Mobile Suit Gundam SEED is owned and copyrighted to Hajime Yate, the Sotsu Agency, Sunrise and BANDAI.

"Reason" is sung by Nami Tamaki.

Phase Three: Images And Leavings
Cosmic Era, year 74. The Second Bloody Valentine War had just ended, and Earth and the PLANTs again struggle to rebuild. The leaders of the major powers, weary of the constant conflict, their countries struggling to survive the post-war world, unite to sign another treaty for peace. But dark forces lurking in the shadows strike forth, dragging back the world to the maelstrom of chaos and ushering a renaissance of violence and tears.

All Shinn was looking for after the war was a chance for a peaceful and gentler world to live in, but the shadows that haunted his nightmares during those months nearly drove him to the edge of insanity. Though he cared for Luna and was grateful for her love and devotion, he could not reciprocate without the fear that she might earn his misplaced hatred and discussed. So he left her for Germany, the only place where he knew he can have a chance to seek out myself, being near Stellar where he laid Stellar Louisser to rest. But the peace he sought never came to him there, only the silence that didn't mute the painful memories, but amplified them with loneliness and self-pity.

- Vino Dupree, Looking At You With Enraged Eyes – Shinn Asuka In The Eyes Of A Friend

Copernicus City

The Moon

December 19, CE 74

Both were quiet during the ride from the spaceport to the access tunnel into docking bay twenty-three. They had exhausted all possible ideas about the terrorist attacks they could think of in their abrupt flight from Januarius Five. Mu even suggested that this was Dullindal's work - that he was alive and this was his revenge. Murrue found it incredulous even for her lover to think that way. But she knew he could be unpredictable sometimes, so she kindly and wisely contradicted him, and filed that amusing thought in the corner of her mind she stored Mu's other weird ideas.

Murrue gazed affectionately at Mu as he drove them both to the docking bay for their rendezvous with their friends. She took in the handsome features of the blond mobile suit ace, taking in all the nuances and details etched in the contours of his face. He had such strong features, looking noble and proud. He had cut his hair back to the style he used before his disappearance after the second battle of Jachin Due. Though Murrue to him that she had grown accustomed to the long dew he had, Mu was insistent that he wanted his hair shorter – it made him look younger and cleaner, and made him look more like who he really was rather than being more like Neo Lorrnoke. While Mu didn't feel shame for being someone else during the time he had amnesia, he felt the need to distance himself from who Neo was, and the actions his alter ego took that may have helped start and accelerate the last war.

But Mu's strongest feature was the scar that stretched right across his face. This imperfection just highlighted the perfection Murrue saw in his face. It gave testament to Mu's courage in battle, a war trophy worn with pride. For her, it was a reminder that Mu would take the ultimate sacrifice to protect her from harm – the scar was the reminder of the injuries Mu received when he supposedly "died" at Jachin Due, when he blocked the Dominion's positron beam with the Strike, taking the blast intended for the Archangel and saving Murrue and the crew from death. It was the truest measure of Mu's humanity - the foundation of Murrue's ever-growing love and admiration for the man.

Mu noticed her looking at her. "What? Is there something on my face?" he asked quizzically. Murrue giggled. Aside from unpredictable, Mu could also be so clueless and funny. He also didn't have the grace not to say anything, as Murrue kept mum. "Or you just can't help staring at my good looks?"

"Ask no questions and keep your mind on driving, Taisa," Murrue returned, still looking at him.

"You can't order me around," Mu countered. "We're of the same rank."

Murrue gave him a sweet smile. "But I command the ship. And if you don't like that you could always walk all the way back to Earth."

Mu puckered up his mouth and made wet noises that earned him a hard pinch on his shoulder. "Owww. That's not nice, love." Mu rubbed his right shoulder with his left hand. "Never argue with a beautiful woman who is also a starship captain," he relented.

"You've got that right, mister," Murrue said with a satisfied nod. "Do that kissing-thingy again in public and I'll put you down for sexual harassment again."

Mu feigned a surprised look. "Public? Its just the two of us," he explained, waving a free hand around.

But Murrue held her ground. "We're on the road, dummy. People in other cars could see us."

Mu chuckled then stared deep into her eyes. "Can I do it when we're alone?"

Murrue looked away, redness appearing in her cheeks. "We'll see."

They reached the access tunnel a few minutes later. Mu drove unto its interior, and soon reached its end. The tunnel opened into a large chamber three thousand meters long and six hundred meters wide, framed by lights mounted on the ceiling five hundred meters high. A giant shape loomed to one corner of the chamber, her white and red paint scheme of the laminated armor reflecting the lights above. The assault mobile suit carrier Archangel sat proudly while maintenance crews were completing last-minute preparations for launch.

Murrue looked fondly at the ship that changed her life, a sturdy survivor of the hardest fighting of the wars. Archangel's tail wings curved like a graceful swan in water, the Valiant rail cannons retracted and dock in its internal mounts. The two main wings stretched over a hundred meters on both sides, giving the ship the incredible lift capability to allow her to fly. Her six main thrusters were inert; scorch marks from the heat of the engines exhaust scoring its sides. The command tower stood proudly in its center, the bridge area flanked by and array of sensors and communications antenna.

Positioned forward were the "legs" of the ship - two parallel structures the served as the core of Archangel's military power. The bent "knees" opened up into the launch bays of the mobile suits, with a 225cm Gottfried beam turret mounted on each of its top. The primary weapons of the Archangel, the twin Lohengrin positron cannons, were hidden, one each for the lower parts of the "legs". Numerous missile launchers and defensive turrets were spread all throughout Archangel, also hidden in protected internal mounts. She indeed was a formidable fortress, a true avatar of war.

But to Murrue and her crewmates, Archangel was also their home. She gave them security and safety in times of trouble, and even in the worst of scenarios she never let them down. Murrue owed a lot to Archangel, and she reciprocates by being a responsible and wise captain for her.

Mu picked up a two-way radio and spoke into it. "Archangel Two-Actual to Archangel. I'm with Archangel-Actual1. We're coming in."

"Roger that, Archangel-Two. Welcome back, Taisa," a voice replied, as the landing ramp underneath Archangel appeared, slowly dropping down until it touched the docking bay's floor. Mu drove straight up the ramp, and stopped the car inside the assault carrier's bottom deck. Mu and Murrue got out of the car, as the ramp was coming up, and went to the two people waiting to meet them.

"Taisa Murrue Ramius and Taisa Mu La Flaga reporting for duty," Murrue said, as she and Mu saluted Kira. "Permission to come aboard, Yamato-Shousa2."

It was sort of a running joke between the Archangel crewmembers and the rest of the Terminal. Kira, before leaving Orb for Copernicus after defeating the ZAFT attack during Operation Fury, was promoted to the rank of Shousa by his sister Cagalli, and given command of the ODF Second Space Fleet. The promotion came because of Kira's influential role in Cagalli's rebellion against the Orb Council of Emirs led by the Seirans. When the twins returned to Orb during Operation Fury, Kira showed his leadership by leading the defenders against ZAFT professionally and competently.

With the death of Shousa Todaka with the sinking of the ODF flagship carrier Takemikazuchi at Crete, there was a dearth in the ranks of high level officers with the command competence to lead the ODF's forces. Given Kira's actions, and the respect he earned from the surviving men of the Takemikazuchi thaw served on board the Archangel, Kira was the easy choice for his sister. So Cagalli promoted him to the star rank, while promoting Athrun to full colonel. But Kira never warmed to the formal protocols of the rank, and was easily embarrassed when it comes to answer lower-ranking officers' salutes – especially when it came to Murrue and Mu, and other members in their clique.

As expected, Kira awkwardly returned her gestured. "Permission granted. Welcome back," he replied with a smile.

Murrue was met by Lacus' embrace while Mu shook Kira's proffered hand. Murrue felt Lacus tremble, and looked to Kira, who gave her a knowing frown. Mentally deciding to talk to Kira about Lacus in private, she let Lacus go and motioned for the small group to head for the lift. "Any news?" Murrue began, as the lift doors closed.

Kira shrugged. "Nothing precise yet, except that Cagalli was injured pretty bad but is now in stable condition. The Scandinavian authorities are still not releasing exact details, but except for the Royal Family and President Harding of the Atlantic Federation, the other dignitaries were hurt but rescued. They found Harding's body, or what's left of it. There's still no news about the King and Queen. I'm waiting for Athrun to check in from Oslo. Nothing from Terminal though."

The group stepped off the lift at level 4 and headed for Murrue's office a few doors down. "What about things down in Orb?"

Kira waited till they entered the office. Lacus took a seat on the couch while Murrue sat in her chair. Kira and Mu remained standing. Kira indicated to Murrue the huge holoscreen mounted on the office wall. Murrue nodded, and Kira activated the screen, and brought up video and images of the Orb battle. "Kisaka-sama has sent this before we got here. It showed that the raiders hit Onogoro badly, but the damage to Orb City was minimal. Casualty figures are included in the report."

"Kisaka-sama says that Athrun, with Dearka's help surprisingly, took out two raiders, but Waltfeld-san and friendly forces didn't do well. The raiders maximized their advantage of their mirrage colloid technology, and that explains how they were able to penetrate Oslo so easily. Salvage crews are starting to recover and analyze the raider wreckage they found in the mainland."

Kira pressed the remote and brought up a map of the South Pacific. "The raiders all withdrew in the direction of the east on a slight southeastern vector. At first military intelligence thought it was a feint – the raiders could have cloaked and flew away any possible direction, even doubling back to hide out in the islands undetected. But electronic intelligence picked up a VHF transmission from the Leningrad, a ZAFT Vosgulov-class submarine tasked to regularly patrol the area. Orb confirmed it was the Leningrad, as ASW planes from the Second Guard Fleet had been tracking her for days."

"According to the intercept, the Leningrad detected another submarine-type signal one hundred twenty miles to the southeast of Orb on the day of the attack. Orb intelligence first thought it was one of ZAFT's, but confirmed that of all the ZAFT submarines in the Pacific, only the Leningrad was tasked for patrol in that particular sector. And ELINT3 intercepts of OMNI Enforcer communications suggest that even the EA doesn't have any submarines to task out there."

"Further intelligence we just got today indicates that sonar signal of the unknown submarine does not match any known ones in the ZAFT's database. And strangely, the unknown contact disappeared after the first active sonar hit bounced off it. The second active ping was dispersed upon contact – and then the signal vanished," Kira paused, formulating his thoughts. "It's the first time I've heard anything like that."

"You think it might be a Geschmeidig Panzer?" Mu asked.

Kira had considered that. "That's a possibility." The Geschmeidig Panzer was a derivative of mirrage colloid technology, first employed on the GAT-X252 Forbidden mobile suit and its mass produced variants, the GAT-X255 Forbidden Blue and GAT-706S Deep Forbidden of the Atlantic Federation. This system utilized mirrage colloid particles to bend energy beams away from the mobile suit, providing excellent defensive capabilities. Geschmeidig Panzer pods can be used as a underwater propulsion system by deflecting water away from a mobile suit or armor, decreasing drag in the water, increasing traveling speeds. Experts also theorized that the system could act as an active sonar-absorbing or -dispersing defense, giving submarines stealth capabilities beyond current technology.4 "It has the characteristics of one. It also matches the raiders' possession of mirrage colloid technology."

"Intel thinks that this submarine is a mobile suit carrier, and the raiders landed on it. They're pretty sure of this. There are submarine carriers in the major navies, but not with the stealth capability of the unidentified one."

"How does Intel see this?" Murrue asked, interested in the reply.

Kira frowned. "At first they thought it might be the Atlantic Federation that's behind all this. It matches the data gathered. The Atlantic Federation has mirrage colloid technology, and they have been known to apply them to their known weapons systems. And they have motive, however far-fetched it might sound, to hate Orb to attack it. They may be thinking of revenge for beating them when Murata Azrael led that failed invasion three years ago. Plus the fact that Orb revoked the alliance with them after Cagalli came back during Operation Fury. That's all Intel can give us right now."

"But that's a lot of things left unanswered, Kira," Lacus interjected, speaking for the first time.

"Hai. The questions are, why would the Atlantic Federation execute a complex operation of that scale to derail the peace, when they would benefit more with peace than another war?" Kira started to pace back and forth. "Their forces, except those in homeland defense, have all but been wiped out. They just don't have the assets for any offensive. Their navy was ravaged at Heaven's Base, while their space fleet was destroyed by the Requiem at Althea."

"Why would they manufacture mobile suits with banned systems like the mirrage colloid, in direct violation of the Treaties? It would be more practical for them to use their resources to rebuild their military and economic infrastructure, rather that build strike forces, especially special operation ones, with specialized units. Do they still have an independent force like that to deploy?" Kira looked at Mu, and the former Phantom Pain commander considered the question.

"It's possible. But I can't confirm it. I'd only had contact with my team, but not any other special operations teams Blue Cosmos might have had. And as for personnel, I don't know if they still have enough to man these teams. Even the Extended children," Mu said somberly, remembering Stellar and her companions, who Mu commanded with paternal care when he was Neo Lorrnoke. "From what I know they're all dead, either in battle, training or killed off when Blue Cosmos shut down their facility in Eurasia."

Mu felt his anger rise as he thought of Lord Djibril, the Blue Cosmos leader who forced those orphans and the artificially bred children into becoming ruthless warriors at a very young age, then callous tossing them aside when they weren't valuable to him anymore. "Djibril only showed me what he wanted me to see, trying to hold me in his debt for saving my life. I don't know of any other LOGOS or Blue Cosmos who trifled with the Extended, aside from him and Azrael."

"They don't have the strong support they got from LOGOS or Blue Cosmos anymore," Kira continued. "They don't get along with the Eurasians, while the Asians and Africans don't seem to like to fight anymore. Plus they're still embroiled with the revolt in the USSA."

The USSA, or the United States of South America, was the union of the sovereign republics of the South American continent. After the Bloody Valentine Incident, the South Americans banded together for mutual protection from the growing power and influence of the Atlantic Federation. They protested the Federation's handling of the war and its bullying dominance of the Earth Alliance and the OMNI Enforcer. The USSA also was accepting of Coordinators as equals to Naturals, and vehemently condemned the Atlantic Federation's violent anti-Coordinator policies.

The USSA successfully blocked any attempt to force them to join the EA, till the end of the first war. With sizable military forces freed from having to fight ZAFT, the Atlantic Federation sent military troops to forcefully annex the USSA, on the premise that it was for the benefit of the people of the USSA to join the Earth Alliance, but the USSA leaders and military were against this. The Atlantic Federation offensive captured most of its northern and southwestern territories of South America, and placed these provinces under brutal martial rule until the present day.

Only the military forces from the Brazilian territories, with its vast Amazon Jungle blocking any path for large-scale mobile operations the Atlantic Federation favored, successfully fought off the oppressors with guerrilla style tactics from the remaining USSA forces and resistance fighters. Many former EA soldiers, like mobile suit ace Edward Harrelson had left the OMNI Enforcer and joined the USSA in fighting the Atlantic Federation. Aside from them, the USSA attracted many other adventurous soldiers of fortune from the other powers, including a small number of former ZAFT troops currently working as mercenaries or volunteers. A stalemate now is in effect in the South Americas, but that could change with the current events unfolding.

Murrue took in all of what Kira said. "You're leaving out the most obvious one," she stated matter-of-factly.

"Hai," Kira frowned as he started on the most obvious question. "Why would the Atlantic Federation attack Oslo, when their leaders, including President Harding himself, were there to participate in the Peace Conference? What do they gain by eliminating them? There isn't anyone from LOGOS or Blue Cosmos leaders left to force them to. All of them are either dead or in prison. If they were after Cagalli because of her position as Orb's leader, why do it there and not hit her as a lone target?"

"What about ZAFT? Or the other powers?" Mu asked the next question.

Kira shrugged. "There is no viable reason for ZAFT to gain anything from this attack. There isn't much about them from Orb Intelligence or Terminal, but there are a few things that are obvious. They're also trying to rebuild, and to clean their reputation after what Dullindal almost did. Plus Chairman Westenfluss was also in Oslo. I don't see her as another Dullindal, putting on a show by risking her life by being in a place she'd know was going to be attacked. Although I could be wrong and I've been wrong before," Kira added. "The same goes for the Eurasians. What do they gain from their leaders' deaths?" Kira bowed his head. "There are just too many unknowns in all of this."

Murrue sighed. Kira was right. There were just too many unknowns.

"We know this much," Mu spoke once more. "We have an organized group with very advanced technology and great resources out to damage the peace. And they've showed that they are ready to do it at any cost." Mu looked Kira straight in the eye. "That makes it a threat." Kira agreed.

Murrue saw Mu frown. "What can we do about it?" he asked. "Did Kisaka-sama have any instructions for us?"

Kira looked at the map once more. "Kisaka-sama thinks that all of this has a connection with what is happening here," he indicated the Pacific coastline of South America. "That's the general direction the unknown sub must have gone to. They could land anywhere in South America, and be safe from detection. The continent's too chaotic for an effective law enforcement and security forces, making it a good spot to hide a covert force." "

"From what he heard from his time masquerading as an officer in the South African Union, the Atlantic Federation may have set up bases here in the Argentine sector, probably some hidden ones in the Andes. These included several factories of weapons, which could be used to manufacture those black mobile suits. Kisaka-sama couldn't confirm the information because the Atlantic Federation did not trust the Africans to reveal to them anything secret."

"It's thin, but Kisaka-sama thinks if we could infiltrate South America and investigate, maybe we could find something about the raiders. But like I said, this lead is very thin."

Murrue considered the options. The Orb Defense Force was not allowed by its own laws to be involved in military conflicts with others, much less start one, unless the situation was grave enough to threaten not only Orb, but the rest of humanity as well, and only if the threat was a viable one.

But it didn't mean Orb wasn't involved in covert operations like the one Kisaka was thinking off. Ledonir Kisaka was too good of an intelligence officer to not think things through all the way. Kisaka knew that only the Archangel had the resources and ability to do an operation independently like this, without the need of active and more importantly, official support from the Orb Union. And Kisaka knew that she knew this too. "What do you think, Kira-kun?"

Kira stood up straight, as serious look in his eyes. "We have to act. We have to do something. We have to stop this fire before it spreads. I won't allow anything like what happened to Cagalli happen to anyone else. This has to end," he said determinedly. "I'm ready to fight this threat to protect what we all hold dear."

Lacus was keeping her eyes on Kira, the fear evident in her face. But the look she gave him told Murrue that Lacus knew that Kira was right, and they had to act soon. "I agree with Kira," she said reluctantly.

"Alright," Murrue decided, as she sat up straight in her chair. She faced her three companions. "Let's go back to Orb and gather the rest. We'll use the time to formulate plans and get more information from intelligence. We also need to get supplies and more mobile suits." Murrue smiled at Kira. "You left yours in Orb, right, Kira-kun?"

"Uhmm, Hai," Kira admitted with a grin playing at edges of his lips. "I didn't think it was needed. All we've got is the Akatsuki and Ikeya's Murasame platoon5." Again Lacus looked bothered by the by-play, but kept her peace.

"How about we drop by the Terminal satellite? They may know something we don't. We could get other units there," Mu suggested.

Murrue nodded assent to Mu's suggestion. "We'll do that. We'll send out word to them as soon as we leave. Any other ideas?" Nobody spoke. "Then we're settled then?"

Kira nodded first, followed slowly by Lacus. Mu gave Murrue one of his trademark roguish grins. "Like you said in the car, you're the boss here, Ramius-Kanchou," Mu said, doing a lazy salute, which lightened the serious mood. Lacus giggled, while Kira forced himself not to smile, failing miserably.

Blushing, Murrue cleared her throat. She pressed the PA button on her table. "This is the Captain. All hands, Level-two alert. Everyone to your duty stations. Prepare the Archangel for launch."

She sat in the captain's chair now, as Murrue watched the activity of the bridge crew. Two hours had passed since her call for launch preparations. The entire crew came alive, finishing duties and readying themselves to leave.

"All stations reports readiness, Kanchou," Lacus reported, as she sat on Archangel's communications station. "Chief Petty Officer Murdoch says that Akatsuki unit and Ikeya unit are prepped on launch bays one and two."

"Very well," Murrue acknowledged. She lifted her handset on her chair's arm. "Archangel-Actual to Akatsuki."

Mu's helmeted face came on the bridge's primary viewscreen. "Akatsuki."

"Be prepared to launch within immediately after we clear the docking bay in case of trouble," she told Mu.

Mu nodded. "Copy that Archangel-Actual. Ikeya unit will launch with me simultaneously. Gou and Issou units are on reserve at plus-five6 for launch on one and two respectively. Akatsuki out." Mu's face disappeared as he cut his link.

Murrue replaced the handset. "Mister Neumann, commence systems initialization procedures."

"Aye, Kanchou," Lt. Commander Arnold Neumann, the Archangel's helmsman, responded from the pilot's seat. "Starting initialization process. Archangel operating system, booting. Control module ready. Life support systems are functioning."

The hum of the ship's ventilation and oxygen supply network was grew steady as the room began its normal pressurization for flight.

"Combat information center online. Weapons systems online and set on safety. Fire control systems nominal," Kira reported from the weapons control station beside Neumann

"Nuclear fuel magnetic field chamber online. Pellet dispensers opened. Activating engines. Idling system nominal. Engine power at 20 and holding." The vibration on the ship increased as the nuclear reactors fed power to the main pulse thrusters.

"Sensors online. Radar set at passive at twelve percent power output," sensors officer Senior Lieutenant Dalida Lolaha Chandra II said from above Murrue.

"Archangel primary systems, all green. Systems online," Neumann ended, as the pre-flight checklist was completed. Status reports on Murrue's MFD confirmed his statement.

"Port control has a message for us, Kanchou. Says 'Archangel is cleared for take off. Good luck to you all,'" Lacus reported.

"Reply to message and give them our thanks," Murrue answered. A rumbling was heard overhead as the giant blast doors sealing the docking bay opened.

The Archangel shuddered as the three hundred meter long assault carrier slowly lifted off the docking bay. It rose carefully up into space and through the open exit. In seconds the ship cleared the doors and began its acceleration upwards into dark vacuum of space. "We've cleared the blast doors, Kanchou," Neumann reported.

"Mister Chandra?" Murrue said in the direction of the sensor station.

"Nothing on the sensors for five hundred miles except for civilian traffic coming in and out of Copernicus," was Chandra's response. The winged starship was now angling upwards and away from the docking bay, thrusters flaring brightly.

"Twenty degrees to port, all ahead three-fourths speed. Set a course for the factory satellite."

"Twenty degrees port, three-fourths speed aye," Neumann repeated the command, as he turned the wheel. The Archangel veered gently to left and increased its speed. "Course plotted in, Kanchou."

"Very well, Mister Neumann. Lacus-san, please send out an encrypted laser transmission to satellite" Murrue looked back at the lunar landscape, looking farther and farther as they traveled faster away from it. "Please tell them that the Archangel is on its way."

PLANT Embassy

Orb City

Orb Union

December 20, CE 74

Dearka saluted as he entered the ambassador's office. He stood in attention in front of the Ambassador Amarfi, who just arrived to take over the embassy the day after the attacks. This was the first time for Dearka to report to his new superior, and was the first time to talk to Amarfi ever since the memorial service for his friend Nicol and other ZAFT soldiers who died in the first war.

"Ah, Dearka Elsman," Amarfi said. He stood up from his seat and answered the saluted smartly. Amarfi motioned for Dearka to sit down. "At ease, Chusa. Its good to see a friend of Nicol's again." Amarfi gave Dearka a warm smile. "So how are you doing, Dearka? I heard you got involved in the defense of Orb the other day with Athrun. How is he?"

Dearka relaxed. "Good to see you too, sir. Congratulations on your promotion, Ambassador. I'm doing well sir. And so it seems Athrun."

Amarfi nodded. "When I saw the Justice and Buster fighting those raiders, it was unbelievable. Even more when I heard you were in Buster." The ambassador sat back, eyes turning sad. "Nicol would have been proud of you both."

Remembering his friend, Dearka replied. "Sorry about that Ambassador. But I met Athrun in the airport as I arrived. Seems like he just got in too from Germany I think. We were talking when the raiders hit," he shook his shoulders. "Things got so fast so suddenly and there I was inside Buster," he paused, remembering the wild car ride to Angel's Point and fighting the black raiders. "Am I going to be in trouble for this, sir?"

Amarfi shook his head. "You're not in trouble, Dearka - I can assure you of that. ZAFT headquarters heard of actions, and commends you for it. There were some technical problems regarding security, but Orb has agreed to overlook them," he said, as he took a folder and handed it too Dearka.

"In fact, ZAFT command has new orders for you." Amarfi paused and looked Dearka in the eyes. You're assigned as liaison officer to the Orb Defense Force for an indefinite duration of time. You are to act as coordinator between the Orb military and ZAFT, in its joint investigation of the terror threat. You'll be promoted to full colonel at the start of your new posting, but I'm sorry to say you don't have any mobile suit unit assigned to you by ZAFT."

Dearka was feeling the shock as he read the contents of the mission orders. "I don't know what to say, Ambassador."

"I know you're surprised. But someone has to act as our representative in Orb's investigation. We were both hurt in the attack, but Orb was hurt more. So the Supreme Council has consented to allowing Orb to act first, and find out things about the attacks for us," Amarfi revealed. Politics was playing the game again, and the Supreme Council was playing its cards carefully. "ZAFT is still not in the position to operate effectively, nor can we just lash out on whoever we suspect did this."

"We were a lot more fortunate in Oslo. While Councilors Ackerman and Riggs were killed, the Chairman was hurt but saved. The same goes with your friend Yzak. Councilor Joule was badly hurt, but he managed to survive," Amarfi let this bit of information sink into Dearka, who took it quietly yet grateful his best friend survived. "We, however, are still reorganizing our assets. Intel is still sketchy, but what we gathered is very interesting. And Orb was generous enough to share their intelligence, since they know it would help a lot in solving what happened in Oslo."

"What do we know from the Oslo raid, Ambassador?"

Amarfi opened a file on his computer. "The Oslo raiders had the same modus operandi as the Orb raiders, except that they came down from space." Amarfi opened another file, showing an image of what seemed to be shooting stars coming down the heavens over Oslo. "We couldn't confirm if they went back to space after the raid, we know that that would be very dangerous for us if it were true."

"The raiders' attack was a lot quicker than the Orb one. They just launched missiles and then disappeared. Not even one Scandinavian defender detected or encountered one. And we only could confirm they were the same type of raider mobile suits from the wreckage of missiles recovered. They matched the one used by the ones that hit Orb. Other than that, we don't know anything aside from what's in the news programs."

Dearka took in everything the Ambassador said. "So I'm going to keep a watch on whatever Orb's planning to look into this mess. Is that my mission, sir?"

"Hai," Amarfi confirmed. "Although technically you can't work with Orb, since we don't have a standing treaty agreement or alliance with them, you'll be working with their irregular forces."

Irregular forces? "You mean the Archangel, do you, sir."

Amarfi nodded once more. "I never said a name, Taisa Elsman, nor will I say it. But you can add it all up in your own convenience." The ambassador sat forward. "I know much about your history with that ship – you started off fighting them along with Nicol, but circumstances changed and the situation came that you had to side with them – for the good of all involved. While ZAFT and the PLANTs will never officially sanction any action of siding with anyone connected with that vessel, we believe that it was providence for us that you had the right instincts to support the ideals pushed by those people. That ship has saved us all time and time again, and you had played a part in this. So you are the best person for this mission – one so sensitive that we cannot involve ZAFT command directly and officially."

So this is a covert mission. Okay I can do that. "I accept the assignment sir." Dearka stood up from his seat. "I think I should better get ready then, Ambassador."

Amarfi stood up the offer his hand. "Good luck then, Dearka. I think the Orb people can provide you with whatever else you'll need." He took out another folder and gave it to the blonde pilot. "And I think ZAFT can send you support as soon as it can. We have a unit heading for Earth right now. They could operate well enough for ZAFT to bother with getting involved in this, given their recent history."

Debris Field

Between L4 And Earth

December 20, CE 74

Ensign Hitomi Minamoto was nervous. She had been waiting and hiding for almost a quarter of an hour now, and the silence in her cockpit was unbearable and deafening for her. She kept her green eyes between her HUD and sensors display, now passively scanning for her enemy to come in at closer ranges. But space outside of her cockpit was filled only by more debris, mostly junk and fragments from derelict starships, old colonies and whatnot that humans discarded and now was polluting space.

The debris congregated here at this point in space, held together by the constant struggle by Earth's and the moon's gravity, which cancelled each other out here. The phenomena formed this artificial asteroid field, filled with man made cosmic bodies. It was a danger to ships traveling to and from the human colonies in space and the homeworld, and was avoided if possible at all cost by civilian interplanetary traffic.

But the debris field was also a dangerous place to have a battle, like the one Hitomi was involved in right now. The fifteen year old, black haired pilot, who had just graduated from the ZAFT Academy and suddenly thrust into this mobile suit squad with her two fellow redcoat, graduate-friends, had never experience actual maneuvers in these conditions. She did well enough in the simulated scenarios, but she was realizing real life was different from a virtual reality one designed by a supercomputer. Here death really meant death, not sudden computer shut down that left you entombed in a dark simulator pod. And death could easily come even in a live training mission like this one.

The single "eye" of Hitomi's ZGMF-1001/M Blaze ZAKU Phantom swung to its left, as she panned the mobile suit's camera in that direction. She thought she saw something, coming from a large mass of wreckage that looked like a large ore freighter that once hauled ore from the lunar mines. She was hiding her pink ZAKU in a large piece of multilevel public transportation tunnel, broken off from the remains of a derelict colony now rotting in this place. She had settled on this position for her part in the training mission, which called for her to play the role of ambusher.

The training mission called for her and her teammates Rena Ellington and Madison Chandler to survive combat with a single mobile suit, pilot by her commanding officer. The mobile suits had weapon inhibitors, which allowed the use of beam weapons at a lowered power output, which rendered them incapable of dealing damage. They also carried dummy missiles without warheads for additional weapons. The debris field dictated that the fighting will be close up and personal and her commander equipped her mobile to match the threat posed by Hitomi's side. While they outnumbered their commander three to one, they knew that their commander was an ace, a veteran of the last conflict, which pretty much made the fighting even.

The three, newbie pilots drafted up a plan of action - Rena and Hitomi where to set up two pre-planned ambush sites, using sites that maximized cover and firing arcs. Madison, her glossy-black ZGMF-2000 GOUF Ignited being the most maneuverable of the three, was to lead their commander along a course that would allow them to take her down. Rena and her yellow Blaze ZAKU Phantom would be at the first ambush point, while Hitomi held the second. If the ambush failed at Rena's position, there was still Hitomi waiting to follow up the attack. If the plan worked out, they could defeat their commander and win this exercise.

If only the Taichou would be more cooperative and fall for our trap. Hitomi had been listening to the tactical net, using the telemetry readings to triangulate the position of Madison's GOUF. It was complete silence in the first few minutes but voices erupted over the net when Madison was discovered by their commander. The voices became a shouting match, with Madison - usually the most quiet of their trio, continuously challenged and thrash-talked their commander, who kept quiet. This went on for two minutes, until a loud curse then silence signaled Madison's 'death'.

Hitomi took the news badly. But even more frightening was the fact that Madison was defeated before she reached Rena's position. Which meant Hitomi didn't know Rena's status, because of the radio silence. She didn't know if her remaining teammate was still in the fight or not. But to break radio silence was to reveal her position. Hitomi pondered whether to break the rule or not, and was panicking for a few seconds wondering what to do.

It was almost too late for Hitomi, as the metal frame of the collapsed tunnel was ripped apart as a fifteen-meter long anti-ship sword slash through. Debris began flying towards her ZAKU, but Hitomi had the sense to react to the sudden attack. She pushed off from the wall she was leaning on, and the ZAKU launched into space and the tip of the sword struck the place she was just standing on.

Hitomi stepped on her thruster pedal, and dodge again as a beam boomerang flew past her, nearly cleaving her right arm of her mobile suit. The sudden maneuver threw Hitomi of her bearings, making her lose sight of her enemy. She ducked behind another large wreck, and scanned her surroundings for her commander. The saw a flash to the right, and she reacted by firing three shots from the MMI-M633 beam rifle held by her ZAKU, but the beam blasts hit nothing but more debris.

Hitomi was getting frustrated with the obstacles in front of her. She didn't like being surrounded by junk and metal parts floating around, not allowing her any clean arc of fire. And she was scared that rather than hunting her prey, her prey was now hunting her. And even as she skirmished with her, she had not had a good look at her commander's mobile suit.

Hitomi decided that enough was enough. She activated her comlink, and tried to get Rena. "Hawk Four to Three. Where the hell are you?" She tried again, but there was no response from Rena. Hitomi knew she already made a mistake by activating her communications, and was not going to make another by sticking to this place.

The pink ZAKU Phantom launched into the open oblivious to any threat to it. Hitomi banked left and dove into another large wreck. She quickly flew along its length, existing in its other end. She did this several times, all the while closing in to the edge of the debris field. She could see her mother ship in the distance, waiting for the mobile suits to return from the exercise. Hitomi knew she could win the mission by escaping successfully. I wouldn't be a good score, but didn't the instructor in the Academy say that it was to leave and live to fight another day?

Soon Hitomi successfully maneuvered the ZAKU to the edge of the field. She was almost home free. She only had to cross the open area to the mother ship. It was then that the boom was lowered.

Two beam boomerangs raced towards her from her six o'clock position. She nearly died from the surprise, and was fractionally late in reacting. Hitomi barely blocked the first boomerang with her shield, but the second struck her left leg, leaving a large dent on its armor plate. The shock vibrated inside the ZAKU, nearly jarring Hitomi out of her pilot's seat. She tried to compensate by stepping hard on the thrusters, hoping the sudden change would stabilize her mobile suit and throw off her attacker.

Her sudden move seemed to have succeeded, as she could see her commander's mobile suit swinging the gigantic sword at nothing beneath her. Hitomi took the chance and fired her rifle, and the twin beam blasts struck the sword, leaving it damaged. Hitomi turned hard and dove at her commander, the MA-M8 beam tomahawk coming out of her ZAKU's shield and raising to strike. Hitomi screamed out her war cry, as she began her most aggressive attack.

But Hitomi's commander was ready and calmly pulled out her second beam sword. Using the damaged one to first block, then pry off the beam tomahawk, the red and white mobile suit slid the second beam saber underneath Hitomi's shield, and slammed the flat of blade onto the ZAKU's side.

The shock of the impact was of a magnitude more than the beam boomerang's hit, and it created enough force to short the battery systems of the ZAKU, forcing it to temporarily shut down. Warning signals flashed and alarms blared, as power from the main energy battery was cut. The HUD disappeared, followed by the MFDs and instrumentation lights, until only emergency system lighting remained. Her weapons systems malfunctioned, and propulsion was nearly dead.

Hitomi's head hurt, as she struck her helmet onto the backrest of the seat from the impact. She shook away the dizziness, but it took her awhile to get back her equilibrium. Not that it mattered now. She lost the battle and now helpless, with the ZAKU dead in space.

"Are you alright, Hawk Four? Talk to me, Hawk Four!" Her commander was shouting on the comlink, full of worry for her. If there was something nice about the Taichou, she cares for our welfare a lot. Hitomi reached out to her com switch, and opened the channel. Her Taichou's face appeared on the viewscreen. "I'm okay Taichou. Just a little shaken, that's all."

The heads up display came back online, as auxiliary power coursed into the essential systems. Hitomi could now see the Taichou's mobile suit as it came into view. The ZGMF-X56SB Sword Impulse stood with its twin swords hanging downwards, not a scratch on its red and white body. It was a survivor of the last war, and one of the best mobile suit ever built. Its pilot, her team commander, was also a veteran of the war, and the last active pilot still serving on the Impulse's and Hitomi's mother ship.

"Well it's a good thing you're okay," the Taichou was starting. "I was worried I was a little too hard that time. Never drag your shield with it facing the back when you attack. It left you open and I exploited it. Good work though. You managed to damage my sword. You're the only one of you girls to get a hit on me."

I'm the only to score a hit on the Taichou! "ALRIGHT!" Hitomi suddenly shouted, pumping her hands in the air. She suddenly saw her Taichou, her somber look turning into a glare as she stared back at her. "I mean, ah… I thank you for the compliment, Taichou Hawke-sama."

"Get back to the Minerva right now! Madison and Rena are already back there. Don't worry. Unlike your success, they failed miserably." And the Taichou cut off her link, leaving Hitomi almost crying in embarrassment and fear.

LHM-BB01 Minerva

Inbound Earth

December 20, CE 74

"That was the most idiotic excuse of a tactical training exercise I have ever seen!" Tai-i Lunamaria Hawke was angrily shouting as she glared Hitomi and her teammates. "You wouldn't have survived if that was a real battle! What made you think that dividing your force will give you an advantage? The result is unacceptable!"

Luna paused, catching her breath. She was really upset at the performance of her subordinates. Even with the tactical advantage of numbers, the three rookie pilots squandered that advantage and fell into Luna's tactics of close quarter combat. In the two months the Lady Hawks, as the team was nicknamed, was formed, Luna had tried to instill in them the importance of cooperative tactics. Dividing a force into single units was definitely not cooperative in her playbook.

She expected better from her wards, all top graduates of the most recent class from the Academy, all redcoats like her. But Luna knew that she shouldn't expect much from them this early in their careers. They were new and inexperienced in combat, but with the uncertainty of the times, Luna knew that they had to be prepared.

She wanted her new wards to work hard, to ensure that they would be the most prepared mobile suit team in the ZAFT military. Luna knew that preparation and training counted in performance. A highly trained team had a better chance of success and survival than others.

So she was being hard on her team, and that was eating at her. And Luna didn't want to do that, but the pressure was mounting on, leaving her grouchy and easily irritated just like now. She looked at each of her pilots one by one, gauging their states of mind. Luna had learned in the two months that each had a unique quirk to their characters, and she was learning to respect, at the least tolerate, each one.

The most senior of the three, Madison Chandler, age sixteen, graduated third in the class, the highest among the women cadets. Madison was tall and gangly, and the silver haired pilot was also the most silent and aloof of the three. She was even more aloof than Rey Za Burrel, her late teammate, was, in Luna's point of view. Madison was very economical in words, answering questions succinctly and precisely, and spoke only when spoken too. But in combat she was the most aggressive, as shown by the thrash talking Luna took from the normally reticent Madison. Her aggressiveness was remarkable, but also a dangerous flaw. It allowed Madison to have blind spots, weaknesses in her defenses that a clever enemy, like Luna, could exploit to defeat her.

Rena Ellington, age fifteen, was the second of the trio. Blonde haired, with a nice smile on a good looking face and a fit and alluring body, Rena was what you call a girl's girl. She was the outgoing, friendly type, easily attracting the men on the ship, and had a bevy of suitors that frequently asking her to dinner at the mess hall or leaving flowers and love letters in front of her quarters. But Rena was also a good pilot, for she wouldn't be wearing the redcoat if she weren't. But her biggest flaw was that she was sometimes self-absorbed, and not conscious of her surrounding. She was the first of the three that Luna took out in the exercise, as Rena accidentally got her ZAKU Phantom caught in stray cables, and left the rear arc open for Luna to close in for a easy kill.

But it was the last member of the trio that Luna would have been proudest off, had she not piss Luna off by celebrating so easily a defeat. Hitomi Minamoto, age fifteen, formerly from mainland Japan, Hitomi's family, all of them Coordinators, migrated to the PLANTs when the first war erupted. They settled in November Two, were they lived a comfortable life. Her brother enlisted in ZAFT and fought and died in the first war. Her brother's honorable death inspired Hitomi to try out for the Academy, and was accepted a year before the second conflict. As war erupted once more, Hitomi's class had an accelerated course, as more soldiers were being needed in the frontlines. Hitomi, with Rena and Madison, all graduated one month after the Battle of Messiah.

Hitomi was the simplest of the trio, friendly in her own way but more or less a private person. She had this childlike innocence about the world, to the point of amusingly clueless, but not as clueless as Rena was. She was also very responsible and trustworthy in serious matters, probably the most level-headed and easiest to understand among the three. She was an accomplished writer, and Luna saw some of the poems Hitomi wrote. Hitomi even kept a diary, where she wrote down her thoughts and dreams. Luna had come to like Hitomi a lot, and would have accepted her as a good friend, had rank and command responsibilities come between them.

But that wasn't the only thing that impressed Luna about Hitomi. It was her excellent sense for piloting that Luna admired from Hitomi. She could fly her ZAKU Warrior unlike any, with a grace that clearly outperformed even Shinn in piloting skills. She wasn't much of shot like Luna was, but her uncanny flying sense was something no one can teach, but was born with. Hitomi was the only one to damage her Impulse, and only by her impressive maneuvering. She would have been the saving grace for the exercise failure - had she have the mind to keep her mouth shut.

So now even Hitomi won't be saved from Luna's wrath. "For starters I want you to study the battle tapes and see where you went wrong. Next I want detailed reports about your actions in the mission. I want you to practice as a team for two hours in the morning and two hours in afternoon for the next three days in the simulator starting tomorrow. I want you to be ready when we get to Earth, and not be the laughing stock of the fleet! IS THAT CLEAR?" All three quickly nodded. "Good, you're dismissed!"

Shaking her magenta hair in frustration, Luna stormed angrily out of the pilot's ready room, leaving the three rookies, and began to head for the Captain's Quarters. She stalked off fuming, ignoring passing crewmen, even scaring a few of the newer ones. Luna was still in this foul when Abi Windsor, the Minerva's CIC officer, called out to her and joined her. "Hey, Luna, you look tired, girl."

"I know," Luna replied. "I had a bad training run today. You saw it, right?"

"Hai. I have the records. I'm going through it later," Abi said. Abi Windsor was Luna's new best friend among the remaining crew of the Minerva that served with her during the second war. Abi took over the position on the bridge that Luna's sister used to hold, after Meyrin got involved in the Athrun Zala incident at Gibraltar. At first Luna wasn't that close to Abi, thinking that she had Meyrin's post on a temporary basis, until Meyrin returned to the Minerva.

But the war ended and Meyrin opted to stay in Orb with Athrun and his friends, as she felt awkward to return to the PLANTs after being wrongly accused as a traitor. So Abi had the position permanently now, and Luna came into constant contact with her, since Abi was the CIC and mobile suit control officer. By the time when Luna became the team commander, she and Abi had become close friends.

And Abi was a good friend. She was there when she needed a friend, especially the time when Shinn left. That was a bad time for her. She felt empty then, the loneliness of being without someone she had come love affected her professional life. That was a time when the Minerva was undergoing major refits at the dry docks, and the crew had to help in the maintenance. Crew morale was low right then, with the deaths of their respected Taisa Talia Gladys and one of their ace pilots plus the other pilot's sudden resignation. Shinn's departure also saddled Luna with the position of senior mobile suit pilot, which gave her the task of rebuilding the Minerva's mobile suit force.

And it wasn't easy. Some officers from the other ships and service, jealous at the Minerva for being the favorite of the Chairman Dullindal, targeted the proud ship and her remaining crew with black propaganda to discredit them. While most of the accusations were untrue, the fact remained that most of the Minerva's crew was handpicked by the late Chairman, who almost install a new world order based on everyone's DNA starting off by destroying Orb. So the Minerva was discredited, and no senior officer wanted to become her captain. Even the replacement pilots had to be volunteers, for no one wanted to be assigned to the 'jinxed' battleship, even one with such a glorious battle record - until two months ago, when the new captain arrived.

Luna herself was tough and confident, ably ignoring critics and establishing her authority as the new mobile suit commander of the Minerva despite the stories. But the new captain, whom Luna was on her way to meet, was a different story altogether.

Abi was still asking Luna some questions about the exercise before she left her to head for the bridge. "I have my shift starting now. See you at the mess hall," Abi waved as she disappeared into a corridor.

Luna stood in front of the Captain's door. She pressed the com button on the door controls and spoke. "Lunamaria Hawke reported as ordered, Kanchou." The door slid open, and Luna entered and saluted, standing at attention in front of the sitting ship's captain, who was sitting behind her desk, reading files from a PDA.

Taisa Jane Devereux did not look up from what she was reading. "Anything you wish to report, Tai-i Hawke?"

Luna sighed. The new captain was hard to please, many times stricter that Captain Glady's was. Luna started on her report, mentally preparing herself for anything Devereux would say.

Jane Devereux was a young officer and a rising star in ZAFT. At twenty-two, she was the youngest to reach the rank of Taisa. A no-nonsense commander, the tall, blue haired woman was a former mobile suit ace in the first war, and served as executive officer of the Nazca-class destroyer Byron in the second. And she did all this without backing from any senior officer. In fact, a lot of the senior officers were envious of Devereux's skills, and wary that she might supercede them and take their posts. Devereux was first in line to command a Nazca, so the officers were surprised when she took on the position as Minerva's new commanding officer instead.

Nobody wanted the job, to be fair to Devereux, because the officers didn't want to be the commander of a jinxed ship. So the slot was offered as a volunteer command, but still no one wanted to take it - except for Jane Devereux. Upon hearing that the slot was open, she immediately applied for her transfer. With no other qualified applicants, ZAFT command appointed her the new captain.

Devereux kept quiet until Luna finished her report. "I expected better from you, Lunamaria. I want an increase in performance levels from your team by the time we reach Gibraltar."

"I'll do my best, Kanchou," Luna promised. "The three are good pilots, with good skills. They only need to jell together better."

Devereux studied Luna carefully before speaking again. "What do you think of all this Lunamaria?"

Luna was confused. "I don't know what you mean, ma'am."

Devereux turned her back on her and looked out into space from a window. "Our sudden deployment - having the Minerva sent out so soon while we're still going through training runs."

Luna pondered on the question. "The most obvious reason would be the terrorist attacks, Kanchou."

Devereux nodded. "But aren't you surprised that they sent us rather than anyone more suited?"

Luna didn't reply at once. Devereux saw that as a chance to post her next question. "What do you think of the jinx on this ship, Tai-I?

Luna was surprised. This wasn't a question she expected. "I don't believe the ship is cursed, Kanchou."

Devereux turned her head. "That sounds like a safe answer for you, Tai-I Hawke.

Luna felt anger at the captain's statement. "No ma'am, it not - it's just the truth." Luna clenched her hands into fists. "I don't believe this ship is cursed just because of the fact the Chairman Dullindal used and trusted us a lot. We didn't get the superstar treatment in the war. We got the hardest missions and fighting, and we handled them admirably. And we took losses in process. We've done a lot more for ZAFT in the last war than any other ship in fleet There are just those who think the wrong things about us and try to discredit us." Luna stood straighter. "We will show them that they are the ones wrong."

"Admirable, Lunamaria," Devereux faced her and held her gaze. "Very admirable. I'm glad I have you under my staff."

"Thank you ma'am," Luna replied neutrally. "Will that be all, Kanchou?"

Devereux nodded. "Hai. Go get some rest Tai-I. We'll talk more about this in the briefing tomorrow."

Luna saluted and started to leave when Devereux called out to her. "Don't be too hard on them Lunamaria. Like you said, they're good people. They'll be ready when the time comes, I sure."

Luna looked back at her captain. "When will that be, Kanchou?"

"With the way things are? Very soon."

Lake Havelburg

Brandenburg Province

German Republic

Eurasian Federation

December 21, CE 74

Shinn got off his motorbike and stretched out. The road to the market in the nearby village of Havelburg and back was bumpy, and the cold snow added to the stiffness and aching of his muscles. He had to take the trip two or three time a week, to purchase foodstuffs to add to the small stock of fish he catches from the lake. Even though he didn't have a regular job now, the pension he receives as a decorated officer from ZAFT was more than enough to live comfortably, albeit spartanly. Not that he needed a lot of creature comforts.

He was getting used to this semi-hermitic lifestyle he was living for the last few months now. Not that he was anti-social - he did like to talk to the village folk when he was there. He just felt that he needed the solitude of being alone. He didn't want the hassle of relationships with people to bother right now. And life in this secluded cabin felt right for him.

Shinn entered his small home and dropped the bag of groceries in his small kitchenette. He lit the stove and tossed firewood into the small flame. He put water into a kettle and placed it above the flame. He put the meat and vegetables he got into his small fridge and walked over to his bedroom.

His laptop computer was on his small bed. It was the only direct communications link Shinn had with the outside, as he still liked to follow current events happening around the world and in space.

Shinn booted up his laptop, and opened his GalNet connection. He scanned the news, which were still headlining the events that happened a few days ago in Oslo and in Orb. He was relieved that some of the higher-ranking world leaders survived the assault that security officials were describing as coordinated terrorist attacks. Although concerned with the attack on Orb, he didn't feel any real sympathy for them.

His hatred of Orb and its so-called ideals of neutrality never left him with the end of the second war. What can you feel when your home country is a country of liars and murderers? The pain of losing his family and Stellar to so-called defenders of Orb was a wound that would not heal any time soon.

He checked his email next, not that he was expecting any. It was a new account, which nobody knew. He didn't give the account to Luna or his other friends. He didn't want them writing him. He just used the account for other reasons, mainly to receive news alerts and e-publications he was subscribed too, under a different name. So he wasn't surprised to see a good amount of mail in his inbox, including the usual Spam and junk mail. He was looking over the list in his inbox when he saw one with title he never imagined he would receive.

To: Shinn Asuka (impulsivedestinygermany.eurasiafed.galnet.earth)

Subject: Stellar

There was no sender address. Shinn was stunned. How could anyone know that this is my email address? I didn't even register my real name! And how do they know about Stellar? With building excitement and fear he opened the email.

The contents were empty, with not text in the body - except for an attachment.

The Charmed Masses.jpg

By its document format, the attachment was probably a picture. He opened the file without hesitation, and looked into the picture that again will steer the next course of his roller-coaster life.

It was the picture of large city square, with a bronze statue and fountain in its center. The square looked European, with Latin influences to its architecture, as were the buildings around it. The square was filled with people, probably numbering the few thousands, converging what looked like a protest rally. A stage stood opposite the statue, and people were also there, including a person seemingly speaking to a microphone. The people were watching him, some of them carrying placards with anti-Blue Cosmos and anti-LOGOS statements. The picture was panoramic, probably shot from high ground or from one of the surrounding buildings. The picture itself was not remarkable, except for a section of it with encircled with what looked like red ink.

The encircled part showed an area near the backstage. People were milling there, bunched up together to watch the speaker. Shinn couldn't easily see any familiar face, because of the distance of the camera from that point.

Intrigued, Shinn transferred the picture to a graphics program he had installed. He opened the program and loaded up the picture. He opened the menus and found the zooming options. He zoomed in on the encircled are, and increased the magnification.

The result was blurry at best, the pixelization not that deep. But Shinn did not give up. He filtered the pixels more, adjusting colors and depth, until he found himself looking a clearer image of the encircled part, magnified over a hundred times over.

It was a picture of woman, wearing a drab gray trench coat and matching gray workman's hat, watching the speaker. She seemed normal enough, given the working-class masses that were attending the rally. Except that she had her hands outstretched, pointed at the direction of the speaker. Blonde hair was peeking from the underneath her hat.

Blonde hair.

Shinn zoomed in even more. He concentrated on the woman's face, which can be seen from the side. The filters gave him a clear close-up, and it revealed to Shinn a revelation that denied the realities he was still struggling to accept, giving him a spark of hope and chaos to the dreams the visited him in times of troubled rest.

It was Stellar.

Shinn felt his feet wobble from fright. "I can't be. She's dead! She died in my arms! This is a sick joke!"

But the image was taken only a month ago, and the filtering software could see any discrepancies in the image, making it real and not tampered. It wasn't a fake. The image was real. Stellar was really there.

Shinn was confused. How could this be? Why would someone go to all this trouble to send me a picture with Stellar in it? How did he know of my relationship with her?

Shinn calmed down. He sat down in front of the laptop and started to think. I have to find out more about this. I have to find Stellar if she's alive. Shinn sat back and rubbed his eyes. I have to protect her - but how?

He looked around, trying to figure out a way to solve this mystery. Then his eyes fell on the plastic envelope Athrun tried to give him. Athrun placed it on his porch before he left, and Shinn just picked it up, not knowing what to do with it.

It was ironic that Athrun's gift would be the key to his first steps in solving this new mystery in his life. It was ironic that the key would lead him back to the place he hated, and to the people he despised in both body and soul.

Shinn stood and took the envelope. He knew that his life would be changed forever again. And that he would go into darkened paths he was afraid to take.

But it was time for him to leave this place. It was time for him to act.

It was time for him to find her. Protect her once more.

"I'm coming Stellar. We'll be together again, I swear."

Kotoba wo kasanete mo

Wakari aenai koto

Mada shiranakatta ne

Kimi dake wo dakishimetakute

Nakushita yume kimi wa

"Akiramenaide" to itta

Tooku hanareteru hodo ni chikaku ni kanjiteru

Samishisa mo tsuyosa eto kawatteku... kimi wo omottanara

Setsunaku mune wo sasu sore wa yume no kakera

Arinomama deaeteta sono kiseki mou ichido shinjite

I still did not realize,

That there are things that can't be conveyed even with words

My lost dreams of wanting to hold you by my side,

For them, you said, "Don't give up!"

The further we are apart

The nearer I feel you are.

Even my loneliness turns into strength

When I think of you.

The thing that pierces the gentle chest,

That's a fragment of my dream.

Believe once more

In the miracle that is our chanced meeting

1 The suffix "–Actual" means the person itself, usually to denote officer positions in the US military When Murrue calls herself "Archangel-Actual" it refers to her as its commanding officer. Archangel Two-Actual meant that it was La Flaga speaking

2 According to articles, Kira's rank at the end of Destiny was Major General. Kira was promoted to a star-rank before the Archangel left for Copernicus City, in Phase 45 of Gundam Seed Destiny.

3 ELINT – Electronic Intelligence i.e. surveillance, communications intercepts.

4 This is my non-canon speculation on how this could work as a stealth system. That's why I wrote it was "theorized" to be one. The rest concerning propulsion is official canon.

5 According to the fansubs, Ikeya is the name of commander of the three Murasames that joined the Archangel after the Battle of Crete in Destiny. The other pilots' names are Gou and Issou.

6 Plus-five meant that other units will be ready for launch within five minutes after the first ones.