Phase 23 - Smoke and Mirrors

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED ETERNITY

Phase 23 - Smoke and Mirrors

May 9th, CE 77 - Codajas, Amazon rainforest, Brazil, South America

"Okay kids, time for a crash course in Amazon River geography and inhabited localities."

Edward Harrelson looked far more jovial than he had any right to be as he crouched on a dock on the banks of the mighty Amazon, with Emily, Rau, a bemused-looking Jane, and a handful of fighters clustered around him and a big paper map of Brazil spread out in front of him.

The town around them was a different one from Anori, mostly because it was still standing, but also because it sat directly on the banks of the Amazon, and across the river's wide span numerous boats and vessels large and small could be seen plying their way up and down the winding waters. And this little town of Codajas, fifty kilometers west of Anori, was a well-frequented rest point for some of those riverine vessels ships that could travel from the large city of Iquitos in faraway Peru all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. That was what the three barges floating tepidly at the dock were for and that was why a total of twelve camions were hauling aboard the hidden mobile suits including the Eclipse, the Sword Calamity, and the Forbidden Blue.

"Codajas is about two hundred kilometers from our friends in Manaus, which we'll have to pass by on the way to Belém," Ed explained. "They have a great big base that could cause us some trouble, but we can probably slip by unnoticed, since they don't check all the barges and we can bribe the shit out of them. Then we'll have to pass by Santarém, where we can do the same thing." He tapped a finger on Belém, at the mouth of the river. "Now, that we can't bribe our way out of." He looked up grimly at the men surrounding him. "Other than the Gundams, we can only take nine mobile suits. I've picked the nine of you who have the best machines and the best pilots. We'll have a hard enough time of it with these three barges." He glanced around the circle. "But I know none of you are lightweights. You can handle this. We'll be on the river for five days."

One of the pilots grinned back confidently. "They're not gonna know what hit 'em in Belém," she chuckled.

"No they won't," Ed agreed, "especially if Enrique gets his people ready. So speaking of that, we've got a lot of work to do. We set out at daybreak tomorrow." He clapped a hand on his knee and stood up. "Hop to it, boys and girls."

The dock rumbled and Rau Le Creuset grinned as the camion rattled past, towards the ramp leading into the first barge. At his side, Emily blinked in surprise at the sweeping, curving white and silver armor of a mobile suit.

"Is that a CGUE?" she started. "What'd they do to it?"

"CGUE Assault," corrected Rau. "Fitted with an Assault Shroud armor system for improved endurance, more weapons, more powerful thrusters..." He gestured at the graceful armor as the workers began slowly edging the camion onto the barge. "It will be my machine for combat at Belém. A bit of a downgrade from the GOUF, but I will make do."

Emily stared after the CGUE for a moment. "And the Minerva will be there to pick us up?"

"Somewhere nearby. We will have to make adjustments to this plan as circumstances dictate. The difficult part will be getting past the Alliance base at Belém. Once we do that, we should have a clear path into the Atlantic."

"But what if we don't?"

Rau grinned. "If we don't," he said, "then you'll have to us make us a path."

Manaus Air Base, Amazon rainforest, Brazil, South America

Above the noise of an airbase at work and facing out towards the Osprey VTOL plane being loaded with her Buster Windam, Dana Barrak stared sadly past the plane to the southwest, down the river, towards Anori. The smoke had finally faded away, but the recon flights had shown her just what she had done, and it wasn't pretty.

She shook her head. She knew why she had done that; orders to be more aggressive towards Ed the Ripper's guerrillas, and desperation. It was her fault, in more ways than one, that the situation had reached such a hopeless point. If she had left troops to guard the inlet, if she had bombarded the jungle before conducting the search, if she had made the dredging crew load the GOUF onto a barge and ship it to Manaus...

But there was no sense agonizing over the hypothetical. Either way, she had just blasted a town and a few thousand people out of existence, and the Phantom Pain was sending one of its creatures to praise her for it and to do it again.

And that was even worse. Anori had been home to about ten thousand; Belém, however, had almost two million crammed into its slums. The city was crawling with Resistance fighters and sympathizers. It had long been a thorn in the side of Brigadier General Kenneth, the man in charge of the Belém base to the north of the city proper. It was an embarrassment to the occupation authorities. It was a nest of rats that men like Lieutenant Commander Liberman would take endless joy in exterminating. And she would be part of it.

She thought back to the graceful Sword Calamity and its ever-elusive pilot. And yet "Ed the Ripper" wasn't his only nickname. "The Hero of South America" was just that, and, Dana mused, he was a hero against people like her, people who dropped bombs and obliterated entire villages. No wonder the people hid him, protected him, joined his ranks; no wonder her job was still incomplete.

Hero of South America. She turned her eyes east, towards Belém, and wondered who would be the hero there.

Earth Alliance Siegfried-class carrier plane Volturno, Atlantic Ocean

Silence descended on the bridge of the Volturno at the sensor officer's report, and in the command chair, Lieutenant Commander James Liberman scowled contemptuously at the Earth Alliance Air Force regulars around him.

"That's ridiculous," he scoffed. "They can't have a mobile suit force in Belém. What the hell has General Kenneth been doing there? Looking the other way?"

"That's what the intel says, sir," the noncom said awkwardly. "Intel gives Resistance forces around Belém over two dozen mobile suits, hidden in the jungle outside the city."

Liberman threw his hands up in exasperation. "Regular forces! Can't get anything done. Captain "

"It's nothing to worry about, commander," someone else interrupted.

The bridge doors hissed open and all eyes turned to face the black-uniformed Rena Imelia as she strode onto the bridge.

"Twenty-some mobile suits will be no match for our forces, as well as the troops at Belém and Major Barrak's battalion," she added. "And the Testament." She shrugged indifferently. "Besides which, your real cause for concern is the Midnight, in case they show up, and whether or not the Minerva takes the bait you're laying out here."

Liberman frowned. "Upgraded as it is, a six-year-old captured ZAFT prototype isn't going to solve everything," he sneered. "Not if we throw in Resistance mobile suits. And if Kenneth was incompetent enough to let this situation fester for so many months, I would rather not rely on him to fix it in one fell swoop. Which is why," he glanced at the ship's captain, "I want the bomb bays ready for a full carpet spread. We will level the entire city if we have to."

Rena arched an eyebrow. "I thought you brought me along on this little expedition specifically to deal with the unexpected." She smirked back at the seething officer. "Don't you remember? I'm the 'Sakura Burst?'"

"I am aware, Lieutenant Imelia," Liberman shot back through gritted teeth.

"And either way," Rena continued impassively, "that's still not what I'm worried most about."

"And what are you worried about?"

Rena extended a hand towards the strategic map and the tiny cluster of islands in the center of the Atlantic Ocean. "You're forgetting the attack on the Azores a few days ago. A swarm of ZAFT mobile suits launched a surprise raid land, air, and sea. And then they disappeared again. It wasn't Mirage Colloid; they clearly had a mothership. But nobody saw the raid coming and nobody saw anything of their mothership." She turned back towards Liberman with an inquisitive look. "And all those mobile suits retreated south."

"What are you getting at?"

"It's obvious, commander. ZAFT has troops in the Atlantic; ZAFT mobile suits launched an attack on the Minerva the other day; we're baiting the Minerva to come to Belém..." She turned her back on the simmering officer. "Add it all up, commander, and you have a lot more than the Resistance to worry about."

Battleship Minerva, Atlantic Ocean

"The Gaia really isn't designed for this," sighed Matt Abes as he looked over the silent Gaia Gundam in the Minerva's hangar, with Stella and Lily at his side and several of the ship's mechanics down below, rechecking the mobile suit's waterproofing seals. "Those seals were designed for desert and tropical climates. If we wanted to turn the Gaia into an amphibious machine, we'd pretty much need to rebuild it from the ground up."

Stella frowned and looked at the hangar floor awkwardly. "But the Abyss is broken..."

"Hey, wait a minute," Lily interrupted, "didn't she kick ass out there against those ZAFT things?"

"Yeah," Abes agreed, "but kicking ass doesn't mean your mecha is designed for underwater combat." He scratched his head wearily. "This is all easier in space."

"Stella doesn't wanna go back to space," Stella said flatly.

"Yeah, it's boring up there," added Lily. "Besides, I thought the ship could fly. Why can't we just go over the land?"

Abes sighed as he looked back up at the Gaia's dark eyes. "Basic non-combat tactics, ladies. Less observation of our movements. Nobody's going to shoot an RPG at us or something out of the sea. The levitator can get us up to higher speeds over water. If we need to stop, it's easier to set down in the water than somewhere on land. And we can fly lower over the water than we can over land." He shrugged and handed his tablet off to one of the passing mechanics. "Better get used to it, anyways. Once we pick up Emily and Rau, we're heading back over water to find Gigafloat."

"Why?" Lily asked skeptically, as Abes turned to leave. "What's there?"

Abes smirked back. "Some new Gundams."

"You don't seem very worried about Emily," observed Shinn Asuka quietly as he worked in the Destiny Gundam's cockpit. Passing by on the gantry outside, Viveka glanced inside the Destiny with a surprised blink.

"Oh yeah, you can do that," she sighed. "Well, no, no I'm not."

"How come?"

"Because she's hanging out with a bunch of Valentine War aces." She frowned and crossed her arms. "Why, should I be concerned?"

Shinn bit his lip and glanced back down at the Destiny's console. "Ed and Jane will look after her. And besides, if Meyrin's plan works out, we'll be able to pick her up soon enough anyway."

"Okay," Viveka said, and stomped up to the Destiny's cockpit jamb, "what's your deal with the masked guy? You guys are all cagey about him, and it's starting to piss me off."

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you." Shinn sat back and scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "Let's...let's just say there's bad blood between us."

"For what?"

"Junius War stuff. Ask Athrun about it. He'll probably tell you."

Viveka stared skeptically at Shinn for a moment, and then turned on her heel. "He'd better."

And as she stomped away, Shinn leaned forward with a sigh and closed his eyes, stretching out his senses. Emily and Rau were way too far away and that was the worst part.

The cork came out with a resounding pop and Roxy Bannon triumphantly held aloft a bottle of twenty-year-old scotch whisky.

"This is the good shit," she said, and promptly poured three glasses, two for an unimpressed-looking Sting and Auel. She took one up and raised it in a toast. "To being awake." Sting and Auel hesitantly took their own glasses, brought them all together, and each took a sip.

Auel coughed and sputtered as he shoved the glass back down. "Goddammit, would you warn us the next time you pour us stuff like that?"

"Lightweight," snorted Roxy. "This is only fifty percent alcohol. And twenty-year-old scotch, too! This stuff's older than you two are." She punctuated herself with another sip. "So how's the waking world treating you?"

"The same as it always does," Sting sighed. "Though I kind of wish we hadn't left it. At least, not until after Copernicus."

"Oh, none of that, or I'll pour you another," warned Roxy. She glanced between Sting and Auel, the former looking put out and the latter staring apprehensively into his glass of ludicrously expensive alcohol. "There wasn't anything you two could've done anyway. No mobile suits left, and we didn't even realize they were bringing out the poison gas until it was too late."

Sting propped up his chin on the table. "How is that any better?"

"Well, what would you have done if you'd been awake?"

"Probably commandeered a mobile suit from somewhere else," Auel answered with a shrug. "Who would've said no?"

Roxy regarded them for a moment as she took another sip of scotch. "Well, I'll put it for you like this," she said. "We had Wonder Girl over there in her new Gundam beating the shit out of everybody and even she didn't realize what ZAFT was doing until it was too late. Neither did Athrun or Shinn or Rau, for all their vaunted Newtype gimmicks. It was just dumb luck that Trojan stumbled onto them."

"And ten million people had to die for that?" Sting asked disconsolately.

"And now you know why I poured you the twenty-year-old scotch," Roxy answered with a grin.

The reports were rather disconcerting, when taken out of context. A swarm of mobile suits descending from the sky and rising from the ocean, seemingly from nowhere, to butcher the Azores base and sink some ten warships docked there, then slipping away with hardly a loss among them. Alliance warships all over the Atlantic sinking seemingly at random. The Alliance suspected some ZAFT submarine, but they could never find it.

But, in the captain's office, Meyrin glanced up at Athrun. He always had an explanation.

"Lagash," he said. "One of my father's contingency plans." He sat back in his chair with a sigh. "During the Valentine War, he had a supply base called Lagash built on the floor of the Pacific Ocean as an ace up the sleeve. It's one of ZAFT's best-kept secrets, but you learn about these things when your father is the National Defense Committee Chairman."

Meyrin looked back at the screen, thinking. "And they kept this secret from Wellington and Carpentaria?"

"Can't reveal what you don't know about. Only the chairman, FAITH, and select other units knew about it."

"Well, that would explain why the ZAFT forces showing up on Earth have such well-maintained equipment..." She shook her head. "Any idea what's doing all this?"

Athrun shrugged. "I wasn't that far in the loop. I know on the PLANTs they were working on some new design for a submarine with increased stealth capabilities, so I wouldn't be surprised if they moved that work down to Earth. That might be why nobody can find the ship launching these attacks." He shrugged. "But if they want to attack us from the air, they're going to have to surface, and whatever active stealth they have is going to be lost."

Meyrin rubbed her temples. "I guess we have to hope they do so at Noronha."

"Well," Athrun said grimly, "there is another problem here." Meyrin looked up. "If this thing's the same submarine that we're guessing hit the Azores, then the Alliance is going to bring a ton of firepower into the area to sink it," he explained. "And if we don't get past the enemy soon, we'll be there, right in the middle of it. Letting the Alliance do us a favor is one thing; sticking around while they do it is something else entirely."

Meyrin looked back down at the tactical map. Driven north by those ZAFT units to the south, into the jaws of a ZAFT unit that was itself walking into a trap but beyond that, the path north was clear.

"We'll have to take the risk," she said. "With any luck, this ZAFT force will draw away ships from Belém. And if they don't," she shrugged, "we'll deal with it when we get there. But we can't leave our pilots hanging."

Athrun closed his eyes, his face grim. "No, we can't."

ZAFT submarine supercarrier Aristotle, Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, Atlantic Ocean

Nathaniel Hatias stepped onto the conn with an uneasy air as the ship went silent. Camwell was hunched over the sonar station as the sonar officer listened intently to his headset.

"New contact," he explained, "probably a civilian freighter. I've sent us to periscope depth as a precaution before we move."

"Leveling at twenty meters, captain," the diving officer reported, and Nathaniel turned towards the periscope. And there it was, a blur that slowly came into focus on the periscope's sights the dark gray hulk of a large tanker transport gliding over the surface with a civil ensign flapping lazily in the breeze.

Nathaniel snapped the periscope handles back into place. "Leave it alone," he ordered. The bridge went silent, and Camwell gaped at him in disbelief. "Resume silent drive. Continue on our present heading, depth three hundred meters."

He moved to leave the conn, but Camwell stepped up next to him. "Captain, we're not going to attack?"

"Of course not. That's not a military target."

"But sir, our orders " He glanced around the conn awkwardly. "You know what our orders are. We're to attack any and all targets of opportunity, civilian and military. Flags are to be disregarded. You were there when Marshal Sunogachi told us, sir."

"I know," Nathaniel answered, "and I'm ordering you, leave it alone."

"And ignore our orders?"

Nathaniel turned on his heel and fixed Camwell with a harsh look. "That was a Yuanmei-class freighter, wasn't it?"


"And how big is the complement on a ship like that? Thirty men or so?" Camwell nodded hesitantly. "Then answer me this. What did those thirty men do to us that requires us to kill them?"

Camwell scowled back. "The important thing is the cargo inside that ship, sir. You know what this plan is about. It would only take one torpedo. If we go passing up targets like that, then we're not doing our part in the plan. That's another shipload of whatever that ship was carrying another ship that can survive to ferry things across the ocean. How are we going to strangle the Alliance's economy if we don't target their merchant marine?"

"We're doing nothing of the sort," Nathaniel scoffed, and turned on his heel. "As I said, Camwell. Leave it alone."

Nathaniel stalked off the conn, leaving a seething Camwell in his wake.

"Load the Mk 9 torpedoes first," Alec Ladd's voice boomed out from the gantry overlooking the slumbering Proto Abyss. The mechanics glanced up at him wearily. "I'll adjust the homing systems myself. The torpedoes were running sluggishly in the last battle."

At his side, the chief mechanic scratched his head tiredly. "I'm telling you, Ladd, this isn't what the Proto Abyss was designed to do. The final model was only a little better in terms of avionics and flight handling, and that was after the Alliance gave it a flight unit. You're not gonna get much better than this."

Alec crossed his arms and glowered in frustration at the Proto Abyss's face. "It's gonna have to be. If I'm gonna take on the Destiny again."

"Man, can't you leave that to people with better hardware?" sighed the chief. "I hear there's a guy out there with a Destiny Impulse unit. He can probably do it. Why do it with the Proto Abyss?"

Silence descended over them as Alec glanced down the hangar, at the other mobile suits. "If I don't fight the Destiny, then who will?" he asked. "You know the Minerva has been targeting our units on special operations, like Glasgow's unit. If we let them do that, then this war will never end."

"That doesn't change my point."

"No," Alec agreed, "but the sooner we get this damn war over with, the better." He glanced back bitterly into the Proto Abyss's darkened eyes. "Before we have to kill everybody."

May 10th, CE 77 - Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., Atlantic Federation

The car door slammed shut and Robert Meyers sat back with a sigh as the engine started. The press was whipped into a frenzy over this little break with senatorial tradition, but that was all well and good. While they fussed over tradition and accosted the spurned 86-year-old Senior Senator from Oregon, the new President pro tempore of the Atlantic Federation Senate could get some work done before the hounds came calling again.

Meyers glanced over at the car's other two occupants and offered them a wan smile. "That went better than I expected."

Seri Minamoto glanced over awkwardly at the intimidating face of Admiral MacIntyre. The elder man, fresh from testimony in his immaculate white uniform, had the look of an animal out of its element, ready to spring. He tapped his cane on the floor of the car and fixed Meyers with a grim look.

"I think I have waited long enough to hear your case, senator," he said.

"Perhaps," Meyers answered with an easy shrug. "Of course, the downside of high office is that you can write a whole agenda, get elected for it, and then have to throw it out the day you take office and ad hoc the rest. It's all crises." He glanced out the car's windows, at the retreating Capitol dome. "And we're about to create a big one."

"Which brings me back to what you're going to do with it," MacIntyre pressed on. "And I'll add that as a military man, I doubt ZAFT can be bought off. They are motivated as much by revenge as by rational self-interest. If we offer up Blue Cosmos to them, there's no guarantee they'll settle for that." He waved a hand towards the sky. "You remember Sunogachi's speech. She considers herself passing judgment on all Naturals, not just Blue Cosmos."

"Admiral, with respect, everyone can be bought off by rational self-interest," chuckled Meyers. "Give them Djibril and Blue Cosmos and they'll be on their heels long enough for us to organize a real final blow against them. Djibril is fortunate that ZAFT has been so heavy-handed that the public is too distracted with its hatred for them to notice that nobody has managed to stop ZAFT so far." He smiled grimly. "Except the Minerva."

"And I remind you, senator, that the Minerva is still our enemy."

"Enemies, friends, that's all pretty fluid these days. We weren't exactly looking at the Minerva as the enemy during that battle at Sagan City, were we?"

MacIntyre glowered at Meyers for a moment and cleared his throat. "Be that as it may," he said, "you would be wise not to put too much faith in them. They made their name by fighting us, after all."

With an airy sigh, Meyers sat back and turned his eyes towards the ceiling. "That may be useful, when the time comes." He looked back at MacIntyre, and the older man felt his stomach turn at that strange, almost undetectable shift in the atmosphere inside the car. "I suppose in the end, even if his methods are wrong, Djibril has the right idea."

MacIntyre frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Well," Meyers said, "I'll draw an example for you. I'm sure you recall a country in the Middle East, back before the Reconstruction War? They were a religious minority, well-armed by a faraway superpower for strategic reasons, and their nation imposed a deep division between those with differing, ancient, religious claims on the same territory. It was an intractable conflict. Never really was resolved, until the Eurasian Federation just subsumed them both and put the whole region under nice and secular martial law.

"They couldn't live together without someone keeping a lid on their conflicts. It wasn't because of their differing religions, but because they had spent decades at war with each other, and whole generations had grown up seeing the other as the enemy and suffering under the other's attacks. They would have destroyed each other in short order anyway. Almost destroyed the world, through the Reconstruction War.

"Anyway, the point of this story is that some differences are too deep to overcome. And that's what we've created with this conflict." He gestured towards the sky towards space, towards the graves of so many Coordinators. "They'll never forgive us for the Requiem. And how could they? Their entire nation, blown away in one fell swoop. And we'll never forgive them for Copernicus. Ten million people dead in the city that stands as one of our species' greatest achievements. But they don't want forgiveness, and we weren't going to apologize anyway. So we can only fight until one or both of us is destroyed, or we can go our separate ways."

MacIntyre glanced towards a decidedly uncomfortable Seri. "And so you think the Coordinators should have stayed at Mars?"

"We wouldn't have gone after them if they did," Meyers shrugged. "Not with Djibril so distracted with the Resistance. Hell, they might have gone even further out, to Jupiter. Genetically enhanced people would be better suited to that kind of thing anyway."

MacIntyre sat back and thought of a man who did change, and overcame those prejudices and then looked back at Meyers, and decided that it would be wasted breath.

River barge Rio Purus, outside Manaus, Amazon River, Brazil, South America

Looming in the distance behind a blurry line where the murky waters of the Rio Negro met the mighty Amazon, Manaus Air Base stared out over the river and over the Rio Purus, the rusty barge loaded with four camions that had four mobile suits hidden beneath thick brown tarps. The crew was tense. Edward Harrelson stood at the pilothouse, arms crossed, staring back at Manaus across the river. The crew was tense, yes but not that bad, and it melted away when they looked at their hero. If push came to shove, they all trusted Ed the Ripper to save them.

That was the tough part of being a hero.

Somewhere near one of the camions, Emily leaned against the door and stared numbly into the rolling water. She turned over Rau's words in her mind. There wasn't much to argue about all sides of this war being corrupt she had seen that all firsthand.

But the destruction, the suffering, the pain...that had all come too. There were lives shattered in Murmansk, Volgograd, Novorossiysk, Copernicus...and Argus's treachery had cost Isaac his life. And there was Kyali and Aza, who had died for so little. And Lily, who had been turned into an Extended by a crazy world.

And that led her back to Rau's point. Everything must burn.

She squeezed her eyes shut as the words brought back her father's voice, ringing in her head.

She will be our angel of death.

Perhaps that was the purpose to turn towards. Her father had given her a power that was only good for destroying things but from destruction might come rebirth. The angel of death destroyed those whose time had come, but the death of one person made room for another. War destroyed cities and countries and worlds, but something new could be made when the rubble was cleared away.

But the angel of death still broke people's hearts. And nothing could change that.

Manaus Air Base, Amazon rainforest Brazil, South America

Dana Barrak slumped down into her seat on the humming Globetrotter transport plane and glanced out the window, where an Osprey VTOL transport was lifting off with the last of her battalion's mobile suits and heavy equipment inside. New arrivals from Maracaibo Naval Station had replaced her losses at Anori and Ed the Ripper's flotilla of river barges had passed Manaus less than an hour ago. The plan was going flawlessly so far.

She glanced to the side as Andrew sat down next to her. "The last transport is away," he said. "We're going to take off soon." He paused awkwardly. "Err, major, did the Phantom Pain really send for us specifically?"



Dana gave Andrew a look that said everything, and he blanched in horror.

"Anori?" he whispered.

"Commander Liberman said it was 'impressive,'" she sighed. "He called it 'leadership.'"

"Major, I still don't know why "

"And neither do I," Dana interrupted. She shook her head; of course she knew why. Why the Phantom Pain had been impressed, why she had done it in the first place. "We maybe fighting in Belém. When we land, see about getting our men into the simulator rotation. We'll need to brush up on urban combat tactics."

"Urban combat major, they're going to have us fight inside the city?"

"Of course. Liberman called it a chance to destroy the Resistance in the city." She sank down into her seat as the plane lurched forward and started taxiing. "Just like the Phantom Pain, isn't it?"

ZAFT submarine supercarrier Aristotle, Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, Atlantic Ocean

"Minerva sighted!" the call rang out on the conn. Nathaniel swung the periscope around, to the south, and smirked tightly as he found the winged battleship sailing straight into his clutches. It was always satisfying to see his traps spring shut.

"Looks like they're unaware," Camwell said triumphantly. "They'll have no idea what hit them."

"So it seems," agreed Nathaniel, and he snapped the periscope shut. "Diving command, surface the boat. Prepare to launch the first mobile suit team, Ladd in command. Torpedoes and missile command, prepare to launch a full spread."

The Aristotle rumbled as it began to rise towards the surface, and Nathaniel crossed his arms as the external cameras came online and the briny depths gave way to the brilliant blue sky and rolling ocean. The six vertical catapults opened, the arms reached towards the heavens, and the mobile suits went rocketing out and Nathaniel fixed his eyes on the Minerva.

"Never would have expected Captain Gladys to turn out like this," he said quietly. Camwell glanced at him inquiringly. "Minerva's captain," he explained. "She was always close to Chairman Dullindal, as I recall. Some said it was how she was appointed captain of such an advanced new warship."

Camwell stared disdainfully at the monitor and the winged battleship upon it. "Oh, who cares," he grunted. "If she wants to be on the wrong side of history, then let her."

Earth Alliance Radar Station Vila dos Remedios, Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, South America

The control room buzzed as soldiers raced to and fro, reports and computer noise ringing through the air. The 1st lieutenant in charge rubbed his temples wearily it only figured that a sleepy little radar station like his would find itself in front of an impeding mobile suit battle.

"Sir, we've got some images now of that submarine," one of the enlisted said, and a moment later the main screen lit up with the image of a gigantic submarine in the dull gray-green colors of ZAFT, with huge fins on its back and six open vertical catapults. "But there's no records of a submarine like this anywhere. It's gigantic."

"Of course there are no records," the lieutenant sighed. "It's a new ship. And I bet it's the one that attacked the Azores the other day." He crossed his arms. "And the Minerva is coming in from the south?"

"Yes sir."

"Christ, what a mess..." He shook his head. "Well, what all is docked in Natal?"

Another man checked his console. "Eight ships, sir. Three Barracuda-class submarines, two destroyers, two frigates, and the Cleveland. Should we call them in?"

"Looks like it," the lieutenant grumbled. "Send out a signal to Natal. Tell them we have an unidentified ZAFT submarine and the Minerva about to enter combat at Fernando de Noronha, and if they hurry, they'll be able to wipe out the whole bunch. This isn't an opportunity to pass up."

Battleship Minerva

"I love it when the enemy makes mistakes for us," Roxy sighed contentedly as the Minerva's bridge sank down into its combat state. Meyrin stared up ahead and frowned at the looming, winged hulk of the ZAFT submarine evidently responsible for all this nonsense. It certainly wasn't a Vosgulov-class; this thing was far bigger, waiting at the edge of the archipelago, daring the Minerva to close in and attack.

She glanced over at the other side of the island, at the Alliance radar station the one that was awfully easy to mistake for a civilian radio station. Two could play at that game.

"Mobile suits approaching, captain," Burt spoke up. "Twelve BABIs, four DOM Troopers, and sonar is picking up eight ASHes and the Abyss underwater."

"Roxy, communications from Remedios?"

"They're shitting their pants and Natal is scrambling eight warships, including a Spengler."

So this was going well so far. Meyrin sat back. "Launch the mobile suits and load the Wolframs. Burt, where are those Alliance units?"

"ETA should be about half an hour, if they approach at flank speed."

Meyrin looked back out towards the ZAFT warship. "Then we have a fish to hook. All hands, prepare for combat!"

As a wall of bubbles rushed up around the Gaia, Stella Loussier settled into the cockpit seat and waited. The enemies were out there eight of those odd-looking ASH mobile suits, with the claws and long shoulders. And up ahead, eight pink monoeyes lit up in the murky depths and then the thin green trails of phonon maser fire lanced out from the deep.

Stella backed away as the blasts seared by, snapped up the Chaos's beam rifle, and fired back a volley of maser blasts of her own. The monoeyes parted around the shots and the ASHes began to close in and Stella tensed and waited for her chance.

One of the ASHes rushed forward through the water and transformed; it charged forward with its claws open. Stella fired back with the maser rifle, only for the ASH to dodge her shots and close in; and the seven others began to edge towards the surface.

"You guys should watch the sharks," Stella muttered, as the first ASH swiped at her with its claws. "They're better hunters than you!" She slammed a hand down on the transmit button. "Minerva, torpedoes!"

The Minerva obligingly dumped four Wolfram torpedoes into the water. The weapons immediately started up and lanced down through the sea towards their targets, and the ASHes veered off course and turned their masers on the attacking projectiles providing just enough distraction for Stella to lunge forward and rip the first ASH's chest open with a combat knife. Seawater swept into the wound and the defeated mobile suit began to sink, and up above a second ASH ducked around one of the torpedoes and turned towards the Gaia; Stella seized its dying hulk and threw it into the path of the second ASH's maser fire.

And as the first ASH exploded under its comrade's fire, Stella darted out from behind its buckling body and drilled a maser blast of her own through the second ASH's torso.

Stella hacked her way through the smoke and drove after the Minerva's four torpedoes and six defensive ASHes.

Bazooka shells split the air and beams slammed against the beam shield as Trojan's DOM Trooper glided into battle over the blue waters. He glowered up at the four charging DOM Troopers ahead, all with smoke curling from the bazooka barrels of their Gigalaunchers.

"I've just about had it with all these stupid distractions," he growled the DOMs opened fire and Trojan sent his mobile suit whirling to the left, out of harm's way, and fired back with a volley of beam blasts. "You keep getting in my way!"

The green DOM Trooper jetted forward, the beam sabers at the end of its rifle flashed to life, and Trojan swept in towards the ZAFT mobile suits with a shout. The four DOMs broke their ranks and backed away only for Trojan to rocket forward, close the distance towards the first one, and rip its right arm off at the elbow. The DOM staggered back as its comrades opened fire, but Trojan ducked beneath the blasts and finished off the wounded DOM with a blast from the Gigalauncher's beam cannon and then darted to the side again, to flank the remaining DOMs and force them back.

Undaunted, the three DOMs split up and the first one went on the attack with a drawn beam saber. Trojan parried the blow with his rifle's blades, but then flung his mobile suit back to avoid a bazooka shell from the second DOM, and then back farther still to dodge a beam blast from the third.

Trojan glanced over at the clock and then back at the three mobile suits before him. "Fifteen more minutes before this bullshit is over with," he grunted.

"Like we said, just keep them busy," Roxy instructed. In the Vent Savior's cockpit, Lily nodded enthusiastically.

"Oh, I'll keep them busy, like they won't believe!"

The Vent Savior rocketed down towards an oncoming formation of BABIs and let loose a withering salvo of beam and plasma blasts, scattering the oncoming ZAFT machines. They let loose a storm of missiles, but Lily only laughed and dove down towards the sea, then pulled up sharply and let the missiles slam uselessly into the water. The BABIs pursued with a wall of beam rifle fire; Lily grinned back up at them as she brought her silver Gundam around.

"Busy, they say," she started. "I'm gonna have such cool stories for Emily!"

The Vent Savior roared forward and wove its way through the BABIs' beam fire. The ZAFT mobile suits broke formation again but in a flash, the Vent Savior transformed and blew away one of the BABIs with a pulsing salvo of beam fire. The seven survivors arced around, training their fire on the Vent Savior, only to catch nothing but exhaust as the silver Gundam lunged above their blasts.

Undeterred, the ZAFT mobile suits arced back into formation and circled back towards the Vent Savior. The silver Gundam backed away, eyes flashing, as the BABIs opened fire with a hail of shotgun blasts.

"But that's just boring!" Lily wailed and the Vent Savior burst forward with roaring engines and shot down a second BABI before the ZAFT mobile suits could retaliate. They broke formation again, but not before Lily whipped around and blew a third BABI out of the sky.

The mobile suits clawed for distance and fired off another barrage of missiles, and Lily could only giggle as she sent the Vent Savior spiraling towards the ocean again.

"A battle again already, eh traitor?!" cackled Alec Ladd as the Proto Abyss showered the Destiny Gundam with relentless beam blasts. The Destiny whipped around, afterimages flashing around it, and fired back a pulsing shot from the long-range cannon; Alec jammed the Proto Abyss's controls to the side and resumed his punishing barrage.

Inside the Destiny, Shinn spared a glance at the clock as he dove through Alec's wall of firepower, sword in hand. "Getting a little cocky, I'd say," he grunted.

The Proto Abyss lunged in close with a sweeping lance swing; Shinn jammed his sword up to parry the blow, and the two mobile suits came together with a tooth-rattling crash.

"It's a shame," grumbled Alec, "that you had to go and jump ship on us. We might've won the war with you." He scowled contemptuously. "And then all this shit wouldn't have had to happen."

Shinn ground his teeth in frustration. Time always slipped away from him when he needed it to move like a snail, and moved like a snail when he needed it to slip away. "Only a man who had no idea what Chairman Dullindal was up to could say that."

"Dullindal or no, our people wouldn't have died," Alec shot back, "and the survivors wouldn't be reduced to all this!" The Proto Abyss surged forward and flung the Destiny back with a hard lance swing. "And it's not like things have been better here in the Earth Sphere, for Coordinators and Naturals alike! So how can you say it was worth it?!"

The Proto Abyss brought down its lance; Shinn swung back with the sword, leaving the two mobile suits locked together again.

"No matter how bad this world is," Shinn said quietly, "it's still one we chose."

"One you chose?!" roared Alec. "You wanted a world like this?!"

"Of course not! But if we can choose this world " the Destiny heaved its sword forward and forced back the Proto Abyss "then we can choose one that's better!"

Alec snorted in disgust. "Christ, that's the craziest notion I've ever heard," he scoffed, "what "

A beep from the Proto Abyss's sensors cut him off. He glanced down and his face paled with shock.

Shinn seized his chance to slam the Proto Abyss back with a heavy sword blow. "And there's the other upside," he added with a grin. "Three years of fighting the Alliance gives you remarkable knowledge of where all their bases and installations and shithole little radar stations are." Alec looked back up, eyes wide. "Like the one here at Noronha."

"You bastard," snarled Alec, "running away from a clean fight "

"This isn't a clean fight, pal," Shinn interrupted. "Never was. It's war."

Alec scowled back, ducked beneath the Destiny's sweeping horizontal sword blow, and plunged into the water.

ZAFT submarine supercarrier Aristotle, Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, Atlantic Ocean

Nathaniel Hatias could not decide if he was more angry with himself than he was impressed with the Minerva's captain. Talia Gladys evidently had more than her fair share of tricks up her sleeve.

"Captain, sonar has three Alliance Barracuda-class submarines on an attack bearing," Camwell said urgently. "And there's five surface ships one of them a carrier that's launching mobile suits. We'll be caught."

"No we won't," Nathaniel said sharply, and stepped onto the conn to command his crew's attention. "Recall our mobile suits. Once they're aboard, make our depth 300 meters, engage the silent drive, and take us northwest, course one-six-zero." He turned. "Comm officer, get me a laser line to the Minerva immediately."

The comm officer blinked in disbelief and Camwell turned to stare at Nathaniel. "T-The Minerva ?" started the comm officer. Nathaniel gestured impatiently, the comm officer hesitantly returned to his board, and Nathaniel turned to face the main screen.

"Captain, what are you doing?" hissed Camwell. "Communication with hostiles is "

"Go plot the course," Nathaniel interrupted. "Now."

The screen came to life and both men stared in shock as the face that greeted them was not the face of Talia Gladys.

On the screen, Meyrin Hawke put on her most imperious face as she stared at the men from the bridge of the Minerva. "Are you gentlemen surrendering?"

Nathaniel recovered first. "Where is Captain Gladys?"

Meyrin's eyes flickered with emotion for a moment. "That's not an answer to my question."

"Answer mine and I'll answer yours."

Silence hung in the air between them for a moment. "Captain Gladys died at Solomon's Sword," she said at last, "so I am the Minerva's captain. And I have a positron cannon trained on your ship as we speak. Are you surrendering? Or would you rather surrender to the Alliance?"

Camwell scowled back. "Nobody said anything about surrendering, you bitch. You haven't won yet "

"Camwell, shut up," Nathaniel cut in, and stepped in front of the sputtering man. "Well, I was expecting to be speaking with Talia Gladys. But I'll have to settle for you, miss..."

"Hawke," Meyrin supplied. "Captain Hawke."

Nathaniel arched an eyebrow. "Captain Hawke, huh?"

"If you have a point, you should make it already," Meyrin interrupted. "Because I am certainly not sticking around to watch you fight the Alliance."

"Feisty little thing, aren't you?" chuckled Nathaniel. "I think my point makes itself, but I would like to know why the great Minerva, crewed as it is by Coordinators, is fighting against an army of Coordinators trying to carve out a secure existence for the Coordinator people. Especially after all that I'm sure you've seen here in the Earth Sphere. I'm sure "

"Malik," Meyrin interrupted, "take us out of here, flank speed." She returned her gaze to the Aristotle's captain. "If you're trying to convince me to change sides, captain, you're wasting both our time. My ship is on the side of what's right. Your side is the one that's been gassing colonies and attacking civilians with impunity. I don't need to rethink whose side I'm on." She narrowed her eyes, and Nathaniel felt something churn inside him. "You do."

The screen went dark, and up above, the Minerva roared away over the islands with its mobile suits.

Battleship Minerva

With a heavy sigh and throbbing temples, Meyrin slumped back in the captain's chair and pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Roxy, next time an enemy warship hails us in battle to philosophize, tell them to go screw themselves," she ordered.

"Well, hey, that might've been important!" Roxy wailed defensively. "It was the last time!"

"Get our mobile suits aboard and quit whining," snapped Abbey, and then she turned towards Meyrin. "With our present course we'll be able to swing near the mouth of the Amazon. But there are two Alliance bases that will prevent us from getting close. If we're going to recover Emily and Rau, we're going to have to think up a plan."

"I know," Meyrin said, and she opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling in aggravation. "I'm working on that."

She turned her eyes back towards the sea, towards the hazy horizon. Somewhere out there was the masked ace that Shinn and Athrun hated so much, and the rising star of their team.

And somehow, that combination made her feel uneasy.

To be continued...