Phase 37 - The Guns Are Silent

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

Phase 37 - The Guns Are Quiet

March 20th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Indian Ocean

The Minerva lay lashed between two Petrie-class landships on the water, and towed by the Lesseps, surrounded by the rest of the fleet. That was a relief to Abes, who had no desire to run the engines any longer than necessary. And that, in turn, was a relief to Meyrin, who had no desire to sit dead in the water trying to fix her ship's engines before an Alliance unit noticed that they were not moving.

Which, in turn, was also good because Abes had to fix all the Gundams.

Meyrin stood on the bridge, still lowered into its combat configuration to save energy. The damage reports were finally coming in, and as expected, they were not pretty.

"Tannhäuser destroyed, Isolde destroyed, nine out of twelve CIWS emplacements destroyed, fifteen out of twenty-four missile tubes destroyed, all four torpedo launchers destroyed, levitator incapacitated, thirty-four crew wounded..." Abbey read, trailing off with a sigh.

"Wow, we got fucked," Roxy added, punctuating with a slug of beer.

"That's one way to put it," agreed Meyrin. "And repairs to the mobile suits?"

"Just started," answered Abbey. "Only the Destiny, Twilight, Legend, and Justice are combat-capable right now. If we're attacked, we'll need to rely on Wellington's fleet for protection."

Meyrin sat back with a sigh. Her instincts told her that the Phantom Pain would not bother with another attack after expending so many resources in the Strait of Hormuz and coming up short...but had it not been for Wellington, the Phantom Pain would not have come up short.

She tried to clear the doubts from her mind and review the battle. The Charlemagne had stood up to even direct hits from the Minerva's Tristans, something that should at least left some scoring on the armor. Either they carried much stronger laminate armor or they had some other defensive system installed. And either way, they had never managed to even fire the Tannhäuser, so there was no telling what could damage the ship and the idea of an invincible warship was not particularly comforting when the ship was on the other side of the battlefield. And, of course, thirty-four crew wounded by the barrage. The doctor had assured her that they would recover, at least, but not for a long time in some cases.

"On the bright side," Burt offered, "our course from here to Carpentaria is clear, captain."

Thank God for the bright side. "Then I'll be in my quarters," Meyrin said, standing up. "I'll leave the bridge to you, Abbey. Inform me if anything comes up."

Meyrin headed out the door and rubbed her eyes, wondering what Talia would think of her right now.

The Twilight had not lost any limbs and most of its weapons were easily replaced, so it was clearly the low priority for repairs. That left Emily to stand helplessly on the gantry in front of her silent Gundam, staring pensively at its darkened eyes. It still bore the bruises and scars of the battle at Hormuz, but at least it was still mostly whole.

Emily leaned forward on the rail, staring into her Gundam's eyes, at her own dim reflection, wracking her brain for memories. Every image of her mother was one of a kind, frail, quiet woman confined to a bed. She had always been ill for as long as Emily could remember, and had died so early in her life. But Lorelei von Oldendorf had been there for her daughters in the only way she could.

Next to the memories of a kindly, sickly woman, Emily had the mysterious images of labs, soldiers, scientists, the terrifying bearded man in a crisp business suit, and her own burning pain and agonizing exhaustion. And the most sickening thing of all was that the words of that witch in the Morrigan Gundam made sense. How could a woman as ill as Lorelei von Oldendorf have two children? Where could those memories of soldiers and scientists have come from? Why did her father seem unconcerned when Lorelei died? And even the questions that began with her time on the Minerva: how could she have survived, much less defeated Earth Alliance pilots in combat? How could she have first caught the eye of Shinn Asuka?

Until now, she realized, she had not understood just want it meant to be the Angel of Death. To accept this power, to accept the fact that her mother languished and died to give it to her...perhaps she was not so willing to do that.

Emily looked up at the feeling of another human approaching, and glanced over in surprise. The hangar was crawling with mechanics and soldiers, and only some of them were part of the Minerva's crew. The rest had come from the ZAFT fleet and it was only now, when she concentrated on others, that she felt a disquieting aura of resentment from some of those soldiers.

The closest one, however, claimed her attention quickly enough, and Isaac Kenner greeted her with a smile. "I see you got patched up."

Emily smiled back weakly. "I've still been through worse than that."

"Like what?" he asked, coming to a stop next to her. Emily eyed him for a moment.

"Well, the Phantom Pain tortured me one time," she said with a shrug, and then winced and clutched her shoulder as the wound reminded her of itself. "And there was the time I passed out in the cockpit and woke up in the infirmary."

"That's not healthy." Isaac glanced up at the Twilight. "Well, um, anyways, glad to hear you're okay. Some of us were pretty worried."

Emily glanced over at the green-uniformed boy. "'Some?'"

Her smile faded when she noticed that it was not mutual, and Isaac shifted his weight uncomfortably. "Well, uh, not everyone is a fan," he started. "I mean, some of these guys are really old ZAFT. Y'know, veterans. Junius War."

"I'll watch my step, then," Emily said with what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

Shinn Asuka glanced up wearily from the table in the crew lounge at the sound of something hard and glass coming down on it, and blearily read the label of a wide black bottle.

"Where do you keep getting this stuff?" he asked, glancing up at the hand and the arm and the person it was attached to. Roxy merely dropped herself into the seat opposite Shinn with a pair of glasses and ice.

"We all have our secrets," she answered. "Want some?"

Shinn glanced back at the bottle. "We almost died."

"Only almost," Roxy clarified, pouring herself a glass. "So, I celebrate another successful cheating of death with Irish cream. It makes perfect sense."

"Where you come from, maybe," Shinn answered. "Gimme."

Roxy poured him a glass and sat back with her own, a devil's grin on her face. "Bad mood?"

Shinn eyed her incredulously over the rim of his cup. "We almost died."

"We 'almost die' all the time, when you think about it," Roxy pointed out. "But, hey, look at the bright side. We didn't actually die."

"Not good enough," Shinn replied.

"Y'know, it's not your job to protect us all the time. You aren't responsible for all of us." Roxy paused, choosing her words for a moment, and leaned over the table. "I mean, it wasn't your fault."

Silence reigned for a moment, before Shinn shook his head. "You can say that," he said, "but I won't believe it. It's my fault, and it's my responsibility."

"You're gonna get yourself killed one day thinking that," Roxy said.

"Maybe," Shinn agreed, "but that's better than getting other people killed."

Roxy poured herself another glass. "Not to me."

"Commander Le Creuset," boomed Oliver Wellington, seizing the masked man's hand in a firm shake in the Minerva's hangar, "I'm glad to see you've fallen in with such esteemed company."

"I ride with the best," Rau said with a shrug and a smirk. "I was wondering if you've heard from our comrades at Mars yet."

Rau noted the immediate darkening of Wellington's mood, although it did not appear on his face. Apparently the relationship was not a friendly one. "Marshal Sunogachi communicates with me only sporadically," Wellington explained, "and the last message I received from her was in January. I suppose it has something to do with the distance."

"And what might ZAFT's angel be up to at Mars?" asked Rau, a few guesses already surfacing.

Wellington shrugged. "I heard that she had been dealing with Martian opposition," he said, "but she said in her last message that it was under control. Her orders to me were to hold down the fort until she arrives, and I have no timetable for that or anything."

"I see." Rau put a hand to his chin in thought. Surely Valentine was up to something at Mars and she had Kira out there with her. "Not even any hints?"

"It's like she forgets that we're fighting our own war here too."

Rau expertly masked his glee. Valentine had not turned out to be so great a leader as she thought. So many resources still here on Earth that she could take advantage of or was she? "Has she asked you to send anything back to Mars?"

Wellington shrugged again. "Basics, mostly. Water. Some minerals. Plant seeds. The Martian colonies are fairly self-sufficient, so they don't really need much." He paused, and Rau picked up the faint feeling of recollection. "And she asked for a detachment of my men to investigate the base at Antarctica for something."

"Oh?"

"They found blueprints for something called a 'ZAKU Goliath...'"

Whatever else Wellington said, Rau did not hear, because the words danced through his mind. The ZAKU Goliath? In Valentine's hands? Could she be building that thing? But there were parts it needed could it be?

"I'm afraid I can't be much help here, commander," Wellington said with a frown.

Rau shook his head with a grin. "No no, commandant, you've been more than helpful."

The ZAKU Goliath...but I have the key!

Athrun Zala knew who was on the other side of the door before he opened it, but when the door opened, he did not quite expect to be lifted bodily off the ground and tossed back into his room by a conspicuous mechanical arm, whose owner shut the door behind her.

"So, now that you can't avoid me anymore," began a most displeased Viveka, "you and I are going to talk."

Athrun wearily got back to his feet. "Where does the judo throw figure into all this?"

"Why are you avoiding me?" demanded Viveka. "This is getting ridiculous. I'm not letting you out of here until you finally tell me why you won't open up to me." She shook her metal fist.

"Threatening to kill me is probably a bad way to start," Athrun began.

"You told me out there," Viveka said, jabbing her thumb over her shoulder, "that you've had lots of friends tell you that they'd be okay and then they got killed. What's up with that?"

"It's not important," Athrun started, only for Viveka to seize him by the collar.

"It is to me!" she snapped. "You're important to me!"

"You think I don't know that?" Athrun shot back.

"Then act like it!"

She went silent as she noticed the cold look Athrun had fixed on her, and opened her mouth to speak again, but he waved her off.

"You want to know about my past?" he asked, as he freed himself from her grip. "Alright, I'll tell you." He threw off his jacket, ignoring Viveka's surprised sputtering, and rolled up his sleeve past his shoulder. "You see that?"

Viveka eyed the discolored mark for a moment. "You're showing me a scar from a gunshot wound?"

"That came from my father," Athrun said, Viveka falling silent again, and he rolled his sleeve back down. "I was a ZAFT soldier. A ZAFT Red. My comrades and I stole some Gundams from the Alliance in CE 71, only to find a childhood friend piloting the one that we didn't steal. We fought each other reluctantly for a few months, until he killed one of my comrades, I killed one of his, and I clamped my mobile suit onto his and self-destructed it."

"Athrun, I "

"When I got back home, I found out that my fiancée had stolen the Freedom Gundam from ZAFT," Athrun continued, anger flickering in his eyes. "My father told me to find it and gave me the Justice, its sister unit. I tracked it down to Orb, and I discovered that my friend was still alive, and he was piloting that thing."

Viveka blinked in disbelief. "Kira Yamato ?"

"I decided to desert, but went back to my father," Athrun went on, "thinking that I could persuade him to see reason. Instead, he shot me and I only escaped thanks to Lacus' followers. I went back and joined Kira in ending the war, but that all went to hell during Jachin Due, and Kira defected to ZAFT. I went with Cagalli in hopes of taking back Orb from the Seiran family, who were turning it into a puppet of the Atlantic Federation but every move we made ended in failure and the Seirans only grew stronger. We tried to intervene in the invasion of Orb in 73, and Kira killed Cagalli."

"Athrun, I get it " Viveka started.

"Lacus took over after that, and Shinn joined us a few days later," he went on, "and we tried to stop the war from getting any worse the way we did in 71. We went all the way to the Battle of Solomon's Sword. The Megami was destroyed, Lacus and everyone else was killed, and when it was all over, Shinn, Stella, and I were the only survivors of the Orb Raiders." He shrugged his shoulders, a contemptuous scowl on his face. "And there's the fucking story. Are you happy?"

At that, Viveka frowned. "Look, I know you've had a rocky past "

"And not too long ago you asked me about this," Athrun continued, pulling out the conspicuous red pendant from underneath his shirt. "And I told you that Cagalli gave it to me, did I not?"

"Y-Yeah," Viveka started, shrinking from the flickering light in his eyes as he curled his fingers around the tiny red stone.

"She interrogated me after Orb found me washed up on the beach, after my battle with the Strike," Athrun said. "She gave this to me before I left to go back to the PLANTs, and told me that it would protect me." He opened his fist again, eyeing the tiny red stone, and Viveka shivered at the flash of pain in his eyes. "I am not a superstitious man, but I'm starting to feel like it has protected me." His eyes flashed again, this time with anger. "And for what? A world where Coordinators are being hunted down and killed, and the Alliance rules everything with an iron fist, and Orb is a province of the Atlantic Federation? Shinn and Stella joined the Orb Raiders only a couple weeks before Solomon's Sword, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm the last Orb Raider. And this is what they all died for?" He cast his eyes furiously down at the stone again. "I promised her that I would stand by her side and help her build a haven in this Godforsaken world for the people who wanted peace. The rest of the world could kill each other until no one was left, but brick by brick, we were going to make a place for the people who were as tired of fighting as we were. And look at that now!"

"Athrun " Viveka started again.

"So now you want to know why I'm not going to just 'move on,'" he said. "Now you want to know why I'm not interested in your romantic advances."

"W-Who said anything about romantic advances?!" sputtered Viveka.

Athrun tapped the side of his head. "You can hide your thoughts from me, but you can't hide your feelings," he shot back. "And I think I've made mine clear."

Viveka rubbed the back of her head awkwardly. "Well, can you blame me?" she asked. "So we've both had shitty lives. Don't you think you should "

"I am a soldier," interrupted Athrun, eyes flashing. "I don't forget my comrades."

"I'm not asking you to," Viveka sputtered, but she fell silent at the look in Athrun's eyes. He stared back at her, and Viveka slumped her shoulders. "You went out of your way to protect me in battle."

"Why wouldn't I?"

"Well, then you're not hopeless yet," she answered. "I'm not asking you to forget about them "

Athrun pushed past her, the door sliding open with a hiss. "You are my friend and my wingman," he said. "I rely on you to watch my back and make sure I get back home alive; and I do the same for you. Of course I protect you in battle, even though you don't need it."

"Is that all you want? A wingman?"

"It's all I need."

Athrun brushed by her and marched out the door.

March 21st, CE 77 - Dubai Naval Station, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

"An entire fleet, sunk," Lord Djibril intoned ominously, his image flickering upon the screen as he sat back in his screening room with a supremely displeased look on his face. "Phantom Island, destroyed. Were you aware, Marshal, that we sank a quarter of a trillion dollars into developing that thing?"

Standing in the commandant's office of the Dubai Naval Station, fists and teeth clenched, Crayt forced out her words. "Yes, Lord Djibril."

"You had the Minerva trapped in the Strait of Hormuz," Djibril continued, "trapped between Phantom Island, an entire surface fleet, and the Charlemagne. And yet the Minerva still lives."

"I know we failed, Lord Djibril," Crayt began.

Lord Djibril sat back, his characteristic black cat hopping off his lap and looking as annoyed as its owner. "Marshal, I made my career in the world of business, and we are required to square all of our successes and failures with the harsh reality of the company's bottom line. If you adversely affect the bottom line, your neck is put on the chopping block. Now tell me, Marshal, why I should not do that here?"

"We were caught off guard by the ZAFT Remnant, sir," Crayt started. "They were using Mirage Colloid "

"I do not want to hear excuses, Marshal," Djibril cut her off. "The ZAFT Remnant is supposed to be confined to Australia, pending our eventual operation to retake Carpentaria. That they should have been allowed to put a fleet to sea in the first place is intolerable. That they should have caught your fleet unawares and destroyed it is even worse. Don't you agree, Marshal?"

Crayt's blood boiled. "Yes sir."

"Now, Marshal," Djibril continued, "I'm sure you understand my position. The Minerva is the symbol of our enemies. We had it trapped and doomed, and yet it wriggled free from our clutches. I'm sure you understand how terrible that looks. So, Marshal, if you were in my position, what would you do with the officer who commanded this operation and failed so deeply?"

"I accept responsibility for my failure and will accept my punishment," Crayt said, grinding her teeth as she subserviently bowed her head.

Djibril frowned for a moment. "I will not have you killed," he said at last, "nor will I have you removed from your post. You have seen success in other arenas, and the Minerva has been only a highly conspicuous blemish on an otherwise satisfactory record. But our Carpentaria operation will be drastically changed. I am placing Grand Admiral MacIntyre in overall command of Operation Typhoon. I cannot overlook as major a failure as this, you see, Marshal."

"I understand, sir," Crayt said.

"Then I will leave you to begin organizing the Phantom Pain forces," Djibril replied. "Admiral MacIntyre will arrive at Yokosuka shortly. Your orders are to travel there and begin marshalling Phantom Pain forces to support his operation to retake Carpentaria."

The screen went dark, and Crayt snarled in rage, stalking out of the room.

The Superior Evolutionary Element Destined factor.

It was controversial among scientists, but Sven Cal Bayan had heard of it before. Typically, he heard it only in the mouths of soldiers, of mobile suit pilots who claimed that in the heat of battle they saw a seed fall and burst into a dazzling array of colors, and suddenly the world was clear, their instincts and reflexes optimized, as though they could see the future. Sven had always written such stories off as the result of the hallucinations of the adrenaline-addled brains of tired and anxious soldiers. He had been trained since boyhood to fight and approached it with military precision and calm. He needed no falling seeds.

Which, of course, was absolutely worthless in explaining why he had seen that seed in battle in the Strait of Hormuz.

Sven Cal Bayan hated mysteries, and so once back in the safety of his room, he immediately began devouring what information he could find in the Phantom Pain's databases on the SEED factor. Naturally, they had little to offer: a controversial theory of a factor that determined a species' course of evolution, and if activated by stress and environmental demands, it could, in humans, allow for more efficient use of the brain. But that led to the Newtype theory, and Newtypes or not, Sven had no use for such nonsense.

Nonsense, huh? asked that damnable child again. The mighty Captain Sven Cal Bayan can't feel fear?

Sven ground his teeth. Of course he could not feel fear. They had trained and disciplined that out of him.

And look at you now, the child shot back. Are you even still alive?

My heart beats. I remain conscious, Sven began.

Oh, like that's all it takes to be alive, interrupted the child. They didn't grind all the fear out of you, or else I wouldn't still be here.

Sven did not answer, blinking once and struggling to refocus on the screen in front of him.

You want me to stay, the child went on, because even if they took everything away from you and turned you into a mindless soldier, they couldn't even touch me. And I still want to see the stars. I still want to leave this place and go to Jupiter, or Mars, or wherever else. And I'm still gonna be here, whether you like it or not.

Clenching his fists in anger, Sven stood up with a hiss, willing the voice away.

March 22nd, CE 77 - ZAFT Lesseps-class land battleship Monterrey, Indian Ocean

"It's not every day we get a course this clear," Oliver Wellington chuckled as he came to a stop next to the Monterrey's captain's chair.

Wellington noted dourly that no one seemed to share his chipper mood. He glanced to the side, at the reason why. Commander Argus was the square-jawed man with a scar running from the corner of his left eye, clothed in a white ZAFT uniform and sitting in one of the command chairs. The Monterrey was technically captained by a thoroughly nondescript man in a green Ground Commander's uniform named Maddock, but it was Commander Argus that set the tone. Burning in his dark eyes was nothing but abject hatred, and that flickering ember turned white-hot when his eyes settled on the Minerva.

Wellington winced at the thought. Most soldiers of the Resistance had nothing but admiration for the Minerva, but among the tattered army of battered ZAFT veterans and disenfranchised Coordinators collectively known as the ZAFT Remnant, the feeling was much more mixed. Commander Argus was a veteran of the ZAFT space fleet, where one of his ships had been destroyed by Shinn Asuka and his Impulse Gundam; and then he had seen his command obliterated at Antarctica by the Destiny. What could he have but hatred for the hero of the Resistance and the ship he called home?

And yet Wellington knew better than to brand as enemy the ship that had won the rest of the Resistance's love and respect. The fight was thus a constant one, although one that his authority allowed him to win. The younger soldiers, who had joined the ZAFT Remnant after the Junius War, held little animosity for the Minerva. But for Argus and his veterans...well, old wounds did not heal.

Commander Argus leaned forward, the hatred still flickering in his eyes. At the very least, he understood his duty. "Sensor, sweep the area again." He glanced over at Wellington. "We may have to reactivate the Mirage Colloid."

"That will be difficult," cautioned Wellington. "We're low on prisms and they may not cover the Minerva."

Argus expertly quashed the hatred. "We can't count on a clear path to Carpentaria," he said. "And the Phantom Pain's not about to let their prize get away without a fight."

Wellington merely shrugged. "My soldier's intuition tells me that after expending so many resources in the Persian Gulf, they aren't going to take another crack at the Minerva in the Indian Ocean. So our biggest problem is navigating the Polynesian islands."

Argus sat back, clearly dissatisfied but with no more say. Wellington returned his attention to the Minerva and found himself hoping their stay would be short.

Battleship Minerva

"I hate men."

Emily blinked in surprise and looked up from the Twilight Gundam's cockpit panel, finding Viveka slumped against the side of the hatch, arms crossed. The foul mood on her face already evinced itself by the cloud of disgust and frustration swirling around her, enough to make Emily wince at the feeling.

"Um, alright," Emily said, looking back down at the panel and hoping to avoid the impending conversation.

"Well, I should specify," Viveka went on, glancing awkwardly across the hangar at the slumbering Infinite Justice Gundam. "I think I only hate Athrun."

Emily held back a sigh. "You're still mad about that?"

"'Romantic advances,' he said! God, why won't he understand that I friggin' like him?!" She threw her hands over her head in despair. "We're speaking the same language, right?"

"You're asking me?" asked Emily. Viveka glanced over at her with a sigh.

"Well, you're the one with the magic brain powers or something," she said. "Maybe you know something I don't?"

Emily sat back, deciding to ignore the comment about her "magic brain powers," and pondered that thought for a moment. "He's, um..."

"Well, I know you have a crush on Shinn," Viveka went on. Emily snapped up in surprise.

"Viveka!" A victorious grin was all she got in response. "I do not I mean "

"Yeah, whatever," Viveka waved her off. "So I believe we were talking about Athrun and your magic brain powers?"

At that, Emily sighed again and put her head against the Twilight's cockpit panel. "He has a lot of pain," she said quietly, and the smirk on Viveka's face faded. "He's...not happy, I guess. I don't know. He told me that most of his friends have died."

"I know that," Viveka answered, "but really, how long can you go on like that, holding onto your past?"

A terrifying image of Gerhardt von Oldendorf flashed across Emily's mind's eye like lightning. "A long time," she said.

"Oh, don't tell me you're moping too," Viveka groaned.

"No, I'm fine," answered Emily, "but Iím just saying, it's more complicated than that."

"It's always more complicated than that."

Emily said nothing, absorbing her attention back into the Twilight's cockpit panel, as Viveka walked away amid a cloud of frustration.

There were many reasons why Shinn Asuka hated being a Newtype, and the tendency to become part of other people's drama without even speaking to them was definitely a top contender. He liked to think that Athrun appreciated that, as he caught sight of the ZAFT veteran on the Minerva's observation deck, brooding quietly at the surrounding ZAFT ships.

"Shinn, tell me something," Athrun said as Shinn came to a stop next to him against the railing. He produced Cagalli's pendant from inside his shirt and held it up, letting the sunlight glitter off its surface. "Am I wrong for hanging onto this?"

"No," Shinn started with an arched eyebrow. "Is this about that fight you had with Viveka? I felt the whole thing, by the way."

Athrun tucked the pendant away again. "Maybe she's been able to forget her past," he said, "but it's easier said than done. Especially when you're surrounded by reminders of it." He nodded warily at the ZAFT ships and glanced at Shinn again. "You never felt much connection to ZAFT, did you?"

"Not really," Shinn agreed with a shrug. "They took me in after my family died. Their leader gave me a Gundam. I had a few friends. But that was about it."

"That's not the case for me," Athrun answered. "And that's the problem. I look at the Justice's startup screen and I see ZAFT's insignia, and I can't help but think back to Nicol and Yzak and Dearka. I feel this pendant under my shirt and I can't help but think back to Cagalli and Lacus and Andy and Mwu. How am I supposed to just forget all of that?"

Shinn cast a morose glance towards the water. "You're preaching to the choir."

Silence reigned for a moment, before Athrun looked away awkwardly. "You're right. Sorry."

"But anyway," Shinn went on, "it's your decision, how to respond to it."

"How do you deal with it?" Athrun asked. "The regret, the loss..."

"You think I deal with it any better than you do?"

"It wouldn't hurt to get a second opinion."

Shinn leaned against the railing with a sigh. "They haunt me," he answered. "When I meet someone new, or someone I don't really know well, the contours of their emotion, the way they feel...I swear sometimes it's Lacus or Mayu or Kika." He shook his head. "So if you were looking for some kind of well-adjusted coping strategy, you probably asked the wrong person."

Athrun shrugged. "It's nice to know I'm not the only one going insane."

"Just don't be too harsh on her," Shinn warned. "For both your sakes. You're going to pay for it in more ways than one if you break her heart." He paused and a wry smirk crossed his lips. "Plus, you'd have to answer to Emily."

"Wouldn't want that, would we," Athrun chuckled. Their smiles faded as they turned their eyes back towards the ZAFT fleet. "So how do you think they're going to receive us at Carpentaria?"

"Depends on who we meet," Shinn answered. "A bunch of ZAFT vets will hate me more than you."

Athrun heaved a sigh. "Another mess from our pasts for us to deal with, huh..."

The air rang as the Chaos Gundam's new left arm clamped into place, and on the gantry near the cockpit, Sting Oakley ground his teeth at the noise. The mechanics were busy repairing the ship, which left the pilots more or less on their own in repairing their mobile suits.

He tried not to think about the battle at Hormuz. He was not exactly a stranger to the feeling of fear, but nor was he a close acquaintance, and he preferred to keep it that way. But that in itself was strange, because he was an Extended, trained to feel no fear except when told to fear by his commanding officer, through the block word.

Sting allowed himself a brief scowl at the memory. Three years later, the block word held almost no sway on him, and did not even faze him when his mind was on something else but occasionally it still had the unusual power to grate on his nerves. He suspected the same for Auel, and even Stella seemed to fear it less but only a little. At the very least, they had managed to work through and break down some of the detrimental side effects of their Extended modifications, and the Minerva's doctor had made some major breakthroughs in reversing some of the more insidious changes. But Sting was not quite willing to part with his combat skills and reflexes, not while the Minerva and the world still needed them. And that meant he had to get unusually tired after combat, and that his block word would still send a chill over him. But that was a price he was willing and able to pay, as long as his combat skills were still necessary.

The Chaos shrugged its shoulders at Sting's command once the final connections snapped into place, and Sting watched with a tired sigh. At least that seemed to be working, and it had been certainly easier to replace than the leg.

His block word. Failure. Perhaps that was why his performance at the Strait of Hormuz still irked him; because it had been so close to failure.

March 23rd, CE 77 - Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, Dubai Naval Station, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

"So," Shams Coza's voice gleefully cut through the silence in the Strike E's cockpit, where Sven sat working on the machine's operating system, "still don't believe in that seed mode thing?"

Sven cast a lusterless glance at Shams, and to his dismay found Mudie there as well, both looking amused. "It was an adrenaline rush," he said, returning to his work.

"Oh bullshit," Shams laughed. "You're human too, admit it."

His grin faded as he noticed the dark look in Sven's eyes. "Being human will get us killed," he answered quietly. "Being human is not enough. We must be more than human."

Mudie arched an eyebrow. "Isn't that the thinking that led to the Coordinators?"

"There are many Coordinators in the Resistance," Sven shot back, "and we have to be better than them."

"Aren't we already?" Shams asked, drawing a confused look from Sven. "I mean, we have a huge friggin' army and they're on the run. We have superior technology and they have to rely on, like, ZAFT leftovers and our surplus. We're the ones with the wind at our backs."

"It will not always be," Sven replied.

Shams and Mudie exchanged a glance. "What brought this on?" asked Shams.

Sven sat back, his posture brooking no further conversation. "Nothing," he said, and pulled himself out from the cockpit. "I'm going to get a mechanic."

Shams watched Sven leave with a doubtful eye, and glanced back at Mudie again. "So what's his problem, huh?"

Mudie merely shrugged. "Isn't that how he always is?"

"Yeah," Shams said, throwing another dubious look towards the retreating Sven, "but after that little display at Hormuz..." He shrugged himself. "I dunno. What do you think we mean to him?"

"What does it matter?"

"It'd give us something to make fun of him for."

Mudie stood up. "Sven can do what he wants," she decided, and headed off in the opposite direction.

Left behind, Shams rubbed his head in frustration. Between the Ice Queen over there and Captain Emotionless, he thought with a sigh, I'm starting to wonder if I'm the one going crazy.

Grey Saiba hated the odious requirement of an ensign mobile suit pilot euphemistically termed "tactical planning sessions." It usually amounted to either a long and angry tirade by the lieutenant junior grade in charge of the planning, or a very uncomfortable montage of combat footage. Today had shaped up to begin with the latter, leaving the Charlemagne's pilots spread around the briefing room, watching impassively as footage ran on the monitor of the Resistance's jet-black Twilight Gundam at Novorossiysk and Hormuz. And after twenty minutes of watching their comrades and themselves fail, the lieutenant then whirled around into another angry tirade. If he were not one of its subjects, Grey would have been almost impressed with the effortless segue.

As the Charlemagne's browbeaten pilots filed out of the briefing room, Grey scanned the crowd for Merau, but found her nowhere and assumed she had slipped off somewhere else. He heaved a sigh, heading back for his bunk.

It was unbecoming of a soldier, he knew, but he was sleeping poorly of late and not because of work or the enemy, but from nightmares. Ever since that terrifying battle in Volgograd, where he had come face to face with the Twilight Gundam and, if only for a moment, seen into the eyes of his enemy, those eyes burned holes into his soul. That his enemy could be a teenage girl no older than himself was one thing; that she could be the Angel of Death, the same girl carving for herself a name and a reputation, both resting on the corpses of his colleagues and comrades, was something else entirely. A child, the enemy; a child, the ace; a child, the Angel of Death? Back home, he would have been asking out girls like her.

And that, in turn, made the "tactical planning sessions" even worse. By now, the Alliance had documented just about every capability possible from the Minerva's Gundams the Alliance had not previously possessed. Even the Savior and Legend were not particularly unknown. But the Twilight, even though it had evidently only been built from spare parts, was a new quantity, with a pilot who evinced a different style than her comrades. That meant hours and hours of study, in hopes of predicting her moves.

And that meant thinking about her, and there were few things Grey Saiba hated more than thinking about the Angel of Death.

March 24th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Timor Sea

The captain of the Minerva could be found on the interior observation deck, staring pensively at the ZAFT warships surrounding her vessel and carrying it across the sea. When Shinn Asuka stepped onto the deck, he made a mental note of Meyrin Hawke's new propensity for brooding. She was not particularly good at it.

Meyrin glanced over at him as he approached. "Did you run into any of them?"

Shinn came to a stop next to them. "I stayed away from the ZAFT mechanics," he said, "just like you asked."

The captain returned her gaze to the surrounding ships, looking far older than she was. "Do you think we'll have any problems at Carpentaria?"

"That depends on Wellington," answered Shinn, "and how well he's disciplined his troops."

Both fell silent again, before Meyrin reached up and pulled off her hat. "Shinn, I've been wondering something for a while," she went on. "Ever since I started serving as this ship's captain." She looked up, and Shinn caught the flash of the old Meyrin Hawke the vulnerable, meek, intimidated girl, the Meyrin Hawke who was not the captain of the Minerva.

"If it's what I think you're thinking," he said, "then the answer is yes, I still think you're fit to be captain."

"After we almost got killed at Hormuz?" Meyrin protested. "Shinn, I told all of you when you asked me to do this that I couldn't. And the only reason we're still alive is because of the pilots. It's you guys who made all my plans work and saved us more times than I can count. And that," she jabbed a thumb towards the Minerva's wake, and the Strait of Hormuz that lay miles behind it, "was the closest we've come to getting killed."

Shinn frowned as he found himself on the opposite end of his earlier conversation with Roxy, lubricated as it was by the soothing influence of Irish whiskey. "We didn't actually get killed," he said, "and if anything, it's my fault that we came so close. If I hadn't gone after the Devil's Saber "

"No, I'm the one who's responsible," Meyrin cut him off. "Shinn, tell me, do you still trust me as captain? Does everyone else? Should I?"

Shinn studied her face for a moment, turning over the pulsing presence in his mind. "Well, I'll say this," he said. "We wouldn't have decided to put you in the captain's chair if we didn't think you could do it. Even if the other bridge crew had more seniority or experience, we needed them where they were because we couldn't really find another highly-trained helmsman or something on short notice." He shrugged. "I still have faith in you."

Meyrin fell back against the railing and sighed heavily. "I don't understand why."

"There's more to you than you give yourself credit for," Shinn answered. "You're not sixteen anymore."

"I'm nineteen."

"So am I, and look how messed up I am."

At that, Meyrin smiled sadly. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"Call it a favorable comparison," Shinn said with another shrug.

Standing on the gantry near the silent and still-damaged Abyss Gundam, Sting and Auel cast a wary glance down the hangar at the cluster of ZAFT mechanics in their green work jumpsuits, all gathered into one corner and eating lunch.

"They're not very friendly, are they?" Auel grumbled. Sting shook his head.

"Some of them are," he said, "but then there are others who are assholes."

"We have our distinguished aces to thank for that," interrupted the voice of Rau Le Creuset as he strode down the gantry and came to a stop next to the two Extended. "Grudges die hard, even among the Coordinators."

"Yeah," Sting said, "but would they really be so stupid as to give us a hard time? Their commander went out of his way to rescue us, didn't he?"

"That doesn't mean his men appreciate the gesture," Rau answered with a shrug. "Athrun deserted them and destroyed GENESIS, forcing ZAFT to accept a ceasefire instead of crushing the Alliance at Jachin Due. And Shinn very visibly and crushingly betrayed them at Arzachel. They believe he could have turned the war's tide."

"He's not that great," sniffed Auel.

"But try telling that to the ZAFT veterans who have lost everything." Rau glanced over at the cluster of mechanics. "It is no small thing to have your entire homeland annihilated, after all. Such hatred is powerful."

"What, now we have to worry about them trying to kill us?" Auel groaned. At that, Rau shrugged again.

"At the very least, I have advised Captain Hawke to keep the marines ready. And if you venture onto the base when we reach Carpentaria, you would be wise to carry a weapon."

"Wonderful," Sting grunted. "I can handle getting shot at by the people on the other side, but the ones on my side are a whole different story."

Rau grinned at the mechanics, as they huddled closer together. "Indeed," he said, "people are fools."

To be continued...