I don't own anything except Ken DiFalco and his comrades

Lagrange Point 5, PLANTs, December 4, Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty Academy Campus, June 7th, C.E. 68
Ten rows of people, each ten ranks deep, stood in neat formation in the courtyard of the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty Academy's campus. A bright, sunny day, the PLANT's weather called for nothing but sunny skies for that day… for it was a day no one in the PLANT government wanted marred by anything.

Nine ranks of the men and women in that courtyard wore crisp, green coats, with black belts and boots, and ZAFT's distinctive PLANT emblem on the shoulder patches and collar tabs. The front rank wore the same insignia… but their coats were crimson, with white belts and boots.

Standing at the raised podium before them was a man in a charcoal-gray uniform. Older than most of those arrayed in front of him, he was still in the prime of his life… for he, like all those before him, was a Coordinator.

He was also the Commandant of the ZAFT Academy, Roy Ames.

Not a sound passed through the courtyard but the sigh of the wind, as the hundred soldiers before him waited for him to speak. They all knew what this moment was, knew how momentous it was… even if the rest of the Earth Sphere did not.

Ames spent several moments simply observing the ranks, looking them over with a critical gaze. They're so young, he thought, feeling old beyond his years. Some of them are old sweats, but so many of them are just teenagers… Maybe I'm just an old fogy from the first generation, but however fast Coordinators mature, it just isn't right to be sending kids like them out on the frontlines… but I guess there isn't any choice, is there?

He could say one thing for them, though: every single one of them knew exactly what he or she was getting into.

At last, Ames cleared his throat, and leaned toward his microphone. "Good morning," he began. "You all know who I am, and ZAFT isn't a stickler for protocol the way Earth militaries are, so I'll get right to the point.

"You all know exactly why you're here. Every single one of you volunteered to join the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty when it was reorganized into an armed militia earlier this year… after the Mandelbrot Incident."

None of the new-minted soldiers so much as twitched, but Ames could feel the rising anger… and he shared it. The unprovoked attack on the supply convoy early in the year by Atlantic Federation mobile armors, an act that had become known as the Mandelbrot Incident after one of the ships involved, had come as a shock to the citizens of the PLANTs. It had also enraged them, for it had been one more sign of what Earth really thought of the space colonies… and it had cost them vitally needed food, and hundreds of lives.

That was why these men and women had gathered now.

"You are the first graduating class of the new Academy," Ames continued, sweeping his gaze across the assembled soldiers. "You are also but one of several such classes graduating today, and more yet to come in the next weeks and months… and years. You're the first citizens of the PLANTs to be trained for true military operations, and you are our vanguard, our sword and shield."

"Some of you," the Commandant said solemnly, "may not survive the next few years. Some of your classmates have already fallen in training, and if war should break out, there is no doubt that many of you will be called on to make that final sacrifice. But," he went on, seeming to look every recruit in the eye, "I have no doubt that you will acquit yourselves well, and none of you would be here if you hadn't already accepted the possibility that you may fall in battle."

Even at those somber words, no one made a sound. The ever-increasing tensions between Earth and the PLANTs had ignited a fire in all citizens of the colonies, and that fire burned brightest in those who had volunteered for ZAFT.

"You will have noticed, I'm sure, that some of you are wearing uniforms different from your fellows. This is based on your standings in training, and those who wear the red uniform are to form the elite of ZAFT. But," Ames cautioned, "that ranking means only that your skills have been noteworthy in training. On the actual battlefield, you may find not everyone lives up to expectations. Only in battle will you find whether you are truly worthy of the uniforms you wear. You will also note that only ten percent of this class wears that red uniform. They are pilots, and they are selected not only for skill, but also for leadership qualities, and strength of character. Fail in those qualifications at your peril, for on the field of battle, the penalty for failure is usually death at the hands of your enemies."

With those words, Ames stepped down from the podium… and made his way to a point directly in front of the recruits. "I want you all to know," he said quietly, "that I am proud of you all for joining the PLANTs' fledgling fighting force… and that I'm sorry that so many of you have been pulled into this line of work at such a young age."

This part of the speech was completely unrehearsed; a part he'd decided on only after he realized himself the full import of this first graduating class… after he realized how young so many of them were.

Turning crisply to his right, Ames paced down the first rank of recruits, those in the red uniform… and then paused, as he came before one in particular. It had been his intention to speak directly to one of the recruits, to make clear he, for one, took their choice to enlist very seriously –and proudly- and something about this particular youth caught his attention.

One-hundred-sixty-five centimeters tall, with unruly blonde hair and Prussian blue eyes, the redcoat couldn't have been older than fifteen… yet for all his youth, he appeared even more disciplined that his fellows to either side, the equally-blonde young man at his right or the black-haired youth to his left. There's more to this kid than meets the eye, the Commandant thought to himself. …And have I seen him somewhere before?

"What's your name, son?" Ames asked curiously.

"Kenneth DiFalco, Sir," the young redcoat replied crisply. "From Junius City; Colony Seven."

Ames nodded to himself. "DiFalco… Wait. You're the one they call Falcon, right? The engineering prodigy?"

Falcon blinked. "You've heard of me, Sir?"

The Commandant smiled tiredly. "DiFalco, there aren't many fifteen-year-olds designing engines for starships, even among Coordinators. That paper you wrote early this year raised a few eyebrows, you know, even in the old ZAFT." He tilted his head. "The one thing I can't figure out is why a promising young engineer would throw that away to put his life on the line."

Falcon raised his chin proudly. "To defend my homeland, Sir," he said, voice even despite the towering seniority of the officer he was speaking to. "My talents can be applied to war as well as peace, Sir, and I would give my life without hesitation if it meant protecting the PLANTs. I believe that's true of every man and woman here, Sir."

Ames nodded again, inwardly taken aback by the youth's certainty. Not fifteen, and already a veritable fanatic, as far as the PLANTs are concerned. A pity for that to happen to one so young… but a boon to the PLANTs themselves…

"In that case, DiFalco," he said, stepping back, "I wish you the best of luck. The same to all of you," he added, climbing back up to the podium. "You've all made a decision I wish none of you had to make, and I can't tell you how proud I am… or how sad I am that any of you have to do this at all." He came to attention, and snapped his right hand up in the unique ZAFT salute.

As one, the first graduating class of the new Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty returned the salute, acknowledging they were now a part of the PLANTs' first military organization… that they were now the Homeland's defenders.

Ames lowered his hand, and nodded sharply. "Dismissed!"

Once again in unison, the class turned, and began to file out… and Roy Ames sighed. To send people so young to the battlefield… It's a crime, really. But one the sponsor nations have forced us to commit. After Mandelbrot, war is inevitable…

His gaze returned to the departing class, and lingered for a moment on the redcoats, leaving last. They'll go far, Ames judged. Especially that DiFalco kid, I think. DiFalco, that kid next to him… Elsman's son, wasn't he?… and that other blonde fellow, Le Creuset…

Ames snorted to himself. What was it with this class and blondes?

ZAFT Academy Campus, Dormitory
"So," Dearka Elsman remarked with a grin, dropping one of his spare uniforms into a duffle bag, "we finally made it, huh? We're actually in ZAFT… kind of an unusual birthday present, eh, Falcon?"

"Yeah, a little," Falcon agreed, gently laying what resembled a meter-long stick into his own bag. "Still, I wouldn't have it any other way. Engineering is interesting, sure, but when it comes right down to it, I meant every word I said to Commandant Ames."

The two of them, good friends since early childhood, were also roommates at the Academy. They'd joined up together the very day ZAFT had announced they were looking for recruits, and now they were graduating together. From here, they'd be going to different posts, but for now…

"I'm sure you did," Dearka said wryly, tucking away a couple of books. "You seemed pretty sure of yourself back there; I think the Commandant was a bit surprised by that." He glanced at his friend, and shook his head as he caught sight of the carefully-wrapped tube Falcon was handling. "You and blades… you know, you're lucky ZAFT is more laidback than a regular military, what with how you always carry that thing around."

Falcon smiled in amusement, setting aside the meter-long katana. "You've only said that, what, a hundred times now? You know me, Dearka; I just wouldn't feel right without some kind of blade at hand… especially given my feelings towards guns."

They shared a somber look. Unlike their classmates, Falcon and Dearka had both been forced to kill, less than a year before. The incident had left Falcon with a faint scar on his neck, and a profound distaste for firearms… and the chilling knowledge that, if they had to, both of them were entirely capable of killing.

"At any rate," Falcon went on, deliberately dispelling the memories, "I'm also of the opinion that discipline is going to be very important in the coming battles. The study of martial arts, especially the sword, helps me with that. I can use that training on the battlefield, when the time comes."

"Point," Dearka conceded. "Still… I kinda wish I could be there to see your commander's face when you turn up carrying that thing." He shook his head, and zipped up his duffle bag. "Speaking of the looks on people's faces, my father still hasn't quite forgiven me for joining up. I think he's starting to come around, but he's still a bit ticked, I think."

Falcon nodded thoughtfully, tying his katana's companion blade, the wakizashi, to his white belt. "Can't say I'm surprised," he murmured. "Dad still isn't even speaking to me."

His friend glanced over. "Because he's still loyal to the Atlantic Federation?" Dearka knew quite well that Falcon was the only Coordinator in the DiFalco family… and that technically, even the pilot himself was a citizen of the Atlantic Federation.

"Nah," Falcon disputing, zipping up his bag. "He and Mom know as well as we do what the sponsor nations are up to, and they've pretty much severed all ties to Earth themselves. The thing is, I don't think he wanted me to give up a promising engineering career to risk getting my backside shot off, especially at fifteen." He shrugged. "He'll come around eventually."

"You hope." Dearka shook his head. "Be glad you've only got your dad to worry about. I have to worry about my sister. You see… Laura's starting to badger Father into letting her join ZAFT, too."

Falcon blinked, looking mildly horrified. "Laura, join ZAFT? Please tell me you're kidding, Dearka. I do not need to deal with that on top of everything else."

Dearka grinned at his friend's discomfort. "Ah, come on, Falcon. Just because my sister's sweet on you isn't reason enough to be that scared. Even if Father lets her do it, what are the odds you two would even end up with a thousand klicks of each other? I mean, you're Mister Hot Shot; you'll be off someplace important long before she even graduates."

"I hope you're right," Falcon muttered darkly.

Chuckling to himself, Dearka stood up, walked to the dorm room's door… and found himself face to face with a scar-faced, gray-haired man in civilian clothes, with a katana on his belt. "Uh…?" The ZAFT recruit blinked, unsure of what was going on… and then a light went on in his head. "Uh, hi," he said uncertainly. "You're…"

The man nodded, smiling faintly. "That's right, young soldier." He looked over Dearka's shoulder at the dorm's other occupant. "Mind if I have a word with your friend?"

"Be my guest," Dearka said quickly, recovering his equilibrium. "Falcon, I'll see you later, okay? Catch you and Sparky tonight, at the usual place."

Without waiting for a reply, he slipped out, and the scarred man stepped into the room. Tall and lean, he radiated an aura of contained lethality… an aura supported by the wicked scar on his left cheek, looking like an old blade wound.

Falcon was not intimidated by him. Unlike Dearka, he knew the man quite well, and had for years. "Hello, Master," he greeted, bowing in respect. "Can't say I expected to see you here, of all places, but it's good to see you again."

Swordmaster Sasaki Kojiro, the man who'd taught Kenneth DiFalco the art of the sword, returned the bow. "Likewise, young Falcon. It's been a while, after all." Moving to sit on Dearka's vacated bunk, he glanced at the wakizashi sheathed at the pilot's side. "You've been keeping in practice, I trust?"

"Of course, Master. Every day." Falcon patted the blade fondly, recalling a number of grueling hours on the training mat. "But something tells me you didn't come here to ask me about that, Master. Come to think of it, I have no idea what you're doing here."

"I came to congratulate you, of course," Kojiro told him, with the same faint smile. "You've done well, coming this far. I understand you're one of only ten members of your graduating class to earn the red uniform; you've clearly performed beyond even my expectations."

Falcon shrugged. "I just did my best, Master," he said quietly. "With my engineering talents and the discipline your teaching gave me, I didn't find it too much of a challenge."

His teacher snorted politely. "I doubt it was that easy, young one. Out of a class of a hundred Coordinators, you came out in the top ten. There's more to that than mere training or natural aptitude. Hard work, I'm sure…"

"Well… some," the pilot admitted. "But there are nine others with the red uniform in my class alone. Dearka, Victor Tempest, that Rau Le Creuset fellow, Lance Cooper, Tom Delaney, Alicia Sharpe, Matt Russo, Montgomery Campbell, Petra von Strasser… I'm not exactly the only redcoat out there. Le Creuset and Delaney both out-pointed me in several areas."

"Third out of one hundred isn't bad," Kojiro pointed out. "Quite the opposite, in fact." He glanced again at Falcon's belt, and gazed speculatively at the sword hanging there. "That blade… that's Delaney's work, isn't it?"

Falcon nodded. "That's right. I don't know him that well, but he's a swordsman, too, though of a different school; he's also a very good blacksmith. The only man I know who can work the metal my blades are made from."

"He learned the craft from an eccentric old man by the name Un No," Kojiro said offhandedly. "Exactly how they might've run into each other, I don't know, but I recognize the style."

Falcon's eyes narrowed. "You sure know a lot, Master," he said quietly. "You've always seemed to know a lot more than some 'old man' should. Care to explain that?"

The "old man" chuckled. "I have my sources, young Griever," he said simply, using a name he'd bestowed on Falcon years earlier for reasons known only to himself. "I wasn't always a simple ronin, you know."

The pilot shook his head. "Somehow, Master, I don't think there's any point in my pursuing that line of inquiry. You're as secretive as I am…"

"Probably because I taught you secretiveness in the first place," Kojiro asserted. "So, how's your sister doing?"

Unperturbed by the abrupt change of subject –Falcon had become accustomed to it years ago- Falcon shrugged. "Who knows? Even Mom and Dad don't hear from her all that often. All I know is that she's off someplace on Earth, probably getting another engineering degree herself. I've never really understood Sophia, you know."

"You got along well enough with her friend, as I recall," Kojiro mused. "What did you say her name was? Ramius?"

"Murrue Ramius," Falcon confirmed. "Unlike Sophia, she seemed a bit more congenial toward me; my sister probably never bothered to explain to anybody the… issues between us, after all. Of course, I was just a kid myself, the last time I saw her."

"Hm." Kojiro stood then, walking back to the door. "Well, Falcon, I'll not keep you any longer. I'm sure you have places you need to be yourself. Take care, young one."

As the self-described ronin vanished, Falcon shook his head. "You never change, Master," he mused. "In and out, making conversation, and never explaining just what in the world you're up to. Why is it I always find myself more confused after you've said your piece?"

Snorting to himself, the new-minted redcoat slung his duffle bag over his shoulder, stepped out the dorm room door, and walked into his future.

The Moon, Copernicus City, Café, June 10th, C.E. 68
The man sitting at the table might've been dressed in civilian clothing, but everything from his neatly-trimmed blonde hair and mustache to his ramrod-straight spine practically screamed off-duty military personnel. Exactly what he was doing there was something of a mystery, but not one any of the other patrons paid much attention to.

The growing tensions between Earth and the PLANTs had, after all, brought with them a growing number of soldiers coming to Copernicus.

In this case, though, the man's purpose had little to do with the military at all; and when the youth wearing a gray trench coat and fingerless gloves slid into the chair across from the man, all interest from other patrons died completely. After all, there was no way that kid could have anything to do with the military, even with the lowering minimum age for enlistment.

The youth was, of course, aware of that perception… and was highly amused by it.

When he settled him into the chair, the man waiting for him smiled. "Good to see you, Falcon," he greeted. "Without your, ah, entourage this time, I see."

Ken DiFalco made a throwaway gesture. "After Matt's mistake with the amount of detergent the last time we were on leave, I figured I'd be better off coming alone, Lewis," he said, with a faint smile of his own. "And in case you're wondering, I've never been near that particular laundromat since. Fact is, I think they obtained a restraining order against Matt. Hard to blame them, considering that the whole place was a mass of goo for several hours."

Commander Lewis C. Halberton, Atlantic Federation Navy, laughed. "I wouldn't be at all surprised. You all raised quite a ruckus back there… Of course, knowing you, you haven't even been back to Earth since then."

"I don't like planets," Falcon admitted with a shrug. "That was my first time on Earth, Lewis, after spending the first fourteen years of my life in space. Sorry, but I don't think I'm ever going to get accustomed to full gravity." He grimaced. "Matter of fact, after the last few months I've found that I have a distinct preference for no gravity at all."

Halberton nodded slowly. "So I understand," he said quietly. "As a matter of fact, Falcon, I was surprised to get your message asking to meet me here. I didn't think you'd have the time."

"I'm on leave," the youth replied, equally quiet. "I graduated three days ago, just in time for it to be a late birthday present. Under the circumstances, I thought I might drop by here while I still have the chance; I'll more than likely be out of touch for quite a while now."

The two of them had first met on Earth, five months before. They'd kept in touch since then, becoming fast friends despite the quarter-century difference in ages… but in that time, Falcon had never once mentioned just what sort of academy he was attending, and Halberton had never asked.

There'd never been any need to discuss it, under the circumstances. Falcon knew Halberton was an officer of the Atlantic Federation, and Halberton knew in his gut that Falcon was in training to be one of the PLANTs' first professional military men.

And that, in the end, was why Falcon had asked to meet him on that particular day.

"You do realize," Halberton said solemnly, "where things are headed at the moment? The destruction of the Mandelbrot and her fellows was the start of a very ugly trend, my friend… and the reaction of the PLANTs –and your own words- tells me the tension is only going to continue to rise."

"It is," Falcon acknowledged. "I'm no politician, but I am a historian; I can read the trends as easily as you, amigo. And, quite frankly, I see no way to stop it. The Mandelbrot Incident is only part of the larger whole. Both sides have legitimate grievances… and six months ago, Earth gave the PLANTs quite a bit to stew on."

Halberton sighed. "I won't try to defend the Mandelbrot Incident," he conceded. "But as you say, both sides have legitimate grievances… and if it comes down to the situation we both see, I will do my duty, Falcon."

"As will I," the new-minted pilot said evenly, acknowledging for the first time that he, too, was a soldier. "I've given my oath now, Lewis. As far as I'm concerned, there's no turning back… maybe for the rest of my life." He leaned back in his chair. "You and I… we're both pawns, in the great chess game. Nothing more, nothing less."

"For now," the older man noted. "I won't be a mere commander forever, and I highly doubt someone of your talents is going to be a mere faceless grunt for very long, either. You could find yourself as a knight sooner than you think."

"Maybe so," Falcon acknowledged. "But until then, I'll follow the orders of others, as duty dictates."

"We may end up facing each other on opposite sides, Falcon," Halberton warned. "I don't like that idea any more than you do, but it's one we both have to face."

"I know." The pilot unconsciously touched the slowly-fading scar that marked the trail of a bullet across his neck. "But if that happens, I expect we'll both do our duty, Lewis. As soldiers, all we can do is act as our oaths dictate, and follow orders as soldiers should."

"Ours not to reason why?" Halberton mused.

Falcon nodded. "Ours not to make reply," he answered, continuing the quote. "Ours but to do and die." His hand slipped into his coat, and touched the hilt of the wakizashi hidden beneath it. "Let's hope, Lewis, that neither of us is ever part of another Charge of the Light Brigade… but if that is our fate, we go out like soldiers."

Lewis smiled faintly. "You're not normal, Falcon," he said conversationally. "Even for a Coordinator, you are not normal. On the eve of conflict, you just sit there, calmly quoting poetry. Now, if you were maybe ten years older, I might understand that, but at fifteen…"

"I've always been abnormal, Lewis," the pilot acknowledging, accepting the change in topic. "It's how I got to where I am today, and it's very likely going to be what keeps me alive in the coming years. This is no place for ordinary teenagers."

Halberton nodded thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair. "True enough," he mused. "So, how long have you got before you need to return to duty?"

"I'm supposed to report in on the Seventeenth," Falcon replied with a shrug. "Gives me some time to relax, before getting involved in the meat of my new occupation."

The Atlantic Federation officer nodded again, more slowly. So this is it, he thought to himself. We've entered an age where even kids in their teens are dragged into the conflict… and with their eyes wide open. This new generation in the PLANTs… do the pencil pushers at Ptolemaeus have any idea of what they're dealing with? No… no, they probably don't. And I doubt they'd listen to a mere commander who tells them that the PLANTs are not going to just lie down and let us walk all over them…

"Well," Halberton said finally, "I'm honestly not sure whether or not to wish you luck, Falcon. I can and will say this, though: whatever happens… try to stay alive. The tensions between our nations won't last forever, you know."

Falcon nodded. "I know." And with our new mobile suits… maybe we can bring this matter to a conclusion before all-out war begins. A peaceful resolution… it sounds almost like a dream, but maybe we can make it a reality.

I hope so, anyway. History tells me that conflict cannot be avoided, and perhaps that's true… but that won't stop me from doing everything in my power to prevent this repetition of history.

"At any rate," the young pilot said after a moment, "I've got a little time on my hands at the moment. How are things going for you poor gravity dwellers?"

Halberton chuckled. "Probably not as good as for you space colonists," he said with a grin, "if only because we have to suffer the 'indignity' of gravity. Still, not so bad, all things considered. About the only news that what you interest you, I think, has to do with the Orb Union."

Falcon raised an eyebrow. "Orb, eh? Been a while since I heard much of importance out of them. What's new?"

The commander shrugged. "Well, Chief Representative Athha is becoming increasingly firm in his policy of staying as far away from the current situation as possible; not really a surprise, I suppose. After all, Orb has never had much to do with space at all, except for the Heliopolis colony… Speaking of their space endeavors, though, I hear they've recently suspended construction of the orbit elevator connecting the islands with Ame-no-Mihashira. I think they're worried about what would happen if an errant shot struck it."

"Considering what a falling orbit elevator would do to Orb," Falcon said with a snort, "I don't blame them. They'd be lucky if they came out of it with even one island intact." His expression darkened. "Can't say the news is so good on our end. Even leaving aside the current tensions, I've heard the Mendel Colony had to be evacuated, out at L4. Some sick bastards let a biohazard loose there, and killed over a hundred people."

Halberton sighed. "Yes, I heard about that. Not exactly in your purview, given where it is, but I can see why you'd be concerned. If it's any consolation, I hope they catch the people responsible."

"They won't." The pilot fingered the hilt of his sword pensively. "Scuttlebutt says it was Blue Cosmos, and they've got people in so many places no investigation will ever succeed."

"You may be right," Halberton conceded wearily. "Even I don't know how far they've spread these days…" He shook his head. "But enough about the gloomy news, Falcon. What say we get a bite to eat, and fill each other in on the less depressing news in our respective nations?"

Falcon cracked a smile. "Sounds good to me, Lewis. Just so long as it doesn't involve the tar that masquerades as Atlantic Federation Navy coffee."

Standing, the two of them departed, Halberton protesting, "Come on, Falcon, it's not that bad!"

"Oh, yeah? Then why did it grout the gaps between my teeth the one time you talked me into drinking the stuff?"

PLANTs, December 7, Harbor, Laurasia-class Frigate Hawking, Bridge, June 17th, C.E. 68
So, Falcon thought, floating briskly toward the bridge hatch, this is what a proper ship of the line is like… A little Spartan, but I'll get used to it quickly enough. He snorted inwardly. I'd better, anyway. If the balloon goes up, I'll be seeing a lot more of these corridors…

So far, the young pilot was favorably impressed by the ship. He'd been on Laurasias before, but only lightly-armed training ships,; this was his first time on a genuine ship of the line, fully equipped and combat-ready

One thing he'd already decided, of course: he'd take even a training ship over just about any location with anything resembling full gravity. After the many training exercises he'd participated in since beginning pilot training, he knew that his true environment would always be zero gravity.

Assuming I survive, Falcon amended, passing down the spotless-white corridor. That depends on my skill… and the skill of whoever my fellow pilots are.

Reaching the bridge hatch, he frowned, feeling a familiar sensation in the back of his mind. Well, he thought, that answers who one of my new teammates is… oh joy. Frowning, he nervously tugged on the bottom of his red coat, straightened his collar, and took a deep, steadying breath. Though he would never admit it to anyone, he was anxious; this would be his first time meeting his new commander, and his teammates. He wanted to make the best impression he could… especially given whose presence he sensed.

After another deep breath, Falcon tapped the hatch control, stepped through it, and snapped to attention. "Kenneth DiFalco, reporting for duty, Sir!" he said briskly, with a crisp salute.

The white-coated, black-haired man waiting for him –alongside a trio of redcoats- smiled, and returned the salute. "Welcome aboard, DiFalco," he said amiably. "And at ease. I'm Commander Richard Lacan, commanding officer of this band of misfits."

Falcon blinked, unused to such a casual attitude from a superior officer. "Uh… thank you, Sir," he said uncertainly.

Lacan laughed. "You'll get used to it, DiFalco. Remember, you're not in the Academy anymore; in the real ZAFT, informality is the order of the day." He snapped his fingers. "Which reminds me: what do people call you, normally?"

"Falcon, Commander," the youth answered, still more than a little off-balance from the blasé attitude of those around him. "Or Iron Eagle, as my sister calls me."

"Doesn't sound flattering," the red-headed man next to Lacan observed with a grin. A couple years older than Falcon, he, too, wore a red uniform… as well as a pair of antique, single-shot pistols, hung in cross-draw holsters on his belt. "I think we'll just go with Falcon, right, Commander?"

It wasn't actually the pistol rig that caught Falcon's attention, as he took a closer look at the other pilot. Rather, it was the red lightning bolts on either side of his face, the pair on his neck, and what looked like more on his wrists, disappearing into his sleeves.

Sensibly, Falcon's first thought was, Who's the tattooed freak?

Lacan laughed again, seeing his new subordinate's expression. "Everybody reacts like that on first sight, Falcon," he informed the youth. "Anyway, let me introduce you. This is Nick Drallig, pilot of one of our GINNs. As you've clearly noticed yourself, the tattoos are usually the first thing people see when they look at him."

Nick Drallig grinned. "They call me Nick the Crimson Lightning," he announced, saluting snappily. "Soon, the whole world's gonna know my name."

Falcon raised an eyebrow. "So who gave you that moniker?"

"He did," Lacan said dryly. "Ignore him; Nick's the grandstanding sort."

Nick shot him a wounded look. "Aw, c'mon, Commander, that hurts…"

Lacan merely shook his head, smiling at the pilot's antics. "You'll get used to him, Falcon… assuming he doesn't drive you insane first. Anyway, now you've met Nick; this lady," he clapped the second redcoat, a woman with light brown hair, on the shoulder, "is Natalie Hollis, my second in command."

Falcon nodded. He knew the position was arbitrary; in a ZAFT team, only the commander held genuine rank. The second in command was chosen based on the commander's own judgment, and could be subject to change under certain circumstances. That's the theory, anyway, he reminded himself. ZAFT hasn't been around long enough for it to be put into practice yet…

"Pleased to meet you, Ma'am," he said formally, saluting again.

Hollis shook her head with a smile. "That's Natalie, Falcon; this is a volunteer militia, not a career military, remember? Informality is the order of the day."

"She's right," Lacan said with a nod. Then he turned his attention to the third redcoat. "And this is-"

"Rau Le Creuset," Falcon cut in, eyes narrowing as he looked at the blonde redcoat. "We were in the same Academy class, Commander."

Unaffected by Falcon's obvious ambivalence, Rau Le Creuset merely smiled faintly. "A pleasure to see you again, too, Falcon," he said quietly. "Looks like we'll be working together for a while, hm? Seems… fitting, somehow."

Falcon nodded slowly. "I won't deny that, Rau," he acknowledged. The two of them had never discussed their peculiar ability to sense one another, but he knew Rau was fully as aware of it as he was. And, he conceded grudgingly, it could be an asset in battle…

Lacan glanced between the two pilots curiously. "I see you two know each other," he remarked. "Well, whatever differences the two of you may have, I remind you that there's no place for that on the battlefield. We hang together or we hang separately, understand?"

"Perfectly, Commander," Falcon said at once. "There won't be any problems."

"Agreed, Sir," Rau said smoothly.

The commander nodded once, sharply. "Good! In that case, Falcon, on to business. I understand that you're something of an engineer, right? A specialist in weapons and propulsion design if I remember right."

Falcon nodded, grateful for the change in subject. "That's right, Commander; I've dabbled in interstellar drive systems, and in the Academy I studied mobile suit articulation and thruster systems. I'm also fairly well versed in the inner workings of standard GINN armaments."

Lacan smiled. "Excellent. You'll be using that knowledge a lot from here on, Falcon; it's always best for a pilot to keep an eye on the maintenance of his own mobile suit, and as you may have heard, we encourage pilots to fine-tune their machines to their own satisfaction. Mobile suits are, of course, assigned on a more or less permanent basis, barring catastrophic damage, or, as new models come online, upgrades. With that in mind, if you have an idea to improve your unit, do it; the more effective your machine is, the more effective you are, when the time to fight finally comes."

Mentally reviewing the many pages of schematics he'd committed to memory, Falcon nodded slowly. "I'll remember that, Sir, thank you." Let's see… I can probably increase thruster output by at least a couple of percent… and then tweak the momentum control parameters…

His musing was observed with some amusement by Lacan. Ha, he thought to himself, I was right: the kid is a thinker… yeah, he'll fit right in. He frowned slightly, though, as something else crossed his mind. Still… I'm not sure I like that byplay between him and Rau. Those two don't look like they're very fond of each other, and if they let that affect their thinking on the battlefield…

"One other thing to remember, Falcon," Nick said enthusiastically, derailing Lacan's train of thought. "When they let you customize the look, give your machine a really sharp paint job, something nice and-"

"Nick?" Falcon interrupted, gazing oddly at the other pilot.


"Do they call you the 'Crimson Lightning' because of how fast you're turned into a red smear by the people you talk to death?"

Nick's eyes widened, and both Hollis and Lacan burst out laughing. "Don't worry, Falcon," Lacan advised between laughs, "you're going to fit in here just fine…"

PLANTs, Aprilius One, Supreme Council Chamber, March 3rd, C.E. 69
If I'd known going in how difficult this was going to be, Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne thought wearily, I'm not sure I'd have had the courage to go through with it. One disaster piles on another, endlessly…

Exchanging a glance across the table with his old ally Patrick Zala, though, Clyne knew that, even had he known the true enormity of his life's work, he'd have done it anyway. The two of them had first met twenty-six years earlier, and formed the Zodiac Alliance together seven years later; and throughout those years, they'd both struggled long and hard for the PLANTs' present level of autonomy.

Now they struggled to make that autonomy complete, despite the best efforts of the PLANT sponsor nations.

"You all know the situation," he began finally, sweeping his gaze across the faces of his fellow Supreme Council members. "Beginning last year, we finally abandoned the futile arguments with the sponsor nations, and began clandestine food imports from the United States of South America and the Oceania Union. Considering how relentlessly the sponsor nations have fought our own attempts at producing food, it seemed the sensible option… until, of course, the Mandelbrot Incident."

Heads nodded around the table, and more than one representative scowled at the reminder. The destruction of a food convoy, with the loss of vitally-needed supplies –and lives- that represented, had soured virtually every single inhabitant of the PLANTs toward Earth.

And, of course, it had resulted in the reformation of the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty into a military organization, despite the sponsor nations' virulent protests.

"Clearly," Clyne went on now, observing the reactions to his statement, "these imports are not the best solution after all. Some have made it to L5 unmolested, but the danger is too great. Therefore, National Defense Committee Chairman Zala and I have come to a mutual conclusion: Junius City colonies Seven through Ten must now be converted to agricultural production."

Dead silence.

Clyne wasn't surprised by the reaction. It was true that, by now, almost every individual in the PLANTs was fed up with the sponsor nations, after the Mandelbrot Incident and the ever more stringent quotas imposed on them by Earth… but even so, even with the ever-growing Separatist movement, the PLANTs had so far been very careful in dealing with Earth. The reorganization of ZAFT had been a highly unusual decision, representing a greater willingness to take risks with the sponsor nations than was the norm.

That one action had badly angered Earth, but they had apparently not considered it worth the risk of military action; that was likely in part because they couldn't be sure how strong ZAFT was, but it also represented calculation: if the sponsor nations took no aggressive action, neither would the PLANTs, and the situation would remain essentially the same.

But the production of their own food… That would render the PLANTs virtually self-sufficient. The chances of the sponsor nations allowing that to pass unchallenged…

"Chairman Clyne," Yuri Amalfi said carefully, breaking the silence at last, "are you sure this is wise? The sponsor nations reacted badly as it was to our imports from South America and Oceania; if we actually begin production of our own food…"

"I'm aware of that, Representative Amalfi," Clyne acknowledged, nodding to the other man. "And it is, indeed, a risk. But everything we've done since the Supreme Council was formed sixteen years ago has been a risk; they've never even been happy with the Council's very existence. Moreover, we cannot continue as we have forever. Sooner or later, a stand must be taken…"

"Or in the end," Patrick Zala interjected, "the sponsor nations will bleed us all dry… or allow Blue Cosmos to kill us all."

That last point silenced the chamber once again. Blue Cosmos' activities had long been expanding, and terrorist acts by the group were far from unknown in the PLANTs themselves. Six years before, their energy production department had been bombed by Blue Cosmos; two years before that, they or another group had attempted –and nearly succeeded- to kill Patrick Zala himself.

The Mendel Colony at L4 had also been targeted, they knew, and on two separate occasions. One of them had been not long after the Mandelbrot Incident…

"I see you begin to understand where Patrick and I are coming from," Clyne observed, after letting the reminder sink in. "I assure you, we've taken the probable Earth response into consideration, and we're prepared to deal with the consequences."

"And how do you intend to deal with them, Chairman Clyne?" Ezalia Joule asked, leaning forward in her chair with an expectant expression.

Clyne looked to Zala; the latter nodded fractionally, and came to his feet. "If the sponsor nations make the mistake of attempting military action," he announced, "they will find they've bitten off far more than they can chew. Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to inform you that ZAFT's first frontline teams are fully prepared, and their mobile suit pilots stand ready to defeat any action the sponsor nations may contemplate to subjugate us."

It was then that Clyne also stood, expression grave. "I don't take this course lightly," he said quietly, "but I feel that we no longer have any choice. The sponsor nations clearly have no intention of allowing us our freedom… so we'll present them with a fait accompli. And if they press the matter, they will find we won't just lie down to be walked over. Not any longer."

Lagrange Point 5, Hawking, Briefing Room, March 4th, C.E. 69
The mood aboard Hawking was, at that moment, confused rather than tense. After receiving a transmission from the Homeland while on training maneuvers out beyond the resource satellite Jachin, Commander Lacan had ordered his team back to the ship without explanation, and disappeared into his quarters.

Shortly thereafter, the call had gone out over the intercom for the other four pilots to assemble in the briefing room… also without explanation.

"Any idea what's going on?" Falcon murmured to Nick, as they waited for Lacan to arrive. "I've never heard of anything like this before."

"Me either," the self-proclaimed "Crimson Lightning" admitted, unconsciously stroking the grip of his left-hand pistol. "Gotta be important, though, or the Commander wouldn't have called us to the briefing room like this; I knew him even before Mandelbrot, and this ain't his style… except in really weird, or really bad, situations."

"Doesn't sound very reassuring…"

Over the nine months since the Lacan team had been formed, the pilots had grown to understand each other quite well. Even Lacan and Natalie still found Rau somewhat unfathomable at times, but they each knew how the rest thought, and they functioned as a well-honed team in flight.

Natalie Hollis, for her part –as Lacan's right hand- had a fair idea that their youngest member didn't quite realize his own part in things, though. Still wet behind the ears and socially inept at times, she had long since noted that the Falcon studied everything around himself, analyzing everything like one great equation… and doing a very good job of anticipating the moves of others.

Falcon clearly hadn't realized it, but Natalie had noticed Lacan tended to subtly nudge him into making suggestions during pre-exercise planning; she had also realized that Lacan placed a surprising amount of faith in those suggestions, and –though it was often subtle- he tended to modify their battle plans based on Falcon's observations.

If he weren't so young, Natalie thought to herself, as Falcon and Nick conversed in low tones, I'd say Rick was grooming him for team command of his own… As it is, he obviously sees potential in the kid; with a little more experience, Falcon could really be something…

Although, she mused, turning her attention to the heretofore silent Rau Le Creuset, the same could be said of him. He's quiet, but he's also just as observant as Falcon; he's just less obvious about how much he's thinking about the situation.

Lacan had long since encouraged Natalie to scrutinize those around her, to gain a feel for what they were like, as part of forging the required bond between team members… and, she suspected, as part of grooming her for team command. In the process, she'd become a shrewd judge of character, and she now used that judgment in her scrutiny of her teammates.

To her mind, Falcon and Rau were the most promising members of the team, besides Lacan himself; for now, she herself had little interest in command, and she judged Nick to be… unsuitable. His personality was altogether too good a match for the history behind his pistols, so in her professional opinion, he was best suited to be a fighter, not a leader.

Natalie's musings, and the younger pilots' conversation, were cut off when Lacan himself finally stepped into the room, looking curiously intent… and somehow eager. "All right, people," he said without preamble, stepping to the head of the holographic display table, "I've got some news for you."

"News, Boss?" Nick said, being the first to pull himself over to the display. "What kind of news?"

"Important news, I suspect," Rau remarked, approaching more sedately. "Has the situation changed, Commander?"

Lacan nodded. "It has. Two hours ago, Chairman Clyne publicly announced a decision the Supreme Council made yesterday: within the next two months, Junius colonies Seven through Ten will be converted to agricultural development."

That news was greeted not by the shock of the Supreme Council, but rather by a more interesting selection of reactions. Rau nodded approvingly, Natalie raised a clenched fist, Nick smiled ferally… and Falcon nodded slowly, a strange smile on his own face.

"So this is it, huh?" Nick drawled, breaking the silence. "That's practically a declaration of war, Boss."

"Very nearly," Lacan acknowledged. "This is for your ears only, people, but it's my professional opinion that today's announcement constitutes the beginning of a new era. The sponsor nations are unlikely to just let this slide… so I believe that, as of now, the Revolution has begun."

A chill wind seemed to whisper through the compartment at that. The Revolution… it was a concept that had been whispered of for years, ever since the earliest acts of oppression and violence against the PLANTs. Spoken most by members of the then-underground Zodiac Alliance, talk of the Revolution had also been echoed by many an ordinary citizen of the PLANTs.

Lacan knew that two members of his own team had been proponents of the idea, even before they joined ZAFT; Nick's family history had left him predisposed toward radical action in general, and the Falcon had also quietly supported the concept, when he proposed the construction of "GENESIS", for use by colony ships. His original reasoning was unknown… but Lacan knew they all shared the belief that only the Revolution would bring about the independence they sought.

It was Falcon who voiced the general sentiment, though he didn't seem to realize he was speaking aloud. "Without the Revolution, the PLANTs will never be free… and so it begins." He looked up at Lacan, and said succinctly, "Sic Vis Pacem, Para Bellum."

Natalie glanced at him in confusion, but Lacan and Rau –and surprisingly, the seemingly-oblivious Nick- nodded in agreement. "Exactly right, Falcon," Lacan agreed. "And because what we truly seek is peace, we have been prepared for this." He glanced at Nick, eyebrow raised. "If you're going to get your pistols in shape, Nick, now would be a good time. You people have the rest of the day off… because starting tomorrow, we're on wartime footing, my authority."

Nick nodded crisply, a gesture at odds with his amused smile. "Roger that, Commander."

Falcon looked from Lacan's faint smile to Nick's eager expression, then noticed even Natalie looking more pleased than apprehensive. "Are we going to a war or a party?" he wondered aloud.

Lacan sobered. "It's not a party, Falcon," he said quietly, "but I think you know as well as we do that the Revolution is on its way… and with it perhaps our only chance at true freedom. That makes it something to… Well, we're not looking forward to the war itself, exactly, but rather to what comes after." His gaze bored into the younger pilot's eyes. "We can win this, Falcon. I know we can… and that means that the aftermath of this conflict will be the most anticipated time in the history of the PLANTs."

Earth, Atlantic Federation, Washington, Defense Industries Association Headquarters, Director's Office, March 5th, C.E. 69
Director Muruta Azrael glanced up almost lazily from the files he was reading, as the door to his office swung open. "Ah, Admiral," he greeted, gesturing for his visitor to sit. "I take it you have news for me? Dare I ask what that news is?"

Vice Admiral James Hamilton, Atlantic Federation Navy –and highest-ranking Blue Cosmos member in the military- shrugged. "Both good and bad, Director," he admitted. "Mostly, I'm sorry to say, in the latter category."

Azrael leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "Somehow, Admiral, I was afraid you were going to say that. With that announcement from Clyne yesterday, it would've been wishful thinking to expect anything else… arrogant Coordinator."

"Unfortunately, he has the brains to back it up," Hamilton said regretfully. "This may be a 'grand gesture' on his part, a show of contempt for the restrictions we've placed on them in the last few years, but he's also being pragmatic. We heard last year that the 'Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty' had been reorganized into a militia, but we couldn't get any solid details on it… until now."

By "we", Azrael knew his mole was speaking of the Atlantic Federation's Office of Naval Intelligence; Blue Cosmos had hundreds of thousands of members across the world, but their actual intelligence assets were deplorably limited. Because of that, Azrael had to rely on Hamilton's sources within the military for information… a gamble which appeared to have paid off.

"So," Azrael asked now, "what do you have on this 'ZAFT's capabilities, Admiral?"

"Still not much," Hamilton admitted, "but we do have this image, taken two days ago by a scout on a ballistic course through L5." He pulled said image out of his shirt pocket, and slid it across the desk to Azrael.

The Director scrutinized it minutely for several moments, then scratched his head. "Just what is that supposed to be?" he said, puzzled. "I've never seen any ship like that before. Very unconventional… I can see it's got a fair number of guns on her upper hull, but she looks lightly armed for a warship…"

"That was what the boys at ONI thought, too," the admiral agreed. "They classified her as a simple frigate at first, and wondered how Clyne could be so bold within nothing but those in his fleet… until they noticed this." He tapped the image, indicating a bulbous section of the hull, slung under the ship's main section. "This looks to be a hangar of some sort, possibly doubling as a reentry pod for orbital drops."

"A hangar?" Azrael's eyebrows went up. "A hangar for what? Mobile armors?"

"That's currently ONI's best guess… but if you ask me, they've got no more idea than you or I about that ship's intended function." Hamilton shook his head. "We're all very confused, Director; but one thing we're fairly sure of: if Clyne has made such a firm statement, it's because he genuinely believes his forces can at least make any attack too expensive to us for it to be worth doing."

The Director nodded slowly. "It's not exactly my area," he murmured, "but I'll take your word for it, Admiral… So, what is the military's intended response, then?"

Hamilton smiled faintly. "Well, a number of my fellow admirals advocated doing just what Clyne seems to want us to do: attack the PLANTs directly. Rear Admiral Truman and I, along with a few other, more cool-headed flag officers, managed to convince the politicos and the Admiralty to try something different, instead: a blockade."

"Hm… You know," Azrael said slowly, "that makes a lot of sense. They've only just announced this new project of theirs, so they're nowhere near being self-sufficient as of yet. Which means…"

"Exactly," the admiral confirmed. "We don't need to get anywhere near them. All we have to do is blockade food supply shipments until the PLANTs finally give in. Rather like what the Germans attempted to do to the British Empire, in the Second World War."

Azrael shrugged. "I'll take your word for it, Admiral. I'm afraid that era isn't exactly my specialty." He idly tapped his chin. "So, who's in charge of the blockade fleet? And which fleet is it, for that matter?"

"Vice Admiral Les Chernock," Hamilton replied, "with Fourth Fleet." He grimaced. "President Jourdain tried to enlist Eurasian assistance, but Prime Minister Ivanov is taking a 'wait and see' attitude. His country is just as… unhappy with the PLANTs' recent announcement as we are, but alas, traditional enmity appears to have trumped mutual enemy in this case. I think the Eurasians are waiting to see what the PLANTs spring on us before they risk any of their own men."

"Figures," Azrael sighed. "Well, they'll join with us eventually; even Ivanov won't be able to hold out that long…" He frowned, mentally going over troop movements. "Hm… just how much will their recalcitrance affect the blockade's effectiveness, Admiral?"

The admiral shrugged. "Depends on what the PLANTs actually do have waiting for us… but it shouldn't be that much of an issue, Director. This is a blockade, not an invasion; Fourth Fleet should be more than enough, even if ZAFT does have its own mobile armors now."

He didn't need to explain that. Azrael, for all this his specialty was the weapons of war rather than their employment, knew as well as Hamilton that weapons only went so far. Considering that ZAFT hadn't even existed a military force until the past year, it was highly unlikely their hypothetical mobile armor pilots had much experience yet. Coordinators though they might be, even they could only learn so much without actual battle experience.

With that in mind, ZAFT's new frigates would be reasonably easy targets for Agamemnon-class battleships, while any mobile armors they might have ought to be overwhelmed by the more experienced –and very possibly more numerous- Atlantic Federation pilots.

I do hope they put up something of a fight, though, Azrael mused to himself. If we can make them appear to be a genuine threat, it'll be all the easier to justify to the sheep-like masses the utter destruction of the PLANTs… and the genocide of the Coordinators.

As ever, that remained Blue Cosmos' ultimate goal… and so Azrael greeted Clyne's announcement with nearly as much satisfaction as the denizens of the PLANTs, because of the opportunity it offered.

"So," Azrael said at length, "when is the blockade scheduled to commence, Admiral?"

"The Fourth Fleet is slated to depart Ptolemaeus Base at 0800 tomorrow," Hamilton replied, glancing at his watch. "Which reminds me: I'm afraid I need to cut this meeting short, Director. I'm supposed to brief Captain Lewis Halberton –a mobile armor squadron commander on Fourth Fleet's flagship- in two hours, and I need to organize my briefing notes before I contact Ptolemaeus."

The Director nodded. "I understand, Admiral. Do what you have to do… so that one day soon, we'll never have to concern ourselves with those space monsters again."

Lagrange Point 5, Hawking, Officer's Lounge, March 7th, C.E. 69
The mood aboard Hawking was surprisingly relaxed, from Falcon's point of view; at least when one considered the fact that, as Nick Drallig had remarked, they'd practically declared war on the sponsor nations only days before.

All the team's pilots were gathered in the lounge, engaged in their own pursuits, seemingly oblivious to any kind of tension. Natalie Hollis was playing chess with Rick Lacan; despite Lacan's strategic talents, they were currently at something of a stalemate.

Neither, of course, often played chess with Falcon… and when they did, it was a team effort. As Natalie had once remarked, three months after the young pilot had joined the team, it took both of them together just to lose to Falcon.

Rau Le Creuset was quietly observing the chess game, while occasionally glancing down at a somewhat battered copy of Hamlet. A man with more sophisticated interests than most of his crewmates, he could often be found reading classics at idle times.

That was somewhat to the disgust of Nick Drallig; he had been heard to comment more than once that the classics were indeed classics… but were only of use to people with extraordinarily high boredom tolerances.

Nick himself was sitting at a table, his pair of antique pistols on the tabletop, while he carefully cleaned and polished the very old weapons. He occasionally muttered to himself as he worked, and looked more serious than his teammates were accustomed to.

It was that seriousness, and the obvious antiquity of the weapons, that got Falcon's attention. He was drifting in one corner of the compartment, completely oblivious to the lack of gravity –or the distinction between up and down- and was polishing his katana with just as much care as Nick showed his chosen affectation.

The similarity between their hobbies, made all the more curious by their utterly dissimilar personalities, had intrigued Falcon almost from the moment he came onboard, and now the young swordsman sheathed his blade, pushed off from the bulkhead, and floated over to the tattooed pilot.

Nick saw him coming, and raised an eyebrow. "Something up, Falcon?" he asked, carefully stroking his right-hand pistol's barrel with a polishing cloth. "You look like a man with a question… which is kinda surprising, coming from a guy who always seems to have all the answers."

"Not all the answers," Falcon disputed, with a small smile. "Just most of them."

The other pilot laughed. "Good answer, compadre! So… what's the question you're dying to ask?"

Falcon shrugged. "Nothing much, really. I was just wondering… what's up with those pistols? You even carry them on duty, I've noticed. I guess I can understand wanting to carry a sidearm with you, especially after that attempt on Committee Chairman Zala's life a few years back, but why something so…?"

"Old?" Nick completed. Setting down the pistol, he picked up the other, and gazed critically down its barrel. "Well, that's kind of a long story, compadre. Goes back… oh, call it four hundred years, give or take a decade."

"That's right," Lacan called, from the chess table. "Nick here is descended from a long line of privateers, going back many a generation."

"Pirates," Nick corrected with a smile. "Get it right, Boss: my umpteenth-great grandfather may've had Letters of Marque, but the simple fact is that the distinction was purely a cover for piratical activity. He preferred going after French and Spanish ships, and left the Royal Navy alone, but that was pure convenience, nothing more, nothing less."

Falcon's eyebrows went up. "A long line of pirates? Well, that sure explains a lot…" After the obligatory wounded look from Nick, he continued, "But I'm not sure what that has to do with the pistols."

"Simple enough," Nick said with a shrug, and picked up his right-hand pistol again. "Single-shot black powder flintlock pistol," he pronounced, "of the same sort a pirate would've used in the Eighteenth Century A.D. Matter of fact, my direct ancestor used this very pistol, back in the day, and it's been passed down from father to son ever since, even after the family got out of the pirating business." He ran a hand across its barrel almost reverently. "In that time, it's been fired no more than a handful of times in its owners' lifetimes."

"You see, Falcon?" Lacan interjected, while simultaneously trapping Natalie's king with a two-pronged assault. "Nick really does have hidden depths. You just need to dig down really far to find them."

"Shut up, Boss," Nick suggested casually. "I'm trying to tell a story here, y'know? Anyway," he went on, ignoring Lacan's snort, "the reason for it's kind of a long story, but what it boils down to is this: no member of the family has ever fired this pistol without absolutely, positively wanting their target dead. This weapon is… kind of a symbol, I guess you'd call it." He tapped the pistol lightly with one forefinger. "I've used it exactly once myself, and haven't fired it since. For three years now, ever since I was fourteen, the same shot has been sitting in it, unused."

Falcon's eyes narrowed. "What happened three years ago?" he asked quietly, recalling a dark incident of his own that had occurred when he was fourteen.

The result of the question surprised the youth. For the first time since Falcon had met him, Nick became genuinely somber. "It's… a long story," he said quietly. "Let's just say that something bad happened, and I had to finish the job with a bullet." He looked shrewdly at his young comrade. "I can see you've had a similar experience yourself, compadre."

"Friend of mine and I got caught in a bank robbery last year," Falcon said simply, with a shrug and a wince, as well as an unconscious touch of the faint scar on his neck. "Had to break a couple necks, shoot a couple of guys with a captured pistol, took a bullet to the side and a graze across my neck." He grimaced. "Threw up just afterwards… and I haven't liked guns since."

Nick nodded seriously. "Something like that can leave an effect on you, I know," he said quietly. "But for me… it was just the opposite. The day after I got out of the hospital, I got my left-hand pistol; it's something I can use without expending the shot I'm saving… and if it comes down to it, I can take down two guys at once."

"Wouldn't it be more efficient to carry something with multiple shots?" Falcon suggested, frowning in puzzlement.

That brought Nick's frivolous side to the fore again, and he laughed. "This from a guy who hates guns and carries a sword around with him?" he said pointedly, chuckling. "Look, compadre, we're pilots, not ground-pounders; if we get into single combat at all, it ain't gonna be a big battle or something. You and me, guys like us, we can afford to be a little inefficient in our choice of personal weaponry. For a pilot, this kind of thing is more about style than efficiency."

Falcon shook his head in amusement. "Style? That's not exactly why I carry a sword, Nick; Griever is much more than merely a tool, as far as I'm concerned. Training in her use has given me discipline, something I value a lot more than style."

Nick shrugged. "Discipline, style… what's the difference?"

"Life or death," the youth replied, and pushed off again, returning to his quiet corner. "And the difference between your pistols and my sword is that a katana doesn't run out of ammunition."

"It also can't be used at range," Nick pointed out. "Not unless you throw the thing, anyway. And what are you, anyway, a samurai?"

"A pragmatist," Falcon told him. "And a soldier."

He said no more, and Nick let the matter drop… but Lacan continued to watch the youth surreptitiously for several minutes afterward. A pragmatics and a soldier, he mused. Good attitude to have, especially on the eve of ZAFT's first experience with live combat… I notice, though, that he didn't respond to Nick's point about range limitations. Hm… well, he is a student of the Ganryu school; either he's got blind faith in the blade, or he has reason to believe he won't need anything else very much…

Eventually, the commander shrugged mentally, and returned his full attention to the chess game. For all that they both had idiosyncrasies, he knew they were also both excellent pilots. Falcon had shown tremendous potential, surpassing anything Lacan had ever seen –though he'd never mentioned the fact to anyone else- but Nick was a superb flyer as well, with a distinct preference for long-range attacks. While Falcon had optimized his own GINN for melee combat, Nick had emphasized ranged weaponry, to the extent of heavily modifying his GINN's assault rifle. While still capable of fully-automatic fire, the flamboyant pilot had also added a single-fire mode, and tweaked both the rifle and its software for greater accuracy.

Well, Lacan thought to himself, I guess we'll see what they're really made of soon enough…

PLANTs, Aprilius One, Evidence 01 Chamber
It was only fitting, Siegel Clyne reflected, that Evidence 01 occupy the location it did. The huge fossil, retrieved by George Glenn from an asteroid near the Jupiter moon Europa, resembled a winged whale, and had effectively proven the existence of extraterrestrial life. Glenn had discovered it forty-seven years earlier, and brought it back to Earth in C.E. 29. It had promptly been moved to the research colony Zodiac for study… and though that study was long over, its ramifications remained.

It was, after all, Evidence 01 and the Zodiac colony that eventually led to a semi-acceptance of Coordinators… and the construction of the Productive Location Ally on Nexus Technology colonies.

Therefore, it was only fitting that Evidence 01 itself should be housed in the mina governmental building in the PLANTs, right outside the Supreme Council Chamber itself.

"We've come a long way since George Glenn brought it back, haven't we," Clyne mused to his companion, gazing up at the fossil. "Hard to believe it's been forty-seven years since Glenn first found it, in the depths of space…"

"Even harder to believe the man didn't go mad, all the way out there," Patrick Zala said with an amused snort, "with no one to talk to but himself and a huge transmission delay between the Tsiolkovsky and Earth." Despite his words, though, he too felt something akin to reverence, staring up at the "rock" that had started it all. "I know what you mean, though. We weren't even born when Glenn found that… and now we find ourselves bearing his legacy."

"Yes," Clyne agreed. "I wonder now, though, if Glenn would've had the courage to release the data on his genesis had he known the chaos that would result from it?"

"Hypothetical question," his friend and longtime ally said with a shrug. "It was the right thing to do, though. For all that our kind has been oppressed ever since the Naturals realized we were among them, it's our existence that leads mankind into the future. Glenn was right about that, when he first spoke of 'Coordinators' on his way to Jupiter."

The other man sighed. "True enough… but I have to admit, Patrick, that I sometimes find this burden a very heavy one. You and I have been fighting for this cause for almost twenty years now… and it's been fifty-three years since all this began."

Zala shrugged again, and said nothing for a time. He couldn't deny that it had been a struggle for the Coordinators, ever since the first of them, George Glenn, had revealed their existence to the world. The creation of new Coordinators had been banned more than over the course of over five decades; it was, at that very moment, banned by the Torino Protocol… though that ban was given little credence anywhere save the PLANT sponsor nations.

The first break for Coordinators had been when Glenn was allowed to begin examination and detailed analysis of Evidence 01; that investigation had led to the construction of the PLANTs, which had long since become a haven for Coordinators… and the primary champions of their rights. It was there that the Zodiac Alliance had formed.

And it would be here that the Zodiac Alliance's successor would make its stand, for the future of the PLANTs, and all Coordinators.

"It's a heavy burden we bear, yes," Zala said at length. "But you and I both knew it would be from the moment we started down this path… just as we both knew it would eventually lead to open conflict, if the Naturals continued to be obstinate." He glanced sidelong at his old friend. "If you'd known the struggle would be this difficult, Siegel… would you have chosen otherwise?"

Clyne sighed. "…No," he admitted. "I wouldn't have. You're right, I did know it would eventually come to this, and I thought I was prepared for it. But…" He turned to face Zala fully. "Tell me honestly, Patrick: can we face an Earth fleet and win?"

Zala nodded decisively. "Yes," he said firmly. "Our forces are, admittedly, devoid of actual combat experience, but they've been through the most rigorous and realistic exercises we could devise. And don't forget our mobile suits, Siegel. The sponsor nations are, of course, aware of the civilian applications of mobile suit technology, but they've never even contemplated their use as weapons of war. The first time their mobile armors run into one of our GINN teams, the Naturals will be torn to pieces."

"May this be our only conflict with them," Clyne said fervently, shaking his head. "I'm glad to hear that, Patrick, for our sakes… but I wish it didn't have to be this way."

"They chose this course," Zala reminded him, "not us. All we can do is take control of our own destinies."

"Yes… yes, you're right." It was an admission Clyne didn't particularly like making, but as Zala had pointed out, he'd known for a long time that this, or something like it, was inevitable. When the sponsor nations were so relentless in their demands, in their refusal to permit the colonies any kind of autonomy, the Revolution became inevitable.

I only hope we can minimize the bloodshed, he thought grimly. So many youngsters have joined ZAFT in preparation for this… and so many of them are likely to sacrifice their lives, if this conflict drags on. We must settle this before it reaches the heights I fear it may…

"It's a good thing I called Athrun back from Copernicus last year," Zala mused, oblivious to his friend's worries. "I wouldn't care to have him in Earth-dominated territory at a time like-"

Pounding footsteps interrupted him, coming from behind them. "Chairman Clyne!" a breathless voice called. "Committee Chairman Zala!"

They both turned, to see a man in the dark gray of ZAFT's staff officers and ship captains running toward them, tension obvious in face and manner. "What's the matter, Mister…?"

"Ades, Your Excellency," the man said in answer to Clyne's question, only then remembering to salute. "Fredrik Ades. I'm with Homeland Defense Command. Sir, we've just received urgent word from the Ziegler, stationed out beyond the Jachin resource satellite." He swallowed. "Your Excellency… they report that the convoy carrying the latest supply shipment from Oceania has been attacked and destroyed by mobile armors from the Atlantic Federation's Fourth Fleet."

Clyne jerked in shock. "They've what?!" At first, he simply couldn't believe his ears. After Mandelbrot, they would still dare…? This is beyond what we'd counted on…

"Those bastards!" Zala exploded, clenching a fist. "Mandelbrot all over again… This is confirmed, Ades?"

"Yes, Sir," Ades replied, with a jerky nod. "We received confirmation from Oceania fifteen minutes ago." He hesitated. "Sir… they also report that another convoy is in the path of the Fourth Fleet, and will be in range of attack in six hours."

"This has gone too far, Patrick," Clyne said quietly, closing his eyes. "A blockade we anticipated, but a repeat of the Mandelbrot Incident…"

Zala nodded sharply. "I know. The convoy they destroyed was carrying spare parts, but the next has a large shipment of food. If we lose that…" He forced his hand to relax. "Ades. Return to Defense Command, and tell them to put out the order: all teams within range are to converge on Fourth Fleet immediately. That shipment must be protected, by any means necessary."

"Agreed," Clyne said quickly. "Go."

"At once, Your Excellency!" Ades snapped off a crisp salute any drill sergeant would've been proud of, then turned on his heel and charged off again.

"It's begun," Clyne said in a low voice, after the officer had left. "The die is cast… now all we can do is pray that our forces really are ready."

"We'll find out in another six hours," Zala noted grimly. "I have to admit, Siegel, that you're not the only one who's nervous now." Then he smiled thinly, an expression devoid of humor. "At the least, we'll give the Naturals a surprise they'll never forget…"

Hawking, Briefing Room
"All pilots, drop what you're doing and report for mission briefing immediately! Repeat, all pilots report for mission briefing immediately! This is not a drill!"

Lacan's sharp PA announcement had Falcon moving for the briefing room before he even realized he was doing, and it wasn't until he entered that he realized he was still wearing his trench coat instead of his red uniform coat, with his katana tied to his belt.

Having been off-duty himself, Nick entered a moment behind him, no wearing any coat at all over his blue t-shirt; he was also disheveled, having been woken from a sound sleep by the abrupt alert.

Natalie and Rau followed after within seconds; of them, Natalie was still fastening her coat… while Rau, alone of the younger pilots, was immaculate, his uniform looking as though he'd had several minutes to put it on.

This fact did not go unnoticed by Nick, who muttered, "Showoff," before turning his attention to Lacan.

For his part, Lacan took little notice of his pilots' condition. He merely looked them over briefly, remarked "Nice coat," to Falcon, and tapped the controls for the display table. "We've got a situation, people," he said, without further preamble. "One more serious than we expected."

"What've we got, Rick?" Natalie asked, voice flat. "Considering Nick here was getting his beauty sleep when you dragged him out of the sack, I'm guessing 'more serious' is putting it mildly."

"With all due respect to Nick's sleep, you're right," Lacan replied calmly. "And Nick, you got it easy: I was in the shower when word came in." He tossed his head irritably. "But that's irrelevant right now. What matters is this: half an hour ago, Command received word that a convoy from Oceania carrying spare parts for the PLANTs' environmental systems was attacked and destroyed by the Atlantic Federation's Fourth Fleet."

Even the reserved Rau reacted to that, visibly stiffening, his eyes wide with surprise. "They've what?"

"Bastards!" Falcon hissed, one hand unconsciously going to Griever's hilt. "First Mandelbrot, and now this? Don't they learn from their mistakes?!"

"Stay frosty, Falcon," Natalie advised, retaining more composure than her younger colleague. "Rick, just how much damage does this do to us?"

Lacan shrugged. "I don't know for sure. Probably not much, at least not immediately; they'll be able to keep the PLANTs' environmental plants going long enough for more spares to arrive, I'm sure… but that's not our business, and beside the point. What is the point is that Oceania has informed us –and outlying sensor stations confirm- that their latest food convoy is directly in the path of the Fourth Fleet."

Silence fell over the group. They'd all expected some sort of intimidation maneuvers on the part of the sponsor nations, of course; and only days before, they'd actively looked forward to the possibility… but that had been based on different assumptions. A blockade was no surprise… but the actual destruction of another convoy was something completely different.

And the threat to the vulnerable food supply of the PLANTs was a very grave one indeed.

"The Fourth Fleet is clearly intending to institute a blockade against the PLANTs," Lacan said, after letting his news sink in. "They're beginning by destroying these two convoys, and afterwards they won't let supply ships anywhere near us. I don't believe I need to explain to you all the consequences of that."

"No, Sir," Rau said quietly, speaking for them all. "No, I don't believe you do, either. Considering that Chairman Clyne only just made his announcement a few days ago, we're nowhere near able to withstand a blockade as of yet."

"Tell me about it," Nick whispered, now fully awake. "We'd be starving within weeks…"

"So what's the plan, Rick?" Natalie asked quietly, gazing down at the space map on the display. "This is what we've been training for, isn't it?"

Lacan nodded sharply. "This blockade cannot be allowed to stand," he said flatly. "The PLANTs are not yet completely self-sufficient; the shipments of supplies from Oceania must come through. Fortunately," he went on, some of the tightness in his expression easing, "the Atlantic Federation mobile armors will be no match for our GINNs… and they have no idea we're coming." He turned his gaze to the team's youngest member. "Falcon, I'll be counting on you to make the most of that surprise for us."

Natalie wasn't surprised; what did surprise her was that, while Nick appeared quite as clueless as his young comrade, Rau simply nodded, as though he, too, had expected the seemingly out of the blue statement.

Whereas Falcon… he looked as though someone had just hit him over the head with a hammer.

Natalie could've been forgiven for getting that impression, for that was exactly how Falcon felt. He'd noticed something peculiar about the way Lacan had handled exercises, but this… The young pilot had never anticipated anything of the sort, and was none too sure he'd even heard correctly.

"…Excuse me, Commander?" he managed, when he'd found his voice again. "I don't under… I mean, why would you be counting on me, Sir? I… I'm just a rookie pilot…"

Lacan snorted. "Falcon, you are not 'just' anything. I've known that since the day you first boarded this ship. I make it a practice to check the records of every person who serves under my command, and I found yours to be most interesting. Not every fourteen-year-old designs starship engines, for one thing."

"But that was a purely civilian design," Falcon protested, "and furthermore, I don't see how my engineering talents apply to-"

"Moreover," the commander continued, overwhelming Falcon's protests through sheer implacability, "your record at the Academy was exemplary, exceeding all but one of your classmates in sheer tactical and strategic flexibility, as well as exceeding all but that same pilot in terms of raw flying potential."

Natalie stifled a laugh as Falcon, by now thoroughly bewildered, began, "But, Sir, that was just in training; on the real battlefield, even someone who performed well in the classroom could-"

"And finally," Lacan said calmly, once again shutting down Falcon's protests, "I've watched you myself since you joined this team, Falcon. Leaving aside your sometimes irritating skill at chess, you've shown yourself in live exercises to be both quick-witted and a dangerously effective pilot. You have demonstrated to my satisfaction that your classroom performance carries over onto the battlefield… and therefore, Falcon, you will present to me your own conclusions regarding this situation, and your recommendations as to our plan of attack. As this is your first true battle, I don't expect miracles, and I'm sure you understand that not all your recommendations will be carried out; nonetheless, I believe your input has serious merit, and therefore I will have the benefit of it." His eyes met Falcon's, his gaze uncompromising. "Do I make myself clear, Falcon?"

Falcon drew himself to attention. "Perfectly, Commander."

"Good." Lacan relaxed his gimlet stare then, and gestured at the display table. "Now, you –and Rau, as well- should take a look at the balance of forces and predicted course of the Fourth Fleet. I need your joint conclusions in one hour, gentlemen."

"Understood, Sir," the two pilots said simultaneously, and promptly bent to their task.

As they did so, Lacan shared an amused glance with Natalie, who was once again stifling laughter. It's interesting, she thought to herself, how well he just manipulated the poor fellow… if a sledgehammer can be considered manipulation, anyway. She snorted inwardly. And what's even more interesting is that he neglected to mention the small matter that Rau is the one who equaled Falcon's score…

Turning away, Lacan's second in command unconsciously echoed Roy Ames' statement from a year earlier, muttering to herself, "What is it with this team and blonde overachievers…?"

Lagrange Point 5, Atlantic Federation Fourth Fleet, Agamemnon-class Battleship Erwin Rommel, Hangar
"So," Captain Lewis C. Halberton, Wing Commander aboard the Rommel, whispered to himself, "It's begun… The grim fate I predicted to him, nine months ago…"

Fully suited up and sitting in the cockpit of a TS-MA2 Möbius mobile armor, Halberton was now awaiting only orders to launch. Vice Admiral Chernock had indicated that it wouldn't be long now before they began combat operations against the Oceania convoy… which meant it was almost certainly soon to be time for Halberton to encounter his friend again.

He was virtually positive that Falcon was on one of the ships even now racing to intercept Fourth Fleet. His words when they last met had shown that the youth was utterly dedicated to his cause, and that meant he was certain to be on the frontlines.

Even if I have no idea what his actual job is, Halberton reflected. I got the distinct impression that he and Matt were both pilots, along with old Sparky, but pilots of what? Some new mobile armor ZAFT has constructed?

He shook his head. What his friend was flying was irrelevant; the simple fact was that the choices they'd made had put them on opposite sides, which meant Halberton's grim prediction was coming true… and it didn't help that he himself felt uneasy about their very mission. Certainly he agreed with the necessity of the blockade –whatever he might've thought about the restrictions on the PLANTs, he felt it was better to keep them reasonably under control, lest chaos erupt- but attacking a convoy…

"Ours not to reason why," Halberton whispered, "ours not to make reply… ours but to do and die…" He had made his decision long since, of course. It had been apparent for decades that open war could all too easily erupt between Earth and the PLANTs, sooner or later; he'd joined the Atlantic Federation Navy in full knowledge of the possibility, and he'd never regretted it.

Even now, he would do as his duty dictated. Every soldier did things they would have vastly preferred not to… and even Halberton had to admit to himself that, had war already been declared, he would've attacked the convoy without any hesitation at all. As ever, commerce raiding remained an effective tactic on the battlefield.

Be honest,Lewis, he told himself. The real reason you're so conflicted is because you know exactly who will be on the frontlines out there… and even he would expected you to do your duty. Duty is his creed, as much a part of him as Griever…

Shaking his head at his own misgivings, Halberton slid his visor into place, completely sealing his flightsuit against vacuum, and began his preflight checklist. All he awaited now was the order to launch.

Rommel, Bridge
"Target will be range in five minutes, Admiral," Lieutenant Will Saunders reported, from fire control. "Convoy continuing on projected course."

"Not much else they can do," Vice Admiral Les Chernock mused from the captain's chair (having ended up acting as his own flag captain for this cruise). "They're probably hoping we'll just let them surrender… which, under other circumstances, we might. Unfortunately…"

He didn't have to finish the sentence. His officers were all experienced people, who had served under him for some time now; they knew as well as he did that attempting to take the convoy into custody would risk hanging around long enough for the PLANTs to mount some kind of rescue attempt. While unlikely to succeed, the attempt would still doubtless inflict casualties on the Fourth Fleet in the process, and that was a risk none of them wanted to take.

Besides, as was typical for the soldiers of the sponsor nations, not many of them had much sympathy for the PLANTs to begin with.

"On profile, Admiral," Commander Charlie Anders noted from CIC. "Nothing unexpected so far; if this keeps up, we should be in and out in under ten minutes."

Chernock smiled. "Glad to hear it, Charlie. Once we deal with this convoy, we can maintain the blockade from a much safer distance; I don't care to spend any more time in the immediate vicinity of the PLANTs than is absolutely necessary."

"No argument here, Sir," Anders said fervently.

Leaning back in his chair, Chernock allowed himself to relax. A mere supply convoy wasn't anything to get excited about; his mobile armor squadrons would doubtless eat them for breakfast, then return home so quickly he need not get himself very deeply involved in the affair at all.

Rommel's Möbius units alone would probably be sufficient, Chernock reflected. The only reason to bring the entire Fourth Fleet here is because a single Agamemnon isn't enough to cover the entire sphere of the blockade; there's certainly no need for them all for this attack. But, I suppose, it would be a bad habit to start ignoring SOP, even for something as simple as-

"Status change!" Lieutenant Commander John Wilder called, from CIC's sensor station. "A dozen bogeys incoming from beyond the convoy!" He tapped furiously at his console for several moments, then swore. "Admiral, we have a catalogue match with ZAFT's frigates!"

"So they did decide to join the party," Chernock murmured, bringing up the data on his right armrest screen. "Well, this certainly makes things more interesting… and if I'm not mistaken, they're opening their hangars." He glanced over at Anders. "Charlie?"

"Ordinarily, I'd think a dozen wouldn't be much of a problem," Anders said promptly, frowning deeply in thought. "Not pitting their weapons against the entire Fourth Fleet. But if those really are carriers, as well, then they represent some pretty serious force multipliers."

"My own thoughts exactly, Commander Anders." The admiral's gaze snapped to Lieutenant Rebecca Higgins, at flight control. "Lieutenant Higgins, instruct Captain Halberton to deploy his mobile armors at once; and pass the word for the rest of the Fleet to do the same."

"Right away, Admiral," she replied, and raised one hand to her headset. "Captain Halberton, you are cleared to launch immediately. Enemy vessels are twelve ZAFT frigates, possibly accompanied by mobile armors."

"Roger that," Halberton answered. "Saber Squadron, launching."

Visible out the forward viewports, Möbius mobile armors began streaking out of the forward launch deck, and Higgins turned her attention to her other instructions. "All Fourth Fleet ships, this is the Rommel. Deploy all mobile armors immediately. Current objective: incoming ZAFT warships and any attendant mobile armors…"

Hawking, Hangar
Kenneth DiFalco, better known as the Falcon, sat in the cockpit of his ZGMF-1017 GINN with a feeling akin to apprehension. Though eager to enter true battle for the first time, he was also undeniably nervous; he knew as well as anyone that there was a great deal of difference between practice and live fire.

I've killed before, he thought to himself, forcing his hands to relax their death grip on his flight sticks, but they were thugs, not military men, and the skills I used were those cultivated over nearly a decade of training. I've only been a pilot for a year now… and this time I'm facing trained, experienced soldiers.

The burden Lacan had placed on him and Rau didn't help much; knowing that part of their battle plan had been born from his own suggestions wasn't calculated to ease his fear of the responsibility they had to save the convoy… his fear of failing at that task.

Like any pilot from the earliest days of military aircraft to the present, Falcon feared failure even more than he feared death.

Yet, as adrenaline began to flow through his veins, Falcon acknowledged that he also felt exhilarated, eager even, as he prepared for his first battle. He had discovered, over the course of his training, that he truly loved flying; as befitted his nickname, he was a being who felt most at home in the skies, be they the blue of Earth or the endless black of space. This, combined with his long study of the sword, left him a young man more at home in flight than on foot… and eager to discover if his skill with the blade was truly as well-honed as he believed.

So, he thought, with a trace of wry humor, I'm scared out of my wits… and at the same time eager to test my mettle in true battle.

Taking a deep breath, Falcon murmured, "I am the bone of my sword… steel is my body, and fire is my blood…"

Before he could say more, his radio crackled. "This is Lacan," his commander called, from the GINN standing closest to the now-open hatch. "We're in range of Fourth Fleet… and they've begun launching mobile armors. Fortunately, they appear to be ignoring the convoy for now; I guess we're a more pressing target." On Falcon's screen, he smiled tightly. "This is it, people, the moment of truth. We're launching immediately… so don't let me down." His GINN –alone of them all, painted in standard green- stepped forward, entering the catapult area, umbilical still attached. "Bridge, this is Lacan. I'm heading out."

The linear catapult spat him out a moment later, his GINN streaking out as the first mobile suit ever launched in a combat operation; visible now beyond the hatch were other GINNs, launching from the other eleven Laurasias.

The glimpse vanished a moment later, as Natalie Hollis' electric violet GINN stepped into place. "Natalie Hollis, launching!" she announced, and leapt out into the vastness.

Nick Drallig's GINN, painted black shot through with crimson lightning bolts –as befitted a man who called himself "The Crimson Lightning"- was next… and unlike Lacan or Natalie, he was clearly enjoying himself immensely. "Nick the Crimson Lightning, launching!"

"Well," Rau Le Creuset murmured to Falcon in a wry tone, as Nick departed, "at least he'll get their attention…"

Falcon couldn't help but smile himself, despite their usually chill relationship. "I'll say. Compared to him, even you and Natalie have sedate schemes."

"Indeed." With the catapult vacated once more, Rau's pure white GINN stepped into the gap. "Rau Le Creuset, launching!"

As he, too, leapt into the void, it was Falcon's turn at last, and he took another deep breath as he guided his own, slate-gray GINN into position. Find the center, a corner of his mind whispered, remembering Sasaki Kojiro's teachings. Remain calm… use your fear to sharpen your reflexes and your mind, rather than allowing it to control you… and when your blade cleaves, her strike will be true.

Kenneth "Falcon" DiFalco, soldier of ZAFT, gripped his control sticks more tightly, fixed his gaze on the enemy ships ahead, and announced, "Falcon DiFalco, launching!"

Author's note:
Before the G-weapon project, before the fateful launching of the Mobile Assault Ship Archangel, before even the Battle of Endymion and the Bloody Valentine, the first soldiers of ZAFT, piloting the first mobile suits, took their first steps onto the battlefield, at the beginning of a new era of warfare. In the blockade that led up to the First Bloody Valentine War, these first pilots fought the true first battles of the conflict, and many of those who participated would go on to be legends of the greatest conflict in the history of mankind…

Now they stand at the beginning of it all, fighting against a mere blockade… but Fate has much more in store for these soldiers of ZAFT… particularly Kenneth DiFalco. Before the Bloody Valentine, before Endymion, and before GENESIS forced him into desertion, he was a Soldier of ZAFT…

And now, readers, reviewers, and comrades, you see the secret project I've been hinting at for the last month. Nearly three months in the making, the prequel to Birds of a Feather has arrived, detailing Ken's history before he joined the fight at Heliopolis… and showing exactly how he came to be what he was at that time.

First off, a few things I should explain. To begin with, no, this isn't detracting from the next chapter of A Call to Arms; I've been working on them more or less concurrently, and the lateness of said chapter is due more to my having a touch of writer's block with it than to this story's existence.

Second, I realize there are a number of time jumps in this chapter; unfortunately, there wasn't really much I could do about that, as there wasn't anything of significance going on between certain scenes. The timeline should settle down from here on out, however, with only one more major jump.

Third, yes, I know Ken's graduation photo –mentioned in Chapter 2 of Birds of a Feather- shows him to have already dyed his hair by this point; however, I'm probably going to have to find a way to fix that within Birds of a Feather itself, as I've new ideas regarding why he dyed his hair in the first place, which will be explained within Soldier of ZAFT.

Fourth, this story won't be updated quite as frequently as A Call to Arms or Cry of the Falcon; those two do take precedence, under the circumstances. However, I'll do my best to keep Soldier of ZAFT going reasonably smoothly.

All that said, I hope you all enjoy this look into Ken's history –and that of several other characters, including at least one cameo by Murrue Ramius- and I'd like to know what you all think of it. –Solid Shark