make any promises at this point, with my schedule as hectic as it is.

One final note, by the way: it's come to my attention that flamers have begun using my work as a sort of "gold-standard", or at least as a reference as to how a story "should" be written. Now, I like it when people agree with my opinions on things, and it's true that I think the Earth Alliance happens to be the bad guys, and ZAFT the good guys, with not much equivocation possible (in my view). However: that does not mean I think everyone who doesn't share that view is an idiot. I may disagree with them, but if they disagree with me, and choose to write that way, that's their choice.

So please, people: if you're going to flame someone, you might want to keep in mind that one of the guys you're citing thinks you're being the idiots, for flaming in the first place. Oh, and to the anti-Flay flamers… she is alive in this story, okay?

Anyway. Rant over; once again, I apologize for the huge delay, and also for any deficiencies in quality here. I did my best, but I must admit spreading it out over the course of so many months may have made things a bit disjointed, and my own mood swings may have dropped my usual quality some. Still, I hope it was at least somewhat decent. -Solid Shark