Chapter 34: The Nightmare Reborn

Neo ZAFT HQ, 15 August, C.E. 71

So, the Naturals have driven ZAFT off Earth entirely. No surprise. The man smiled. Now, all that is needed is something to…give them a boost.

A soldier came up behind him and saluted. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes.” The other turned. “I need you to deliver this to the drop,” he said. “It’s very important.”

The soldier saluted again. “Yes, sir. I won’t fail you.”

“I know you won’t,” Rau Le Creuset said.

When the man had left, Le Creuset leaned back in his chair, smiling. It begins. The final act is now at hand. Mankind will become extinct, just as they deserve.

Muruta Azrael’s office, Ptolemaeus Base, 17 August, C.E. 71

Azrael stared moodily at his desk terminal. Though ZAFT had been driven off Earth with the completion of Operation 8:8, that success had been offset by the losses at Artemis and Mendel. Essentially, while the Alliance reigned supreme on Earth, ZAFT and the Orb exiles-controlled space save for the Moon and some facilities at L1.

There has to be a way. Those monsters have had their way in space for far too long. But how? Even with the three Archangel-class ships, we cannot just blast our way through Boaz and Jachin…

His intercom buzzed. “Director Azrael, there’s someone here to see you.”

He shook himself. Only one person that could be. “Send him in.”

As expected, his top special agent stepped into the room. “Director, I found this at the drop. It’s from our contact.” He dropped a computer disc on the desktop.

“I see.” Le Creuset. A space monster like the others, but he has his uses. “Thank you.”

“Sir.” The agent nodded and left.

Azrael slipped the disc into his terminal. “What do we have here?” Data began scrolling, meaningless to most people, but Azrael was more than capable of interpreting it. “Wait, this is…” His eyes widened. “It can’t be!” The data was clear, however.

Incredible! They have signed their own death warrants!

“Perfect!” Azrael exclaimed. “That disgusting race is finished!” He was practically rubbing his hands with glee. N-Jammer Cancellers…now we will show those space monsters!

Officers’ quarters, Jachin Due, 11 September, C.E. 71

Alex sighed, rubbing his temples. “And here I thought things couldn’t get any worse.” He dropped the hardcopy document on his desk.

His fiancée grimaced. “What now?”

“Something has sparked the Alliance into a major offensive,” Alex said. He tapped the sheet of paper. “This is an intelligence report Chairman Clyne forwarded me. As of today, Operation Elvis has begun. The target is the PLANTs themselves.”

Cagalli closed her eyes. “They’re not just content to chase ZAFT off Earth.”

“They never were.” Alex shook his head. “Cagalli, the Earth Forces’ main objective has always been the extermination of our kind, whatever they might have said for public consumption. They hate our very existence, and they can’t stand being dependent on the PLANTs for resources.”

“So, they’re going to destroy the PLANTs.”

Alex nodded. “I just wish we knew what had sparked them into action. Aside from the Moon and L1, we control space. They have the advantage of numbers, but it shouldn’t be sufficient to get them past Boaz and Jachin.”

“Yeah.” Cagalli leaned back on her bunk.

“In any case, there’s nothing I can do at present,” Alex said. “It’s the Alliance’s move.”

Which will give me a chance to get used to my new…living arrangements, he thought. When he and Cagalli had arrived at Jachin a week before, they had been informed that they would have to share a cabin, due to space concerns. Alex would have believed that, but for two factors: One, the officer he had spoken to was visibly trying to suppress a grin, and two, Alex had learned that said officer was an Academy classmate of Samorei Joule.

At least I insisted on separate bunks.

As if Alex’s thoughts had been a signal, there was a knock on the hatch. “Anybody home?”

The young FAITH operative suppressed a sigh. “It’s unlocked, Sam.” Alex raised an eyebrow. “Why are you here, anyway? I thought you and Mina were on the Izumo.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Sam said. “I thought I’d see how you were doing.” He gave the room a brief once-over. “Two bunks. Figures.”

Alex snorted. “Spare me the innuendoes, Sam. You know perfectly well how I’d handle something like this.” His cold blue eyes narrowed. “This whole thing is your doing, isn’t it?”

Sam gave him an innocent look. “What makes you say that?”

As I thought. “I did a little digging, and it turns out the guy I spoke to be a classmate of yours at the Academy.” Alex tilted his head. “Anything to add?”

Sam shook his head, laughing softly. “Suspicious as ever.” He shrugged. “Yeah, I had a little something to do with it. Figured you could use a…call it a preview of married life.”

Cagalli and Alex exchanged an exasperated glance. “The wedding’s in less than a year,” the princess said. “Why bother?”

“I don’t think we want to know, Cagalli,” Alex said. “Trust me, Sam has a truly disturbing sense of humor.”

Sam laughed again. “You’ll never change.” He calmed…slightly. “Anyway, Mina and I are getting married around January.”

“I’m amazed you’re taking that long,” Alex commented. “You’ve known her longer than I’ve known Cagalli.”

The other shrugged. “We had to be cagey because of her brother. Ghina wouldn’t have been happy if he’d known.”

“He’s got a point there,” Cagalli said.

Alex chuckled. “True.” He sobered. “Where’s the Izumo going to be?”

“We’re being posted near Boaz,” Sam told him. “Chairman Clyne told Uzumi and Mina about this Operation Elvis, and we’re going to be on the front lines.”

Alex stood and gripped his cousin’s shoulder. “Be careful out there, Sam. The Earth Forces have something new; there’s no way they’d be attacking the PLANTs themselves otherwise.”

“I know,” Sam said. “You be careful, too.” His gaze shifted. “Watch out for him, okay? He’s good, but he sometimes gets tunnel vision.”

Cagalli laughed. “I’ve noticed.”

Sam nodded, offered a ZAFT salute, and departed.

Alex sank onto his bunk. “Tunnel vision, is it?” He shook his head. “I should never have introduced you.”

The princess laughed again. “If you hadn’t, Andrea would have.” She came over and sat beside him. “You’re worried, aren’t you?” she said in a softer tone.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” He sighed. “One of my relatives is back from the dead, and now he may well die for real. I…I don’t know if I could take it.”

Cagalli gently embraced him. “He’ll make it. Remember Mendel, where he took down all those Daggers by himself? If he can do that in an M1, think of what he’ll do with the Gladiator.”

He took a deep breath. “You have a point.”

“And if the worst does happen, you won’t be alone,” Cagalli said softly. “I’ll be there, no matter what.” She reached up and touched his face. “I love you, Alex.”

Alex smiled. “I love you, too,” he said, and then pulled her close and kissed her.

Thunderbird, bridge, 23 September, C.E. 71

“Captain, we’re picking up a heat signature, a big one.”

Natarle looked up from her board. “What kind of heat signature?”

The tech frowned. “A lot of ships. Checking profiles…” He grimaced. “They’re definitely Earth Forces. Drake- and Nelson-class ships, Agamemnon-class ships…and the three new Archangel-class.”

Natarle swore. “Them again. All right, report to the Boaz defense command.” She touched an intercom switch. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

“Captain, the enemy is launching mobile suits!” the sensor operator called. “All known Dagger types, plus the three new GAT-X models.”

Just what we need. “All right. Launch mobile suits; load all missile tubes; prepare to fire Fafnirs and Lohengrin!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Natarle glared at the enemy formation. Like Alex, she knew that the Earth Forces would not have attacked Boaz directly unless they were confident, they could win; she wondered uneasily what could have given them that confidence.

It is not like chasing us off Earth could have done that all by itself. Space is home ground for ZAFT, and even former Alliance pilots like Mu have spent most of their careers in orbit. Natarle found herself wishing she could talk to Murrue; they had always made a good team in spite of their differing styles.

She straightened in her chair. “Engage the enemy,” she said coldly.

Boaz nearspace

Samorei Joule’s Gladiator Gundam leapt off the Izumo’s catapult, followed closely by Mina’s AMATU and several Astrays. Though it was his first actual battle in it, he had spent plenty of time familiarizing himself with the machine, both in simulations and practice matches with the AMATU, Anubis, and Duel.

A Duel Dagger closed with him; saber ready. Sam, completely unimpressed, drew one of his new Excalibur anti-ship swords and sliced the Dagger in half. Shifting the weapon to his left hand, he pulled his rifle and shot a Buster Dagger that was trying to draw a bead on him.

Beside him, the AMATU simply vanished, reappearing seconds later to bisect a Strike Dagger.

Sam grinned. Keep it up, Mina. “All right, people, let’s show the Earth Forces what we’re made of!” Suiting action to words, he snatched a beam boomerang off the Gladiator’s shoulder and threw it, neatly slicing a 105’s head off.

Another 105 pilot, having heard the transmission, froze in shock. “Lewis! You traitor!”

“I am no traitor.” The Gladiator’s blades combined, slashing once, twice through the unfortunate Dagger. “Nor am I Samuel Lewis. My name is Samorei Joule, and I am the Sahaku’s Sword.” And wouldn’t Alex just sneer at that line? He may be giving Mina a chance, but that does not mean he likes her.

The AMATU blasted more Daggers, along with a Moebius that somehow wandered into her sights. “Sahaku’s Sword, eh? I’m flattered.”

Sam grinned. “Alex might say something similar about himself and the Athhas. He’s quite the poet when he wants to be.”

“Which isn’t often,” Mina noted.

Then they were in among the warships, though nowhere near the three Archangels. Sam made a beeline for one of the big Agamemnons. A savage smile on his face, he sliced his combined sword through the ship’s bridge tower, then backed off and fired off his Callidus beam cannon. The resultant explosion destroyed two Drake-class escort ships unfortunate enough to be in close proximity.

One down, about a hundred to go, he thought grimly.

Troy Cadwallader laughed to himself. ” ‘Sahaku’s Sword’, is it? You’re a weird one, Samorei Joule.”

“Don’t encourage him,” Shiho said, her DEEP Arms flashing past and slicing a Duel Dagger in half. “What’s with these guys, anyway!?”

“Got me.” Troy’s DRAGOON system lashed out, enveloping a trio of 105s in a storm of laser fire. His shield-mounted saber ignited, slicing another in half. “It’s not exactly endemic to their genetic profile; I’m a Natural, too, remember.”

That, predictably, sparked a heated reaction. “Why is a Natural fighting the Earth Forces!?” one enemy pilot demanded.

“You traitor!” another snarled.

Troy shook his head sadly. “Just because I’m a Natural fighting for ZAFT doesn’t make me a traitor,” he said, snapping up his rifle and shooting one of them down. “I happen to be from Oceania, a PLANT ally.”

Shiho blasted the other with her cannons. “No one calls my friend a traitor!” She looked back at the Dreadnought. “You’re wasting your time, Troy. These lunatics think Oceania is a nation of traitors since your people aren’t part of the Earth Alliance.”

The Aussie sighed. “You’ve got a point there, mate.”

They soon found themselves back-to-back, blasting distant enemies and slicing up those that managed to close the range. Both sides fought with increasing ferocity; if Boaz fell, the only thing standing between the PLANTs and total annihilation was Jachin Due.

Nicol, I wish you were here, Mayura thought. Her Sword-equipped Astray Strike was more than a match for the Duel, Buster, and Strike Daggers she encountered, but the more advanced 105s were more problematic. Luckily, she was backed up by Juri’s Launcher and Asagi’s Aile.

“I’m really starting to hate these guys,” Asagi complained. Her rifle flashed, and a Duel Dagger exploded.

Juri’s hyper-impulse cannon erupted, coring through a Drake-class escort ship. “I know what you mean, Asagi.” She shifted her aim, and suddenly a 105 Dagger was aiming at her. “Oh no!”

The blast never connected. A giant sword interposed itself between Juri and the Dagger, blocking the shot, then slashed sideways, cutting the 105 in half. “Juri, are you all, right?”

She trembled with relief. There was no mistaking the MBF-P02 Astray Red Frame, or the voice of its pilot, Junker Lowe Guele. “Thanks, Lowe.”

“From all of us,” Mayura added. “But why are you here? I thought the Junk Guild was neutral.”

Lowe shrugged. “We can’t let the Earth Forces destroy the PLANTs,” he said, sounding unusually serious. “Besides, I have a friend in ZAFT.”

Mayura nodded. Lia Ramius’s Junk Guild origins were common knowledge. “We’re glad to have you along, Lowe. Watch out for Shiho, though. She doesn’t like the Junk Guild.”

“I’ll remember that.” The Gerbera Straight came up in a salute, and then Lowe was off, tearing into the Alliance formation.

Sam chopped a Dagger in half, then drew his rifle and opened up on a Nelson-class warship. “They just don’t know when to give up.”

“If they did, this war would have been over long ago,” Mina said, adding her fire to his. Then, “Sam, incoming!”

He turned, cursing. Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider were heading right for them, weapons blazing. Having met Orga Sabnak, Shani Andras, and Clotho Buer after the fall of Orb, Sam knew all too well what the thuggish pilots were capable of. What they lacked in skill they partially made up for in sheer ferocity…when they were not attacking each other.

“Look, it’s the Orb lady and her lapdog!” Orga shouted gleefully, firing his Scylla.

“Mind if I kill them?” Shani asked softly.

Clotho laughed. “Hey, they’re traitors. They deserve whatever they get, as long as it’s bad!”

Sam spun his blades, clashing against the Calamity’s shield. “I am no one’s lapdog, Sabnak,” he growled. “And even if I was, you have to remember that a dog’s teeth are still sharp.”

“Not sharp enough!” Clotho lashed out with the Mjollnir, knocking the Gladiator’s head off. “You’re terminated!”

“Sam!” The AMATU interposed itself between the Gladiator and its foes. “Are you all right!?”

He swore under his breath. “I’m fine, but my machine isn’t.” He sighed. “Sorry, Mina, I have to fall back.”

She closed her eyes, hearing mocking laughter from the druggies. “I as well; the AMATU can’t possibly stand off all three by itself.” The AMATU jetted away, carefully guiding the Gladiator.

“Just let them go, boys,” Muruta Azrael told his pilots. “There’s nothing they can do, and it would be nice for some witnesses to survive, so they can tell their people what awaits them.”

Thunderbird, bridge

“Colonel Joule and Lady Sahaku have returned to the Izumo, Captain,” Commander Morris said. “Our machines have returned as well.”

Natarle nodded grimly. “Very well.” The words were acid in her mouth. “Prepare to retreat.”

Outside, scores of Moebius mobile armors, escorted by the three Gundams and a horde of Strike Daggers, began an attack run on Boaz. Beams blew away fixed defenses, and missiles erupted from the mobile armors, streaking into the giant fortress’s gates.

“Captain, we’re picking up a massive energy release!” The petty officer turned to face her, his face white with horror. “Ma’am, they’re nukes!”

Natarle’s head whipped around. Disbelief, horror, and rage flooded through her as the eye-tearing flashes of nuclear detonations engulfed Boaz. Though it seemed to last an eternity, it only took seconds for the inferno to reduce the mighty fortress.

When the light faded, Boaz was gone.

Just like that. Bastards! “Bring us about,” Natarle said, glaring at the Earth Forces fleet. She swallowed bile. “Destination, Jachin Due.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The helmsman sounded unusually subdued.

Natarle did not blame him. The youngster was with ZAFT, which had just suffered its most crushing losses in space since the Bloody Valentine itself. She felt a twinge of guilt, recalling her own former loyalty to the Earth Forces, then firmly suppressed it. It was irrational; no one in ZAFT or the Orb forces held her past allegiance against her. Indeed, she had made a number of friends in ZAFT.

Nuclear weapons. So that is why they were confident enough to attack the PLANTs directly. The next battle would be do or die, she knew. If Jachin was destroyed, then the PLANTs would fall, and the Earth Forces were guaranteed to use nukes on the colonies.

Next time, it was victory or death.

Supreme Council Chamber, Aprilius One, 24 September, C.E. 71

Once again, Alex found himself a guest of the Supreme Council. The circumstances were far different, however; he was there as a top FAITH operative, and the state of the war was nothing short of bleak.

The Hun is at the gate, he thought darkly. Nuclear weapons, Boaz gone, this is it. Days from now, at the most, we either win, or are destroyed.

“Commander Strassmeier,” Siegel said, “do you have anything to add?”

Alex stood. “Only speculation, Your Excellency; though I believe I am correct, I cannot prove it.” He brought up a still picture of Boaz. “This was taken by the Thunderbird at Boaz,” he said. “As you can see, the nuclear missile were launched by a squadron of Moebius mobile armors, identified by comm traffic as the ‘Peacemaker Force’.” His lip curled at the last line. “They were escorted by a number of mobile suits, including the three new G-weapons. Those machines had driven off Rondo Mina Sahaku and my cousin Samorei earlier in the battle.”

“So, the Earth Forces have regained nuclear capability,” Yuri Amalfi observed.

Alex nodded. “Which means the Neutron-Jammer Canceller data has leaked,” he agreed. “Not from us, however. My people triple-checked it, and it came up clean every time.” With his experience at keeping things secret (i.e., his operations at Heliopolis), Alex was a natural choice to check for security leaks.

“If not from us, then it would have to be Neo ZAFT, but I don’t see how that’s possible,” Eileen Canaver said. “Patrick Zala may be insane, but there is no way he would leak that kind of technology to the Earth Forces.”

“I’m not accusing Zala,” Alex told her. “As you all know, Mu La Flaga, Kira Yamato, Athrun Zala, and I confronted Rau Le Creuset at Mendel two months ago. There, he revealed himself to be a clone of Mu’s father and said that humanity was destined to be wiped out. I have no doubt that he would have leaked this data in order to further that goal.”

Tad Elsman slammed his fist on the table. “And we are paying the price for his madness. Is there any indication that Zala knows?”

Alex snorted. “If he did, Rau Le Creuset would be dead. Old Metal Mask is valuable, but not to the extent that Patrick Zala would overlook something of this magnitude. No, sir, it is safe to assume Zala is completely ignorant of this matter.”

“I agree,” Siegel said. “Patrick still cares for the PLANTs in his own twisted way; if he knew Le Creuset had leaked this to the Earth Forces, he would take action.”

“Indeed,” Canaver said. “Commander, did you find anything else?”

Alex shook his head. “No, ma’am. There wasn’t much to find; more light escapes from a black hole than information from Neo ZAFT.”

“Then you had best return to Jachin,” Siegel said. “With Boaz destroyed, that will be the Alliance’s next target.”

Alex saluted. “Of course, Your Excellency.”

Officers’ lounge, Jachin Due

Athrun Zala leaned his head against the window. The news of Boaz had brought back memories of the Bloody Valentine, when he had learned he would never see his mother again. Now L5 was ablaze with nuclear fire once again.

This should not be happening. He clenched his fists, thinking of Rau Le Creuset. You will pay for this, Commander. To think I used to respect you!

“Athrun? You, okay?”

Athrun raised his head. He recognized the voice, of course. “Sorry. It’s just, this reminds me of the Bloody Valentine.”

“Yeah, I thought it would,” Kira said, moving to stand next to him. “Alex thinks it was Le Creuset who leaked the NJC data.”

“I’ll bet he’s right,” Athrun said grimly. He slammed a fist into his open palm. “To think I used to respect that bastard.”

Kira gazed at his friend, concerned. “There’s more, isn’t there,” he said quietly.

Athrun sighed. “You can bet we’ll be facing more than just the Earth Forces. Neo ZAFT will be there, too, and if they’re involved…”

Kira nodded. It was obvious where Athrun was headed. “Then you’ll have to fight your father.”

“Yeah.” Athrun closed his eyes. “He isn’t my father anymore, that much is clear. What he is doing, the man who raised me would never have even contemplated.” He swallowed. “But that doesn’t make it easy.”

“If it were easy, you wouldn’t be human,” Kira said gently. He laid a hand on the other’s shoulder. “If it helps any, I’ll be right behind you.”

Athrun managed a smile. “It helps a lot, Kira. Thanks.”

“What are friends for?” Kira looked out into space. “The war is almost over, Athrun. One way or another, it will end sometime in the next few days. Either we stop the Earth Forces and destroy Neo ZAFT, or everything we’ve fought for will be lost.”

“Yeah.” Athrun followed Kira’s gaze, thinking of his father. “That’s why we have to win, no matter what.” He shook himself. “So, how do you feel about having Alex Strassmeier as a brother-in-law?”

Kira laughed, his spirits brightening. “It’s kind of weird. You would never expect him to fall for anyone, yet he and Cagalli are inseparable. Can’t judge a book by its cover, I guess.”

“I don’t think his book has a cover,” Athrun said with a chuckle. “He doesn’t let anyone know what he’s thinking if he can avoid it. Cagalli’s one of the few people who can actually read him.” He snickered. “And you’ll be related by marriage to Yzak. I wonder if he’s realized that.”

Kira waved a hand. “We talked about it months ago, just after Orb fell. Now that he actually knows me, he’s okay with it.” He grinned. “Not that he’d try to talk Alex out of it.”

“Yeah.” Athrun gave him a sly look. “What about you and Flay?”

Kira blushed. “Uh, we’re headed that way, but nothing’s official. We’re not really old enough.”

“Not stopping Alex and Cagalli.”

“Alex is older than I am, and they’re waiting until Cagalli comes of age,” Kira pointed out. “It’ll be longer for Flay; she’s only sixteen, and she’s a Natural.”

“Point,” Athrun conceded.

Even now, he still has some innocence, he thought, smiling to himself. Even as a hardened warrior, Kira is still Kira, still the good-natured kid I knew. I hope that never changes.

The next couple of days were tense for all concerned. Muruta Azrael and his people were practically boiling over with excitement; finally, they would be rid of the “space monsters” for the last time. With the nuclear weapons and the three GAT-X models, they were confident of their ultimate victory.

ZAFT and the Orb exiles went about their duties with grim determination. As Kira had said, win or lose, this was the end. Either the Alliance and Neo ZAFT were stopped, or all was lost. That knowledge sent a chill down more than one person’s spine, but it also stiffened their resolve.

And slowly cruising to L5 was Patrick Zala’s shadowy Neo ZAFT organization. Carefully concealed in their midst was a weapon they were sure would end the scourge of the Naturals forever…

Dominion, bridge, 26 September, C.E. 71

“Almost there,” Azrael said softly. “Once we get past Jachin, we can finish those space monsters.”

William Sutherland nodded. “Even with the Orb exiles –and that traitor Sahaku- reinforcing ZAFT, we outnumber them at least five to one, Director. As you told the high command, quantity has a quality all its own.”

“And we have the three new GAT-X models, as well as people like Imelia,” Azrael agreed. “Not to mention the new anti-Phase Shift weapon, even if it’s slow firing.”

The new superdense projectiles had been developed in response to the unique abilities of Orb’s ORB-01 Akatsuki. It had been tested at the Battle of Mendel, and proved effective, even though Orb ace Kira Yamato had promptly rendered the Seraphim defenseless. The new weapon had still taken a bite out of the Akatsuki.

“What of the assassination attempt after Mendel?” Sutherland asked.

Azrael shrugged. “It was worth a try, if only to calm that little bastard Yuna Seiran down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we have someone loyal in Orb, but that kid is really annoying sometimes.”

“Captain, Director, we’re approaching the target,” the XO said. “Picking up a large number of warships and mobile suits holding position around Jachin Due. Both Orb and ZAFT types detected.”

“Understood,” Sutherland said. “Standby to engage.” He looked at Azrael, the true commander of the operation. “Director?”

The leader of Blue Cosmos waved his hand. “Whenever you’re ready, Captain.” He had total faith in Sutherland’s military judgment.

Sutherland nodded. “Launch Peacemaker Force and all mobile suits. Today we put a final end to those space monsters.”

Jachin nearspace

Justice and Freedom leapt from the Archangel’s catapults, followed by the original GAT-X models. They were soon joined by the Valkyrie’s Gundams, including the repaired X108 Stormbird piloted by former Alliance pilot Jacob Harris, Samorei Joule’s Gladiator and Rondo Mina Sahaku’s AMATU off the Izumo, and Troy Cadwallader’s Dreadnought off the Thunderbird.

Behind the Gundams were a veritable swarm of mass-produced models. Orb’s M1s, M1As, and M1S Astray Strikes, along with ZAFT GINNs (regular, recon, and High Maneuver), CGUEs (including Shiho’s beloved DEEP Arms), and GuAIZs.

Yzak as the first to spot the Peacemaker Force. “No! Those are the nukes!” His rifle snapped up, firing at the Moebius and escorting Daggers.

The Daggers responded by turning to engage, while the mobile armors launched their deadly payloads.

“We have to shoot down every one of those missiles!” Yzak shouted. “Don’t let them hit the PLANTs!”

A GuAIZ seemed to stagger in space, then exploded under a burst of plasma. “Not a chance,” Shani Andras said softly. “I wanna see all the pretty lights.”

“I’ll give you pretty lights!” Andrea Strassmeier snarled. “Strassmeier team, ignore the enemy mobile suits unless they attack you directly, they can wait! Take out those missiles!”

Kira and Athrun, meanwhile, moved to flank the Eternal. Already separating from the ZAFT ship were a pair of special weapon platforms called METEORs. When connected to the Eternal, they served as large gun turrets.

When docked with the Justice and Freedom Gundams, they more than quadrupled the machines’ firepower. More, the platforms enabled them to lock onto vast numbers of targets at once. Kira and Athrun did precisely that, unleashing a storm of missile and energy fire best described as apocalyptic.

That, of course, attracted the attention of a certain trio. “Hey, hey, hey, it’s them again!” Orga called gleefully.

“Time for a rematch!” Clotho yelled. He swung the Mjollnir, only to have it stop halfway through. “What the!?”

GAT-X207 Blitz faded into view. “I don’t think so!” Nicol snarled. “Kira, Athrun, I’ve got this guy! You take the nukes while you still can!”

“Roger that,” Kira said. “Thanks, Nicol.”

In theory, the Raider was more advanced than the Blitz. In practice, Nicol’s superior skill was giving the psychotic Clotho fits. His lancer darts were useless, but he had a definite range advantage with his rifle (Clotho’s only beam weapon had nothing for range), and the Gleipnir could penetrate PSA.

Not to mention his now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t tactics were absolutely maddening.

Dearka growled a curse, seeing a formation of Buster Daggers. “I am so sick of you!”

“You again, Elsman?” a familiar female voice said. “This time you’re not getting away!” The lead Dagger snapped its weapons together and sent a sniper blast his way.

He snap-rolled, returning fire with his beam rifle. “Imelia again,” he muttered. “Just who I don’t need to run into.”

“No argument there,” Mu agreed, adding his fire to Dearka’s. “Imelia’s one of the best.”

Dearka grunted. “I figured that out at Orb. You know her?”

“I met her a couple of times before Heliopolis,” Mu said, taking a shotgun blast on his shield. “Murrue knows her better than I do.”

The Dagger paused. “La Flaga, why did you betray the Alliance?” Imelia demanded. “You’re fighting against your own people, and for what!?”

Mu sighed. “Dearka, I’ll try and distract her,” he said, then switched to the open channel. “Kira had the same problem with his buddy Athrun, Imelia. Athrun wanted to know why Kira was fighting his own people. Kira said that ZAFT and the PLANTs weren’t his people just because they were Coordinators.” He drew a saber. “The Earth Forces aren’t my people just because they’re Naturals!”

Imelia jetted backward, gaining some breathing space. “It’s not the same thing, and you know it. Yamato is an Orb national; you are an Atlantic Federation officer, which makes you a deserter!”

“A deserter because I refused to fight for Blue Cosmos? Don’t make me laugh!” Mu swung his saber in an arc, narrowly missing the Dagger. “They want to wipe out the Coordinators, and they don’t care who else gets hurt along the way!”

“Don’t be a fool!” Imelia fired both guns at once.

Mu nimbly dodged. “There’s nothing left for me in the Alliance,” he said, shifting back to his rifle. He aimed carefully…

“Got her!” Dearka crowed.

While Mu and Imelia had been arguing, Dearka had gotten around behind and unleashed a shotgun blast. Both of the Buster Dagger’s arms had been shredded, along with the shoulder-mounted missile pods. Imelia still had sabers, but with no arms she could not use them.

Mu grabbed the wreck. “Sorry, Imelia. You’re not as bad as most of them, but I can’t let you go.” He looked at the Buster. “I’ll get her back to the Archangel. Take care until I get back.”

“Roger that.”

The Freedom’s METEOR erupted again, showering missiles and beams in a wide arc. Missile after missile vanished in the inferno, but there always seemed to be more. Mobile suit escorts of several types only added to the chaos.

“Man, they just keep coming!” Kira exclaimed.

Athrun swung his METEOR’s enormous beam sword, slicing three Daggers in half. “Back off, or else!” He paused, taking stock of the situation. “I think that’s all of the nukes, at least for now.”

“It’s not like they have an unlimited supply,” Kira agreed. Then, “Whoa!”

Two 105 Daggers streaked by, pursued by the Gladiator. Both of Sam’s rocket anchors shot out, grasping the Daggers, and slamming them together. A shot from the Callidus finished the job.

“Sorry if I startled you, Kira,” Sam called.

Athrun shook his head. “You’re as crazy as Yzak.”

The older man laughed. “You want crazy, look at my cousin the arachnid.” His beam rifle snapped up, blasting a Strike Dagger. “He tried to go up against ZAFT with one ship and five mobile suits.”

Kira started to slap his forehead, then caught himself before he could hit his faceplate. “Alex is right, you’re hopeless.” He ejected his METEOR; now that the nukes were destroyed, he did not need the overwhelming firepower.

Athrun followed suit. “Let’s go, Kira.”

“Kira, Athrun, look out!” Mir suddenly called. “It’s Neo ZAFT!”

Kira cursed, bringing up his multilock feature. “Why’d they have to show up!?” His ranged weapons opened up all at once, disabling or destroying more than a dozen Neo ZAFT machines.

Anubis and Akatsuki joined them, remote weapons spewing death in multiple directions. “Murphy’s Law, my friend,” Alex said. A curse. “Here comes Bartlett.” The two machines left as quickly as they had come.

Athrun spun his combined sabers, slicing in one direction and then the other. “Why do you have to do this!?”

The voice that answered him was completely unexpected. “I would have thought you, of all people, would understand, Athrun.”

Athrun froze, staring at the asteroid being towed by a formation of Laurasia-class warships. “Father…?”

“You’ve turned against everything you believed in,” Patrick Zala continued coldly. “What would your mother think of you now?”

N-No, I… Athrun tried to speak, but nothing came out.

The Freedom moved to hover protectively in front of the Justice. “You bastard!” Kira shouted. “How could you of all people do this to him!? He’s your son!”

“I have no son,” Zala said icily. “That became clear when he turned against me, when he turned against the fight to purge this world of the Naturals.”

Athrun trembled in his cockpit. Father, no. Has it really…has it really come to this?

“There will be no peace until the last Natural is gone!” the former chairman thundered.

Athrun finally found his voice. “Father, why!? Not all the Naturals hate us! Why do you have to kill all of them!? A lot of Naturals are on our side!”

“I’m wasting my time talking to you,” his father said coldly. There was a click as he disconnected.

Athrun just sat there and stared, shocked speechless by his loss.

“You are really getting on my nerves, Bartlett,” Alex growled. “Wiping out the Naturals won’t solve anything.”

Bartlett laughed. “So what? It’ll be worth it if I can finally settle the score with you!”

Alex shook his head. “So, you think a schoolboy grudge is worth the deaths of literally billions of innocents? You really have gone off the deep end.”

“Maybe so. It doesn’t matter!” The Deathdealer’s beam cannons erupted, forcing Alex to dodge. “All that matters is that I destroy you!”

Alex deployed his DRAGOON shield, delaying. It is a cardinal mistake to allow your opponent to dictate the terms of the battle. Therefore… His DRAGOON pods suddenly shot outward, peppering the Deathdealer and forcing Bartlett into a wild evasive pattern.

“Try this!” Bartlett drew his beam lance, jabbing at the Anubis in an attempt to keep Alex at bay.

“I think not.” Alex countered with his Shirasaya, lopping the lance in half. “You persist in underestimating me, despite losing to me time after time. Your facility for holding a grudge is clouding your thinking.”

Bartlett leveled his rifle, splashing emerald beams against Alex’s shield. “You were always a fool, Strassmeier! That is your weakness!”

“Dense as ever.” Alex snapped his sabers together. “You’re the fool. You’ve lost whatever grip on reality you ever had and become nothing more than a cheap thug.” He spun the combined weapon. “You could never beat me.”

“We’ll see about that!”

Saber clashed against saber, intermixed with laser blasts and the occasional missile attack from the Deathdealer. It soon became clear that, once again, Bartlett was good, but Alex was better. Bartlett’s sheer ferocity was countered by Alex’s cold precision.

Frustrated, Bartlett fell back and fired all his ranged weapons at once. “Give up already!”

Alex did not bother replying, choosing instead to return fire. His DRAGOON system kept his opponent on the defensive, dodging more than firing. Keep up the pressure, he told himself. Eventually, he will slip up, and then you have him.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Bartlett abruptly ceased fire, laughing. “You put up a good fight, but it’s too late! Witness the power that will rid the world of the Naturals for the last time!”

Alex started to ask what he was talking about, but something caught his eye. He turned, and his jaw dropped. An enormous structure faded out of Mirage Colloid; the gas had evidently been continuously replenished during its journey to L5. Even as he watched the weapon (which it obviously was) colored in the distinctive PSA effect.

What is that? And is that a mirror they are putting in front!?

“All units, radiation levels increasing exponentially!” Mir shouted, “Get away from that thing!”

Reflexively, Alex obeyed the call, as did the vast majority of his ZAFT and Orb comrades. The Earth Forces, though they heard the transmission, ignored it, thinking that anything that hurt their enemies helped them. They were tragically wrong.

A giant red beam erupted from the weapon, engulfing the Alliance fleet. Ships and mobile suits alike simply vanished in the conflagration; even those at the fringe of the beam were destroyed. The Dominion escaped, as did a number of smaller vessels, but the huge blast had nonetheless annihilated forty percent of the Allied fleet in one blow.

Both sides stared in utter disbelief, astounded even now at the extend of Patrick Zala’s insanity. Those who could still think recognized the attack as a focused burst of gamma radiation, but no one had ever thought such a thing was possible.

Athrun Zala’s anguished cry echoed over the comm. “FATHER!”