Phase 33 - Affairs of the Heart

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

Phase 33 - Affairs of the Heart

March 16th, CE 77 - Persian Gulf

The Minerva's daring escape from that deathtrap in the Shatt al-Arab had been so swift there had been no time for the mobile suits to return to the hangar, leaving the team of Gundams to simply fly alongside their damaged home and wait for the bridge to clear them for landing.

And that left time for reflection.

"Pointless" was the word Emily had been searching for in the quiet moments after the battle, with her battered and bruised Twilight Gundam sailing through the air alongside the smoky Minerva. Aza had died back there, but her death had no point to it. She did not die to save the Twilight, or the Minerva, or Emily; she did not die defending her country; she died simply because she unluckily exposed herself long enough for the red Windam to seize its chance and that, really, was all it was and blow her out of the sky with a lucky shot.

Was that really all this was? Simply a chance to seize, a coincidence of a crosshair passing over someone who just happened to be there, and instinct pulling the trigger? Kyali's death, at least, had been no cruel coincidence Harris Meyers knew exactly what he was doing when he plunged the Aegis's beam saber into the Strike's cockpit.

And, of course, she was the Angel of Death.

The Angel of Death, the one who came to take the lives that must be taken did that mean she was the symbol of that cruel, unflinching game of chance? And that made her think of all the pilots that had stood against her and died. They had been unlucky as well they had not turned fast enough, shot true enough, fought precisely enough, and that was all it had taken for Death's hand her hand to sever their cords of life.

But this was war, and she could not very well try to destroy the weapons and spare the pilots. That required faith that the soldiers fought only because someone had given them weapons, and once those weapons were gone, they would have no reason to fight. Nonsense. She could not see herself refusing to fight if the Twilight were damaged beyond repair not now, not knowing that there were friends on the battlefield who needed her help, whatever it was worth. Would those soldiers she fought and killed be any different?

It was times like this, Emily decided, that she hated being the Angel of Death.

Battleship Minerva, Persian Gulf

"Chaos and Abyss are back in the hangar," came Roxy's voice, subdued from the reality of skirting death. "That's the last of them."

Meyrin sat back and took a small amount of relief. At least that had gone right.

The Charlemagne. Her once and future foe. The one enemy who could make her truly fear. She had avoided the worst of its wrath so far, but her ship had not gone unscathed through its hurricanes of firepower. The Tannhäuser was damaged inoperable, if Abes' men could not repair it on the fly. Jury-rigged parts could only last so long.

And the Minerva's squadron of Gundams, the two-eyed war machines that made her vessel what it was, could not beat back the Charlemagne's pilots. Skilled enough to hold their own, they could not overpower the Gundams but they did not need to, so long as they could hold the Gundams in check and let the Charlemagne do its worst.

And it did not help that the Charlemagne's captain was toying with her.

Well, mo matter Meyrin could simply get over being toyed with. But her ship, well, it needed parts, and it needed a rest. Abes had warned her not to use the Tannhäuser, and his men had only just repaired the three damaged CIWS emplacements. Over the open ocean, there was little reason to hold back, and Meyrin disliked having options closed to her. The Minerva was a powerful ship, but the Alliance had catalogued its every weapon and best possible speed, reaction time, and maneuverability; and that meant she could only surprise her adversaries with new combinations of old tricks.

Meyrin sank back in her chair. Worrying about the positron cannon would not get it fixed only Abes and his men would get it fixed. She glanced up at the map on the auxiliary screen.

"Burt," she said suddenly, "is our course clear?"

Burt was silent at the sensor console for a moment. "Only a few civilian IFFs," he answered.

"At this speed, we'll reach the Strait of Hormuz in 68 hours," added Abbey. "How are we going to handle it?"

Meyrin glanced at the map and down sank her heart. The Strait of Hormuz, a natural bottleneck that for years had been an international flashpoint, as vital shipping navigated the narrow passage from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. If she were an Alliance commander, she would have set a trap here long ago.

"There isn't anything there so far," she said cautiously. "We'll approach in Condition Yellow at flank speed, and get through as fast as we possibly can."

Abbey seemed satisfied with that and sat back, and Meyrin could only sigh and wish she felt the same way.

Viveka was getting irritated with Athrun Zala.

It was a somewhat embarrassing conclusion to come to, really, and not one that one normally reached while working on the Savior's operating system in itself a reason to get irritated and, if the praise routinely lavished upon Athrun Zala was any indication, it was something of a surprise as well. But at the same time, she could not really bring herself to be too surprised. Even the most innocuous of her advances had gone ignored, as the Justice pilot fumbled for words and something in him waged a bitter conflict with the rest of himself.

Her first impulse was to blame herself. After all, she still had burned into her mind the image of the Phantom Pain soldier who had gouged out her eye and told her that no man would ever like her now. And even though she had gleefully cut off a certain extremity of his and informed him that no woman would ever like him now and then left him to bleed to death in the woods the damage was done. Covered in scars that were as much from combat as from the Phantom Pain, wielding a mechanical arm another gift from Djibril's black-coated minions and missing an eye, she was hardly the picture of feminine beauty. So that Phantom Pain soldier had probably been right. Everyone was a bit put off by her grizzled appearance.

But the picture of feminine beauty was not much of a fighter, and although Viveka was not confident she could win a beauty pageant, she was confident that she could pretty well kick the ass of anyone who could win a beauty pageant.

Then again, Athrun Zala seemed to respect that. How could he not? He was a warrior, and surely he made a point of protecting her in battle for a reason.

It then struck her that she really did not know much about Athrun Zala. She knew the details that everyone knew that he was a former ZAFT soldier and the son of its rather maniacal chairman, Patrick Zala, and he had joined the Orb Raiders under the fiery Cagalli Yula Athha. And after their disappearance at Solomon's Sword, he had joined the Resistance and put his powerful Infinite Justice to use against the Earth Alliance. But now she was living with the man and, truth be told, taking something of a fancy to him and that demanded more than the essentials.

Unfortunately, getting Athrun Zala to talk about his past was like passing an aircraft carrier through the eye of a needle. But Viveka did certainly love a challenge.

Well, she decided, first things first. The Savior would have to get fixed at some point and if she let the mechanics do it, they might screw up her radio presets again.

March 17th, CE 77 - Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Persian Gulf

"Minerva proceeding southeast, approaching Bahrain in 26 hours."

Sitting back in the captain's chair, Danilov mused over the sensor officer's report. If the Minerva was already closing in on Bahrain, then clearly the Charlemagne must not have damaged their engines. But that made no difference the Minerva's engines would not get it out of the trap in Hormuz.

Either way, his part in this operation had been satisfactory to him, if no one else. The Minerva was difficult to truly and decisively damage, especially with those Gundams that could take all manner of abuse and keep going. But while the Minerva's armor might be laminate and reinforced, the Minerva's captain was only a human and humans could be misled.

Now they were walking right into Marshal Markav's trap, and Danilov had to wonder what role he had further to play. Officially, he was to bring up the rear and prevent the Minerva from retreating back into the Gulf, trapping them in the Strait of Hormuz.

But then what? It was hard to believe that even the mighty Minerva would snake its way out of this trap, at least not on its own; and satellite passes and recon flights had turned up no evidence that there was anything approaching the Persian Gulf that could help the Minerva.

And if the Minerva perished in Hormuz, then what? The Resistance would surely crumble it was the Minerva that did its most visible damage, gave its fighters the most hope, and could be relied on to break through where other Resistance units would fail. The Phantom Pain would come crashing down upon the last survivors and sweep off the map all cities that continued to harbor them, and Lord Djibril would reign supreme.

And then what? A world without Coordinators? Djibril had nearly achieved that already. A world politically dominated by the Earth Alliance? Djibril had that already. What was the point of all this? Power for power's sake?

Well, there would be a new enemy. ZAFT, for one, was somewhere out there. And Danilov had spent enough years in this world to know that if Djibril's Alliance ran out of enemies today, they would find a new one tomorrow. There was always somebody for the Phantom Pain to kill.

And so, Danilov found it strange that he was almost hoping the Minerva would escape Hormuz.

The problem with Shams Coza, Sven had decided, was that he never knew when to quit. The man had been ranting from his place in the Charlemagne's crew lounge for close to half an hour on the similarities between mobile suit combat and professional wrestling, and Sven in addition to having no idea how mobile suit combat related to professional wrestling was tiring of it.

Instead of listening to how the Verde Buster's combined beam cannons were analogous to The People's Elbow, Sven absorbed himself in sober analysis of the past battle. The Minerva and its Gundams might be difficult to defeat if they were allowed to operate as a unit, but if they were split up and rendered incapable of communication, then attrition would have to take its toll. It was a bloody strategy that glutted itself on human flesh, but such was war, and Sven was not going to shy away from a combat tactic just because someone might be killed. The soldier who did that was the soldier who died.

Unfortunately, Sven had made the mistake of not paying the minimum attention required to tell what the conversation's topic was, because when he heard his name and looked up from a printout of the Strike Noir's latest performance tests, it had turned to him.

And that damn cheeky grin on Sham's face just was never a good sign.

"So how's Irene these days?" Shams asked, relishing the immediate discomfort of his nominal commander.

Sven betrayed no outward emotion, though Shams knew better than to fall for the Devil's Saber's poker face. "She is due to report in soon," he answered, "so we will find out then."

"You're such a caring boyfriend," drawled Mudie, not bothering to look up from her drink.

Sven tried to control the eye twitching. "I'm not "

"Oh, Sven, don't you tire of these high school games?" Shams asked, lifting a melodramatic hand into the air. "Just admit you boned her in Yokosuka last year and we'll let up."

Sven arched an eyebrow at the dark-skinned pilot. "First of all, I did not 'bone' her," he shot back, "and second, even if I had and admitted it, would you ever leave me alone over it?"

"Not even a little."

"Then there's your answer."

"Why can't I have a lover as devoted and caring as you?" asked Mudie. Sven could only sigh he knew he was screwed if even Mudie had joined in making fun of him.

Instead, he merely sighed and waited for the topic to go back to wrestling. At least Shams was dependable like that.

"Did you ever wonder why someone decided that giant robots were the future of warfare?"

Merau looked up in surprise at the sound of Grey's voice, finding him staring distractedly at the face of her Dark Windam, standing next to her on the hangar gantry. "I mean, really," he continued, "why giant robots? Why not, like, space fighters or something? Was it that important to have your combat machine capable of doing the Funky Chicken after a victory?"

Merau arched an eyebrow at her erstwhile companion. "Okay, what's wrong?"

"What do you mean what's wrong?"

"You never say dumb things like that if you aren't upset."

Grey heaved a sigh and leaned against the gantry railing. "I'd just like to know that I'm making a dent over there on the Minerva," he said. "I mean, think of all our comrades, who keep getting shot down and dying. And for all those sacrifices, well, I'd like to know that we're scaring them or something."

"Don't think too hard about it," Merau answered, returning her gaze to the Windam. "Thinking about why you fight just leads you to misery."

"Then that makes it okay to just fight without thinking?" Grey asked back.

"That's what the Extended do."

"Yeah, and look how happy they are."

So much for maintenance on the Windam. Merau looked back up with a sigh. "Grey, just trust me on this. We come up with all sorts of reasons why we kill should each other, but when you sit down and think about them, none of them are really worth it." She bitterly waved her hand. "At least the Extended don't have to worry about why they're killing, and then thinking about it, and then realizing that why they're killing isn't really a good enough reason to go killing. They just kill."

Grey shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Is that all you want to be?"

"Has being human been any better?" She shrugged. "I would have liked to be an Extended in Sofia. Then I wouldn't have had to deal with the realization that all my friends had just gotten themselves killed for something stupid and worthless. I could just do what I had to do to survive."

"What's life worth if all you want is to survive?" Grey asked back.

"More than what it's worth if you want to waste it on some politician's bullshit."

At that, Grey merely sighed. "Well, if you don't want to die for a politician's bullshit, then make up some of your own," he answered. "But I don't want to be an Extended. They're living creatures, but they're not alive."

"Well, we all become Extended in our own way," Merau said, returning her gaze to the Windam. "That's the only way you'll stay alive."

Phantom Island, Strait of Hormuz, Indian Ocean

Monique du Prey truly loved mobile suits.

True, to most, they were merely military weapons, designed to fulfill a certain purpose on the battlefield. Planes, tanks, helicopters, guns, they all did the same but no weapon was as purely and deliciously violent as a mobile suit. And that beautiful violence was what made a mobile suit so much more than a mere weapon.

A human being was capable of great destruction. Through weapons, a human being could kill scores of others, could destroy buildings, could even with skill and the right weapons and a whole lot of luck bring down one of these mobile suits. But a mobile suit was capable of so much more destruction. With a sweep of its hand, it could topple skyscrapers; with the pull of a trigger, it could annihilate everyone coming out of those skyscrapers; it had speed, it had grace, it had power. It was every bit the killing machine that Monique du Prey sought.

And the Morrigan Gundam was a very exquisite specimen.

She stood on the Morrigan's cockpit hatch, a mechanic standing on the gantry nearby. Most pilots treated their mobile suits as machines, which required instruction to properly operate; not Monique. Her mobile suit was a living thing, a beast that she needed not to operate, but to tame; and with taming came control. Her mobile suit had the raw, carnal will to destroy, and the power to make its will reality; but Monique had the mind and the will to harness that power and direct it. And harness it she would.

The mechanic squirmed as Monique traced a finger over the Morrigan's chest armor, relishing the abrupt curves and flat lines as she would a lover's body. "Um, the Armure Lumiere has been retooled "

"Have you ever piloted one of these things, Mr....?" Monique trailed off, scanning the mechanic's jumpsuit for a nametag.

"Young, ma'am," he supplied, after taking a moment to take the hint. "Err, not in a combat situation "

"It's like having sex."

The mechanic visibly searched for a way to respond to that, and visibly came up with nothing.

"Surely you know what I'm talking about," Monique went on, stretching forward as though she were about to give Mr. Young a demonstration of what she meant. "The connectedness of two lovers in the act of love, moving as one, directing all their passion into an act of sin and pleasure, incomprehensible pleasure. Completely losing their minds, and gaining a mind of their own between them..." She quirked an eyebrow at the mechanic, who looked about ready to leap out of his skin. "When you pilot one of these things and fight in it, you don't think anymore. Your mind disappears, you become part of the mobile suit, and the more you fight in that union, the closer you come to..." She trailed off with a grin. "Well, you know."

"...err, I'll just, uh, let you read the manual, then," Mr. Young stammered, and made a hasty retreat.

Monique smirked. That one always scared them off.

She returned her attention to the Morrigan, caressing the side of its cockpit hatch jamb. Yes, this machine had power, and the will to destroy. After all, it was intended for a soldier who had not only the power and the will to destroy, but the mind to shape that will to her own ends. And while Unit Zero-One had moved on to another mobile suit and left her old war steed in the unfeeling hands of the Eurasian Federation, Project Evolution's spurned lover had found a new mistress.

"It's a shame they treat you like a mere machine, my sweet new Morrigan," she purred, "but I will turn you into a god."

Battleship Minerva, Persian Gulf

"Y'know, most sixteen-year-old girls can't control a mobile suit at all, let alone like this," Meyrin said, standing on the exterior observation deck with Shinn as the Minerva cut forward over the water.

Shinn smirked back. "Well, most nineteen-year-old girls don't command warships either, so you don't have much room to talk."

"That's different," Meyrin said absently, studying the printouts in her hands. "Usually when a girl her age gets press like this, it's because she was kidnapped and murdered." She looked up at Shinn. "Athrun suggested that at some point we should raid Lodonia Island for information."

"That was an Atlantic Federation installation," Shinn replied. "And Emily's Phantom Pain file has her living in the Eurasian Federation all her life. Whoever secretly trained her to be some kind of super-soldier must have been Eurasian."

"Athrun also suggested that they buried all those memories in her brain using Extended technology," Meyrin added, leafing through the papers again. "Sting and Auel told me that the Alliance had the technology to rewrite memories, although it was so time-consuming it was only used on them for special circumstances. Maybe that..."

Shinn sighed quietly. "I guess it's not such a crazy idea," he said, "but Lodonia has been abandoned for years. By now, scavengers and the Junk Guild have taken whatever the Alliance didn't already taken care of."

"The other installation where we'll find that sort of information is Althea Crater, though," Meyrin answered. "And we are not attacking Althea Crater. We had enough trouble back there." She jabbed a thumb back towards the distant shores of Iraq over her shoulder.

Another sigh escaped Shinn's lips as the conversation died, and he took the opportunity to turn over in his senses Meyrin's emotions. He could not fairly call it fear, but it was certainly apprehension and anxiousness.

"How is she these days?" Meyrin asked. Shinn scratched his head awkwardly.

"About the same as she was after Karelia," he responded. "Tired. Upset. Drained."

"I can relate," sighed Meyrin. "And how are you?"

"As insane as I always am."

"Good to know." She finally turned her eyes towards the sea. "What are the odds we can get through the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean without being attacked along the way?"

"Astronomically low."

Another tired sigh, and Shinn needed no Newtype senses to tell that Meyrin was not looking forward to trying to brave the odds again. "Then I'll go back to the bridge."

Shinn glanced at the ocean Stella was probably going to come up here soon, because it was a chance to look at the sea. "Nobody's attacking us now," he said. "So nobody will be too upset if you decide to take a break." He glanced back at the girl wrapped in the captain's coat. "Abbey can take care of things herself up there anyway."

Meyrin caught Shinn's smile, and managed to smile back.

Rather than install herself on the exterior deck, Stella had chosen to hole up in the interior observation deck and stare pensively at the sea rolling by under the Minerva's wings. Emily was surprised to find her there, having hoped to do some reflection herself or "angsting," as Auel had scornfully described it but seeing Stella made it hard for anyone to feel sorry for themselves.

"Oh...hi Emily..." Stella started, with a sad smile. "Stella's looking at the sea..."

Emily cast her eyes out the window, and easily saw why. Gray clouds almost obscured the midday sun, letting only a few scant shafts of light through to reach the gentle waves below and though the sky looked to promise that those waves would not remain gentle for long, Stella did not appear to mind.

"It's pretty," Emily agreed. Stella nodded slowly, and Emily absently wondered what she had been like before being turned into an Extended.

Stella turned towards Emily, as though an idea occurred to her. "Is Emily sad?"

"Sad? Um, no..."

"Stella thought Emily looked sad," the Extended went on. "Everybody is always sad..."

Emily shifted uncomfortably. If she was getting Stella depressed, then something was really wrong. "I don't think everybody is always sad," she started.

"But they are," Stella insisted. "'cuz everybody always has to fight, but nobody likes it...and then people die, and it makes everyone else sad..." She gave Emily a meaningful look. "Stella doesn't want her friends to be sad. Being friends means making sure they aren't sad."

Stella always managed to pull out some kernel of wisdom when it was least expected.

March 18th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Persian Gulf

"Nice necklace you got there."

Athrun blinked in surprise and looked out of the Infinite Justice's cockpit, where Viveka was leaning against the railing with her mismatched arms crossed and a demon's smirk on her battle-scarred face. He looked down, remembering that he had thrown off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt, and found Cagalli's pendant hanging out from beyond the protection of his shirt.

"It was a gift," he said quickly, tucking it away. "From...well, somebody important."

"Athrun Zala succumbs to sentimentality?" laughed Viveka. "So is this somebody important enough for you to keep the necklace, but not important enough to name?"

"It doesn't matter now," Athrun said, turning around again.

"Oh yes it does," shot back Viveka, her smirk disappearing. "It's part of who you are, and you may not have noticed from inside all that armor, but I'm trying to get to know you here. And your past is part of your identity, whether you like it or not." She paused. "I can tell you about my past if it would help."

At last, Athrun turned around, his eyes brooking no disagreement. "My past is not important. It's what I do now that matters."

"To everyone else, maybe," Viveka answered, undeterred. "But nobody else really wants to know about Athrun Zala the man. All they care about is Athrun Zala the Hero." She crossed her arms again. "Y'know I ran away from our asshole father and lived on the lam for a few years? And then after the Junius War, I joined the Resistance. And y'know the Phantom Pain captured me?"

"I know you've had a rough life," Athrun started.

"They held me for six months," she continued. "Beat me, tortured me, raped me, one of them gouged out my eye and another cut off my arm. Eventually some Resistance fighters broke me out when they raided the prison. They gave me a gun, gestured to some captured Phantom Pain guards and some of them had been torturing me for all those months and they told me to do what I had to do." She narrowed her eye at Athrun, and he suddenly began to feel even more uncomfortable. "And do you see me moping around over it? No. I'm not going to do that." She got up, walking closer to the Justice pilot. "And you know why? Because they wanted to break me. To ruin me. To turn me into a shell. And if I acted the way you act now, those bastards would have gotten exactly what they wanted. They knew damn well that even if I ever escaped, I'd have to carry a mechanical arm and all these scars for the rest of my life, and you know what? They aren't going to slow me down one damn bit." Finally, she planted her mismatched hands on Athrun's shoulders. "I'm willing to bet that my life has been a lot fucking worse than yours, so what's your excuse for carrying a torch this long?"

Athrun was rather surprised to hear his father's voice, of all voices, advising him on the answer. "I've always fought for a cause more important than my own life "

"Bullshit!" Viveka cried. "The whole point of all this fighting is so that people can have their own lives! You're a Coordinator, for Christ's sake, you're fighting for your own life here!"

At that, Athrun decided that further argument would get him nowhere. "My past isn't exciting enough to justify all these theatrics," he said.

"I'll be the judge of that."

Athrun pulled the pendant back out, gazing down at it for an instant. Was this really what Cagalli wanted? It was certainly what Viveka wanted but Athrun failed her once before, so how could he abandon her again?

"So who gave that to you?" Viveka asked. Athrun closed his fist around the stone.


"Cagalli?! Cagalli Yula Athha?!" Viveka scratched the back of her head awkwardly. "So, um, I guess you two were pretty close...?"

"You could say that," Athrun said, tucking the pendant away again.

"But, she died in the Battle of Orb, didn't she?"

Viveka needed no superhuman powers of empathy to see the nerve she was striking, but Athrun cut her off with a wave of his hand. "She died at Orb, and everyone else died at Solomon's Sword." He looked back up at her. "Is that knowledge enough about Athrun Zala the Man?"

"It wouldn't have hurt so bad if you'd just sat still," Viveka replied with a grin.

Sting was thankful for the confluence of loud noises in the Minerva's hangar, because they drowned out all the cursing.

At least, all the cursing that came from someone other than Auel Neider.

The blue-haired Extended was standing on the gantry near the Abyss Gundam's outstretched left arm, swearing up a storm at the mechanics who were working on the arm's upper actuator. To the Abyss's right, the Chaos stood silently by, taking it all in neutrally although the same could not be said of its pilot, standing on the cockpit hatch and getting more annoyed by the minute.

"Charming fellow, isn't he," sighed someone. Sting glanced over his shoulder, at Yolant on the gantry, leaning wearily against the railing. "Where'd you dig him up again?"

"Lodonia," Sting answered. "Somebody else did the digging and dropped him in my lap, and I've been pulling his ass out of certain doom ever since."

"Has he always been this " Yolant paused to wince at a particularly anatomically impossible epithet "um, verbose?"

"Nah, he learned to cuss from some guys who were blasting late 2000s rap music in the barracks." A smirk crossed his lips. "Though he quickly learned not to repeat all of the words he heard in them." Sting turned back towards the Chaos, rubbing his temples. "Behind all the swearing and screaming, though, I'm pretty sure there's a heart. Or something."

"That's what sucks about people, huh," Yolant agreed. "You dig and dig through all their worst traits to reach the core of who they are, and only then do you discover that they really are just raging assholes."

Sting snickered. "That sounds like something Auel would say."

"Abes says I need to be more surly and sarcastic," Yolant said, finally getting up. "So I learn from the best."

Friendship was a funny thing to Emily von Oldendorf, and naturally, she had to ponder it while wandering out to the Minerva's exterior observation deck. Stella had defined it reasonably enough friends looked out for each other. And she was more than willing to look out for everyone else; and, it seemed, everyone else was willing enough to look out for her. So in that sense, she had many friends, and many of them happened to pilot eighteen-meter-tall war machines. But

Her thoughts trailed off at the muffled sounds of gunshots. The airlock door swung open with a rush of pressurized air, and Emily looked out to the center of the deck, where a tall man in black was firing a handgun studiously at a paper target on a wheeled cart.

Rau Le Creuset glanced over his shoulder as he reloaded the pistol. "Ah, Miss Oldendorf," he began. "Fancy meeting you out here. I hope I didn't startle you."

"Um, I'll just go back in," Emily started.

"No need," Rau waved her off. "Just stay out of my line of fire and you'll be fine."

Emily nervously moved over to the railing, watching Rau at work. The gun should have jumped in his hands with each shot, but his hand remained like iron and with each shot the recoil barely made him flinch and instead, each bullet tore through the target sheet in a spot approximating a lethal wound on a human body. Spent shells went flying, and Rau snapped his wrist back, ejecting one clip and replacing it with a fluid motion, before returning to the target.

"So tell me," he said, even as he effortlessly shredded his defenseless target sheet, "what brings you out here?"

Emily squirmed as she contemplated the prospect of trying to carry on a conversation over gunfire. "Just tired..."

"Tired, ah, yes," Rau said with a grin. "A common affliction among young soldiers."

"I'm not a soldier," Emily started.

"Oh, not formally," Rau corrected. "You wear no uniform, you hold no rank, and you salute no flag. But clothes and titles and ceremonies don't make a soldier." He paused to squeeze off another shot, neatly planting it in the center of the target sheet's head. "But what you have is power."

Emily shrugged. "I guess."

"You sell yourself short," chuckled the masked man, firing off the last bullet and setting aside the gun to turn towards the younger pilot. "I'm sure I need not remind you of all the things you've seen in your time with the Minerva. The cruelty of the Phantom Pain, the foolishness of the Resistance? Don't those things anger you?"

No such reminder was necessary. Emily eyed Rau carefully. "They do," she said, "but what am I supposed to do about them?"

Rau grinned.


"...what? Everything ?"

"You see, Miss Oldendorf, this power of yours is vast," Rau continued. "And indeed, you are content to use it to assist your friends on this ship in combat. But," his smiling turned wicked, "don't you want more?"

Emily suddenly felt cold, and shivered, but felt no breeze. "What there?"

Rau turned again, grinning wildly. "There are many steps we must follow to show you," he said. The masked man extended his hand to her, still grinning, and Emily felt even colder. "So to start with, let me acquaint you with someone you once knew and have forgotten...Unit Zero-One."

To be continued...