I own nothing save my own characters and machines.

Cassandra Joule is the creation of Artificial Life Creator.

Samorei Joule and Keinn Legwitz are the creation of NukeDawg. The Black Knights idea is also his, and is used with permission.

ZAFT prototype warship Minerva, hangar

Shinn Asuka reflexively braced to attention as two Gundam-type mobile suits floated almost gracefully into the hangar. One, the golden ORB-01 Akatsuki, belonged to Chief Representative Athha's daughter, Cagalli. The other, the silver ZGMF-X14A Anubis, was assigned to ZAFT's second highest ace, Alex Strassmeier, Shinn's Academy mentor.

The two machines moved to holding racks, opposite Mu La Flaga's GAT-X105 Strike. Both hatches opened, and the two young pilots pushed off.

Shinn saluted. "Welcome aboard," he said.

Alex and Cagalli returned the salute. "Thank you," Alex said, then clasped the younger man's hand. "How are things, Shinn?"

"Pretty quiet, Alex, though there've been rumors of Earth Forces activity lately." Shinn still felt strange at being on a first name basis with the Spider of Artemis, but the sensation was gradually diminishing. "Not to mention those blasted pirates," he added with a scowl.

"I hear that," Alex agreed. "Andrea's team just wiped out a bunch in the ruins of Heliopolis a couple days ago. They were using GuAIZ Rs."

Shinn blinked in surprise. "GuAIZ Rs?" he repeated.

"At least a dozen," Cagalli confirmed. "None of them lasted very long -Andrea has a Gundam, and her team has some of the new ZAKU Phantoms- but it's still not a good sign."

"No, it isn't." Shinn muttered a curse. "And we're supposed to have a big, public launch ceremony tomorrow."

Alex nodded. "That's why we're here," he said. "No slight on your skills, Shinn, but you're still green, as are most of your teammates. In light of that, Chairman Clyne and Chief Representative Athha agreed that some extra firepower is in order."

Shinn snorted. "I'm not complaining. We might be out of the way," the PLANT known as Armory One was at the L4 point, "but this sort of thing is a big fat target."

"We're going to be meeting with Chairman Clyne and Athrun to discuss security arrangements," Cagalli said.

"Right," Shinn said. "Anything else?"

Alex grimaced. "You may find yourself fighting Mu's cousin Jean-Pierre," he said sourly. "He just graduated from the Atlantic Federation's naval academy, and while he doesn't have the sort of powers the Mu and I have, he's still one hot pilot from what we've heard."

The younger pilot winced. "I'll remember that, Alex, thanks." Something in his mentor's expression caught his eye. "Alex?"

Alex shook himself. "Sorry. I'm concerned, that's all." He sighed. "I don't know if you were aware of it, but I opposed the Impulse design. It has a large number of structural integrity issues because of its modular design."

"I've been piloting it for a month. Do you think it'll fail a real combat test?" Shinn asked.

"Normally I'd say yes," Alex responded. "However, I am confident that your skill will offset the frame's weakness." He gripped Shinn's shoulder. "Just be careful out there."

Shinn smiled. "I will."

Alex nodded, and he and Cagalli moved for the hangar exit.

Shinn climbed into the Core Splendor module, the central part of the Impulse Gundam. After Alex's warning, he wanted to make sure everything was in perfect working order. The problem was, he was far from the only rookie onboard; of the ship's permanent crew, only the captain, Talia Gladys, had any real experience.

To be sure, they had the temporary assistance of some highly skilled pilots. Mu of course was already onboard, and no less a famous machine than Athrun Zala's ZGMF-X09A Justice had been loaded that very morning. Nevertheless, Shinn was acutely aware that he and his teammates carried the real burden.

Fine. If it's up to us, then we'll do it.

Earth Forces Archangel-class warship Seraphim, pilots' ready room

Lieutenant (senior grade) Jean-Pierre La Flaga hated his current assignment. Not that he objected to an opportunity to hit ZAFT, or to track down his traitorous relative. Rather, he deeply loathed two of his current associates, Commander Xavier Hunter, his commanding officer, and Ensign Gustav Krieger, a Eurasian with the air of a mad scientist.

I don't know which of them is worse, he thought, carefully hiding a sneer. Commander Hunter, who wouldn't know an emotion if it bit him, or that psychopath Krieger. Anyone who admires someone like Mengele…

Gustav Krieger, who hailed from the German city of Stuttgart, was known as a pseudo-Neo Nazi. His personal role model, as far as that went, was the infamous Joseph Mengele, possibly the most evil "doctor" who ever lived.

Even Roanoke hates him. Jean-Pierre snorted softly. Probably because the bastard treats the Extendeds like toys. That was something he could never understand. Though he himself had something of a sadistic streak, Jean-Pierre believed in treating fellow soldiers as fellow soldiers, barring something extraordinarily loathsome (like Krieger's madness). The whole "biological CPU" concept had always disgusted him.

Not that Neo Roanoke was any better, he reflected. The mysterious leader of the Phantom Pain unit had turned up seemingly out of nowhere earlier in the year. Almost oppressively competent, he was one of the few who could manage the new TS-MA4 Exus mobile armor without an AI to back him up. Like the late, unlamented Rau Le Creuset, he wore a mask that concealed his features, though his was closer to a full helmet. Jean-Pierre considered the man a menace to society.

The ready room hatch slid open, and Gustav Krieger stepped in. Jean-Pierre stifled a grimace; though he and the German pilot looked somewhat alike, blonde, blue-eyed, and close in height, they were very different in disposition. It was a difference Jean-Pierre La Flaga was very careful to emphasize.

"So," the Canadian pilot said. "What brings the Mad Scientist here?"

Krieger ignored the jibe. "There will be increased security at Armory One," he said, his thick German accent somehow thicker than usual. "The Spider of Artemis is there in person."

Jean-Pierre rolled his eyes. "He is a top-ranking member of their FAITH organization," he pointed out. "His presence there is hardly unexpected."

"Perhaps, but it does not bode well for us," Krieger said. "He is well known as a security expert; with him personally involved, it is highly possible that the Extendeds will fail to infiltrate the facility."

"If they're as good as you've been claiming for months, I don't think there will be a problem," Jean-Pierre said, not bothering to hide his distaste for the other. "All they have to do is find and capture the Second Stage machines. No different from what the Le Creuset team did at Heliopolis."

Another pilot grunted. "And we've got better support than they did," Zebulon Markham said. The black-haired, brown-eyed pilot of their fastest mobile suit leaned back in his chair. "They had two ships and a few GINNs; we have two ships, six G-weapons, a bunch of Dagger Ls, and an Exus."

Jean-Pierre raised his glass in salute. "Exactly, Zebulon, thank you." He turned back to Krieger. "You're worrying too much, Krieger. The Extendeds are more than capable of carrying out the mission. Even Alex Strassmeier can only be at one place at one time."

"Yes," Krieger conceded. "A pity his sister is nowhere near."

So that you could have another toy to play with. Fool. Jean-Pierre cared nothing for genetic differences; any Coordinator who would be loyal to the Atlantic Federation was welcome as far as he was concerned. People like Krieger made him physically ill.

Zebulon agreed. "Come on, Krieger, that whole project was crazy. All it did was give us a bunch of Coordinators who hate us even more than most of them do."

Krieger, predictably, was unimpressed. No surprise; his Nazi impulses weren't the only reason the majority of his comrades loathed him. He was known to attack civilians more or less indiscriminately, and destroy escape pods from warships.

He's not a soldier, he's a thug. Not a mindless one, unfortunately. Jean-Pierre La Flaga considered it a point of honor to never attack civilians (except for political leaders and merchant ships, both of which were legitimate targets) or escape pods. He viewed such tactics as the height of cowardice.

"Zebulon's right," Ensign Terrence Starr said. The mysterious pilot of the GAT-X150 Terra Gundam looked up from a book he'd been reading. An orphan, Starr knew nothing about his origins save for the fact that he was a Natural, and he blamed Coordinators for that lack. "We should just kill them and be done with it," he went on, running a hand through his brown hair.

"I'm with Terry," an Irish voice put in. Morton Callahan, pilot of GAT-X135 Catastrophe, took a sip of water. "Destroy, or be destroyed, simple as that."

Jean-Pierre shook his head at Krieger's expression. Personally, he largely agreed with Starr and Callahan, if only because he disliked Krieger. He was also very grateful that Krieger had been assigned the Forbidden-based GAT-X163 Verboten, instead of an artillery support machine like the Catastrophe. Jean-Pierre piloted the new GAT-X121 Rapier, based on the Duel's design. Zebulon's GAT-X371 Corsair was a development of the Raider, while Starr's Terra was descended from the Strike.

"Look, Krieger, when you get down to it it's up to Lord Djibril," Zebulon said.

His words had their intended effect. Krieger straightened, nodding sharply. "Yes, of course."

Jean-Pierre stifled a groan. That was another thing he hated about his current post; he had no use for Blue Cosmos, whatever his cousin thought. Having to answer directly to one of their flunkies was almost more than he could stand.

Almost, but not quite, he thought grimly. If that's what it takes to get to Mu, so be it.

Armory One spaceport

Alex Strassmeier exited the shuttle and smiled, seeing who had come to greet them. "Nice to see you, Athrun," he said, saluting.

Athrun Zala waved the salute away. "No formalities with us, Alex," he said, then nodded at the shuttle's other occupant. "Hi, Cagalli."

"Hi yourself, Athrun," Cagalli responded, giving him a brief but fierce hug; he was as much a brother to her as Kira was, and she made sure he knew it. "How have you been?"

"Busy, what with all the preparations." Athrun gestured to a waiting jeep. "I know it's not much, but you two have never cared about luxury travel anyway."

Alex idly observed the surroundings as they moved. Since there was a ceremony scheduled for the following day, there was a fair number of the otherwise-useless ceremonial-type GINNs present, along with the more modern ZAKUs and a couple of Orb M1S Astray Strikes. A few DINNs were visible in the near distance, and at least one ZAKU Phantom.

"This is like a giant hornet's nest," Cagalli commented, waving at another jeep. Two of the passengers, Lunamaria Hawke and the ever-so-demented Keinn Legwitz, waved back.

Athrun shrugged. "Tomorrow's going to be big and flashy. Not to mention we need additional security, what with the pirate attacks, and the Earth Forces getting testy again."

"Tell me about it," Cagalli said sourly. "I sat in on a meeting between my father and the Atlantic Federation's ambassador early last month. The guy looked like he was about to burst a blood vessel."

Alex snorted. "They still haven't gotten over the Equatorial Union and the Kingdom of Scandinavia breaking away from the Alliance at the end of the war, and the loss of South America didn't help matters." There was a touch of pride in his voice; he'd been involved in the orbital drop ZAFT had staged in support of the South American freedom fighters. The Earth Forces hadn't enjoyed the experience.

Unbeknownst to him, however, his usual powers of observation had failed him. Otherwise, he might have realized that a nearby trio of teenagers were not the mere civilians they appeared to be.

"Man, of all the things we don't need," Sting Oakley grumbled. "Silver Death, here at Armory One. What else could go wrong?"

"Kira Yamato turning up?" Auel Neider suggested sardonically. "Seriously, Sting, he's just one guy, even if he is hot stuff in a mobile suit."

Stellar Loussier made no comment at first. "His presence isn't a surprise," she said at last. "He's FAITH."

"Stellar's right," Auel said. "The guy's FAITH's number three, of course he'd be here."

A jeep pulled up, bearing a couple of ZAFT greens. They displayed no surprise at the three teenagers. For that matter, the teens in question weren't surprised to see them. In fact, they'd counted on it, for the two in green uniforms weren't ZAFT soldiers at all.

"Right on schedule," the senior of them said. "Any problems?"

Sting shook his head. "We got in just fine. What's Strassmeier doing here, anyway?"

"Something about security for the ceremony tomorrow," the other said. He gestured for the teens to climb in. "We have to move now."

After a short drive, they came to a halt near Mobile Suit Hangar Six. "More than enough weapons for you over there," the second man said, nodding at a duffel bag. "Should be enough."

Sting unfastened the bag and pulled out a pair of machine pistols, three grenades, and a pair of combat knives. Keeping one of the pistols for himself, he handed the other to Auel, gave each of his companions a grenade, and tossed the knives to Stellar.

"It'll be enough," he said. "Let's go."

Siegel Clyne's office

Unlike most ZAFT soldiers, Alex was quite comfortable in the Chairman's presence. It came from a combination of factors; his marriage to the daughter of another politician, his FAITH membership, which put him in frequent contact with Clyne, and his friendship with the Chairman's daughter and son-in-law.

"Welcome, both of you," Siegel said. "Is Lacus well?"

Lacus Zala (nee Clyne) had departed for Orb on a concert tour a week previously. "She's fine," Alex said, sitting at the Chairman's gesture. "Staying with the Yamatos, if I recall correctly."

Siegel nodded. Since Kira and Athrun were brothers in all but blood, and Lacus was close to Flay as well, it was a logical place for her to stay while in Orb. "You know why I asked you here," he said.

"Too well," Alex said. "Word is the Seraphim is patrolling L4. That's not good news, when you add in the pirate raids." The Seraphim was the only Alliance Archangel-class ship to survive Jachin Due, Dominion and Cherubim having been destroyed by Yzak and Samorei Joule. "What's the schedule?"

"Minerva will be launching tomorrow," Siegel told him. "Four of the Second Stage units are ready; the Savior has run into some development problems, so its deployment will be delayed."

Alex grunted. "I was opposed to the Impulse's design from the beginning, but Shinn's raw skill should go a long way to offsetting its flaws. He's far and away my best student."

"Indeed." Siegel sighed. "Athrun has already heard this, but the two of you should as well. The Earth Alliance is becoming increasingly belligerent."

Cagalli snorted. "Tell us something we don't know," she said.

"Yes, but you may not be aware of the extent of it." Siegel grimaced. "According to recent intelligence reports, there is a growing movement within the Earth Alliance member states, particularly the Atlantic Federation, to reestablish Earth control over the PLANTs."

Alex muttered a vicious curse. "If that movement has any traction at all, it means that they think they have the muscle to back it up."

"Exactly," Siegel agreed. "Which is why tomorrow's launch must proceed smoothly, and why the Seraphim's presence is especially worrisome."

Alex grimaced. "Even with our current Gundam strength, they could give us a fight. They don't assign just anyone to Archangel-class ships, those three lunatic Gundam pilots notwithstanding. Something's up, and I guarantee we won't like it."

Cagalli raised her eyebrows. "Are you sure you're not overreacting just a bit, Alex?" she asked. "We've got at least three nuclear mobile suits here, plus Mu and Nicol."

"Cagalli, do you really think it's a coincidence that the last Alliance Archangel is in the area?" Athrun countered. "They know something's about to happen here, even if they don't know exactly what."

"Precisely," Alex said. "The Earth Alliance is becoming progressively more fractious. Eurasia still hasn't recovered from Operation Spit Break, and both the Equatorial Union and the Kingdom of Scandinavia withdrew from the Alliance at the end of the war. Most likely, the Atlantic Federation -or their Blue Cosmos puppet masters- want to start a war that would force what remains of the Alliance to strengthen its internal ties."

He stood, and began to pace. "The Republic of East Asia and the South African Union will almost certainly remain with the Alliance; East Asia doesn't like Oceania very much, and the African Community and South African Union have long been economic rivals." He snorted. "At least this time we'll have the U.S.S.A. on our side."

"You think it will come to war?" Siegel said sharply.

"I think war is both inevitable and imminent," Alex said. "A month at the outside, very possibly days away."

A tremendous explosion cut off further conversation.

Outside Mobile Suit Hangar Six

One moment, things seemed perfectly normal. The next, a hail of gunfire erupted near the hangar, punctuated by at least three grenades. Several guards were felled by the trio of teenagers who appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

Minutes later, it had gotten even worse. With an ear-shattering roar, Mobile Suit Hangar Six exploded, revealing ZGMF-X24S Chaos, X31S Abyss, and X88S Gaia standing amidst the rubble.

"Let's go," Sting said from the Chaos's cockpit. "We have what we came for."

They weren't unopposed, of course. A number of ZAFT mobile suits tried to stop them, but were hopelessly outclassed. Several DINNs and a few of the ceremonial type GINNs attempted to intervene, but the Alliance pilots blew them away.

Clyne's office/Armory One interior

Alex picked himself up off the floor. "Or it could start right now," he said, wiping blood from his lip. He pressed a control on Siegel's desk. "This is Commander Strassmeier of FAITH. What in blazes is going on?"

"Mobile Suit Hangar Six has been destroyed, sir!" a harried voice said. "Chaos, Abyss, and Gaia have been stolen! The attackers are-" The transmission cut off with brutal suddenness.

Alex swore viciously and slammed a fist on the desk. "It's the Earth Forces. No pirate gang could pull this off."

"Agreed," Athrun said. "Alex, you and Cagalli get out of here. Head for the Minerva if possible. I'll see to Chairman Clyne's safety."

"Right." Alex took Cagalli's arm. "Let's go."

She reluctantly nodded. "Be careful, Athrun."

Alex drew his Luger as they moved, cursing in German under his breath. After months of predicting a new war, he was still astonished that it had started right under his nose. Granted the existence of Armory One wasn't exactly a secret -keeping something that huge secret was a physical impossibility- but it still had the highest security in space outside of ZAFT HQ.

"Why did we leave our machines in the Minerva's hangar?" Cagalli moaned.

"We had no way of knowing this was going to happen," Alex told her. "Right now, our priority is to find some transportation; I don't fancy remaining on foot when there are three stolen Gundams running around."

An opportunity presented itself within minutes. They had just skidded to a stop to avoid a close encounter with the Gaia when a ZAKU crashed to its knees almost directly in front of them.

"Beggars can't be choosers," Alex muttered. "Come on."

Though he had opposed the ZAKU design, Alex had made a point of familiarizing himself with the machine. Its design philosophy was similar to that of the Earth Forces' various Strike Dagger variants, save for the original version deployed at Panama. This one, unfortunately, had no Wizard pack equipped, so Alex was limited to an axe and some grenades.

Cagalli touched his shoulder. "You'll do fine," she said softly. "You were great in that M1at Orb."

"The M1 is a better design, weapon packs aside," Alex countered, gripping the joysticks. "I hate ZAKUs." He touched a control. "I suppose I should at least try a surrender demand; we're not officially at war, after all." The comm board lit. "Attention, unknown pilots. This is Commander Alex Strassmeier of FAITH. Power down your weapons and surrender."

He didn't expect a favorable response, and he was right. "Take this!" Auel snarled, firing his Callidus beam cannon.

Alex took the blast on his shield. "Not good." He switched frequencies. "Commander Strassmeier here. I'm in a ZAKU, and I've got all three stolen machines on me. I could use some backup."

Minerva, hangar/open space, outside Armory One

"Roger that, kid," Mu La Flaga said. "We've got problems of our own, but I think we can spare Shinn and a couple of ZAKUs." Mu switched to a link with the Core Splendor. "You get that?"

Shinn Asuka flipped him a jaunty salute. "Ready to go!"

"You go and help Alex. Keinn." Mu looked at the bright red MVF-M11C Murasame. "We're heading out into space."

"Yes, sir!" Keinn said smartly.

Mu felt the characteristic jolt of connection. "Strike, connected to catapult."

"Understood, Commander," Minerva's parasite operator, Meyrin Hawke, said. "Clear for launch."

What is it with prototype warships and teenage girls? Mu wondered, thinking of Miriallia Haw. "Mu La Flaga, launching!"

He felt better once in open space. Mu had never enjoyed the final moments just before launch; pilots were at their most vulnerable at that point. In space, he was in at least partial control of his own fate; he could avoid enemy fire, and respond in kind.

Meyrin spoke again. "Five mobile suits incoming, confirmed to be G-weapon variants. Mothership appears to be Archangel-class."

"That'll be the Seraphim," Mu said.

A new voice cut in. "Hello, Mu," it said, a definite note of scorn audible. "Long time no see."

Mu's eyes narrowed. "Jean-Pierre. Not long enough."

"Oh, but it's been too long," the other said. His machine was visible now; Mu saw a definite resemblance to the original form of Yzak's X102 Duel. "I've been wanting to make you pay ever since Alaska."

Mu cautiously brought up his rifle. If that thing was based on the Duel, then it was likely a melee unit, and he didn't want to fight it on its own ground. "Pay for what?"

"What else?" Jean-Pierre sounded surprised that Mu had to ask. "You betrayed the Atlantic Federation, and your own family."

"My own family?" Mu snorted derisively. "You're my only living blood relation, and you're nothing but a Blue Cosmos puppet."

"I am no one's puppet!" His cousin was sounding agitated now. "I fight for my people, something you appear to have forgotten!" The other machine's rifle came up. "Unlike you, I still have my honor!"

Mu shook his head. "Honor, he says," he muttered, then radioed Keinn. "Keinn, I'll handle this guy. The other G-machines are peeling off toward the defense forces; pursue and lend a hand."

"Roger roger." Keinn's Murasame shifted to mobile armor mode, waggled its wings, and sped off.

Jean-Pierre La Flaga laughed. "One on one, just as it should be. You're mine, Mu!"

"Think again, J.P.." The two machines began to close on each other.

Armory One interior

Most people would have described Alex's position as hopeless. He was faced with three stolen Gundams, all of which had highly skilled pilots, and he was in a ZGMF-1000 ZAKU with no Wizard pack equipped. To most, it was a classic no-win scenario.

Alex Strassmeier didn't believe in no-win scenarios.

His enemies may have been skilled, but they were also inexperienced. Alex took advantage of this, drawing his beam axe and lunging at the Gaia. Stellar took the blow on her shield and backpedaled, drawing a saber.

Alex dodged her initial slash. "Amateur," he said, arming a grenade. It wouldn't affect the VPS directly, be there was a chance of blinding the other machine's optics.

The gambit worked, but Alex was unable to press his advantage. Sting chose that moment to release his weapon pods, forcing Alex to dodge. "Not so fast, Spider!"

"My reputation precedes me, it seems." Alex aimed a kick at the Chaos while simultaneously deflecting another saber strike from the Gaia. "A pity it isn't enough to get these jokers to back off."

"If reputations won wars, the Earth Forces would have been fine with just Mu," Cagalli said. "Most Alliance pilots are afraid of you, but I'll bet these guys are made of sterner stuff."

"Probably true," Alex agreed.

Auel had his beam javelin out, attempting to impale Alex's ZAKU. The ZAFT pilot jumped, landing behind the Abyss with his axe raised. Auel barely dodged in time, making room for Stellar to unleash a barrage of laser fire that impacted on the ZAKU's shield.

"What's with this guy!?" Sting wondered in disbelief. "He's just in a ZAKU, but he won't quit! Is he even human!?"

"More human than you are, evidently," Alex said. "I was willing to pit a single ship and five mobile suits against all of ZAFT; three Earth Forces pilots in stolen ZAFT Gundams don't rate that much." He brandished his axe. "I fought against the Le Creuset team, the best ZAFT had to offer at the time. You're nothing compared to them."

Auel snorted. "There's one of you, and three of us, Spider. You think you can beat those odds with a ZAKU?"

"Time is on my side," Alex said coldly. "As we speak, our defense forces are mobilizing, and I'm not the only ace pilot here." He shifted his stance, shield in front and axe held to the side. "You have one last chance. Surrender."

"Not happening, Silver Death!" Sting's rifle came up, firing repeatedly.

Alex twisted and dodged, muttering imprecations under his breath. He was worried, not for his own safety, but for Cagalli's. There was no way to keep her out of the line of fire, and he knew it, but he would have preferred that she be in her own Gundam. I'd prefer that I be in my Gundam, too, but there's no help for it right now.

I really hate having my wife in this position, though.

Gaia and Abyss added their fire to the Chaos's, limiting the ZAKU's room to maneuver. Alex was able to take a few shots on his shield and dodge the rest, but he knew it was a losing proposition. Unless he was somehow able to seize the initiative, he was going down. This can't go on. They have more powerful weapons, plus the new VPS.

He took advantage of a brief lull to assess his opponents. "Those three are skilled, but also inexperienced," he told Cagalli, blue eyes narrowing. "Do you see it?"

She nodded. "The new Gundams are powerful, but the pilots aren't using their machines to the fullest. Definitely rookies."

"And rookie pilots make rookie mistakes," Alex said. "Unfortunately, there's a limit to how I can exploit that, given that I have only one weapon that can damage them at all."

"Aim low," Cagalli suggested. "You beat me that way at least twice when we were training."

Alex gave her a shark's grin. "You were better than these jokers, too. He goes."

The ZAKU made a diving lunge, swinging its axe at the Abyss's legs. Auel yelped in surprise, jumping backward just in time. Alex's second swing grazed the Gundam's left leg, and then the Abyss was clear. Releasing a smoke grenade to cover his movements, the FAITH operative shifted to the Chaos. Unfortunately, Sting was ready for him, firing all his ranged weapons at once.

Give them credit, they don't fall for the same trick twice. Unfortunately, I'm almost out of tricks. There's only so much I can do with a ZAKU.

The Alliance pilots seemed to realize that as well. They spread out, ensuring that Alex could only attack one of them at a time. A steady barrage of laser fire kept him from getting too close, and nibbled away at his armor with an occasional graze.

"This doesn't look good, Alex," Cagalli said worriedly. "Unless we get some help soon, it's over."

Alex grimaced. "I wish I could disagree with you. Sadly, I'm just about out of tricks, and they know it. We can only hope the defense forces get here in time."

For a long moment everything seemed frozen. Three Gundams facing a single beleaguered ZAKU, the two sides glaring at each other. The ZAKU itself was visibly scorched, while of the Gundams, only the Gaia was damaged, courtesy of Alex's grenade attack on its optics.

Auel laughed, breaking the spell. "The Spider of Artemis, caught in his own web!"

"Not for long!"

The Alliance pilots looked wildly around. "What was that!?" Sting demanded.

Alex and Cagalli looked at each other and grinned, the same thought flashing through both their minds. Shinn!

A small fighter swooped in, firing a salvo of missiles at the stolen Gundams. It then jettisoned the launchers, as a collection of unmanned flyers joined it. The fighter was soon obscured by what appeared to be a box, which the pilots recognized as the torso of a mobile suit. Arms, legs, and a head snapped on one after another, followed by a pair of antiship swords and beam boomerangs. Color flowed over the mobile suit in the distinctive Phase-shift pattern, turning it from dull grey to red and white.

"Where'd that thing come from!?" Auel yelled.

"I don't know who you are, and I don't really care," Shinn Asuka said. He snapped the swords together in a double-ended weapon. "But if it's a fight you want, I'll be happy to give you one!"

Alex keyed his comm. "Glad to see you, Shinn. Your timing couldn't have been better."

Author's note: The second war begins, and once again Alex Strassmeier finds himself in the thick of it.

I apologize for the extreme lateness of this posting, but circumstances were rather beyond my control. I was having trouble getting started, and I also went through an extremely painful experience recently. I cannot say how frequent updates will be.

As stated at the beginning of SEEDs of the Future, I have not actually seen Destiny and have no real desire to. Thus, I may well have some of the new cast rather out of character, though Shinn and later Meer Campbell are changed by design.

Thanks to SeXysangokittygrl05 for the title.