Phase 41 - The Kingdom of Peace

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED TWILIGHT

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Phase 41 - The Kingdom of Peace

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March 29th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Pacific Ocean

That was too easy, was the first thing Meyrin thought as the remaining Murasames darted off over the ocean, leaving behind their somewhat perplexed opponents. And Meyrin hated being perplexed.

Fortunately, the rest of the bridge crew seemed to be thinking the same thing, and Meyrin was not about to be led into a trap. She sat back and watched as the remaining enemies made their escape and the Minerva's mobile suits began to return. If the military at Orb had really intended to destroy them, they would have sent a much larger force. Either this was a test, or this was bait.

Meyrin never liked being baited.

She glanced up at Roxy. "Do we have any contact with the Orb resistance yet?"

Roxy shrugged. "I dunno. They're keeping a pretty low profile." She pressed a button on her console, drawing up a message on the auxiliary screen. "That's the best thing I've got so far. They're willing to meet with us, as long as we stay the hell away from Orb and sneak in some representatives. They would prefer us to send a few of our pilots," she rolled her eyes, "as a sign of trust."

"Trust?!" sputtered Abbey. "What they think we're going to turn on them?!"

"We do have a habit of blowing up Resistance units that cross the line," put in Malik from the helm. "So they may not want to find out which side of the line they're on."

"We only fire on friendly forces when they cease to be friendly to us," Meyrin groaned. "Fine. We'll send pilots. Athrun and Shinn can handle themselves in Aube anyway. They can take Stella with them. Roxy, you go too, you know Aube fairly well. The Minerva will stay off the coast and wait for you to return."

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Orb National Defense Headquarters, Onogoro Island

The freight elevator descended with a rumble, a whiff of the cold smell of industrial cleaners filling the air. Jona Roma Seiran never terribly liked this place. It had been a secret, even from him, and although he kept innumerably many secrets himself, he never liked it when others kept secrets from him.

Mara glanced over at him, her expression unreadable. "You certainly are being withholding," she remarked.

Jona grinned back. "My dear," he crooned, "you really need to learn to have some patience."

The elevator rattled as it reached the bottom of the shaft. One of the guards raised a hand to open the doors, but Jona stopped him with a gesture, and turned with a sweeping flair back towards Mara.

"Now Mara, dear," he said, "I know diamonds are a girl's best friend, but with the economy the way it is and the budget all messed up..."

He threw the switch himself, and the door slid open, filling the elevator with light.

"...the best I could spring for was gold."

Mara squinted up through the light and stared in astonishment at the gleaming face of the Akatsuki.

"You didn't but that thing was stolen and destroyed three years ago!" she sputtered.

Jona smirked up at the golden mobile suit himself. "Yes, but our golden little princess left behind the blueprints, and we certainly aren't going to let Cagalli keep all our toys in her grave." He cast a sweeping gesture towards the mobile suit. "Akatsuki Model 2 includes upgraded avionics and internal mechanics, and the Owashi Sky Pack. The Shiranui Space Pack is still being worked on for use without those superhuman spatial awareness abilities." He turned back towards Mara with a gleaming grin. "But I'm sure you'll find it adequate."

"You know how to give gifts," said Mara with a nod. "Am I supposed to destroy the Minerva with this thing?"

"Not until they've done me a little favor," replied Jona.

Mara blinked at him. "A favor? Surely you don't mean "

"Oh no," Jona cut her off with a chuckle, "nothing that blatant. No, we both know there's only one thing they want in our territory, and I'm of a mind to let them have it or even to help them get it."

"That would be dangerous. Our forces can't yet challenge the Alliance militarily on even ground, and Orb itself "

"I know," Jona interrupted again. "We know that the Minerva is here to attack Onigashima what else could they want? and we know that the Alliance garrison there has the dual purpose of protecting Orb and keeping us in check. So the opportunity is simply begging to be taken."

"Djibril isn't going to let you just sit there without supervision," Mara said. "That's why I'm here, after all, and you're just lucky I like you better than I do him."

"Mara, you flatter me," Jona laughed. "Let the Minerva destroy Onigashima. We will benefit from it, and in the meantime, you can have all the fun you want putting on our show of defending the island from the Resistance. Does that tickle your fancy?"

At that, Mara grinned back. "Consider my fancy tickled."

Jona turned back towards the Akatsuki. "After all," he said, "why stop your enemy from doing you a favor?"

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Yokosuka Naval Station, Japan, Republic of East Asia

The Grand Admiral of the Atlantic Federation Navy was something of an odd office. Formed with much controversy in decades past to take overall command of the Atlantic Federation's burgeoning navy, it was thought of as a nod to aggressive imperial powers, to mighty navies that could blanket the oceans and disintegrate the coast with firepower. But if anyone fit the title of "Grand Admiral," it was the swarthy James MacIntyre. He was an admiral, and judging by the medals and ribbons on his chest and the ash-gray beard on his chin, he was pretty grand as well.

All well enough, thought Lord Djibril, but he was still subordinate to the President of the Earth Alliance.

"I must warn you, sir," MacIntyre said gravely in Djibril's office at Yokosuka, "that the timing of this battle is going to be incredibly tight. We will have to take our objectives and hold them at the exactly specified times, and withdraw at the same exact times; and Daedalus will have to fire the Requiem at the exactly specified time, the relay points will need to be in position without interference, and the target point will need to be set exactly. Otherwise we might wind up frying our own attack force, or a city, or nothing at all."

Djibril fixed him with a look designed to petrify lesser man. MacIntyre was not a lesser man. Apparently he was grand in that respect as well. "Are you saying that you cannot do this?"

"Of course not, sir. What I'm saying is that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and this plan absolutely must survive first contact with the enemy or else we will accidentally destroy a city or our own army."

"Then you're just going to have to make it survive," Djibril said with a shrug. "Do you disagree?"

MacIntyre searched for words for a moment. "Sir, I just do not see the necessity of using the Requiem cannon. Not if we also have three Destroy units and two battalions of mobile suits to drop from orbit. The only option they'll have is to flee deeper into Australia, and our entire army will be right on their heels." He paused pointedly. "And I would expect political ramifications "

"I will deal with the political ramifications," Djibril interrupted with an irritated wave of his hand. "Political ramifications are exactly the purpose of this exercise, admiral. We must use the Requiem cannon to put on a display of overwhelming power. Only when they realize that we can turn on them the same force we used to destroy the PLANTs will they see the futility of their struggle. And once the idea of giving up has been introduced into their fractious little brains, that will be all it takes to split the survivors apart and turn the Resistance into a minor nuisance for local police to mop up. Only by launching a decisive strike of overwhelming power, wiping out the bulk of their military forces and their most talented fighters, can we finally crush the spirits of the rest."

MacIntyre arched an eyebrow, barely perceptibly. "They may well decide to go down fighting, sir."

Djibril cracked a grin. "The Requiem won't give them a choice."

MacIntyre still looked doubtful, and that, Djibril supposed, was where his grandness came to an end.

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March 30th, CE 77 - Battleship Minerva, Pacific Ocean

"It's just gonna be us for a few hours," Sting warned as he caught sight of Emily trudging wearily down the gantry. "And holy hell, you look like shit."

Emily suppressed a sigh. "How long are Shinn and the others going to be out?"

Sting shrugged. "I dunno. Probably won't be back until nightfall."

At that, Emily glanced around the hangar. She, Sting, Auel, and Rau were left aboard the Minerva in case anything happened. That, of course, meant pressure not the kind of mental pressure she felt when fighting people, but the good old fashioned regular pressure.

Pressure, Emily had long ago discovered, sucked.

She glanced up over her shoulder at the silent Twilight Gundam, slumbering and awaiting its next battle. The previous fight had not been terribly trying, and had not afforded many opportunities to test its new capabilities. It was still strange and new to be relied on, but at least she was not in command. If it should come to combat, that was Rau's job.

At that thought, she glanced over at the brooding Legend, not one of the beneficiaries of a new set of toys at Carpentaria. Rau never seemed to need anything more than the Legend's standard weapons anyway, and the ease with which he dispatched enemies was almost enviable. The ease with which he dispatched enemies...and the ease with which he made sense of a world in chaos.

And yet she knew he had a point, about the world and about herself. She hated it when other people knew her better than herself.

Of course the world made her feel some anger, at least a little. And although the opportunity to flee from it all, to hide, to return to anonymity and try to dodge the Phantom Pain herself, had presented itself to her in Murmansk. But she had stayed. What did she want to accomplish?

And then there was Shinn, who by his own confession no longer cared about changing the world. But then what was he fighting for?

Emily heaved a sigh. Causes to fight for were always so troublesome.

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Poring over maps and dossiers, Meyrin Hawke began to realize that she had really not been trained for this at the ZAFT Military Academy. Perhaps her sister might have been able to handle this stuff she was the ZAFT Red, after all, not Meyrin but Meyrin Hawke had graduated well below her sister's place in their class. And learning how to operate the Minerva's complicated mobile suit system had given her plenty of sleepless nights anyway. Learning to be an officer was not so easy in the middle of battle.

Fortunately, she thought as she glanced across the desk in the captain's office never her office, not at all, it was always Talia's office she had the best to teach her. Rau Le Creuset was one of the best from the old ZAFT officer corps. The man had not been given command of his own ship after Endymion for nothing.

His masked face looked up impassively at Meyrin. "You don't seem enthused about this plan, captain," he noted.

Meyrin shrugged. How could she? The Resistance was not exactly known for its masters of grand strategy.

"I share your misgivings," Rau went on, gazing back down at the file in his hand, "but with another caveat. We don't know where the remains of ZAFT are hiding, nor do we know what they're planning." Another unreadable look. "What do you think they're up to, captain?"

Another shrug in response. "I wasn't in the loop on anything important during the Junius War," she confessed.

Rau's face twitched, as though behind his mask he were quirking an eyebrow dubiously. "The mobile suit deck operator of the Minerva didn't hear anything she wasn't supposed to hear during the war?"

Well, when he put it like that... "I didn't hear anything that hinted at what the ZAFT remnants might be up to now. All I know is that they headed out towards Mars. I don't even know who's in charge."

Rau smirked at that, but said nothing about it. "If ZAFT returns during this war," he went on, "what will you do, as the captain of the Minerva?"

That was a question Meyrin had never pondered, and had quite honestly not wanted to ponder either. The Minerva's vice-captain had killed the PLANTs' Supreme Chairman, after all, and proceeded back into battle against Solomon's Sword. They harbored Shinn Asuka and Athrun Zala. Meyrin knew better than to believe that ZAFT was going to welcome her ship with open arms. Even Wellington's ZAFT remnant had mixed opinions.

Which would not help them defeat the Earth Alliance, but it seemed these days that Meyrin Hawke and her crew were the only ones fighting to do so.

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Aube, United Emirates of Orb

The scars of war were everywhere.

It had been six years since the Earth Alliance had invaded Orb, three since ZAFT had taken its turn, and the capital city of Aube had been devastated more than once in the assaults. And, Athrun Zala reflected bitterly as he glanced across the street at a severed skyscraper cocooned in scaffolding, some of those scars were made by his own hand.

And for what?

The shiny surface of Orb was making a comeback. The skyscrapers were returning, the Kaguya mass driver was almost complete. And yet Orb was clearly a nation that had seen better days. Only the buildings along the major thoroughfares seemed to be getting renovations. Through the gaps and alleys, Athrun could see the hints of decay and destruction. Orb could paper over its wounds, but it had not healed them.

Of course, he thought bitterly, turning his eyes across the city towards the shell of the National Assembly building, they had their Governor-General for that.

Athrun knew that Lord Djibril did not know him, and so probably did not recognize the special significance to the last of Cagalli's loyalists of appointing Jona Roma Seiran as the Governor-General of the Protectorate of Orb. The man who stood as a symbol of everything that Cagalli had fought against, rewarded for his loyalty to Djibril and his creatures with power over Orb. And Athrun knew that Jona was not content with simply doing Djibril's dirty work in Orb. He had plans. Surely Djibril knew that too. Orb would probably see a third invasion soon.

Everything Cagalli had fought against had been victorious. Cagalli's country, in the hands of the enemy. But what difference did that make? The dream was with the dreamer, somewhere on the sea floor south of Onogoro and like the dreamer, it was never coming back. Or it was up in space, becoming part of the Debris Belt. Or it was...somewhere. Nowhere. Who knew?

Plus, Athrun had never remembered there being so many soldiers. The white and blue uniform of the Orb Defense Forces was everywhere, and it looked like they were doing far more than merely defending.

"So," said Viveka, glancing around anxiously at all the soldiers as she and Athrun headed down the street and tried to keep a low profile, "this is the country you were fighting for?"

"No," Athrun answered. "This is what I was fighting against." He waved a hand sadly at everything around him. "But we're not here to change it."

Viveka regarded him quietly for a moment. "It meant a lot to you, didn't it..."

Athrun Zala saw another Orb soldier and scowled. "It meant a lot to her."

Awkward silence reigned for a few moments, before Viveka looked around again. "So, uh, we're supposed to meet with some guy calling himself 'Ashitsuki.' You know him?"

Ashitsuki. The legged ship. Athrun ground his teeth as another ghost of his past crawled out of its grave.

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"You sure are in a sunny mood."

Shinn knew well why, pointedly ignoring Roxy's remark and as he and Stella traversed the streets of Aube, near the coast. Beyond the noisy seaport lay Onogoro Island, and there, Shinn knew, was the memorial he had visited three years ago.

Three years ago. Three years ago he had stood in front of that stone pillar, with Lunamaria, pondering whether or not his parents would have been proud of him. He had not decided then.

Now he had decided, because he knew they would certainly not be proud of him, butchering his way through soldiers and working with terrorists and criminals. It was all for a good cause, but that did not mean the Resistance's sources of funding and equipment and even its fighters were all so altruistic. Now his parents would be angry, for risking his life on behalf of a movement that was at best a little less evil than the Phantom Pain. Perhaps Luna would be proud. Undoubtedly, she would be here, proudly or not, to stand by her sister and her friend. He could not imagine that she would have gone with the ZAFT fleet to Mars. Meyrin would have been all she would have had left.

For all that had come to, anyway. He looked over his shoulder at Stella, whose eyes were fixed on the sea. It had been worth it to leave, but the cost of his decision had been higher than he ever thought possible, and the world that had taken shape around him...that was not so certain.

He thought of Rey. Whenever he thought of Luna, he wound up thinking of his other friend and comrade from his days in ZAFT. The one he had killed, personally. Killing him had not been a mistake, perhaps but that made him regret it no less. Rey gave him guidance and purpose, Rey gave him assurance, Rey gave him something real to cling to as the tectonic plates of his world shifted and churned beneath him. What did it matter that it had all turned out wrong? Everything had turned out wrong.

"Hey, uh, Shinn," Roxy cut in, waving a hand in front of his face. "Are you still there?"

Shinn blinked and shook his head. The mission. Stay focused on the mission. "Yeah, sorry."

"I can't have both of you spacing out here," Roxy groaned. "Then that leaves me in charge, and you know how that would go."

"I know, this place just...has memories. It's a homecoming." He looked around bitterly. "Sort of."

"I thought you didn't like this place to begin with," she said.

Shinn merely shrugged. "It's not this place I'm thinking of. It's..." He glanced once more at Onogoro. There were too many people he had to commemorate. "It's just some old friends."

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Orb National Defense Headquarters, Onogoro Island

"You are just full of surprises today," laughed Mara, standing next to Jona on an observation deck over the Onogoro naval port.

Jona stretched out a hand triumphantly. "I got this thing past Djibril's creatures by promising to use it against the Resistance. Here it is, the second ship of the Takemikazuchi-class, the Lapis Lazuli."

True to its name, the massive trimaran aircraft carrier was painted a brilliant blue, and the black-and-white Orb Defense Force Windams and Murasames were already being loaded into its cavernous hangars. It was as magnificent here as its predecessor had been at the head of the Orb expeditionary force that hunted across the Pacific the Megami three years ago.

"I'm sure this thing doesn't come without a catch," Mara said, casting an eye towards the Governor-General.

"Of course not. I need you to go pick on the Minerva. They're lying in wait several kilometers off the edge of our waters, and I have no right idea what they're doing there but it probably wouldn't hurt to put on a show for our friends at Onigashima."

The Akatsuki's golden armor glimmered in the sun as the mobile suit was lowered into the Lapis Lazuli's hangar. "And I suppose I would be expected to cause some damage?"

"Not yet," said Jona, "but I would consider it a personal favor if you were to knock around the Justice for a bit."

Mara arched an eyebrow. "Athrun Zala? Why?"

Jona grinned. "As a favor."

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Earth Alliance battleship Charlemagne, South China Sea, Pacific Ocean

Sven Cal Bayan was a ruthless taskmaster.

The taciturn Phantom Pain officer stood with arms crossed before the training simulators, as Grey and Merau wearily pulled themselves out. Four straight hours of training in these cramped and stuffy machines was particularly brutal, and Grey sorely wished he knew why he and Merau, out of all of the Charlemagne's pilots, were having to endure this.

"Our battle plan calls for close air support by conventional aircraft for conventional infantry and armor, supporting the flanks of our mobile suit units," Sven said as the two tired young pilots pulled themselves to attention before him. "Your performances are still inadequate. We must sustain no more than five percent losses among our air units before hitting our first objectives."

Five percent casualties, for vehicles with no protection against overwhelming enemy firepower. Grey wanted to reply that it was easier said than done, but he had done that once already and got himself thrown into a bulkhead.

Sven regarded them tiredly for a moment, and then shook his head. "We will end this session and continue our work tomorrow. Your reports are expected within an hour. Dismissed."

Grey slumped down next to Merau against the wall outside the simulator room as Sven strode off. Yes, Sven Cal Bayan was ruthless, and appeared to be in search of his next victims.

Grey watched the silver-haired man round a corner and disappear, and wondered if that was how he was supposed to be.

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"ETA at Yokosuka is approximately eighteen hours," the helmsman announced on the Charlemagne's bridge.

Danilov sat back in the captain's chair, casting a sweeping gaze over the glistening ocean before him. A clear sky, a strong breeze, and no enemies in sight it was a good day for sailing, and to think he was the captain of a fully enclosed vessel.

Vera caught his gaze. "Captain," she started, "we will be acting as the Marshal's flagship, during Typhoon."

"I know," replied Danilov.

She shifted anxiously. "I was...wondering how you felt about that."

Danilov eyed her warily for a moment. "Why would I feel anything? She's the commanding officer of the Phantom Pain, and our ship will provide her the most effective protection as she executes her duties."

Despite that, Danilov knew he did not really believe it, and saw instead the real reason in Vera's eyes. Volgograd. How could she how could he forget Volgograd?

"Besides," he went on, before she could speak, "this battle stands a good chance of ending the war, or at least ending the Resistance as an existential threat to the Earth Alliance. If that means we have to play host to a superior officer while completing our own assignment, then so be it. A small price to pay to end this war."

He fixed Vera with a look, hoping that she could understand that he knew what she really feared. This would be a battle, perhaps, at first but after the Requiem shot and the Destroys, this would turn into a massacre. The Minerva and its mobile suit team might be able to wipe out Destroy Gundams, and it might be able to battle conventional units, but it could not possibly stop the Requiem Cannon. One blast was all they would need to claim victory.

But victory was not enough for Lord Djibril and Crayt Markav. They had to drive their enemies before them, like ancient conquerors and generals. They had to slaughter their enemies like animals. Djibril would not rest until the last traces of the Coordinators had been exterminated; Markav would not rest until her twisted vision of God's order had been imposed on the world. Militarily defeating the Resistance at Carpentaria would only encourage them to reach farther. What Djibril would do without the Coordinators, Danilov could fathom; but with Markav, taking territory and people were not enough. She had to capture souls.

And yet the Resistance was no better, filled with squabbling guerrillas and criminals, terrorists who killed soldiers and civilians alike. They would have destroyed cities too, had they the resources to build something like the Destroy.

Danilov suppressed the urge to sigh. Deciding which side was truly just was truly impossible.

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Shams glanced up in surprise at the sound of the airlock door opening, as Mudie stepped out onto the Charlemagne's open-air observation deck. He arched an eyebrow, watching inquisitively as she leaned heavily against the railing and her entire body seemed to deflate with a sigh.

"Fancy seeing you out here," he said, raising his soda in greeting as she jumped in surprise. "Since when were you interested in fresh air?"

Mudie shot him a glare and crossed her arms. Mudie, moody, who said God didn't play jokes?

"So," Shams went on, "you gonna tell me what happened?" All he got was another glare. He shrugged. "Well, have it your way."

He watched her warily as she turned towards the sea, glowering at the horizon. As she turned, he noticed a bruise on her jaw, and two and two began to come together. Sven had patience aplenty for all sorts of things, but apparently, that patience did not extend to his wingmen.

"Y'know, you could always report him," Shams piped up. "I mean, technically he's not allowed to use corporal punishment on fellow commissioned officers. I can point it out to you in the military code "

"It doesn't matter," she cut him off, waving her hand contemptuously. "I am not weak."

"That's no excuse to let yourself get hit."

"I am not weak."

Shams let out a sigh of his own. "Okay, you're not weak," he went on. "But answer me this. Is it weak to sit there and take it when you don't have to, or is it weak to put a stop to it?"

Mudie shot him one last glare. "You wouldn't understand," she snapped, and with that, she was gone back through the airlock.

Shams shrugged and took a sip from his drink. "Ain't that the truth."

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Aube, United Emirates of Orb

"There's lots of things they don't teach you how to do in school," said Roxy with a grin, "like hacking into government networks."

Standing in a back alley with Stella over Roxy, Shinn glanced around nervously. They had found a junction box for the Orb computer network, and with any luck, Roxy could use it to gain access to much more sensitive files remotely. With any luck, of course.

"Fortunately," Roxy went on, "they use the same encryption as our friends in the Alliance so..." The screen of her laptop flickered for a moment. "Sweet, it worked!"

"The way you said that isn't really inspiring confidence here," Shinn answered. "Hurry it up."

While Roxy worked, Shinn reached into his jacket, palming the handgun stashed inside. Hopefully this wouldn't resort to shooting, but while Shinn's knowledge of computer hacking was limited, he did have enough sense to figure that it would not take Orb long to realize that their network had been compromised.

"Just give me thirty more seconds," she spoke up. "Only a few "

Before she could finish, two soldiers in the white and blue uniforms of Orb rounded a corner, assault rifles drawn. "You three, get up!" one of them shouted, stepping forward. "You're under "

Stella was upon them in an instant, knife drawn, a strange sight in her billowing dress as she cut down the two soldiers. Shinn drew his pistol, scanning the alley and the street beyond for more soldiers. That had certainly not taken long.

"Done!" Roxy sprang to her feet, snapping the laptop shut. "Man, we always make messes, don't we?"

"Come on," Shinn said, motioning for Stella to follow deeper into the alleys, as the combat instinct took over. "We're taking the long way back."

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"Ashitsuki," huddled in a shadowy, decrepit building in Aube's shantytown, was actually a rather thin and timid young man. He seemed almost afraid to be here, Athrun noted, in the presence of two known Resistance operatives. If he had assumed the nom du guerre of Ashitsuki, he certainly couldn't have actually served on the Archangel. That would have taken fortitude this man did not appear to possess.

"Your friends are causing us problems already," Ashitsuki mumbled. "There's soldiers all over the place. You'll never make it back. Neither will they."

"Oh, we'll be okay," chuckled Viveka.

"They have Stella with them," Athrun added. "I'd be more worried about the soldiers. Do you have the schematics?"

Ashitsuki produced a memory stick from his coat. "Schematics and technical data for the base on Onigashima. It's all yours." He dropped the stick into Athrun's hand. "When are you going to attack?"

"Soon," answered Athrun as he pocketed the memory stick. "Why? Do you have something planned?"

Ashitsuki glanced nervously over his shoulder. "No, I just wouldn't mind if you guys left." He shrugged, just as nervously. "You attract attention."

"Don't we ever," said Viveka with a shrug of her own. "Are we going back now? Shinn and Stella probably have every soldier in Aube on their backs by now."

"Wait." Athrun turned again, and glanced down at Ashitsuki's outstretched hand, where he found a single shipbuilding rivet. "Take this."

"What is it?"

Ashitsuki fixed Athrun with a look, and Athrun began to wonder if maybe he had guessed wrong about this anxious man. "It's a rivet from the Archangel. It was sent to me as a keepsake. I want you to take it with you. As a keepsake, or whatever. For, uh, for sentimental reasons." He paused for a moment. "'cuz you're the last one."

Athrun eyed him carefully. "You served on the Archangel, didn't you?"

"One might say." He dropped the rivet into Athrun's hand and stepped back into shadows. "Get going. It won't be long before they shut down the streets."

A moment later, Ashitsuki had disappeared into the darkness, and Athrun glanced down at the bit of metal in his hand. A rivet from the Archangel, handed to him by a former crewmember of the Archangel.

He suddenly felt bitter as he pocketed the rivet and followed Viveka out of the building. Who said the past was past?

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Navigating the back alleys of Aube's dilapidated cityscape had gone reasonably well, until they reached one of their last objectives before the storm drain they had used to infiltrate the city in the first place. An Orb combat truck and a platoon of soldiers were arrayed around it, and there were more soldiers creeping into the city, guns drawn.

Shinn bit back a curse, hunkered down behind a wall on one of the higher levels of a crumbling building. "Well, the boat is still there, but this is gonna be difficult..."

"Hey, uh, you forgetting someone?" Roxy spoke up, pointing across the alley. Shinn followed her finger towards the opposite building, where he could see Athrun and Viveka creeping through the dust, guns drawn. Viveka poked her head up and waved her metal arm.

"That's all well and good," Shinn started, "but we still "

He fell silent at the sound of metal on leather, and turned around to find Stella drawing her knife with her left.

"Oh, Stella, no," he started. "You'd have no cover "

"Stella will be fine," she whispered back, twirling the knife around in her hand and taking up her stolen assault rifle.

With that, she vaulted out of the window, spraying the truck with rifle fire. Shinn bit back another curse, as he and Roxy vaulted out as well to open fire on the soldiers to Stella's left. In the truck, the soldier manning the machinegun turned his gun towards her only to slump back with Stella's knife sticking out of his throat, blood gushing. Athrun and Viveka landed with a crunch next, scattering the Orb soldiers with more rifle fire and forcing them behind their truck.

Stella sprinted towards them, leaping into the air, somersaulting over the truck, and landing behind it. Gunshots and screams rang out, and one of the soldiers backpedaled away, his eyes wide with desperation only for Stella to lunge at him and snap his neck with a blinding kick.

Athrun and Viveka fanned out around the truck to finish off the remaining soldiers, and as the smoke cleared, Roxy and Shinn could only gape at the destruction that mild-mannered Stella had wreaked.

"Wait," Roxy started, "she did all that in heels?!"

Stella stared curiously at her.

"I can hardly walk in heels," Roxy sputtered, "and you can do fucking kung fu?!"

"I like how you killed this one guy," Viveka added, gesturing to one of the soldiers with an unsightly, bleeding hole in his neck. "Never seen someone get killed by a high-heeled shoe."

"Very exciting," Athrun said, seizing a fallen rifle. "Now if you don't mind, ladies, we have a schedule to keep."

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Battleship Minerva, Pacific Ocean

"Athrun just reported in," said Abbey from the communication console. "Mission is complete. They're on their way back out of the storm drain. ETA is about forty-five minutes."

Meyrin leaned forward, the tension not dissipating in the slightest. Not only was it forty-five minutes before her ship's mobile suit team was back at full-strength, but Orb was being awfully quiet about the warship hanging out at the edge of their territorial waters.

And of course, her fears became real as Burt spoke up. "Captain, there's three ships approaching from the northeast. Two of them are Aegis-class cruisers, but one of them isn't in the database."

"Bring up a visual."

The auxiliary screen flickered to life, and Meyrin felt her heart sink. There were two Aegis-class cruisers indeed steaming towards the Minerva, but the huge trimaran aircraft carrier between them dwarfed them both. She vaguely recognized it Orb had operated one such ship during the Junius War. But she had watched it sink at the Battle of Onogoro. She had seen it with her own eyes. And it hadn't been blue.

"Shield the bridge," she said. "We're going to Condition Red."

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Orb Takemikazuchi-class supercarrier Lapis Lazuli, Pacific Ocean

It was good to be back in command of Orb's greatest seagoing warship, with the only caveat being that the Lapis Lazuli was the second of her class. The captain, Tanaka, was also a far more loyal and dependable man than Todaka, and that was almost as important.

Mara's face flickered onto one of the auxiliary screens. "Thought you should know, there was a bit of a scuffle in Aube. Several soldiers are dead, several more wounded, and it looks like the Defense Ministry's computer network was compromised."

"So that's what the Minerva's been up to," Jona chuckled. "Have they escaped already?"

"It looks like it," Mara replied. "Security in the city has doubled and a search for accomplices is underway, but it looks like they got out through a storm drain."

"And what did they access?"

Mara smirked. "Onigashima's blueprints."

Jona too loved it when a plan came together. "I think we've earned ourselves a little fun, don't you?"

Mara's smirk turned into a grin. "Mara Saraba, Akatsuki, launching!"

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To be continued...