Chapter 35: The Blade of Light

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

Murrue stared in disbelief at the carnage. Just minutes before, the Earth Forces had been pressing an all-out attack. Now those who had survived the Neo ZAFT attack were retreating in confusion. Murrue did not blame them; even a nuke did not have the destructive power of the blast they had just witnessed.

“What in blazes was that!?” Randall Tucker demanded.

Jackie Tonomura tapped rapidly at his board. “Checking…” His jaw dropped. “It was a focused burst of gamma radiation!”

Murrue spun around. “Gamma rays!?”

“I’ve read about using gamma rays for propulsion,” Athrun said shakily. No surprise; he was still in shock over his father.

“Propulsion?” Mu La Flaga said in surprise. “Are you sure about that, Athrun?”

The younger man nodded. “You set off a nuclear bomb and use mirrors to focus the gamma rays. Supposedly it has incredible acceleration.”

“And that bastard’s turned it into a weapon,” Mu said grimly. He shook himself. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Don’t worry about it, Mu,” Athrun said. “I don’t blame you. This…this is even worse than the Bloody Valentine.” He swallowed hard. “He asked what my mom would think of what I’ve done, but he’s the one disgracing her memory…” He trailed off.

Flay spoke up. “Captain, message from Committee Chairwoman Joule. We’re to fall back for now.”

Murrue nodded. “Understood. Mir, recall all mobile suits.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Command center, Jachin Due

“It’s just like Athrun said,” Erica Simmons told the assembled group. “A focused burst of gamma radiation, like a laser of sorts.” A graphic of Zala’s GENESIS weapon appeared on the monitor. “What we saw was a fraction of its power,” Simmons went on. “If turned on Earth, it would burn ninety percent of the surface to a crisp, rendering the planet effectively uninhabitable.”

Siegel Clyne closed his eyes. “So, this is what it has come to,” he whispered. “The destruction of both Earth and the PLANTs.”

“I think that’s what Commander Le Creuset wants,” Athrun said. “My father…he intends to wipe out the Alliance fleet, then turn GENESIS on Earth. After that he can…deal with the Naturals in the PLANTs at his leisure.” His voice was tortured, a mix of anguish and loathing.

Kira laid a hand on his shoulder. “Athrun…”

Athrun gave him a grateful smile. “It’s not going to happen, though,” he went on, his voice a little stronger. “Le Creuset will see to that.”

“Not if I can help it,” Mu growled.

“What about that nutcase Bartlett?” Nicol asked.

Alex snorted. “Leave him to me, Nicol. His only goal is to settle the score with me, so I’ll oblige him.” He smiled like a shark. “Only the outcome won’t be the way he planned it.”

“Alex, are you sure about that?” Cagalli asked, concerned.

“Cagalli, Bartlett is suffering from a severe case of tunnel vision,” Alex said. “All he cares about is destroying me. That is his weakness.” He waved a hand. “In any case, it’s a minor concern.”

Siegel nodded. “We must stop both the nuclear attack and GENESIS.”

“The nukes will be easy enough to deal with,” Simmons said. “The METEOR units work just fine for that, and the missiles are also susceptible to proximity soft kills.” She nodded at the GENESIS graphic. “As for this, we have two options. Either infiltrate the control facility or destroy the weapon itself from the inside. I think the first is probably safer.”

Athrun winced. Father is there. Can I really…?

“Ultimately, GENESIS has to be destroyed regardless,” Alex said, coming to Athrun’s rescue. “Even taking the control facility will only buy us time.”

“He’s right,” Waltfeld said, giving the youngster an approving nod. “There’s no way we can leave that thing intact.”

Heads nodded. Having a strong military was one thing; GENESIS was something else entirely. Given what Simmons had told them, such a weapon had no legitimate use. It was on the same moral level as bioweapons, nothing but mass death.

“How could it have come to this?” Kira wondered sadly.

“Wish I knew, kid,” Waltfeld said; he had taken an almost paternal interest in the Ultimate Coordinator. “Hate to say it, but Le Creuset was right about one thing. People will always be fighting each other; that’s the way things are.” He looked at the looming shape of GENESIS on the main monitor. “Never expected that, though.”

“No one did,” Athrun said softly. “Even after Neo ZAFT was formed, this was completely out of the blue.” But I will stop it, he vowed silently. I will stop the nukes, GENESIS, and my father! It is my duty!

Dominion, bridge

“Just what was that!?” Sutherland demanded.

Azrael, though shaken, at least knew what he had seen. “It was a blast of gamma rays,” he said softly. “I’d heard rumors about a star drive concept based on that, but I never thought someone would turn it into a weapon.”

“Well, it looks like someone has,” the captain said bitterly. “For now, we have no choice but to fall back and regroup.”

Azrael nodded jerkily. “Yes, do what you have to.”

While Neo ZAFT’s intervention had not been unexpected, its power had been. Forty percent of the fleet wiped out in a single blast; even the destruction of Eighth Fleet at the hands of Rau Le Creuset paled by comparison.

One thing is for sure, Azrael thought. Those hourglasses can wait; that thing could take out Earth itself. He only hoped they could take it out in time.

Officer’s lounge, Jachin Due

This is all so complicated, Dearka thought. You go someplace else, and all of a sudden, your enemies and your allies have changed places, but inside we are still the same people. Like his friend Athrun, he was wondering how he could ever have respected Rau Le Creuset.

The black-haired girl sharing the sofa with him stirred. “Dearka? You, okay?”

“Yeah. Just thinking.”

Andrea chuckled softly. “About what?”

Dearka smiled down at her. “How things have changed.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

She snuggled against him. “Just a few months ago, I was a prisoner of the Earth Forces, and you were trying to shoot down the Archangel. Kinda weird how these things turn out.”

“And now I’m fighting my old commander.” The blonde pilot shook his head. “A clone of Mu’s father, who wants to wipe out humanity. What a psycho.”

“We won’t let that happen,” Andrea said. “We’ll stop the nukes, GENESIS, and Le Creuset, and we’ll live to tell about it.”

Dearka chuckled softly. “Always the optimist, eh? Not that I’m complaining.”

She gave him a quick kiss. “You’d better believe it.”

“Well, this is it,” Andrew Waltfeld said, sipping his coffee. “It ends tomorrow, one way or another.” He looked at one of the young pilots sharing his table. “Remember what I said back in Banadiya, kid?”

Kira nodded. “You said there are no clear rules for ending a war like this.”

“Right,” the Tiger said, smiling at his young friend. “So how do you determine the winners and the losers? When every one of your enemies has been destroyed?”

Kira sighed. “It looks like that’s how,” he said quietly. “We have to stop both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT at all costs, and the only way to stop someone like Le Creuset is to kill him. It’s just that…”

“You don’t like to kill,” Waltfeld said. “I know what you mean. The first time I had to shoot someone it turned my stomach. They told me I would get used to it, and eventually I did. I still don’t like it, though, and to be honest I wouldn’t want to serve with someone who did.”

“Neither would I,” Athrun agreed. “Yzak may act like it but enjoying a fight and enjoying killing aren’t the same thing.”

Waltfeld grinned. “You got that right.” He nodded at Kira. “Taking him on was quite a rush. Biggest challenge I’ve had as a pilot.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“You really should take that as a compliment, Commander Yamato,” Samorei Joule said, joining them. “Commander Waltfeld here is the best ground soldier ZAFT has ever had.”

The Desert Tiger laughed. “Flattery will get you nowhere, Colonel,” he said. “So, what brings you here?”

Sam shrugged. “I’d heard a lot about the famous Kira Yamato, so I figured I’d see for myself.” He held out his hand. “It’s an honor to meet you, Commander.”

Kira shook it. “Please, just call me Kira. I don’t like to get too formal.”

“No problem. Alex is the same, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.” Sam nodded at Athrun. “Good to see you, Commander Zala. Glad you got the rank you deserve.” He indicated the FAITH insignia on Athrun’s uniform.

Athrun waved a hand. “Please, just Athrun. Like Kira, I’m not too into formality.”

“No problem.” Sam looked back at Kira. “I understand it was the attack on Heliopolis that got you involved.”

Kira nodded. “I piloted the Strike in order to protect my friends, and things kind of went on from there.” He sighed. “I didn’t like having to do it, but a lot of good came out of it.”

“Like your relationship with Flay Allster,” Sam observed, and laughed at Kira’s expression. “Hey, if I hadn’t been blown out of the sky at Junius Seven, I’d never have met Mina.”

He has a point, Kira thought. If there was one thing Kira had to thank the war for, it was that it brought him Flay. Had Rau Le Creuset not attacked Heliopolis, Flay would probably have married Sai, and Kira would never even have known what he had missed.

This is worth fighting for. Much as he hated to fight, Kira knew that sometimes it could not be avoided. Someone had to protect the innocent from harm, and Kira Yamato had the skills to do it.

” ‘If we must fight so that we may protect, then we have no choice but to fight,’ ” Sam murmured. “Zala’s a lunatic, but he was right about that.”

Athrun looked at him curiously. “Where did you hear that?”

“My mother told me,” Sam said. “I fight to protect Orb, the PLANTs, my family, and Mina. Just like you fight for Orb, your family, and Flay, Kira.”

“The PLANTs, too,” Kira added. “As far as I’m concerned, Athrun’s family, so I’ll protect his home like my own.”

“The same goes for me,” Athrun said firmly.

Sam smiled. He had expected nothing less.

Alex contemplated the ring on his finger. Who would have thought it would turn out like this. I started out as commander of a small guerrilla faction, and now I am a ZAFT soldier, and engaged to a princess on top of that.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Rondo Mina Sahaku said.

Alex chuckled softly. “I didn’t know Orb nobles spoke in clichés.”

“You’ve spent too much time with the Athhas,” Mina said wryly. “Even Lord Uzumi is hardly what you’d call a typical aristocrat.”

“And Cagalli would shoot me herself –somewhere harmless, like an arm or leg- if I called her something like that,” Alex agreed. He raised an eyebrow. “You want to talk to me?”

Mina nodded. “I wanted to apologize for our first meeting.”

Alex snorted. “I’m the one who pulled a gun, Lady Sahaku,” he pointed out. “I think you have the greater grievance here.”

“Perhaps, but I do not blame you for your reaction, Commander. Leaving aside your close connection to the Athha family, my own family’s history justifies some suspicion on your part,” Mina said. “And please, just call me Mina; we are going to be family, after all.”

He nodded. “Call me Alex, then; I dislike excessive formality anyway.” The young pilot sipped from a mug of coffee. “I gave Sam a bit of a hard time over you, of course; with him marrying a Sahaku and me marrying an Athha, it had the potential to create some, shall we say, friction.”

Mina tilted her head. “You didn’t try to change his mind?”

Alex barked a laugh. “Try to change Samorei’s mind? Ha! Like I told Aunt Ezalia, easier to herd cats than to convince Sam when his mind is made up.” He shook his head. “Stubbornness seems to be a genetic trait in my family.”

“I’ve noticed,” Mina agreed. “Sam’s a good man, for all his quirks.” She looked at Alex sidelong. “He has often spoken of you.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “In what context?”

The Orb noble smiled at his expression. “He said that despite your cold exterior, you are very –one might almost say obsessively- devoted to your family and the PLANTs. Though he obviously did not know her identity until you arrived in Orb earlier this year, Sam mentioned you had a friend in the Junk Guild.”

“Lia, right,” Alex said. “I kept her identity secret at her parents’ request; they were concerned that my being related to a Supreme Council member could have sent the wrong message if things became public.”

Mina nodded. “I know about your sister’s abduction, of course; it was one of Sam’s reasons for joining ZAFT. I also know that you have long been suspicious of Patrick Zala.”

“Wouldn’t you be, listening to his speeches?” Alex asked. “At the very least, it was clear early on that he had some kind of Master Race complex.”

“Point,” she conceded. “I remember him expressing surprise that you and Yzak are so close.”

“Probably because of our differing personalities,” Alex said. “Yzak, as you have no doubt noticed, has a volcanic temperament, whereas I am a cold and methodical sort.” He smiled wistfully. “My mother often called us day and night.”

Mina laughed softly. “Yes, I can see that.” She gave him a sly look. “So, still think I can’t be trusted?”

Alex shook his head. “As Sam no doubt told you, I am highly skilled at reading people; it gives me a significant advantage at times.” He met her gaze. “I trust you.”

“That will make things easier,” she said. “As I said, we’re going to be family.”

“And what a strange family it will be,” Alex said. He raised his eyebrows. “So, you don’t have any problem with the fact that it will bind you to the Athhas?”

Mina waved a hand. “It wouldn’t make any difference if I did; it would be both wrong and futile to attempt to split you and Lady Cagalli.”

“Like I said, stubbornness seems to be a genetic trait with my family,” Alex agreed. “And stubborn doesn’t begin to describe her.” He smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t,” Mina said with an answering smile.

The room slowly emptied over the next couple of hours.

“Guess everyone’s calling it a night,” Yzak commented, sipping his drink.

“You can’t blame them,” Alex said. “Win or lose, it ends tomorrow, and we can’t fight the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT at the same time we’re fighting our own fatigue.”

Sam smiled slyly. “So, you and Cagalli-“

“Don’t even go there,” Alex cut him off sharply, eyes narrowing to icy slits. “You know me better than that, and I’m really not in the mood for your innuendoes.”

Predictably, the older pilot was unfazed. “Suit yourself, Alex,” he said with a shrug.

“Don’t be so hard on him, Sam,” Andrea said. “He’s been through a lot over the past year. Remember, you never had to fight Yzak. Alex did.”

Sam nodded. “I know, and I know it must have hurt. You two were always so close, more like brothers than cousins. There’s no way it was easy, even though neither of you were shooting to kill.”

“Cliché, but true,” Alex agreed. “But that’s behind us now, right, Yzak?”

Yzak nodded firmly. “I thought you were crazy, but I was the crazy one. Not anymore.”

“Hey, you’re still crazy,” Alex said, prompting a laugh from his cousin. “Regardless, with Chairman Clyne firmly in control, and Zala ousted, I have no regrets about my decision to join ZAFT.”

“You’d better not,” Sam said. “It was your dream, before Zala soured it; don’t start getting cold feet now.”

“You’ve nothing to fear in that regard,” Alex assured him. “I answer to Athrun and Chairman Clyne, both of whom I trust implicitly. I do, however, have some concerns about the Chairman’s new aide.”

Yzak raised his eyebrows. “Durandal? What about him?”

Alex sipped his coffee, stalling to gather his thoughts. “Gilbert Durandal was involved in the Ultimate Coordinator project,” he said. “Doctor Coast told me, and I have no reason to doubt his word. Whatever else that guy might be, he isn’t a liar.”

Sam looked surprised. “He’d have been something like twelve at the time. What was he, some kind of boy genius?”

“That’s about how Coast described him,” Alex confirmed. He steepled his fingers. “According to Coast, Durandal always seemed to have his own agenda, even at such a young age. He was always polite, but it never quite rang true.”

Yzak snorted. “If this guy made a cold fish like Mikhail Coast nervous, then there must be something wrong.”

“But why?” Andrea wondered. “He’s helping Doctor Lockwood with the gene therapy project, and he’s working to overcome our birthrate problem.”

“That I don’t know, Andrea,” Alex said. “Coast told me that Durandal was always a quiet sort.”

Sam grinned. “Like you.”

“Shut up. Anyway, Durandal was making plans for the future, that much was clear.” Alex shook his head. “What those plans are is unknown, and that worries me.”

“Who’s that?” Yzak asked.

Alex grimaced. “Like I said, Durandal was involved in the Ultimate Coordinator project. That means he knows all about Kira and Cagalli –and me- and if he has plans, he is not telling anyone about, that could be unbelievably bad indeed.”

The others winced in almost perfect unison. True, Klaus Strassmeier had been involved in the project, but he had not made any long-term plans afterwards, and the same was true for Mikhail Coast. None of them doubted that Durandal’s work on the gene therapy and birthrate issues was done in good faith, but there was clearly more to him than met the eye.

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Sam said. “First we end this war, then we can worry about Durandal.”

Alex nodded agreement. But once things calm down, I think I will do some discreet checking into Durandal’s background, he thought. I do not for an instant believe he is playing things entirely straight, and that means trouble for the Homeland, possibly for the entire world…

Athrun’s quarters, Jachin Due

It was quite possibly the worst night of Athrun’s life, even more so than when he had learned of his mother’s death. Now he was facing the very real possibility that he would have to personally kill his own father.

Why did it have to come to this!? he screamed silently, tears stinging his eyes.

The hatch slid open, and Lacus Clyne stepped quietly in. “Athrun?” When he did not respond, she moved closer. “Athrun?”

He finally looked up. “Lacus? What are you doing here?”

“Can’t I visit my own fiancé?” she asked rhetorically. “I was worried about you, Athrun, knowing who is opposing us.”

Athrun swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Lacus,” he said softly.

“Don’t be,” she told him. “You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t afraid to fight against your own father.” She embraced him. “And you wouldn’t be the Athrun Zala I love,” she whispered.

Athrun hugged her back, managing a smile. “Thank you, Lacus,” he whispered back. “You’ve kept me going through this war, even when I’ve been a little crazy –like when I was fighting Kira.”

“You weren’t being crazy,” Lacus said. “Each of you had responsibilities, which sadly conflicted. It turned out all right in the end, though, so you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“Yeah,” Athrun agreed. “Kira’s the closest I’ve ever had to a sibling; I don’t know if I could have handled being forced to kill him.”

“You never have to find out,” Lacus reminded him.

He nodded. “You’re right. Still…” He sighed, his mood darkening again. “Tomorrow…”

“Just remember that no matter what happens, you won’t be alone,” Lacus said firmly. “I’ll be there, and you have Kira, Nicol, Cagalli, Yzak, Dearka, even Alex, whatever he seems like on the outside.”

Athrun could not help chuckling. “Hard to imagine Yzak Joule like that, but you’re right.” He sighed. “Tomorrow, I’ll do what I have to do. It’s my responsibility.”

“But not yours alone,” Lacus said. “Never forget that.”

He kissed her on the forehead. “I won’t.”

Kira’s quarters

“So, it’ll be finished tomorrow, one way or another,” Flay said softly.

“Yeah.” Kira nodded. “From here on, it’s winner take all. And it’s my job to make sure we’re the winners.”

“Mine, too,” Flay said. “I may be only a communications officer, but that’s still important.”

He nodded again. “That’s true.” He wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close. “You know, even though I hate this war, some good did come out of it. If Heliopolis had not been attacked, we probably wouldn’t be together now.”

She snuggled against him, sighing happily. “And you wouldn’t have found out you had a sibling, at least not as soon.” Flay was glad of that for more than just Kira; she herself had become close friends with the Lioness of Orb.

“Not to mention the others I’ve met,” Kira went on. “Murrue, Mu, Yzak, Dearka, Nicol, Lacus, Waltfeld…” He leaned back. “I guess it’s true that shared hardship forges friendships.”

Flay rested her head on his shoulder. “You’d never guess that Cagalli’s a princess by the way she acts.”

Kira laughed. “Call her a princess, and she’ll beat you to death, she hates wearing a dress, and she’s a better pilot than about ninety percent of the Earth Forces.”

Flay looked up at him. “Are you worried about her?”

“Maybe a little,” Kira admitted. “Not very, though; like I said, she is a good pilot, and you know Alex will keep an eye on her. No, it is Athrun I am worried about. You know what he has to face.”

She nodded. Athrun was quite possibly in the worst situation of all. Most of their group was just focused on winning; he had to fight his own father, and it was clearly eating at him.

“He’ll be all right,” she said at last. “It won’t be easy, but he has you and Lacus to help him through it. And I will help him if I can.”

Kira smiled at her. She sure had come a long way since their first meeting. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate it,” he said.

“I hope so,” Flay said softly, then looked up at him. “You make sure you come back, too. I don’t want to lose you, Kira.”

His smile widened. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I’ll be coming back, I promise.” He bent down, brushed her hair out of her eyes, and kissed her.

Alex and Cagalli’s quarters

Soon, Le Creuset, Alex thought. Soon you will pay for Heliopolis. And you, Bartlett. I do not consider you a rival, but you have been a thorn in my side for far too long. It is time to put an end to this. He clenched a fist. And you, Patrick Zala. Tomorrow will end your insane ambitions.

“Brooding again?”

Alex shot his fiancée a sour look. “Tomorrow is the culmination of what I’ve been working towards ever since I arrived at Heliopolis,” he reminded her. “The whole reason for the construction of the Valkyrie was to stop Zala.”

“That, and to protect the PLANTs from the Earth Forces,” Cagalli said. “You’re a patriot to the core, Alex.”

“One with two countries to protect,” Alex said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.” He sat down next to her. “My life has gotten more complicated than I could ever have imagined over the past year.”

She smiled affectionately. “I’m not complaining, either. Even if I did think you were a spy at first.”

“For all of a day and a half,” Alex said with a snort.

Cagalli shook her head. “True, but it’s still weird how things turned out.” She took his hand. “I never thought I’d fall for a ZAFT soldier.”

“I wasn’t ZAFT at the time, but I see your point,” Alex said. “You can never really predict that kind of thing, though I tried.”

She laughed, recalling what Kira had told her months before. “You said any girl who took that kind of interest in you should have her head examined.”

“Until I met you; as I said, anyone who calls you crazy has no sense of self-preservation,” Alex said. “As both the Alliance and Neo ZAFT are going to learn.”

Cagalli squeezed his hand. “We’ll make it,” she said.

“I know.” Alex squeezed back. “We have to win, therefore we will. The alternative is too horrific to consider.”

Alex was right. The alternative to victory was horrific beyond imagination, and it came all too close to reality.

Lagrange point five

“This is our decisive battle,” Lacus Clyne said from the bridge of the Eternal. “With the Earth Alliance and Neo ZAFT upon us, we stand or fall here, and so does the Homeland. Soldiers of Orb and ZAFT, I pray for your success!”

Yzak Joule clutched the Duel’s control bars. “Joule team, launching!” The Duel and the Buster, accompanied by several GuAIZs, leapt from the launch bay. For this battle, they deployed from Jachin itself.

“Strassmeier team, heading out!” Andrea Strassmeier said crisply. Her Specter led the Valkyrie’s Gundams into space.

Kira Yamato leaned back in his pilot’s chair. All the nuclear Gundams save Troy Cadwallader’s Dreadnought had been stored in a special hangar since the return to the PLANTs. His Freedom stood in the center, Anubis and Akatsuki to the right, Justice and Gladiator to the left. Also present was the Gold Frame AMATU.

“Are you ready, Athrun?” Kira asked quietly.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” his friend replied. He looked drawn, but his voice did not waver in the slightest. “Let’s do it, Kira.”

Kira nodded firmly. “Alex, Cagalli, you ready?”

“You bet, Kira!” his sister said.

Alex snorted. “I’m always ready to hit the Earth Forces,” he said coolly. “Sam, Mina?”

“Do you really have to ask?” his cousin returned.

“Like you, we have been working toward this for a long time,” Mina added.

The Spider shook his head. “Right, forget I said anything.” He rammed the throttle forward. “Alex Strassmeier, Anubis launching!”

Dominion, bridge

Muruta Azrael smiled grimly. Despite the intervention of Neo ZAFT and Zala’s new GENESIS weapon, he was confident that the Earth Alliance would ultimately emerge victorious. GENESIS was slow firing, and the Alliance outnumbered both of the other factions combined.

“Peacemaker Force launching,” Captain Sutherland said.

“Enemy mobile suits moving to intercept,” the XO reported.

Sutherland nodded. “As expected, Locate the Archangel ASAP. Once we find them, we strike.” He looked up at Azrael. “Director?”

“Of course,” the other said. “Make the enemy G-weapons priority targets as well, especially the nuclear machines. They have the greatest potential to spoil our plans.”

“All too true,” Sutherland agreed.

And this time it ends, Captain Ramius…

Jachin nearspace

Kira swore, unleashing a missile storm from his METEOR. “Don’t you feel any remorse for doing this!?”

“You dare even call yourselves human!?” Athrun snarled, duplicating his friend’s attack. Dozens of nuclear missiles detonated under the assault.

Strangely, Neo ZAFT had thus far stayed out of the fighting, the majority of their machines guarding GENESIS. No one was stupid enough to think their restraint would last, but for the moment it was a straight up Earth versus ZAFT fight.

Nicol’s Blitz fought alongside the Astray trio. “Take this!” he snarled, beam rifle flashing.

Mayura’s Schwert Gewehr bisected a Dagger that got too close to the Blitz. “You leave him alone!” she snarled.

A hyper-impulse blast skewered several Daggers in a line. “Take that!” Juri snapped.

“For Orb!” Asagi cried. Rifle in one hand, saber in the other, she cut a huge swathe through the Allied formation.

“Keep it up, girls!” Mu encouraged them. “Doing all right, Nicol?”

The green-haired pianist grinned. “Just fine, Mu!”

Kira spared them a brief look, then returned to his own battle. He and Athrun, with their METEOR units, were tasked with eliminating the nuclear threat. If we can take down those missiles, we will be able to spare more forces to stop the fleet.

“You won’t escape me!” Athrun launched another missile spread, wiping out an entire Moebius squadron before they could launch their missiles.

The Freedom’s right beam sword ignited, slicing an Agamemnon-class battleship in half lengthwise. A horizontal slash took out a half dozen Daggers at once.

“Hey, hey, hey!”

Kira sighed. “Those three again.”

It was indeed Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider, all of them firing as they closed. They soon split up, Forbidden and Raider avoiding the two aces entirely.

Clotho let out a war cry. “Exterminate!” he screamed, his Mjollnir slamming into a GuAIZ, destroying it.

Could this get any crazier? Mu wondered. Then a familiar sensation filled his mind. “I had to ask,” he muttered, spotting ZGMF-X13A Providence leading the Neo ZAFT formation. “Looks like Zala’s people are finally crashing the party,” he said, keying his comm. “Watch out!”

Mu knew that the Strike, while more than a match for anything else, was outclassed by the Providence. Nevertheless, he had no intention of running.

Le Creuset, of course, knew he was coming. “How fitting that we have our final match here, Mu!”

“Is this what you were hoping for, you jackal!?” Mu demanded. “A three-cornered fight, nuclear weapons, and that GENESIS thing!?”

“You shouldn’t blame me!” Le Creuset rejoined. “This is mankind’s dream, mankind’s desire, mankind’s destiny! To be the strongest, to go the farthest, to climb the highest!” His DRAGOON system swept out, producing a lethal web of green energy.

Mu knew he was in trouble. He had seen Alex use a DRAGOON system to lethal effect; he was not looking forward to facing one himself. “All of this is the result of your twisted logic!” he snarled, deploying his gunbarrels. They were woefully inadequate against something like the Providence, but they were all he had.

The masked man laughed. “It has all come down to this!” He turned, aiming his huge Judicium beam rifle at a Long Dagger. One blast, and the Alliance machine exploded.

“I’m going to put an end to this right now!” Mu added rifle fire to the gunbarrels. “I won’t let you make things worse!”

Another laugh. “And just what can you do about it, Mu? You’re good, but the Strike is no match for the Providence!”

He is right, Mu thought, trying in vain to draw a bead on his foe. Despite the Providence’s bulk, Le Creuset was making it dance, easily avoiding Mu’s attempts to bring him down. Mu was occasionally able to dodge the DRAGOONs long enough to fire, but he had not yet even come close to connecting.

Alex muttered a German obscenity, dodging a blast from a Buster Dagger and blowing the offending unit to scrap. His Shirasaya ignited, slicing another pair in half, then he deployed his DRAGOONs and immolated a squad of Moebius.

“Done with a surgeon’s precision,” a dry voice said.

Alex felt his lip twist. “Hello, Doctor,” he said, eying the ZGMF-1017M GINN High Maneuver. “Never thought you’d have any praise for me.”

“Despite your fondness for Naturals, your reputation is entirely merited,” Coast replied, firing into a Duel Dagger. Alex noticed that the assault rifle had been replaced with a beam weapon.

“I’m amazed you’re not with Neo ZAFT, given your attitude towards Naturals.” Alex spun, drew a saber, and impaled a 105 Dagger that had been trying to sneak up on him. “I seem to remember you calling them a disease.”

Coast whipped his sword around, bisecting a Strike Dagger. “That was perhaps a misdiagnosis,” he conceded. “Besides, I’m not such a fool as to think I could stand against the Ultimate Coordinator, particularly when he has a machine as powerful as the Freedom.”

Alex nodded slowly. “I see your point.”

The two, soon joined by Cagalli’s Akatsuki, proceeded to carve a huge chunk out of the Earth Alliance fleet. With a few exceptions, the enemy gave them a wide berth; a GINN High Maneuver was one thing, but two Gundams made things far more difficult.

Then a double beam cannon blast flashed past them. “It’s time, Strassmeier!” Daniel Bartlett called. “Ready to die?”

Alex swore under his breath. “Leave him to me, guys.”

“As you wish,” Coast responded.

Cagalli moved more reluctantly. “Be careful, Alex.”

Bartlett laughed. “Getting overconfident, are we?” he asked mockingly. “Sending away your support like that.”

“I don’t want to put anyone else in danger,” Alex countered. His rifle came up. “It’s time to end this.”

The other laughed again. “Go ahead! Try and die!”

Cagalli forced herself not to look back at the Anubis. He will be all right, she told herself firmly. Pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind, Cagalli focused on a Moebius team headed her way. They were carrying what she recognized as a new torpedo design introduced during the Eighth Fleet battle.

“Probably heading for the Menelaos,” she said, “to make Halberton pay for betraying them. Not if I can help it!”

It was entirely possible that the mobile armors never knew she was coming. With marksman ship skills honed by training with Alex, Athrun, and Kira, Cagalli relentlessly picked off the Moebius one by one. Eleven mobile armors exploded in as many seconds.

“Ha!” Cagalli said smugly. “This is too easy.”

A superdense slug from the Seraphim caught her machine in the right side, spinning her around. She regained control, only to spot the Forbidden all too close. Shani had evidently noticed the new chink in her armor and was preparing to take advantage of it with his plasma cannon. No!

The blast never connected. GAT-X102 Duel interposed itself between the two units. “Not so fast, bastard! You’ll have to get through me first!”

“Pest,” Shani muttered. “Just die!”

“Not happening!” Covered by a shotgun blast from Dearka, forcing Shani to go defensive, Yzak drew both sabers and charged, yelling all the way. His left saber sliced the Forbidden’s scythe in half, while the right drilled into the cockpit.

Shani let out a chopped-off scream, and then GAT-X252 Forbidden exploded.

Cagalli slumped in her cockpit. “Thanks, Yzak. I owe you one.”

Yzak’s grinning face appeared on her screen. “Don’t mention it. Alex would never forgive me if I let that psycho take you out.” His expression softened. “Besides, you are family, even if it’s not official yet. That’s enough.”

The princess shook her head, seeing why Alex was so fond of his hotheaded relation. “Let’s go.”

Thunderbird, bridge

“Target Fafnirs on that Nelson to starboard,” Natarle said crisply. A beat. “Fire!”

Six beams of green light struck the Alliance warship amidships, splitting it apart. A follow-up missile barrage struck both Drake-class ships that had been flanking it, severely damaging one and destroying the other outright.

Natarle looked back at her XO. “What about Neo ZAFT?”

“They seem to be in the midst of setting up another mirror for GENESIS,” Morris said. “Commander La Flaga appears to be dueling with the Providence, and Commander Strassmeier is keeping the Deathdealer busy.”

“Bartlett,” Natarle muttered.

Morris looked at her questioningly. “Do we assist?”

She shook her head. “There would be too much risk of hitting our allies. Besides, knowing Mu and Alex, they would prefer to handle these battles personally.” She frowned at her display. “We can, however, cover them. Launch Sledgehammer missiles at that Neo ZAFT GuAIZ formation, set for proximity detonation.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Captain, the Cherubim is closing!” the radar operator said sharply.

Natarle cursed. “Evasive maneuvers!”

The enemy Archangel-class ship’s forward weapons erupted, sending beams, missiles, linear cannon slugs, and antimatter at Natarle’s ship. The beams and antimatter missed completely, but a slug and two missiles got through. One Valiant was wiped away, along with a pair of missile tubes on the starboard side.

“Damage report!” Natarle snapped.

“Valiant One, destroyed,” Morris replied, coughing. “Missile tubes one and two destroyed. Minor damage to outer hull. We’re still in this, Captain.”

But we may not be for long, Natarle thought grimly. “Return fire.”

“Can’t,” Morris said. “A power surge scrambled the fire control. It’ll take a few minutes to sort out.”

“Get it back up as quickly as you can,” Natarle said. “We can’t afford this.”

Fortunately, the Cherubim seemed to be moving off. Either its captain believed the Thunderbird disabled, or Natarle’s ship was considered a low priority target. The latter seemed more likely, judging by the Daggers that occasionally took potshots at them. They did not last long; Troy and Shiho made short work of them.

“Captain!” Morris yelled. “GENESIS!”

Natarle’s head whipped around, and her eyes widened. “It’s firing again.”

Patrick Zala’s team of mad scientists had done their job to perfection. This time the huge weapon was aimed not at the Alliance fleet, though it did destroy a number of warships along the way, but at the Earth Forces base at Ptolemaeus Crater.

There were no survivors from the Alliance’s primary orbital base.

Jachin nearspace

“And so, it continues!” Le Creuset said.

Mu snarled viciously. “I don’t think so, bastard! We’re going to put an end to all of it!”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the masked man said. “It’s been fun, Mu, but I’m afraid I must bring this battle to a close.” His DRAGOON system swept out again, hitting the Strike repeatedly.

Mu cursed, realizing that his enemy had been toying with him. His beam rifle exploded, followed by the Strike’s left arm and right leg. Just as he regained control, something in the cockpit exploded, peppering him with shrapnel. “Urgh!”

Le Creuset laughed, watching the Strike retreat. “Perhaps we’ll meet again before the end!”

Archangel, bridge

“Captain, the Strike is returning,” Mir said. “It’s damaged, and Commander La Flaga is wounded.”

Murrue’s breath caught in her throat. Mu.

The Hawk’s image appeared on the main viewer. “I had a run-in with the Providence,” he said, wincing in obvious pain. “I’m heading back in.”

Murrue swallowed. “All right.” She looked back at Mir. “Are any of our machines in range?”

“Freedom and Justice are nearby,” the girl said promptly. “Athrun says he’s heading for the GENESIS control facility.”

And his father, Murrue thought with a pang.

“Kira is moving to intercept Le Creuset,” Mir went on.

Murrue sighed. “Tell him to be careful.”

“Captain! It’s the Dominion!” Chandra cut in.

The bridge crew froze in their chairs as the black shape of the second ship of the Archangel class loomed before them. Though the only difference in design was a slightly improved comm and radar system, the Dominion looked truly evil. And unlike Lia’s Valkyrie, looks did not deceive.

“Receiving a transmission, Captain,” Flay said quietly.

Murrue clenched a fist. “On screen.”

“Well, hello again, Captain,” Muruta Azrael said. “Thought I’d give you one last chance to surrender; you did enable us to complete the G-weapon project after all.”

She glared at him. “We’re not surrendering to anyone, least of all scum like you,” she said coldly.

Azrael shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said, then turned to the Alliance officer behind him. Murrue recognized him, Sutherland. “Fire the Lohengrin.”

More than one person actually cried out, knowing that there was no time to counter or evade. The huge assault cannons extended from the Dominion’s “legs” and began to glow. Murrue forced herself to remain calm. I am sorry, Mu…

The blast never connected. Archangel was enveloped in a polyhedral shield, stopping the antimatter attack cold.

Murrue sagged in her chair. She knew who had saved the ship; there were only two machines capable of producing that effect, and one of them was busy. “Thank you, Cagalli.”

“From all of us,” Flay added.

Cagalli grinned out from the main screen. “I couldn’t just leave you there, now, could I?” She glanced to the side. “Your turn, Yzak.”

Murrue smiled. Knowing Yzak as she did, the next few seconds were likely to be spectacular.

Dominion, bridge

Azrael stared in disbelief. How did she do that!?

It did not matter, he knew. The all too familiar blue shape of GAT-X102 Duel was already moving to a position directly outside the bridge viewport. At that point even a prototype GINN would have been deadly; a Gundam meant certain doom.

“This is Yzak Joule of ZAFT,” the pilot said. “You thought you would be able to take out our Homeland, but we were too much for you. Now you’re going to pay the price.” The Duel’s rifle slowly rose. “This is for the PLANTs, for Junius Seven, for Orb, and for everyone you bastards have murdered.” Joule’s face appeared on the monitor, wearing a thin smile. “It ends here and now.”

The rifle grenade slammed through the main viewport, stopping directly between Azrael and Sutherland’s command chair, where it exploded.

Jachin nearspace

Yzak did not content himself with just destroying the bridge. With the command center gone, he methodically raked his fire along the doomed ship’s flanks, exploding Igelstellungs, missile tubes, and pretty much anything else he could see.

Not far away, his brother was doing basically the same thing to the Cherubim. Samorei first sliced clean through the superstructure, cutting it from the rest of the ship. He then fired his Callidus down the hole he had created and followed that with a hail of laser fire. By the time he was finished, the Cherubim had been reduced to flames and molten slag.

“Looks like we’re finally turning this around,” Tolle remarked, vaporizing a 105 before it could shoot Yzak in the back.

The older pilot tossed him a salute. “It’s not over yet,” he said, returning the favor by blasting a Duel Dagger to pieces. “The Earth Forces might be crippled, but there’s still Neo ZAFT and GENESIS. Not to mention Le Creuset.”

The Aegis’s arm-mounted sabers ignited, slashing in an X pattern through an enemy CGUE. “Yeah, well, Kira’s taking on Le Creuset, and Athrun’s heading for the control center.” Tolle closed his eyes briefly. “I hate to think about what he’s going through.”

“Yeah,” Yzak agreed. “Nobody should have to fight his own father.”

Tolle powered up his Scylla, blowing a hole through a Drake-class ship. “Lucky he’s got Kira and Lacus to help him out.” He frowned, something catching his eye. Then, “Kyle, look out!”

Kyle Perry swore as a trio of 105 Daggers managed to close with him. He was able to destroy two, but the third got in a number of saber attacks before he could respond, taking out his weapons and severely damaging the torso. The Alliance pilot drew back for a killing blow…

Only to be struck by a green beam from above. “No one does that to my team!” Andrea snarled. “Kyle, get back to the Valkyrie. There’s nothing more you can do here.”

He sighed. “I understand.”

Yzak watched him go, shaking his head. “Stay alive, Kyle.” He looked at the Specter. “Let’s do some damage!”

Andrea grinned. “You got it, Yzak!”

As Yzak had noted, with the destruction of two of their Archangel-class ships and severe damage to the third, the Earth Forces were in full retreat, allowing Orb and ZAFT to focus on the Neo ZAFT traitors. Peripherally, Yzak saw Athrun almost casually slice the Calamity in half with his beam sword, before jettisoning the METEOR unit.

“Be careful, Athrun,” Yzak whispered.

“All right,” Kira said. “I’ll take care of Le Creuset, Mu. You get back to the ship.” Ignoring the horde of mass-produced units, none of which could do more than annoy him, he made for the area where Mu had reported engaging the Providence.

He was about halfway there when a peculiar sensation filled his mind. This feeling…do I have the same power as Alex and Mu? Alex said it starts manifesting in mid-to-late adolescence, so it makes sense that I would not have noticed anything before now.

Regardless, since all three allies with that power (Mu, Alex, and Morgan Chevalier, who had defected after Artemis) were accounted for, Kira knew who it had to be.

He was right. “Ah, Kira Yamato, how delightful to see you again!” Le Creuset said. “Perhaps you can give me more of a fight; Mu’s good, but the Strike is hopelessly outclassed by the Providence!”

Kira snarled. “Shut up! I won’t let you have your way!” He opened up with all of his METEOR’s weapons, hoping to overwhelm the Providence.

No such luck; Le Creuset ignored the missiles, which could not hurt him, and dodged the beams. “A worthy attempt, Kira, but not enough!” His DRAGOONs swept out.

Kira dodged most of the beams, wincing when his right “arm” was blasted off.

“You’re nothing but an irritant, a pest! You’re someone who shouldn’t have been allowed to exist, boy!” Le Creuset charged, igniting his saber, and slicing the METEOR’s other arm off. Kira jettisoned the remains, which promptly exploded.

“You’re crazy, and so’s your logic!” Kira unleashed a multibeam attack, managing to catch one weapon pod.

“If people learned of your existence, they would want to be just as you are!” The Providence wove a deadly web with its DRAGOONs, though Le Creuset knew Kira would not be easy to trap.

Kira clenched his hands. “But that’s… Even if that is true, I’m not defined by my abilities alone!”

The two clashed sabers, Kira’s blades locked in an X over the Providence’s single weapon. “And just who’s going to believe that!?” Le Creuset demanded. “Maybe your friends will, but the masses certainly won’t, be they Natural or Coordinator!”

“No way! People, people aren’t like that at all!” Kira’s voice was firm.

The machines broke apart, trading laser fire. “That’s how people think. Envy, hatred, all of it! Blue Cosmos was only the beginning!”

“That’s garbage!” Kira was having none of it.

Then another machine entered the fray. “Time to die, Commander!” Dearka shouted.

Le Creuset did not even reply. The DRAGOONs swept out again, destroying the Buster’s head, both missile pods, and one leg. Something in the cockpit exploded, shattering Dearka’s faceplate.

“Dearka!” Kira called, watching in horror.

“Forget about me, Kira!” the other responded, blood running down his face. “Just get Le Creuset!”

Kira swallowed. “All right,” he said softly. He glared at the Providence. “That’s it, Le Creuset. I’m not going to let you hurt anyone else!”

The masked madman laughed. “Come at me!”

Anubis and Deathdealer circled each other, firing whenever an opening presented itself. As with every one of their previous battles, Alex held a slim advantage, which as always drove Bartlett half mad with frustration.

“This is where our rivalry ends, Strassmeier!” Bartlett said gleefully. “With Deathdealer’s superior firepower, I will bring you down!”

“Talk is cheap,” Alex countered, his voice glacially calm. His beam shield stopped a cannon attack cold. “And it is your rivalry, not mine. I care nothing for such things; my goal is the protection of my homeland, and those I love. A rivalry would disperse energy better put to that purpose.”

Bartlett stabbed with his javelin, only to have it chopped in half by the Anubis’s Shirasaya. “The ones you love. Don’t make me laugh!” He shifted to his rifle. “You don’t love anyone or anything; you’re just a computer programmed to defend the PLANTs!”

Alex blocked the laser blast. “You always did think with your prejudices, didn’t you?” He returned fire, melting a saber to useless junk. “I do not care what you think about me. The only people whose opinions matter to me are those whom I respect. You, needless to say, are not one of them.”

Bartlett drew his remaining saber. “Always so cold, Strassmeier. Always so convinced in the rightness of your path.” He was starting to sound almost as unhinged as Le Creuset.

Alex blocked the slash with his Shirasaya. “I pity you, Bartlett. You never saw that there was more to life than a meaningless schoolyard rivalry, more than endless competition. That means nothing to me; I have a home, a family, and someone to love. That is what is profoundly important.”

“Ha!” Bartlett laughed. “You tried to be the best, but you didn’t care what that would bring you!”

“I wanted to protect the Homeland to the best of my abilities,” Alex countered. “The Valkyrie and its mobile suits were constructed to further that end.” He slashed, destroying his opponent’s remaining saber. “However, you are correct about one thing.”

Bartlett sneered. “And what’s that?” he returned, pulling his rifle again.

“Your rivalry –and it is yours, not mine- ends here.” Alex snapped up his own rifle, firing repeatedly. The Deathdealer’s shield came around just barely in time, stopping the barrage before it could strike Bartlett’s cockpit.

Bartlett growled incoherently, bringing his back-mounted cannons to bear. “Try this!”

Anubis nimbly avoided the double blast. “Too slow,” Alex said. A DRAGOON pod swooped in, blasting the Deathdealer’s left arm off at the elbow. “If you lose control of your anger, you’ll lose even battles you should win.”

Bartlett laughed suddenly. “Maybe so, but this won’t be one of those battles.” He pulled back, shifting his aim.

Alex frowned, wondering what his eyes was up, and then widened. “No…”

“Eat this!” The Deathdealer’s rifle, cannons, and missile launchers fired all at once, but they were not aimed at Alex. All of it struck the Eternal-class vessel Inexorable amidships, blowing a gaping hole in the hull. Bartlett’s follow-up salvo went through the hole at an angle, reaching the ship’s main powerplant.

Inexorable blew up with all hands.

For a long moment, Alex felt like he was in a dream. He had not known Captain Sandoval exceptionally long, but the man had impressed him with his ability. Now he was gone, just like that.

“Vaya con Dios, Captain,” Alex whispered.

Behind his eyes, a blue seed burst.

Daniel Bartlett was still laughing. “So much for those traitors!” he said gleefully. “They got what they deserved!”

That was when Alex stabbed a saber through the Deathdealer’s left missile pod, destroying it.

“What the!?” Bartlett stared in shock.

“You have been a thorn in my side for far too long, Bartlett,” Alex said, his voice as cold as the space around them. “I don’t consider you a rival, but you are a danger to everything I hold dear.” He stabbed again, taking out the other missile pod. A reverse slash reduced the beam rifle to junk, and a DRAGOON pod moved behind to neutralize the cannons.

Bartlett was frozen in disbelief. His machine had been completely disarmed in mere seconds. “Impossible!”

“Goodbye, Bartlett,” Alex said. He squeezed the trigger, and an emerald beam struck ZGMF-X15A Deathdealer dead center.

Valkyrie, bridge

Lia Ramius felt tears sting her eyes as she watched the Inexorable fiery death. To have fought so hard, only to be brought down by a madman, was as wrong as could be. Even Alex’s subsequent defeat of Bartlett did not assuage it.

“Target all weapons on the Bismack,” she said coldly. Time to finish what Alex started. “Fire!”

Beams, missiles, and antimatter pummeled the Neo ZAFT Nazca. The ship’s anti-beam coating resisted for a split second, then melted under the unrelenting assault. Pieces began to break off of the main hull, and then the remains were consumed in the blinding fury of matter-energy conversion.

Lia sat back in her chair. “It’s almost over,” she said softly.

“Captain, GENESIS is reorienting!” her XO said.

She spun around. “How!?”

He cursed. “It’s aiming at Earth itself! Projected target, Washington.”

In other words, the very heart of the Atlantic Federation. “Do you have an estimate on when it will fire?” Lia asked tightly.

The XO grimaced. “Ten minutes on the outside, Captain. Very probably less.”

Lia cursed. “And there’s nothing we can do to stop it, not in time.” She sighed. “Keep up the pressure on the Neo ZAFT ships.” It is all up to Athrun.

GENESIS control facility

Athrun Zala and Nicol Amalfi charged down the corridor as fast as their legs would move. They, too, had caught the change in GENESIS’ position, and knew exactly what it meant. Patrick Zala was getting ready to wipe out the majority of the system’s Natural population.

I have to stop him, Athrun thought. Before he can continue this madness.

Thus far, they had not encountered much in the way of security. Either Patrick Zala had not seen the need, believing that no one could penetrate his fortress, or he simply did not care. Athrun was not sure which it was, and it did not really matter. What mattered was stopping him before it was too late.

“I think we’re almost there,” Nicol said.

Athrun nodded. Father.

They burst through the control room door minutes later. Both had their guns out before anyone in the room could react. “Hold it!” Athrun snapped.

Patrick Zala slowly turned. “So, you’ve come,” he said slowly, ignoring Nicol.

“Father, please, stop all this,” Athrun pleaded.

Zala glared at him. “You would stop me from avenging your mother?” He laughed harshly. “It’s too late. GENESIS will fire and cleanse the world of the Naturals! There is nothing you can do to stop it!”

Nicol, who had gotten to a control panel while father and son argued, cursed. “He’s right, Athrun. The firing sequence is too far along to cancel.”

Athrun swallowed. “Why? Why do you have to kill all of them, even people who had nothing to do with Mother’s death!?”

“It doesn’t matter,” his father said. “The Naturals are all the same; sooner or later, even your so-called ‘friends’ will turn on you.” His lip curled. “And yet you are willing to point a weapon at me.”

“I have no choice,” Athrun said, choking on his words. “I have to stop you, or everything we’ve fought for will be lost.”

Zala fixed him with a pitiless gaze. “It is clear you are beyond redemption. So be it.” He reached for the machine pistol at his side.

Tears flowing freely, Athrun pulled the trigger.

GENESIS interior

“Athrun, where are you going?” Nicol asked frantically.

“I’m going to destroy GENESIS from the inside,” Athrun told him. Seeing his friend’s look of concern, he managed a bleak smile. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of dying here. There’s still too much I have to do.”

Nicol nodded. “All right. Be careful.”

Athrun watched the Blitz withdraw. You, too, Nicol. Pushing those thoughts –and the pain of what he had just had to do- to the back of his mind, he aimed the Justice at an access hatch. A blast from his Fortis cannons blew it open, and then he was inside.

The way to the core was fairly straightforward. A couple minutes of high-speed flying, and he was there. “No time to be subtle,” he muttered. “I guess the only thing to do is shoot everything, then get out before I’m caught in the blast.”

With that in mind, Athrun systematically raked the chamber with energy fire from one side to the other. Girder’s melted, circuits shorted out, power relays overloaded. Something big in the rear exploded, telling him that it was time to leave posthaste.

Spinning around, Athrun shunted as much power as he could into his thrusters and fled.

Jachin nearspace

Dearka Elsman was in a decidedly foul mood. Le Creuset’s attack had almost completely disabled his machine. The Buster’s right arm was useless, so he was unable to fire the gun launcher, and the loss of its head meant he could barely see.

It could, of course, get worse, and it did. GAT-X370 Raider, piloted by withdrawal-crazed Clotho Buer, appeared nearby.

Buer was laughing insanely. “I’m gonna…I’m gonna…!” With a strangled cry, he charged the Buster, firing wildly.

So, this is it, Dearka thought, watching the Zorn begin to glow. The red-orange blast erupted…

Only to be blocked by a white mobile suit the appeared out of nowhere. “Not so fast, Alliance bastard!” Andrea Strassmeier shouted. “You’ll have to get through me first!”

“Andrea!?” Dearka said incredulously.

“I’m not letting him get you,” she said furiously. Her Trikeros snapped on target. “Die!”

Clotho never realized just what he was facing, though even being in his right mind (loosely defined) would not have mattered. Happy-go-lucky under normal circumstances, Andrea was as cold as her brother on the battlefield, and almost as good a shot. She fired four times, taking out both of the Raider’s arms, its head, and one wing, before sending a fifth blast through the cockpit.

Ignoring the expanding cloud of debris, Andrea moved to grasp the Buster. “Dearka, are you all right!?” she called frantically.

“Minor head wound from Le Creuset’s attack, but I’m fine otherwise,” Dearka said. “Thanks.”

Samorei’s Gladiator and Mina’s AMATU joined them. “Dearka Elsman, you are one lucky guy.”

Dearka grinned. “Yeah, I like to think so.”

“Believe it,” Mina said. “Sam has told me a lot about his young cousin; if you managed to win her heart, then you’re something special.”

The blonde pilot waved a hand. “Yeah, whatever.” He looked out to where the Freedom and Providence were still dueling. “I hope Kira’s all right.”

Le Creuset laughed. “No matter what happens now, I’ve won! When GENESIS fires on Earth, the screams of the victims will trigger battle anew!”

“I won’t allow that!” Kira snarled, firing and dodging.

The Providence closed to melee range. “Why torment yourself? Ultimately, it will all end the same! Justice and fate, ignorance and escapism, they never learn, they never listen!” Le Creuset was sounding crazier by the minute.

Kira clashed his saber with Le Creuset’s. “You don’t understand anything else!”

“Of course, I don’t understand! People can only understand what they’ve experienced!” Le Creuset triggered another energy web. “I know that humanity will become extinct, just as they deserve!”

Both machines had taken major damage. One of the Freedom’s legs was gone, with the railgun above it. Providence had lost several DRAGOON units, and its beam rifle was gone. Two almost equally skilled pilots, in two almost equally powerful machines, doing their best to annihilate each other.

“It won’t happen!” Kira shouted, nailing another pod, this time with a saber. “I’ll never give up!”

Le Creuset hacked downward, severing the Freedom’s left arm at the shoulder. “It won’t matter! We have reached the end of the path! No one can stop it from happening now!”

Kira dodged furiously, countering when he could. “Die!”

“Oh, I’ll be dead soon enough, but so will you, and all your friends!”

That was the wrong line. In an instant, images of people flashed through Kira’s mind. Athrun, standing by him through thick and thin; Flay, giving him her love despite his origins; Cagalli, his beloved sister; Alex, coldly determined to protect his home and loved ones. So many, friends, all.

Behind his eyes, an amethyst seed burst.

Kira let out a war cry, launching a furious attack. “It’s all your fault, you’re the one to blame!” DRAGOON pods exploded one after another under Kira’s fire, until one of them struck his rifle. “You brought us to this!”

“It would have happened even without me!” Le Creuset retorted. His shield-mounted beam cannons kept of an almost constant stream of fire. “This will be a day of reckoning for everyone!”

Kira kept coming, even after a DRAGOON blew the Freedom’s head off. “I won’t allow it!” He snapped his sabers together. “THIS IS STILL A WORLD THAT’S WORTH PROTECTING!”

At the last instant, Le Creuset realized he had underestimated Kira. The beam saber stabbed into his cockpit, wounding him in the side. It was fatal, and he knew it, but he did not care. What mattered was that it was over, and he smiled as his faceplate shattered.

ZGMF-X09A Justice grabbed the Freedom just as GENESIS fired for the last time, the destruction at its core triggering a misfire. The Providence vanished, but Freedom was carried to safety. Kira was too exhausted to thank his friend, but Athrun knew what he was thinking.

“I’d never leave you behind, Kira,” he said softly, smiling despite his grief. “You did great.”

Main dock, Jachin Due

Kira wearily opened Freedom’s hatch, more exhausted than he had ever been. The fight with Rau Le Creuset had taken its toll on him, so he offered no resistance as Athrun helped him out of the cockpit.

“Kira!” Flay Allster threw herself into his arms. “Oh, Kira!”

He hugged her. “I’m here, Flay. It’s over.”

“You were terrific, kid,” Mu said, approaching with Murrue beside him.

“Good work, Kira,” Murrue said with a smile.

Alex and Cagalli moved to join them. “I always knew you were something special,” Cagalli said, breaking away from her fiancé to embrace her brother.

Kira smiled shakily. “I’m nothing special.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, my friend,” Alex said. “You pulled moves ninety-nine percent of Coordinators, me included, could possibly have managed. I’m not saying you’re defined by your abilities, but the fact remains.”

The younger pilot sighed. “Maybe. Right now, I’m just…so tired.”

“Get some rest, then,” Murrue told him. “You’ve earned it, little brother.”

After almost a year of virtually nonstop fighting, they had finally stopped the Earth Forces from dominating the PLANTs and had effectively destroyed Neo ZAFT. They were exhausted, and everyone knew Blue Cosmos was still out there, but for the moment it did not matter.

The war was over. They had won.