Phase 23 - The Dead and Dying

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

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Phase 23 - The Dead and Dying

March 10th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Volgograd, Volgograd Oblast, Russia

The sun had broken at last through the towers of smoke and the baneful clouds hanging overhead. A shaft of light came down from the heavens, to land in Volgograd.

Or rather, what was left of Volgograd.

The city was in ruins even from the relatively intact western side of the city, on the bridge of the Minerva, Meyrin could see the devastation. The fires were still burning, some of them out of control the Phantom Pain had taken care to demolish fire stations and hospitals and police stations first in their rampage from the Volga river's banks towards the Minerva on the western edge of the city, and many of the city's professional emergency responders lay dead in the rubble. And so the city was still overshadowed by the haunting columns of smoke rising from those massive wildfires and that meant people were still suffering, still losing, still dying.

And that meant Meyrin had nothing to celebrate.

The captain could not cry, she told herself, even in the bare and cruel face of a massacre. She turned towards the main screen, where the Professor was waiting with her usual bemused smile absent and Colonel Chekhov towering over her from beside her chair on the ReHOME.

"We've got what's left of Chekhov's forces aboard," the Professor said. "Took some doing, though. We'll take them to Murmansk. It's the closest major stronghold, and I doubt they'll expect us to go that way."

"I thank you, on behalf of my men and my city and my people, Captain Hawke, for standing by us in our hour of need," Chekhov added, with a sad smile. "My only regret is that we cannot continue to fight by your side."

"There's no need to thank us," Meyrin said, shaking her head and finding it impossible to return his smile. "If it weren't for us showing up here, they would have never tried to level Volgograd in the first place."

"On the contrary," Chekhov protested, "the bloodthirsty ways of the Phantom Pain know no bounds. I am certain that they would have found my men at some point, and come to raze this city. And so I am grateful that you were here to help us stop them."

"We need to get going," the Professor interrupted. "The Charlemagne's back on their heels, and we don't need them waking up and chasing us."

"I know," Meyrin said quietly. "We'll get to work, then. Good luck, Minerva out."

The screen went dark, and Meyrin sat back wearily in the captain's chair, as the ReHOME slowly lifted off the ground, laden with mobile suits, and ponderously turned north. Near the captain's chair, Abbey watched the Junk Guild ship slowly rise into the air.

"Abbey," Meyrin said, "how many people died in this attack?"

Abbey sullenly consulted her clipboard. "They may never know for sure," she answered, "but the mayor is citing a conservative estimate of ten thousand dead, sixty-five thousand injured, and twenty-thousand missing."

"Ten thousand," Meyrin repeated, closing her eyes. "Ten thousand people died because we came here and underestimated the cruelty of the Phantom Pain again." She shook her head. "Why don't we ever learn..."

Abbey glanced awkwardly at the city as it burned. "On the other hand, captain," she went on, "the master at arms reports that the citizens of Volgograd are donating supplies for us." She paused uncomfortably as a smoldering building across the city finally gave way and collapsed. "The Phantom Pain makes these attacks to instill fear of supporting us into the public, but all this violence just makes people angry and makes them support us that much more."

"Our support should not come at the cost of cities full of dead," Meyrin replied. She opened her eyes, turning them towards the dock. "And Emily..."

"I had no idea she would do something so suicidal," Abbey said. "But I also had no idea she could fight like that." She shook her head. "I don't understand her. An amateur who can defeat seasoned Phantom Pain pilots and plow through their defenses like Shinn or Athrun, and yet she has so little training and experience..."

"She is no average Natural," Meyrin answered, "and no average Newtype."

Even surrounded by the armor of the Twilight Gundam, Shinn could feel Emily's suffering and it took no Newtype powers to guess that even as the cockpit swung open, she was still in tears.

From the gantry, Shinn watched as Emily soullessly shambled past him, her eyes dull, her face streaked with tears. Shinn studied her as she disappeared into the ship his memory jabbed back into his consciousness that incredible pressure as she tore through the Phantom Pain's rearguard and went storming towards the Charlemagne itself. She had fought as well as Rau or Athrun or Shinn himself but Shinn could not understand why. He knew he had sensed power from her, even when they had first fleetingly met in Reykjavik but power like this?

Shinn turned at the feeling of Rau Le Creuset approaching, and even in the midst of massacre, he still had that damned smile on his face.

"What are you so smug about?" Shinn snarled, narrowing his crimson eyes at the masked phantasm. Rau chuckled.

"It is useless to try to assuage her suffering," he said. "You of all people should understand that best, Shinn."

"Shut up," Shinn shot back. "What right do you have to talk about suffering? With all the people who suffered in the wars that you orchestrated, you're as bad as the Phantom Pain."

"Then why don't you kill me?" Rau laughed. Shinn scowled at him.

"I would certainly like to." And with that, Shinn turned and stalked away.

Rau grinned up at the Twilight's silent eyes.

Athrun Zala needed no Newtype senses to understand the suffering in Volgograd just in the part of Volgograd that wasn't melting before its citizens' eyes. Here the damage had come in the form of mobile suits in combat, and as the sun tried to shine through smoke and fog, the people were already starting to pick up their lives.

But there was no denying, as Athrun wandered through the broken city with Viveka by his side, that the first thing under the rubble was bodies.

"Are you sure this is a good idea...?" Viveka asked quietly, concern etched into her battle-scarred face. "I mean, your Newtype senses and all "

"I have to," Athrun said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "To remind myself of why I fight."

He gazed silently at the people pawing at the wreckage some frantically, as though there was still hope and life beneath those ruins; some somberly and methodically, as though they knew what was waiting for them beneath the wreckage and they had made peace with the pain they would find. Already, whatever vehicles were still functional and suited to the purpose were being loaded with the dead and wounded and, Athrun noted sadly, there were more of the former than the latter. And it was easy to see why Athrun and Viveka found themselves standing before an apartment complex that had been completely flattered under a dead Doppelhorn Windam, its wreckage lying in pieces around the block. It stood to reason that there would be few survivors.

"And to think they're doing this in the name of protecting people..." Viveka murmured.

"Almost everyone in Volgograd is a Natural," Athrun said. "When the Phantom Pain's professed purpose is to hunt down Coordinators, they slaughtered Naturals. So I don't understand how they can sleep at night."

Viveka started forward, towards an old couple in snow-caked clothes as they struggled with a body. They turned in surprise as she stooped to help them load the body the body of a boy into an idling truck.

"Спасибо," the old woman said.

Viveka looked sadly at the elderly pair, and then back at the boy's body. "I won't let them get away with this," she said. "I promise. I'll make the people who did this pay."

"Do not trouble yourself over it too much, my girl," the old man said, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Volgograd is too proud a city to stay dead forever. When we were called Stalingrad, we threw back the Nazis in AD 1943. We can throw back the Phantom Pain in CE 77."

"Бог идет с Вами," murmured the old woman.

Athrun looked sadly through the buildings and smoke. In the distance, silhouetted against a raging fire somewhere in the city, was the specter of a massive statue hefting a sword triumphantly into the air. He supposed it was to commemorate the long-ago Battle of Stalingrad, the cataclysmic showdown of the ancient World War II, which had left this city looking much like it did right now. He saw Cagalli in that statue, rising up to fight injustice and evil, even among the destruction that the Phantom Pain had wrought upon Volgograd.

Inevitably, he had to remember that this was the same injustice and evil that she had been fighting for...and the injustice and evil that had killed her.

He closed his eyes and bowed his head.

Cagalli...would you be proud of me?

"Please," the old man begged, toting a boxful of assault rifle magazines, "I know it is not much, but I want you to have it. I must give something."

Sting and Auel glanced awkwardly at each other, standing before the Minerva, where they found themselves baffled at the stream of people who had lost so much and were giving what was left to the Minerva.

Leaning against the ship's hull with her arms crossed, Roxy glanced at the two awkward Extended. "Y'know, it's probably gonna be dangerous around here for a while," she said to the old man. "You might wanna hang onto those."

"Oh, I'm not completely disarmed," the old man chuckled, pulling his coat aside to show off a submachinegun strapped inside. "Kids these days. But I have a lot more than I need, and these magazines aren't compatible anyway, so I want you to have them." He held the box forward. "Consider it a donation to help you on your way to destroy the Phantom Pain."

"Well, um, alright," Sting started, taking the box from the man and smiling nervously. "Uh, thanks."

"This is the only way we have to express our gratitude for driving those barbarians off," the old man said. "May God protect you." He gave a servile bow and turned around, heading back into the ruined city.

"It says a lot that they don't really have anything left, but whatever they have, they're giving to us," Roxy said with a sigh, glancing into the box. "There's gonna be a lot of looting and shit in this city for a while."

"Yeah, the Phantom Pain blew up most of the police stations in Volgograd, so there's no one to keep the peace," Auel added, looking out over the panorama of destruction. "Those bastards."

"At least Chekhov's men managed to protect the water treatment plant," Roxy added. "Without it this place would be a hotbed of diseases." She shook her head. "They don't fuck around when it comes to demolishing cities to make a point, do they?"

"Well," Sting said, handing off the boxful of ammunition to a soldier in the Minerva's camouflage and black, "this is how they make their statement to the people not to support us. It works on some people, it doesn't work on others."

"Others being us," Auel grunted.

It was rather heartbreaking, Shinn thought as he strode through the desolate streets of Volgograd with Stella by his side, to see how much destruction his power could not stop. He had seen this scene before, most recently in Murmansk, but it was the story of the war so far. Whenever the Phantom Pain sought to remind people of how powerful they were, they made no bones about it, enacting a vicious strategy of destroying vital emergency response infrastructure and sanitation systems to turn a resisting city into a vision of hell. To some, this only stiffened the support for the Resistance, seeing such cruelty and injustice and realizing that only death awaited them anyway. But to others indeed, to most the threat of annihilation in the cruelest and most heinous ways was enough to frighten the people into compliance.

In Volgograd, at the very least, the reaction had been outrage watching their city be demolished by the same people who claimed to protect them had only induced the citizens to give what little they had left to the Minerva. The overriding emotion in the city was determination to live on, to carry on, to see the storm through and support the Minerva as their avenging sword.

"Everyone is sad..." Stella murmured quietly, her eyes blank as she took in the devastation. Shinn nodded grimly.

"At least we were able to keep the city from being totally destroyed," he said. "But I guess that doesn't matter much at this point."

He glanced to the side at the sound of footsteps, and blinked as two children, a boy and a girl, only slightly younger than himself and covered in dust and dirt, emerged from behind a broken building. Their eyes lit up as they rushed towards the two Gundam pilots.

"Крылья Света! Он находится здесь в Волгограде!" the boy exclaimed with a beaming smile. "Танья, они - те, кто спас нас!"

"...Stella doesn't understand," Stella started quietly, inching back behind Shinn.

"Oh, I'm sorry," the girl said, who on closer inspection appeared a bit older than her companion. "Vadim only knows Russian." Her eyes lit up again. "But to think that you were the ones who came here to save us from the Phantoms !"

"Um, I dunno if you could say we 'saved' you," Shinn started, glancing around the wreckage.

"But you did!" the girl insisted.

"Скажите ему, что мы хотим пойти с ним!" the boy added.

"Um, Vadim wants to know if we can go with you," the girl said, glancing back at the boy. "But, I mean, I understand if you say no and all "

The girl fell silent, and Shinn turned around in surprise at the feeling of another human presence. He felt his blood run cold at the sight of a disheveled boy about the age of the girl in front of him, pushing a wheelbarrow a wheelbarrow that had slumped in it a human body, wrapped in bandages.

"N-Nikolai," the girl started, "is that...?"

Nikolai smiled emptily, as Shinn felt horror was over him and realized that he could only feel life from the boy, and not the body in the wheelbarrow. "Mother isn't feeling well," he said shakily, "so I'm taking her to the doctor."

He pushed past them all silently, steadily pushing the body down the street and rounding a corner. Shinn watched him go in disbelief, as the two children before him fidgeted nervously.

"Shinn..." Stella started quietly, her eyes wide, "was she...dead?"

Shinn only closed his eyes. "Yeah...she was."

Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Volgograd Oblast, Russia

Ivan Danilov could not shake the horrible string of names running through his head. He saw himself among the ranks of the conquerors and butchers of history, who had destroyed cities and lives and humans for their gods, for their leaders, for their greed. The burning cities, the screaming civilians, the camps full of dead...

The most painful truth of all, he realized as he sat in his office aboard the Charlemagne, was that equally culpable were the millions of people who saw such atrocities and did nothing to stop them.

Danilov buried his face in his hands. How can I answer to God for these sins...? he wondered. How can I explain why I bowed my head and gave the order to kill thousands of defenseless people?

He looked up with a sigh. The rational man of science and logic within him pointed out that to disobey the Phantom Pain commander's orders to her face and before the Charlemagne's crew would have destroyed him, but the man of morals and right and wrong could not accept that. Science had failed him, and so he had to turn back to religion, where he could only hope that God would look into his soul and forgive him even this terrible sin.

He bowed his head, making the sign of the cross. "От имени отца, и Сына, и Святого Духа." And with that, he stood up and returned to the bridge.

Crayt Markav was there already, arms crossed, brooding as the Charlemagne lay in wait on the Volga, several kilometers downstream of the city.

"We underestimated that little girl in the Twilight," she said grimly, glancing at Danilov and airily returning his dutiful salute. "I was not expecting her to begin assimilating her prior training at such a rate."

"You mean that's what she was doing in the battle?" Danilov asked.

"The Eurasian Federation trained her to be absolutely unstoppable," Crayt replied. "They trained her to such rigorous standards that once she reached maturity, she could have taken on Kira Yamato and the -X10A Freedom, in a Hyperion unit. They intended from the start to make her so powerful." She scowled. "Now those skills and instincts are beginning to resurface more fully, and are doing her more good in battle than just keeping her alive."

"A pilot who could defeat the Freedom..." Danilov echoed.

"Remind your pilots not to underestimate her," Crayt continued. "She is powerful, but her premature removal from incubation may adversely affect her mental state. There is no telling how many of her memories she will be able to recall, or how quickly she will be able to recall them fully."

"Then how are we to fight such a soldier?" Danilov asked.

Crayt paused with another frown. "Treat her as you do Shinn Asuka or Athrun Zala. Given time and experience, she could soon grow to hold parity with such pilots." She glanced back at Danilov. "I am disembarking in the Euclid. Phantom Island is crossing the Indian Ocean as we speak and will move up into the Persian Gulf. I have a new strategy for the Minerva." She looked back out the bridge windows, staring coldly at the smoking ruins of Volgograd. "Bring the Charlemagne in behind the Minerva. Their likely target is Novorossiysk. Chase them from the field, down the Euphrates river and into the Persian Gulf. Phantom Island will be waiting for them in the Strait of Hormuz. It's safer to cut them off there than in Suez or the Mandab Strait, and it will expose them to the forces of Mideast Command, to soften them up."

"Understood," Danilov answered, "but we lost many troops in the previous engagement "

"Phantom Island is sending reinforcements," Crayt said. "Mobile suits will arrive soon to replace your lost numbers. In the meantime," she turned, "I will be off."

Danilov saluted sadly as she left, and could not bear to turn his eyes back towards Volgograd.

March 11th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Volgograd Oblast, Russia

The fires were still burning, and the smoke still rising, as the Minerva cruised away from Volgograd, heading south towards Novorossiysk. Standing on the ship's observation deck, watching the burning city from afar, Shinn somberly wondered whether or not he would be unable to stop this from happening in Novorossiysk. The reports indicated that Novorossiysk had largely been abandoned in all the fighting and with the fighting heaviest in the southern half of the city, most citizens had fled to the relatively calmer northern half. That in itself was a shame, to see people uprooted from their homes, but it was a tragedy that could be surmounted. Homes could be replaced; lives could not.

He thought back to the boy pushing his mother's dead body in a wheelbarrow, insisting that she was only feeling under the weather and the doctor could bring her back to health. The girl had explained that after watching his mother sustain horrible burns and die from infection, he had "gone kind of crazy." But Shinn could see in that boy's blank eyes himself, standing on the war-torn Onogoro hillside long ago, staring at what was left of his parents, his sister, his world.

Wasn't that why he had joined ZAFT? To protect people, so that no one would have to know the pain of turning around and finding one's world shattered on the ground? But that power had not saved Volgograd could it save Novorossiysk?

He tried to push it out of his mind and turn his thoughts towards other things. They inevitably returned to the mysterious burst of power that Emily had shown in Volgograd tearing through the Devil's Swords, through the Charlemagne's skeleton guard, and through that white Euclid unit. How could she be so powerful? Against the Raider, in faraway Europe, she had fought purely defensively, and it was the Raider's mistakes that had given her victory and her Newtype abilities had only kept her alive. Against the Aegis in Karelia, a lone and isolated unit in an aging machine, she was victorious again, for those abilities and her determination to destroy him. But in Volgograd...

In Volgograd, Shinn could see in Emily himself.

He closed his eyes with a sigh.

"The good thing about the Junk Guild," Yolant sighed, standing next to Viveka on the gantry before the silent Savior Gundam, "is that wherever they get this stuff, they get a lot of it." He pointed at the Savior's wings. "There's hardpoints for the ordnance pods the Alliance mounts on the wings of their Jet Striker units. The ReHOME left us with like a friggin' million of those things, so don't be shy about 'em."

Viveka glanced aside awkwardly. "I'll remember that next time we're not trying to stop the Phantom Pain from demolishing a city."

"I guess everyone's fled from Novorossiysk," Yolant added, "so I suppose you don't have to be too worried about collateral damage." He shrugged. "A bummer, I guess. I dunno about you, but I always feel a little better when I hear the cheers from people who see us coming. It's kinda heartwarming." He glanced over at the Destiny awkwardly. "Even for that guy."

Viveka followed his gaze for a moment. "What is it with you guys and Shinn?" she asked. "Especially Vino. Did he kick your puppy or something?"

The look in Yolant's eyes put an end to anymore jokes. "It's not a story worth telling," he answered. "If you know Shinn's history, even the stuff that's just public knowledge, that should tell you everything."

"You got screwed by that whole 'desert from ZAFT in the middle of a decisive battle' thing, huh?

"Oh, we were the lucky ones, having only been 'screwed,' as you put it," Yolant answered. "At least we didn’t die."

Viveka glanced back at the Destiny and decided to stop talking.

The grandest irony of all, Rau Le Creuset mused as he sat back before his computer terminal, was that he owed this information all to the self-styled soldier for God, Crayt Markav.

The picture was sparse in terms of actual information, but overflowing in terms of logical extrapolations. It was clear that Emily's piloting aptitude was not the doing of merely Newtype prowess, but additionally owed much to some mysterious training. His sources knew nothing of secret training projects involving a little girl, but the picture was becoming far clearer. If Emily was the product of such a program, then Gerhardt essentially selling his daughter into Lord Djibril's service was a gesture of goodwill in far more ways than met the eye he was giving Djibril direct control over the project that had produced Emily. If she was the product of such a program, then it was likely she had been conceived for such a purpose after all, Lorelei von Oldendorf had been too ill to be bearing children for any other reason. If she was the product of such a program, then she would be imbued not just with the precognitive talents of a Newtype, but with the instincts and knowledge to put those talents to use.

He thought back gleefully over her short career as pilot of the Twilight Gundam. To last in battle against Kenta Shoyou at all, with her apparent inexperience, let alone to defeat him, was no small feat where Shoyou had been an experienced and seasoned ace pilot, Emily had been evidently a girl that Shinn Asuka had plucked off the street. To focus her rage into skills that could defeat an experienced pilot like the man that subsequent news reports had identified as Harris Meyers was nothing short of impressive as well.

But that display in Volgograd, white-hot rage and tightly-focused energy, narrowed into a determination he had never seen before...that, it seemed, was a glimpse of what she was truly able to do. Certainly, she had been underestimated and had the element of surprise and if Marshal Markav would have anything to say about it, the troops on the Charlemagne would not allow Emily either element again. But to think that such power lay within that little girl...

Rau thought ahead eagerly to Novorossiysk, and imagined what evils were waiting there.

Standing on the exterior deck of the Minerva as it glided over the silent Russian landscape, Meyrin Hawke could see far ahead the imposing dark line of the Caucasus Mountains. Beyond those mountains lay the gateway to the region she feared she would have to guide her crew through, the daunting specter of the Middle East. A land of division and strife since time immemorial, it was the place where Meyrin feared her abilities would be unable to cope. But she was the captain she had to cope. If a local militia wheeled out its forces, screaming about its god and its people and its territory, to fight the Minerva as it passed through the desert, then Meyrin would have no choice but to fight them. The Resistance was splintered all over the world, but in the Middle East was where it, like everything else, lay shattered.

She glanced towards the hatch as it slowly opened, and the hero of the Resistance emerged onto the deck. Could Shinn Asuka pacify the people who had nothing but their guns and their gods?

"Our course got kind of screwed up, didn't it?" he asked quietly, coming to a rest against the rail next to Meyrin. "I thought we'd be around Okhotsk by now."

Meyrin turned her eyes back to the mountains that stood sentinel before her. "No matter what happens in Novorossiysk, we're probably going to have to pass through Mideast Command," she said. "Which means working with the locals."

Shinn shifted uncomfortably. "The locals are kind of testy over there." He shook his head. "I guess Emily's going to be learning some more of those life lessons she's so fond of. I wonder how she'll take it."

Meyrin smiled thinly. "I think you worry too much about her. She's tougher than I gave her credit for."

"Maybe," Shinn said, "but that's still too much suffering that she's been through, that I'm responsible for, directly or indirectly."

Silence reigned for a moment as Meyrin studied Shinn's face. Taking responsibility for whatever tragedies befell the people he was close to he felt responsible for his family's death at Onogoro, as though he had failed to protect them, even though he had no power with which to do so. His failures with the Mad Typhoon Gang, his failures with the Orb Raiders, even his desertion of ZAFT weighed heavily on him, as his comrades came after them with revenge in their eyes and betrayal in their hearts.

"Maybe you need to stop blaming yourself," she said. Shinn glanced over at her. "Your own reasoning for bringing Emily in was to save her from winding up like an Extended. And despite all she's been through so far, you of all people should know that it still pales in comparison to what an Extended would be going through." She glanced back bitterly to the north, at the memories of that Phantom Pain unit in Karelia. "Emily should know that too."

"It's not that stuff that I'm worried about," Shinn answered. "It's the future. She's more powerful and more sensitive than even I realized, and I think it started to show in the battle at Volgograd. I don't understand how she got these skills even with all the training I've been running with her and her inborn skills, she shouldn't have been able to fight like that."

"Well, I'm hearing that she's a rising star in the Resistance," Meyrin began.

Shinn bowed his head. "She was pretty put off by the reception I got at Murmansk."

Even Meyrin couldn't help but smile at that. "She doesn't want to be surrounded by love-struck boys who think she's a hero?"

"I don't want her surrounded by love-struck boys who think she's a hero," Shinn replied. "Whenever you're a hero, you have to live up to a much higher standard...and I don't know how one can prepare for that."

Meyrin cast him a knowing smile. "I think you've figured it out."

The Twilight Gundam stood, silent and waiting, in the Minerva's hangar as the mechanics worked on its comrades. Emily stood before it on the gantry, staring emptily up at its darkened eyes.

My power...

After some thought, she had come to believe the insistences of her friends that she could not have done anything to save Kyali, even if she had captured the Strike and brought its abused pilot aboard the Minerva. That just made the sting of failure that much harsher to think that had she succeeded, she would have only been able to watch Kyali waste away, powerless to save her from the fate she so feared. And that made her powers seem that much more useless.

The battle in Volgograd brought that uselessness into sharper and more painful focus for all her power, she could only watch as the Phantom Pain smashed buildings and killed people. Even her own attempts to stop them led to nothing more than death how could she triumph against that kind of evil?

"Emily, what are you doing up?" someone asked. She glanced to the side, finding Athrun Zala emerging onto the gantry with the Infinite Justice's voluminous manual under his arm.

"I couldn't sleep," she started quietly, looking back at the Twilight. "I'm not sleeping too well lately."

"So I've sensed," Athrun agreed, coming up next to her. "I guess it would be redundant to ask you if you're alright."

Emily glanced at the mobile suit next to her own the Destiny Gundam stood waiting for its next battle.

"How does Shinn deal with this all?" she asked. "Being a Newtype, I mean."

"Why do you think Shinn handles it any better than you do?" Athrun asked back.

Emily closed her eyes and wondered if Athrun could see the hint of a blush on her cheeks. "He' protector," she started, hoping that this would sound to Athrun's ears the way she wanted it to sound in her own. "I know that I can count on him to protect me and to try to understand me." She looked back up at Athrun earnestly. "And...I want to understand him too."

Athrun smiled knowingly, and somehow Emily was able to forget the sinking feeling in her heart. "Understanding Shinn is no easy task," he said. "Sometimes I'm not even sure he understands himself."

"But...with all we've been through together, I feel like I should know more about him." She shook her head. "Maybe if I knew him better, I could handle all the stuff I've been through better."

"I suppose," Athrun said with a decidedly noncommittal shrug. "His life would make an interesting story someday, I know. What do you want to know?"

She glanced back at the Destiny. "How did he get here?"

Athrun leaned back against the rail, crossing his arms. "Shinn lived in Orb when he was young," Athrun began. "During the Earth Alliance's invasion of Orb in '71, his family was killed in the crossfire. He went to the PLANTs to join ZAFT, and became a ZAFT Red, one of the top graduates of ZAFT's military academy. He had caught the eye of Chairman Dullindal of the PLANTs himself, and the Chairman had invested a lot of time and energy in gaining Shinn's trust and loyalty. Shinn didn't handle the emergence of his powers very well, and," he glanced pointedly over at the Gaia Gundam, "then he met Stella.

"He took it upon himself to protect Stella, even going so far as to return her to the Alliance when she was captured. The Chairman pardoned him for the crime in hopes of keeping his service, but then Shinn deserted ZAFT in battle with Stella by his side, and they both fled. They were captured by a pirate gang, but eventually decided to fall in with them, being chased by both ZAFT and the Alliance." Athrun's eyes darkened. "The pirates were all killed in he joined us."

"What do you mean by 'us'?" Emily asked.

"I used to be in a group called the Orb Raiders," Athrun said, long-quashed emotions flickering in his eyes. "Although I understand if we've been forgotten by now. Shinn, Stella, and I are its only survivors." He glanced back at Emily. "But Shinn has had his world violently rearranged four times in his life. So I don't doubt that he understands what you're going through."

Emily looked up sadly at the Destiny as the pieces came together in her mind.

"He doesn't like to talk about his past," Athrun went on. "Especially his time with the pirates. So I don't know just how much went on with them, although I suspect it was something important."

Emily turned her eyes back towards her own Gundam, turning the image of the younger Shinn Asuka over in her mind.

March 12th, CE 77 - Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Rostov Oblast, Russia

"Captain Bayan is going to formulate a new plan for dealing with the Minerva's Gundams," Ivan Danilov said grimly, his hands clasped behind his back as he stood on the bridge of his mammoth warship. Outside, a trio of Osprey VTOL cargo planes were peeling away from the lumbering Charlemagne into the morning sky. "I expect him to take command of all the new arrivals shortly."

"Understood, sir," Vera said at his side. "What will our course of action be?"

Danilov closed his eyes, fighting down the bitterness that rose with the thought of his superior. "Marshal Markav's plan to destroy the Minerva in the Strait of Hormuz is sound. It seems that she is conceding Novorossiysk, or at least is cool to the idea of the Charlemagne taking on a strong role there."

Vera glanced awkwardly in the direction of Volgograd, where the tiny puff of smoke was still visible on the horizon.

"When we reach Novorossiysk, we will not follow the example that the Marshal put forth for us in Volgograd," Danilov continued, narrowing his eyes to the southwest, where Novorossiysk was waiting. "The battle there probably gave birth to a few thousand more Resistance fighters. Such attacks are immoral and counterproductive."

"But sir, Volgograd was harboring Resistance " Vera began.

"That doesn't matter!" Danilov snapped, whirling around to glare at her, and seeing in her eyes that not even she truly believed what she was saying. "The cruelty of people like Markav are what the Resistance is fighting. I am not going to become the ruthless, bloodless caricature of a man that the Resistance's propagandists believe I am. So long as I am the captain of this vessel, this crew will conduct itself with honor and magnanimity. That is what divides the soldier from the murderer. Now go and brief the new pilots."

He turned again, crossing his arms and glaring to the south as Vera sullenly saluted and slinked away.

The briefing had been simple explain to the new pilots what their purpose on this ship would be, familiarize them with the most important members of the crew with whom they would be dealing, organize them into units, and be on their way. And so now, Sven Cal Bayan stood on the gantry overlooking the Charlemagne's hangar, arms crossed, staring grimly at the silent and imposing form of the Strike Noir.

The voice in the back of his head would not be silent.

His thoughts, unbidden, took him back to Volgograd, where he had marched among the flaming buildings and watched coldly as thousands of people were slaughtered by the guns of the Phantom Pain.

Those were my orders, he told himself.

The voice would not be silent. That's what you always say, it answered. Sven cast a testy glance to his right finding the image of a small child with curly silver hair. He stared into the eyes of his younger self heartlessly.

I am not here to judge my commanders or the orders they give, he reminded the voice. I am here to do my job.

And you'll do whatever they ask? the child shot back. You'll follow every order they give? Even if they tell you to destroy the stars?

Sven flinched at the thought, as the child dug up the ancient memories of untold hours spent in planetariums and observatories, hunched over telescopes pointed to the sweeping vistas of faraway worlds and stars, curled up with the writings of history and modern science's greatest minds in the field of space exploration. The stars were his calling until the Phantom Pain had entered his life.

That's right, the child went on. You still love the stars. You still want to leave this world behind and go to new and fantastic ones. This isn't the life you wanted. You never wanted to follow orders and be a killing machine.

My wants are irrelevant, Sven shot back. My wants are immaterial compared to the objectives and commands of my superiors.

But we both know that you don't really believe that, the child laughed. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. And you know that.

Sven scowled and walked away.

Even if they tell me to destroy the stars...

"Y'know," sighed Grey Saiba as he slumped down onto his bunk, "this isn't the sort of thing I signed up for."

He glanced up desolately at Merau as she leaned silently against the wall. "It isn't what anyone expects."

"In history classes, I studied people who did this sort of thing in the past," Grey said, holding his head in his hands. "And they told me that the Resistance fighters were the same kind of people. Y'know, I'm Britain, they're Hitler; I'm America, they're the Soviets...that sort of thing. But now I have to stand there and watch while my side does the same thing the Hitlers and Soviets did. What am I supposed to say to that?"

Merau studied him for a moment and bowed her head. "That's how the world works," she said. "Commiserating over it won't get you anywhere. Maybe you should just forget about it."

Grey frowned. "I can't forget about a massacre, Merau."

"I know," she answered. "And it's wrong to forget about a massacre. But you're going to die if you let it stop you." She glanced awkwardly out the porthole. "You have to be so strong to survive in this world."

Battleship Minerva, Rostov Oblast, Russia

The Twilight stood as the imposing backdrop for Shinn Asuka and Athrun Zala as they both leaned against the gantry railing, staring up at it.

"My training can't have been enough for that show of force," Shinn said grimly, glancing over at Athrun. "I haven't given her that much work. So there must be something else at work."

"I agree," Athrun said dourly. "But I can't imagine what it could be. If she were trained already, she wouldn't have shown the sort of fear she did in her earlier sorties. Even poor training irons that fear out of you first."

Shinn glanced down at the floor. "I suspect Rau knows."

"We'd never get it out of him if he did, though. He would withhold that information just so that he can have control over it." A distasteful glance at the Legend Gundam. "He's a control freak." Athrun returned his gaze to Shinn. "Maybe they just underestimated her and it lent her the appearance of being so powerful. It's not like she's given anyone reason to suspect she has such power. Even we didn't see it coming, and we're the ones who took her in on the basis of her being powerful."

Shinn heaved a sigh. "I guess we'll know for sure," he said, "when we get to Novorossiysk."

Emily found herself surprised to be standing on the Minerva's exterior deck, in the fading light of the sun, with Rau Le Creuset by her side. She glanced up at the tall masked man, but his face was inscrutable.

"Novorossiysk will likely be a similar ordeal as Volgograd," he warned her suddenly. "You would do well to brace yourself for such feelings again."

Emily looked to the horizon, where the formidable city and its warring factions were waiting. "Why do people do things like this...?" she wondered. "Killing so many people..."

"The Resistance is an insurgency," Rau explained with a shrug. "There are only two ways to destroy an insurgency; capture the support of the public through which the insurgents must move, or slaughter so much of the public as to leave few people for the insurgents to move through. The Phantom Pain cannot match the charisma and ability to captivate the support of the oppressed and impoverished that the Resistance has. Therefore, they turn to murder to terrify the population into submission."

"But it didn't work," Emily answered. "It just made people mad."

"If you apply enough force, then the people will fear," Rau said. "The Phantom Pain did not apply enough force in Volgograd."

Emily buried her face in her hands. "That doesn't explain how people can be so evil..."

Finally, Rau allowed himself a knowing smile. "Good and evil are points of view," he said. "War like this is the inevitable result between people who cannot see that. Lord Djibril does not oppress the world and slaughter Coordinators and so-called collaborators because he believes what he is doing is evil or wrong. No one acts in such a way." His smile widened. "Even in his own way, he wants peace."

Washington DC, Atlantic Federation

"So many names."

The words drifted through the night, as the man watched the curling wisps of breath before him dissipate into the biting cold. He glanced around his darkened surroundings a park, well-kept but clearly no longer frequented by armies of visitors. His bodyguards had set up a perimeter, while he stood on a stone walkway, at the center of a sprawling memorial.

The war itself had been fought long ago. The cultural and social trauma that it brought on those who saw their sons sent off to fight it, the suffering of the ones who did the fighting, the abstract political ideals and consequences that all were told were worth the cost...they were all somewhere beneath the dust of history. The ones who had fought it and survived it were all long gone now. It was locked in the vault of the past. The man knew that.

He took a step forward, reaching out and putting a gloved hand against the wall, and beneath it, he tried to read the names. They were meaningless to him, and yet they could not have meant more. Thousands of names stretched out to either side of him, testament to the toll of that long-ago war that each and every dead soldier was an individual, wrenched from a home, torn from a family.

He closed his eyes and imagined how many names could be added to a wall of those he had allowed to die.

"Sir," said a young woman at his side, wrapped in a heavy overcoat and clutching a handgun nervously, "the park is still clear. But I cannot stress enough the risk we are taking out here."

"I understand, Callista," he answered, not taking his eyes from the wall. "We are here to meet with local members of the Resistance, and in lieu of a visit from Chiao Xu, I must substitute. I know." He paused, his eyes scanning over the names that had no faces and still broke his heart. "But as long as we are here, I want to visit this place, and remind myself of why this war must end." He bowed his head. "So that we may never need to make another wall like this."

"I know, sir," Callista said. "But we're right under Vasserot's nose "

"Vasserot cannot smell anything past the decay of his own soul," the man interrupted. "No man who looks upon this wall and still believes that politics is worth lives can understand that."

Callista paused for a moment. "Rafael says that the police patrols will be passing by in fifteen minutes."

"Then we must become as shadows, mustn't we," the man answered. "This is a peculiar memorial. There is no celebration of the justness of the cause or the victories of the war or the glory of the men who fell in battle. Not even ranks are listed. All that one can see are the names; the sacrifice stands alone, each name as meaningless and meaningful, painful and unnecessary, as the last and the next." He paused. "It is as a memorial to the dead should be."

Callista glanced at him for a moment, but said nothing.

"I once had the power to stop such a slaughter," he continued. "But I did not use it, because I was a coward."

"That is the past now, sir," Callista pointed out. "Now you are the envoy of Chiao Xu, and you have power, and you are using it. So please, sir, do not be dragged down by your demons and let's get going, before we get dragged down by the police."

The man smiled bitterly and turned. "Very well, Callista. Lead the way."

With a final, solemn glance over his shoulder, Joseph Copland walked away.

To be continued...