Author's Notes:

Again I like to thank all those who have read the story, and all those who have favorably reviewed the last chapter, like irishdragon, nick2951, Warp Ligia Obscura, and cajunman380. Also Greater Avenger for his constructive and insightful views regarding the fiction. I appreciate your effort to review Renaissance and hopefully I could improve it integrating your ideas.

I considered the scene between Dearka and Shinn to be a gamble. I was looking for a way to make Shinn see some reason and loosen up with his hate for the Terminal organization, and I took a chance by using Dearka, since he never really met Shinn before, he doesn't really care if Shinn would act violent around him and therefore there was no previous history between them. I'm glad you guys liked it.

I also want to thank my friend Wallace, who (unfortunately) was my inspiration on how to portray Shinn's bad behavior. He had role-played Shinn in our gang's RPG sessions, and brilliantly acted out Shinn's obnoxiousness. He had started to read Renaissance and humbly (?) said that Shinn sounded a lot like him.

Some trivia about my OCs: The members of the Twenty First Composite Mobile Suit Platoon of the USSA rebels are based on player characters I RP'd when I was a member of the Internet based Macross RPG groups, the MRC and MRN. I had a lot of notes from them so I adapted them for use in the Gundam SEED universe. Players from the group, former and present who may have read about them may recognize the similarities. I also recommend to newbie writers with interest in RPG to join such groups to help develop writing skills; I honed most of my storytelling by playing on these boards.

Hitomi Minamoto is a character I created in honor of Maaya Sakamoto, the singer, stage actress, movie actress and voice actress that played Lunamaria Hawke in Gundam SEED Destiny. I named her Hitomi in honor of the lead character in Escaflowne, whom Sakamoto voiced as her very first and arguably most popular anime character. Hitomi's surname of Minamoto is in honor of Gundam SEED's tradition of naming their protagonists using surnames based on historical periods in medieval Japan (Yamato, Asuka), although as a twist I used a name of a historical figure from that era.

This is my longest chapter to date, even excluding my long ranting here. I've tried to improve the orchestration of mecha combat and action sequences, to show a fuller representation of the battles. I hope you all enjoy Phase Eight of Renaissance.

SEED mode on!


Disclaimers:

Mobile Suit Gundam SEED is owned and copyrighted by Mitsuo Fukuda, the Sotsu Agency, Sunrise and BANDAI.

Maaya Sakamoto is an artist under the label of Victor Entertainment.


Phase Eight: TheFires Of The Last Night Of The Year

"I was never really comfortable with covert operations. Though regular people think about those as glamour missions led by dashing heroes in exotic lands, they probably never had a glimpse as to how dangerous they really were. My experiences in such missions as Heliopolis and Orb made me realize a fact – not only were covert ops the most hazardous missions a soldier can take, but they are also the one with the less gratitude. A government will never publicly acknowledge such mission – if you die, you die an unknown man."

- Athrun Zala, Father's Son– An Autobiography of Athrun Zala


Archangel

Somewhere In The South Pacific

December 30, CE 73

In the lower levels of the venerable mobile suit carrier, located below the main crew quarters and near the main water boilers, was the Archangel's most eccentric feature. When the Archangel underwent a major refit following the signing of the Junius 7 Treaty, Morgenraete Industries modified the vessel and allowed it to operate underwater as a fully functional military submarine.

The decision to upgrade the Archangel was the product of the need to address the ship's vulnerability during combat in the open sea, as accumulated combat data had showed. This modification meant a major upgrade of the ship's systems, including that of the water purification and utilization features. Ballast tanks were placed along the hull, larger boiler systems were installed, and saltwater purification was adapted for use of water from the deep oceans.

As the ship fully integrated these new additions, Erica Simmons took advantage of the refit to add a more aesthetic but welcomed upgrade, something the crew could enjoy during their free hours. At first Murrue was skeptical with Erica's plant to install a hot spring bath inside the ship, but out curiosity she allowed her Coordinator friend to continue.

She was well pleased by the completion of this special project, which the crew dubbed the Angel's Bath, and since then everyone board the ship had savored this little luxury. It was very appealing to them - with an almost limitless supply of desalinized saltwater to fill the two small, rectangular bath areas, divided evenly between members of the opposite sexes. For an artistic touch, a crewman with a talent in painting had drawn a panoramic representation of an authentic mountain hot spring on the walls of the bath areas, giving the ambience of traditional Japanese outdoor bathing area.

At that moment Murrue was luxuriating in the hot, steamy water, relaxing after a long, eight-hour shift on the bridge. The Archangel was still a few days from its first stop, a point in the vast South Pacific were the carrier was to surface briefly to gather communiqués from Orb via its communications satellite. Murrue wanted to gather as much new information as she can, then submerged once more, waiting for the satellite to return on its next pass to send news back to Waltfeld and Kisaka. But for now the ship was enjoying a quiet run deep underwater, with no possible threats within significant radius of the ship. So she allowed herself this little luxury, leaving command of the ship in the capable hands of Mu, who acted as her executive officer in the same time as her mobile suit commander.

She sat happily naked, only her head above the misty bath, a wet towel perched on her forehead. Murrue was currently sharing the bath with Lacus, who was also a frequent visitor to the Angel's Bath. The songstress had her long pink hair in a bun, and quietly discussing more mundane topics with Murrue. The pink Haro, Lacus ever present and irrepressible robotic companion, was absent, shut down and sitting quietly on the open shelves of the women's dressing area a door away.

They were continuing their conversation about their men in their lives when the door to the women's area slid open, revealing a towel-clad Meyrin Hawke, with a look of surprise in her face, looking down at Murrue and Lacus. "Gomen nasai, but I thought there was no one in here."

Murrue smiled. "It's all right, Meyrin-chan. Come on in and join us. The water's great." Lacus nodded her agreement. Shyly, Meyrin slid into the water, keeping the towel around her. She kept stealing glanced over towards the wall facing the men's area, as if worried that someone might come over from there. "Don't worry. That's a real steel wall with a fake painting. The only way the boys can come over here is through the main hall. And though they could hear us, they won't dare eavesdrop. This is the one place the boys won't bother us girls under the threat of a painful death." Murrue chuckled.

Somewhat satisfied, Meyrin took off the towel and placed it beside the pool. She settled into the bath, her eyes closing as she enjoyed the first sensations of heat from the water. "I heard from Kira-san about this place, so I thought I'd try it."

"Kira does frequently use this place," Lacus filled Meyrin in. "But he usually goes in here alone. Kira says Athrun and the others don't like to use the place as much as he does."

Murrue noticed the sharp intake of breath from Meyrin at the mention of Athrun's name, but she tried to hide it by blowing bubbles on the water. Apparently Lacus noticed it too. "Penny for your thoughts, Meyrin-chan?" Lacus asked.

"It's nothing, really."

Lacus smiled. "Is it about Athrun?"

Murrue stifled a giggle as Meyrin blushed from the direct frankness of how Lacus asked her. Lacus could be so straight to the point sometimes.

"Well-"

Lacus waved her arm slowly on the water, forming ripples. "I understand how you're feeling, Meyrin-chan."

"Is it okay with you?" Meyrin asked timidly. "How I feel about him."

Lacus gave her a clueless look. "What do you mean?"

"You know," Meyrin said. "You were his fiancée before, right?"

Murrue giggled. Lacus spared her a glance then sat straighter. "But that was all in the past. Like I told you before - it was an engagement just arranged between our parents."

"You mean you don't really care for him? Not enough to marry him, I mean."

This time it was Lacus' turn to become red-faced. "No, I care about Athrun a lot. We were engaged, we had feelings for each other, but we were both young and we outgrew it. Puppy love, I guess you could call it." Lacus shifted where she sat in the water. "When I took the chance to help Kira, I was branded as a traitor and our engagement was ended. I found my place in the world, with someone I care for and cares for me back." Lacus smiled - a smile that Murrue noticed had a different, more intimate meaning beneath it. "And Athrun went on his separate way and may have found someone for himself, for which I am happy for him."

"Chief Representative Cagalli Yula Athha." It wasn't a question from Meyrin, more like a statement of fact.

Lacus nodded. "I know you know what there is between those two. It's confusing, I know, how they act," Lacus paused, and Murrue saw the uncomfortable look that passed through Meyrin's face.

"You really care about Athrun, do you, Meyrin-chan?" Murrue asked.

"Uhmm, well I –"

Murrue smiled. "It's ok, Meyrin-chan. It just show so much in you how much you care about him."

Meyrin looked at her then sank deeper into the water. "Hai."

"But you understand how hard it's going to be - for you and Athrun both."

Meyrin answered with a nod. "Athrun-san is kind to me, and he takes care of me. He never lets me down, and he's always there when I feel down."

"That sounds like Athrun." Lacus said, smiling and nodding wisely.

"But I know he's still in love with Cagalli-sama," Meyrin continued. "I can't deny that. You could see it in his eyes. I know I have no right to get involved with him. But ever since Cagalli-sama left him to me when we left to fight Chairman Dullindal, it's been both difficult and exciting for me. I know I shouldn't exploit the chance that I could get close to Athrun-san, but it's just so tempting. And Athrun-san's not really helping." Meyrin sighed. "I wish he wasn't so nice to me all the time."

"I know what you mean, Meyrin-chan," Lacus said. "Like I said, that's how Athrun is."

Murrue nodded. "He's naturally a kind person, so it's easy to be attracted to him. But from what I see in him and what Kira-kun has told me, he's still going through a hard time. He's trying to find out his place in the world, and it's been very hard for him."

Lacus picked up were Murrue finished. "Give him time, Meyrin-chan. Sooner or later he'll see how important you are to him. And if its not meant to be, remember that you're still young and very pretty. There are a lot of boys out there who will definitely like you and make you happy."

"Thank you Kanchou and Lacus-san. Thanks for listening to me," Meyrin bowed. "And I'm sorry if I said something bad about Cagalli-sama. I really like and respect her."

Murrue smiled. "Don't worry, Meyrin-chan. You didn't say anything wrong. If Cagalli were here she'd have sounded as confused as you are. Remember that she's still very young, the same as you or Lacus. She can't get her mind focused on Athrun because of all the things she has to do as a nation's leader. And now that she was injured and her home's attacked, things are going to be tougher for her."

"All you could do for Athrun-kun now is just support him. We'll be going to face certain dangers at the end of this trip, and Athrun and the boys must be at their best. They rely on us for that support. So let's do our best to give it to them and not make them worry."


CPC modulator calibration set to twenty-six percent. Vernier thruster vectoring system upgraded to maximum variance. Energy transfer conduit flow for the anti-ship sword upgraded to point six. Palmina Focina focusing system set to green. Ultra-compact nuclear reactor safety protocol set to standard.

Shinn was continuing his work on the Destiny Phoenix, expertly upgrading its G.U.N.D.A.M. operating system to its optimal performance levels. The technicians of Terminal had replaced the OS, using a variant of the ones that were installed on the Freedom and Justice series of mobile suits. They also replaced the hyper deuterion reactor with a more common ultra-compact one, albeit one of a newer, more efficient design. Shinn understood the reason why Terminal's techs changed the system - they did not possess the technology to utilize the deuterion beam system, a more recent design feature which the Archangel didn't have, so they removed that component when they rebuilt the mobile suit.

Even though he first declared to everyone that he wouldn't have anything to do with the mobile suit, Shinn was beginning to change that principle. He didn't want to admit to himself, but Shinn hasn't felt more calm and collected as the time he spent inside the cockpit ever since he joined the Archangel's crew. He felt concentrated on his work, hammering fast upon the keyboard as he studied and reprogrammed the OS. He knew this was doing him good, but he still felt some stubbornness when it came to working and cooperating with the other pilots and techs, specifically Yamato and Neo. But he knew that if he would fly once more in this mobile suit he would have to fly with them, and that was a prospect Shinn didn't relish.

Fortunately for him - albeit he adamantly denies it - he had been getting good support from some of the crew - the ones who could take the verbal abuse and rudeness Shinn show from time to time. Elsman was the first of these people, being the one who dragged him literally kicking and screaming from his quarters to do maintenance work. Though he never knew Elsman before he came to Orb, he had heard of his reputation as a tough fighter with a carefree, devil-may-care attitude. He surely showed that side of his character to Shinn, and got the better of him. But Elsman was right in a way - he had a bargain to honor, and Shinn accepted the bargain without coercion from Terminal - it was his own free choice. He knew he needed their help, since they had the capability and resources he wanted to use.

Chief Murdoch, on the other hand, helped Shinn out immeasurably on the technical and mechanical side of the work. The barrel-chested chief mechanic knew his way around mobile suits, and had correctly analyzed the condition of the Phoenix for him. He was an invaluable source of information on the ins and outs of mobile suit mechanics, and from him Shinn learned a few new tricks along the way in improving the performance of the massive war machines. And he also was a friendly enough guy, always jolly around him, making him very infectious with his jovial manner, than Shinn couldn't find any reason for him to be angry at the chief - save, of course, that he was an Archangel crewman.

The last person who hung around him, trying to help him feel comfortable, trying to strike up civil - if not friendly - conversation, trying to integrate Shinn socially with the rest of the Archangel's crew, was someone Shinn really wanted to avoid, for a lot of reasons, but he knew he couldn't forever. Not that he really hated Athrun - unlike his friend Kira Yamato – only disappointed with him. It was for the reason that Shinn considered Athrun a failure to his great potential. He looked up to Athrun, but Shinn felt the Justice pilot had betrayed him and the Minerva's crew after the time they served together in the last year. Subsequent events proved Shinn wrong, but prejudice can't be lost in a day.

Shinn never really understood Athrun's reason to search for him in Germany, to approach him and offer him a chance to work with the Terminal group, considering the fact that Shinn harbored a deep and mortal grudge against most of them. Shinn knew that the answer ultimately lay in Athrun, but he wasn't revealing anything to him - and Shinn didn't really care. All that Shinn cared for was that he needed to find Stellar, and his chances were better with Athrun's help. But now he had an unspoken bond to honor with Athrun's group, however uncomfortable it felt for both sides.

Athrun was now standing in front of the cockpit, looking inside from the top of the maintenance gantry crewmen used to climb to reach high places on the mobile suits. Shinn saw the blue-haired Coordinator watch him silently, content to just stand there, with his hands thrust into the pockets of his orange-colored maintenance jumpsuit. Shinn tried to just ignore him, but Athrun didn't seem to notice this and kept rooted in his place. Slightly irritated, Shinn stopped typing and called him over the cockpit MFD. "You need something, Zala?"

Athrun nodded. "I just wanted to go over with you your settings for the OS."

"What about them?" Shinn asked, left eyebrow raised.

Athrun stepped unto the cockpit blast hatch, kneeling there in front of Shinn. "I took a reading from the OS. You set the Wings of Light's power usage above normal parameters."

"What's your point?" Shinn asked defensively.

Apparently Athrun didn't notice his not-so-friendly response, or just ignored it. "Won't you use up a lot more power quickly? That'll cut into your operational range."

Shinn thought about answering Athrun with another sarcastic response, but he felt tired, and to raise his voice would have sapped him more. "The techs set the Phoenix up with another hyper capacitor, so I figured I could compensate the drain by increased power production from the reactor."

"That's true. But that setup has never been tested in actual combat, Shinn."

"You think the techs would install a double system if it wouldn't work?" Shinn replied. "I'll just have to try it."

Shinn noticed that Athrun didn't challenge what he said last. Instead, the Justice pilot carried on with his checklist. "What about the rail gun? Did you check the magnets' polarity?"

"Iie," Shinn answered. "I'll do it later. Don't worry, Zala. I'll have this machine ready for action within a day or two."

"Will you pilot the Destiny Phoenix, Shinn?"

There it was - the question Shinn was trying hard to avoid answering. To take the responsibility of helping out in the maintenance of the Destiny Phoenix was one thing, but actually piloting it was another. It would mean that Shinn was accepting the shared responsibility of protecting the Archangel and its crew, a responsibility he never really wanted to have. Why should I protect these people, who had taken much from me and caused so much pain?

And he was here now, inside the same ship he had fought against many times over the past year. Shinn was now a part of the crew, by his own free will. Whether he liked it or not, he did have a responsibility to its crew - and honor called for him to do his duty. But the fire of hatred welling inside was still burning strong, burning and infecting the deep wounds in his soul. Nothing could simply douse such a firestorm, but he knew that it had to start somewhere. And Shinn knew it had to start with himself. And here was Athrun, asking him to take responsibility of something that could cement a first step in the fight against his personal hatred.

If only he had the courage to take the first step.

Shinn gazed at Athrun, willing himself to deliver through his eyes the answer he wanted to give, but he stubbornly held back. Athrun seemed to understand him, for he just nodded before he walked away, looking satisfied with the outcome of their short talk.

Shinn pressed a button, and the hatch of the Destiny Phoenix closed up in front of him, sealing Shinn within the darkness of the cold, silent cockpit, like the tomb that waits to envelope his dark soul. In the darkness, Shinn wondered what he did in the past that led his destiny to this day, at a place he never thought he would be. He thought of all the acts he made and the consequences accumulated by his actions.

He closed his eyes, and thought about those people his lives had touched and touched his in return, whether for the good or for the bad. He thought of his parents, his sister Mayu - was their death a sacrifice for Shinn to succeed in life? Or was it a curse that Shinn must carry until he goes to the place they were now, and only if he was worthy to join them again.

He thought of Rey, his best friend, and Gladys-Kanchou and the Chairman - were they right to lead Shinn to this darker path? Were they right to use Shinn for the destiny of Mankind they sought for with blood and tears? Or was it that Shinn himself wanted to be used by them - to feel that he mattered and belonged, however misguided the goals they wanted to achieve was.

He thought of Stellar, the one who gave his heart happiness in the same time had hurt it deeply. Was her death his fault? Would she have lived if he didn't return her to the arms of Neo and Phantom Pain - naively hoping that she will live in peace, but dying in the fires of the metal monster that drove her mad with fear?

And finally he thought of Lunamaria - the one person Shinn realized truly cared for him since the first time they met. She was always at his side, in good times and bad, always backing him up. Even when Shinn thought he killed Meyrin, her sister stayed with him, letting him to share her grief, opening her heart as a refuge for his troubled one. And yet in a fit of madness, he forced her away. He had hurt her, even though he had held back the physical blow that would have killed their shared love. Shinn felt crushed as he watched as Luna backed away, fear and sadness in her eyes at Shinn's terrible transformation.

So he left, wanting to end it all, but not having the courage to do so. And he had been running and hiding ever since - till that snowy day a few weeks ago, when Athrun Zala saw him plowing in the field of snow by the cold, icy lake. Athrun gave him a new chance at redemption - a chance to put back together his shattered pieces of his existence.

His last thoughts lingered on Lunamaria, hoping that she was fine, and that she was safe, before he drifted off to sleep, dreaming troubled memories, in tomb-like cold of the darkened cockpit of the Destiny Phoenix.


LHM-BB01 Minerva

ZAFT Sector Base

Gibraltar

December 31, CE 73

"Let me get this straight one last time, Tai-I Hawke," Chujo Joachim Radul began, giving Luna a withering stare. "You saw someone who looks very much like one Stellar Louisser - a biological CPU pilot, or 'Extended', a member of Phantom Pain, the strike team formed by LOGOS' late leader Djibril? And according to facts gathered after the Battle of Berlin, this Stellar was the pilot of GFAS-X1 Destroy that attacked Berlin, and this person was killed at the end of the battle." Radul looked Luna straight in the eye. "Are you're positively sure it was her?"

"Hai," Lunamaria answered simply. She was bearing the brunt of Chujo Radul's questioning, following her abrupt arrival to his office with Devereux-Kanchou. Luna was still troubled by last night's events. Her sudden encounter with that woman, who she recognized to look incredibly like the ace Extended pilot who was a bane to the Minerva crew during the recent war, affected her so much, seeding her with a source for fear and anxiousness she couldn't escape from.

But she also knew - even though she would never admit to herself or anyone else - that the fact that that woman was the object of her former lover's affection before Shinn and Luna started a deeper relationship between them. Luna accepted the fact that Stellar will always be part of Shinn's life, but she always reckoned that with her passing in the war and the march of time, Shinn's wounds to heart would heal, and that Luna hoped the she herself will have a large impact in his self-healing.

But unfortunately for Luna it was never meant to be. Shinn was still held prisoner by the memory of the Extended woman, and he never escaped its bonds. His bondage became Luna's too, and she felt the pain and misery as watched him slowly tear himself apart, wracked by nightmares and the guilt over Stellar's death. Finally, Luna decided to take a stand, and confronted him. She wanted to know what she meant to Shinn, and if Shinn could accept her as much - if not more than – he had accepted into his heart the Extended woman. But in the end this pushed Shinn over his edge, and nearly ended with him physically striking Luna.

Luna was shocked and scared - she knew Shinn as one to never do such a thing, but she expected to see him come close to being physically violent with her. Afterwards, after realizing his mistake, Shinn left her, and she never saw him again. For a time Luna was devastated, were in not for family like Meyrin and friends like Abi, Youlan and Burt, and the renewed work with refitting the Minerva and her subsequent assumption of command of the ship's mobile suit squad, she would not have started to mend her shattered life and broken heart. Luna took the separation as a chance to start anew, to begin life once more without the hurt and sorrow of the past.

But a few seconds from last night changed all that, and thrust Luna unwillingly back to the world of confusion and hurt. She tried to deny to herself that that woman was back, but deep inside she knew that self-denial was futile.

She reported the incident to the Kanchou, since Hitomi was involved. Devereux received the information neutrally, not commenting on Luna's subsequent emotional breakdown. She allowed Luna her way in telling the story, and did not say anything until the magenta-haired ace was finished. The Kanchou's only question was how Luna assessed what had happened. Luna told her, and the Kanchou suggested that this was a matter better reported to the higher-ups.

So she went with Devereux-Kanchou to headquarters, and waited for a good part of two hours for the early morning briefing to end so that they could meet Chujo Radul. Luna relayed her story to the theater commander, who looked a lot more skeptical than how Devereux took it. The Chujo asked an intelligence colonel to come and listen, so Luna had to repeat her tale once more. Luna eventually repeated herself two more times, as details were cleared and the loose ends of the story were tied together.

Luna was already exhausted; she had not had any sleep since getting back to the ship, and had been awake the entire night. And yet she endured all the questioning – it was almost like the time she was questioned when Meyrin got involved in Athrun's flight and defection from ZAFT. She was at the end of her patience, and was struggling to control her anger, and maintain her waking consciousness. "I'm positively sure it was her, sir."

Radul put his hands together and studied Luna intently. He swung his swivel seat to trade a look with his intelligence officer, and then faced the Kanchou. "Do you support this statement from your officer, Devereux-Kanchou?"

Devereux nodded. "I see no reason why I should not believe Tai-I Hawke's statement, Chujo. She has my full confidence and I trust her judgment completely."

"Is it based on the fact that she and the Minerva has fought this Stellar more than once before in the second war?"

"Hai," Devereux answered. "That was one of the facts I based upon my analysis of this situation."

"Did you also base your analysis upon the personal reasons that Tai-I Hawke may have concerning that woman?"

Devereux frowned. "I see no reason why that should matter in this case." Luna matched the Kanchou's grim face.

"Let me rephrase my statement." The Chujo straightened up. "Don't you think that Tai-I Hawke's judgment may be clouded by any personal animosity that may have come between the Tai-I and the Extended, due primarily to the fact that they both had relations with the same person?"

Luna stiffened. She was expecting this, but the effect was still disturbing. "With all due respect Chujo, but that's my personal business and I don't think my feelings clouded my judgment."

"Witnesses say otherwise, Tai-I."

What does he mean by that? "Chujo I don't-," Then the realization hit her. The military police! They must have seen me break down last night! Dammit! Luna looked away for a moment, pondering what she should say. "Chujo, I understand what you are saying, but I am only reporting this due to the urgency of the situation."

Radul looked down at his desk. "How urgent is it?"

Luna hesitated. She knew what she was going to say would not be taken with face value, what with the thinness of the information she had offered and her tainted analysis. "I believe there is a threat to the base, and that woman is involved. I believe she and her companion maybe planning an attack."

Radul eyes locked unto hers. He stared deep into her, and Luna had a difficult time to hold his gaze. She tried to keep still, knowing that any slight movements from her could reveal her doubts and weakness.

The Chujo broke the gaze first, but only because he was satisfied from what he saw from Luna. "How can you be sure about that, Hawke?"

Luna looked at her feet. "To be honest, Chujo, I am not." She raised her eyes again. "But I have a bad feeling about this nonetheless."

"So you're basing all what you reported on a bad feeling?" the intelligence officer spoke up for the first time.

"Hai."

Once more, the intelligence exchanged a look with the Chujo, but this time the intelligence officer nodded. "Do you have anything else to add, Tai-I Hawke?"

"Iie," Luna replied. "That's all I know."

Radul rubbed his eyes, and pushed his chair away from his table. He twisted to his left, looking out of his office window, staring at the dark clouds forming from the sea. Luna watched the clouds too, an obvious sign that a storm was brewing, bringing darkness and rain to the ZAFT colony. It mirrored the feelings of a coming storm inside her, which gave hear the feeling of fear and anxiety that was sapping at whatever strength she had left.

"Very well," Radul started, and he faced Luna and others again. "I understand the urgency of your report, Tai-I, even though I and the colonel here still see it as very vague. But I also understand your concern for the safety of every man and woman in this base, and I commend you on that. And we will address your concern - for the sake of security at least."

"Normally I would have intelligence look deeper on a matter like this and ask for their thorough evaluation before acting. But times have changed and things can be unpredictable. If we act on this, there are many variables that work against us. Like you said yourself, you are not sure this woman maybe a threat, but you have a bad feeling about this nevertheless. We are not sure when they will strike - if they ever intended too - or what their target is. Is it their objective to attack the base and damage as much of its facilities as they can, like the attack on Orb? Or are targeting specific personnel, like Scandinavia. Or do they have something they want that's here."

"Personally I don't see a simple alpha strike to be their objective. An alpha strike would be conducted with the goal of maximizing damage to the enemy's war capability. But why hit us now? We have only a sixth of the total forces under this command now in the base; only a fraction of what is was from the middle of the last war. Save for the Minerva, we don't have any significant fleet assets, most of our task forces are on patrol, and the guard fleet is in port for repairs."

"As for our mobile suit forces, all we have intact are a squadron of BABIs, a half-squad of ZAKUs, half a squad of older ceremonial GINNs, and Minerva's complement. And most of these forces are down for maintenance. And most of our personnel are off-base for the holiday. I know this makes for a very tempting target, but I don't see any sense for it."

"As for targeting specific personnel, who could be their target that's worth the effort? There's no one of importance to ZAFT or PLANT remaining here. With the force reductions all non-essential staff and personnel are gone. Unless it could be a personal vendetta that this woman might have against you, Tai-I Hawke, but I don't see that as important - with all due respect to you, of course."

"I understand," Luna replied.

"The colonel and I are more agreeable that there might be a threat against something in this base, but we aren't sure what that is. We don't know of any important item that maybe held in this base, whether a weapon or what else. But we see this to be the most promising of the ideas you have presented - and also the most alarming."

"What else do you know, Chujo?" Devereux-Kanchou asked.

"Essentially nothing. We are still correlating everything we know, and I had my staff go through the inventory of what could be of value to any enemy from this base."

"So what are we going to do?"

Radul nodded to the intelligence officer, who brought up a classified file and showed it on the desktop monitor. "I have a plan for situations like this - Case Zephyr - using whatever assets with have left here at the base." Radul activated his holoscreen, which depicted a digital representation of the ZAFT base. "I will integrate the Minerva into Zephyr, and your crew will play an important role in Zephyr's execution, Devereux, as you will see. I just hope whatever we have will be enough to stop whatever will happen to us."


Forward Deployment Base

USSA Army

Twelve Miles East of Manaus

Amazonas Sector

Brazil State

United States of South America

December 30, CE 74

It was extremely cold that morning, as a thick fog had fallen down below the canopy of the rainforest. The cold mist was covering the entire camp, and soldiers were trying to keep warm in all ways they could, huddling underneath thick coats and jackets, rubbing their gloved hands to the hot mugs of coffee they drank to heat their stomachs, or warming them over the remains of last night's bonfire. Condensation had formed on their mobile suit and vehicles, and their field quarters were surrounded by wet soil. The men were grateful for the lull in the recent fighting along their front, with soldiers from both sides resting and reveling with the holiday season.

Scott was thoroughly enjoying the lull, sipping on hot cocoa as he sprawled lazily on his folding bed. He was watching with the rest of the team and several other soldiers a broadcast of a local soccer game on the monitor. It was an exciting game, and the men were rowdily cheering for the local team, Manaus FC, in their New Year's Eve encounter with the team from Patagonia. Although most of the regular players of both teams were gone, having joined up with their war effort against the Atlantic Federation invaders, the replacements were doing pretty well on their own. At the moment, the score was tied at two goals apiece, and with most of the second half to go.

There was a loud rumbling sound outside the tent. Several people were screaming, and at first Scott thought that the base was under attack. But careful listening to the shouting revealed them to be more of anger for spilled drinks or sudden wakening from sleep. Some shouted curses at someone for almost running over them, and Scott figured that the rumbling was coming from cargo trucks bringing them new equipment and supplies. From the bored reactions of his companions, the noise was not a threat, so Scott continued watching the game.

The flaps of the entrance to the large tent holding the camp's entertainment center opened, and a shivering William came in quickly, looking excited about something. The Shousa noticed him too, and stood to ask him what that ruckus was all about.

William jerked his finger out of the tent. "The Rat's back. He's got some stuff on his flatbeds. And he's brought a guest with him." A sly grin began to grow on William's face. "It's a girl – a cute one in fact."

Scott glanced over to Michael, who shaking his head in impatience with William. The two stood up and followed William out of the tent, but Scot stopped at the entrance to call out to their last team member. "You coming, Gunny?"

"Nah," Gunny replied. "It's too cold outside for me. Just gonna watch the game. You kids have fun." Gunny sent him off with a wave of his hand.

Scott stepped out into the outside of the tent. The sun was still blurred by the low clouds, but Scott could now feel small rays of heat from the solar disc bring warmth to the cold morning. He saw the long flat bed parked just in front the team's mobile suits, all covered under camouflage nets, to help hide them from aerial and satellite detection. A very large item rested on the top of the flat bed, covered by a equally large canvass. Scott studied the contours of the item, and peeked under the canvass to get a perspective on it. It was metallic and green, and its size was gigantic indeed.

Rat's personal jeep skidded to a stop in front of the three, spraying mud to William's feet, which earned the crusty foul-mouthed weapons dealer some curses from the orange haired pilot. The Rat just ignored him, as walked over to the other side of the jeep, and gentlemanly led a orange-haired woman out of the vehicle. She wore dark shades that hid her eyes, and Scott couldn't see a glimpse of her eye's color. She looked only around sixteen, with her smooth pale white skin. She was petite, about five feet three, and wore a plain gray shirt under her blue cameraman's vest, and blue jeans and brown boots. She carried a large camera bag on her left shoulder, to complement the three digital cameras she had around her neck. Her right hand held a small duffel bag, which Scott noticed was not packed tight. With that detail Scott pegged the woman to be an experienced war photographer, or at least had military training and experience to carry only the essentials for a trip to the frontline. The woman walked behind Rat, who led her to face the three pilots.

"Howdy, boss-man," the Rat said to Michael in greeting. "Awfully cold out here, eh?"

Michael nodded. "What do you have for us, my friend?"

The Rat gestured to the woman. "First, I'd like you to meet Ms. Miriallia Haww. Ms. Haww is a freelance photographer, and she's come to take pretty pictures of your boys. Ms. Haww, Shousa Ward, of the Twenty-First Platoon."

"How do you do Ms. Haww," said Michael as he offered the woman his hand. The woman shook it firmly, from the looks of her grip, and gave the Shousa as small grin.

"Glad to meet you, Shousa Ward. I appreciate allowing me to come here."

Michael's eyebrows rose up. "I don't seem to remember getting any requests, Ms. Haww."

"Oh, I see." Haww fumbled for something on her camera bag, and took out a folded piece of paper. She handed over the piece to Michael, who began to read its content. "Taisa Reyes down at Fourth Regimental Command gave me permission, and allowed me to come to your camp. He said he'll relay to you the notice for my arrival."

Michael nodded grimly. "Apparently he hasn't." He gave the paper back to Haww. "I haven't received any notices, but I surely can't refuse a direct order from Command. But this is a dangerous place to be in, Ms. Haww. We are in the frontlines, and this specific sector is the favorite place for the EA to party in."

"Don't worry, Shousa. I'm game for that."

"Okay then," Michael said. "I'd like you to meet my pilots. This is William Bartley," Michael indicated to Will, who was giving Haww the most roguish grin he had. "And this is Scott Hinomura, ace pilot and tech wizard."

Haww ignored William's attempts to get her attention and faced Scott. "How do you do, Mr. Hinomura?" Haww offered him her hand, which Scott took gently.

"Please call me Scott, Ms. Haww. Mr. Hinomura is my father." Scott grinned.

Haww grinned back. "Then please call me Miriallia then, Scott." She took off her shade, revealing the deep green eyes beneath it.

"Okay, Miriallia." The hand felt soft in his, Scott thought. It was nice to feet the softness and tenderness of a woman's skin touch his - specially a nice looking woman as Miriallia was. William was right - she's cute.

The Rat cleared his throat. "Okay then. Now that we all know each other, let me get down to the good stuff," he said happily, as he rubbed both palms of his hands. "Scotty my boy, I'm your fairy godfather and I've granted your wish. See that large thing covered with the canvass? That's your new lifter."

Scott blinked, as he let go of Miriallia's hand. "You got the GUUL I asked you?" The Rat nodded. "Wow."

"Yeah, it's all there," the Rat said proudly. "But like I said, one of the engines is busted, but I did find some spare parts for it though - not all of them, but enough to get you starting to work on it. Plus I got luck with one full reload of missiles." Rat looked at Michael. "I got the rifles with me too, plus some extra stuff. That would cost extra, boss-man. I hope you won't forget to tell that to the one's holding the money."

Michael was about to say something, but his reply was drown by the loud gasp of fright from the entertainment tent. "What the-?" They heard Gunny call out from inside the entertainment tent, fear obvious from his voice. "Shousa, I think you should take a look at this."

Scott looked at his commander, and Michael gestured for the group to follow him, and they were shocked at scene that they saw from the television screen.


Cali International Convention Center

Cali

Columbia

Occupied South America

December 30, CE 73

President Gregorio Vasquez, figurehead leader of the occupied territories of the South America, emerged from a side door, the colonel and his bodyguards, dressed in black military dress uniforms following behind him, his right arm outstretched to greet the assembled party members that packed the convention hall. Even with the strong rains from the thunderstorms over the city did not deter the party faithful to come to this meeting at the President's call, their reasons for attending differed from showing loyalty in return for favors of power, to outright fear of the person standing in front of them for his violent ways. The party members hollered their adoration for this puppet leader, chosen the overlords of the Atlantic Alliance to be the figurehead ruler of the occupied lands in their name. The bodyguards took to their assigned positions around the stage, looking outward for mortal threats, not realizing that they should look within. The colonel positioned himself somewhere behind Vasquez, allowing him to begin his speech to the audience before he acted on his holy mission.

Vasquez was a brutal man, a lover of various perversions and the committer of sins to numerous to count that he was destined for a special room in Hell should he fall into that fiery existence. From afar he looked very powerful and invincible, but that façade faded away up close, Vasquez was a prisoner of his sins, ever surrounded by guards he wanted to trust but he could never be sure of, because his guard had seen and knew everything he had done against the eyes of God.

The colonel was the foremost amongst them, the ever-present witness to Vasquez's megalomania. It was the colonel's duty to oversee the puppet's protection, to defend him from physical threats and bodily harm. He knew that Vasquez trusted him the most, and he was the only one the puppet allowed to be closest to his side. That misplaced trust would be his folly, for the colonel was the first among many who had the mission to see Vasquez die.

The colonel had been preparing for this one moment that would end this foul demon, who now held the reigns to their terrorized nation. He had readied himself in the past, planning to target the predecessors of Vasquez who instilled the ambition and greed for power and violence into the puppet's black heart, but he didn't find a way to get close. Until he met the man who opened the door to power for him, and chosen him for this task for destiny.

The bald man, whom he only knew as Carlus, had whispered the colonel's name into the right ears of those in power, and these shadows invited him to take command of the Presidential Guards. He accepted the post, hoping to take the first chance to eliminate those who have surrendered and offered their lands and their people like prostitutes and slaves, to the invaders and racists of the Atlantic Federation, but Carlus stopped him, demanding that he would not act without his word, or face betrayal to the Federation masters.

The colonel tried to protest, but soon he saw the reasons why the bald man had blocked his preemptive move. He realized that there was a chance that things maybe better should the war end, that the Federation would leave South America once peace had reigned once more. But with this naïve outlook, he did not see the truth. After the end of the war, with the armistice with the Coordinators in the PLANTs, the Federation had turned its full attention to the South Americans, who had started an armed revolt for freedom against the racist masters. The colonel's homeland was invaded, but in stroke of faith he was personally chosen by Vasquez, who the colonel had worked alongside with during the last few years as a major player, to lead his personal protective detail.

Once more he wanted to strike down this madman, and once more Carlus held him back. The colonel was wary of the mysterious bald man, whom the colonel had discovered was an agent for the LOGOS during the start of the second war, but fell out of favor as the conflict progressed. It was suspicious therefore that Carlus should oppose the colonel's plan, since Carlus was one to profit with the demise of the LOGOS-backed puppet. But the bald man had stood firm; saying only that the colonel should bide his time.

His time had come, the bald man's short call to command him the harbinger of this moment in his destiny. The colonel accepted it calmly, having readied himself for the fate that awaits him, a fate from which he could not run away.

So, with a peace in his heart with the knowledge that he would do his part in saving his homeland, and his soul was surely to be accepted to whatever place courageous men that stood up and gave their lives for their ideals would go, the colonel executed his final mission.

Covered by the roar of the assembled politicos, the colonel took three steps forward, standing two meters behind Vasquez. He drew his semi-automatic pistol from his holster, brought it up straight with his right hand, and fired a single nine millimeter round into the back of Vasquez head. The people watching from the seats of the hall gasped in shock as they saw the bullet erupt from the dictator's right eye. This became one of those moments of history, when time seemed to stop for a instant that felt like eternity, and the shouts of adorations turned to a remembered, deafening silence.

As Vasquez fell dead into a pool made of his own blood, the colonel shouted his last battle cry. "Death to the invaders! Long live the USSA!" He didn't fire another shot; he was a practiced marksman who knew that his first shot had ended the demon's plagued life with its penetration through the brain and exit out of the head. He didn't turn to face the other guards, who were now starting to react from the shock and confusion and training their weapons on the colonel. There was no point in killing these men, even in self-defense, for they were just doing their duty, never tainted by his lone plot. Others would see to them soon enough, falsely accusing them of collusion in a conspiracy with their commander.

Again the colonel felt the peace inside him, even as the first of numerous bullets entered into his back, tearing into his internal body parts, starting the process of his bodily mortality, and spiritual immortality. His body jerked too and fro as more bullets penetrated him and riddled him, but he took no action to block them. As he felt the last of his life ebb away, he smiled to himself, knowing that his ill-fated existence was not in vain.


Forward Deployment Base

USSA Army

Twelve Miles East of Manaus

Amazonas Sector

Brazil State

United States of South America

December 30, CE 74

"Holy shit," William cursed, but he couldn't finish his words in face of what sight he was seeing on the monitor. Bloody murder was committed live, and the eyes of millions had beheld it in living color. William looked questioningly at those watching with him, but all of them shared his look of disbelief. All except for the Shousa, who had the same grim look that he shared with the photographer, as if they had seen this many times before and were not surprised to see it again. "What the hell is going on?" William blurted out, echoing Gunny sentiments when he first saw the same scene.

"They just killed President Vasquez," the photographer said neutrally.

Scott's eyes narrowed in anger. "But can't you see what they've done? Don't you realize what that man said, Miriallia? He just implicated the USSA in his act! Don't you understand what this means?"

"I know," Miriallia answered. "They just started what we all fear."

Michael finished her sentence, in a voice the echoed the darkness that covered the sky above. "The beginning of the end for us all."


Physics Department Building

University of Gibraltar

Gibraltar City

Gibraltar

December 31, CE 74

Alejandro Morales lived a decent life for a simple man like him. He worked for a good part of his fifty-three years as a soldier, first in the Eurasian Federation Army and a short service with United Nations Peacekeeper Corps. He was a dedicated professional in the ranks of the Army, a skinny, impoverished eighteen year old recruit from the slums of Toledo when he started his career to escape ending up involved in gangs and syndicates that preyed on youngsters like him. He was a veteran of several minor campaigns, mostly low intensity conflict against insurgents and guerrillas who opposed the current governments of his day. He progressed gradually up the ladder in the foot infantry, and retired after thirty-two years of service as a sergeant major, complete with a decent pension to support him and his family. He would had have happily settled into the quiet of retirement, as was his wish, with security, until the Bloody Valentine Wars turned the whole world around and affected his life.

Morales had watch on television the terrorist attack that took the lives of the United Nations representatives in Copernicus that led to tensions between Earth and the PLANTs. Morales was torn between re-enlisting in the Army and remaining a civilian with his family; he wanted to serve and participate as a loyal citizen of Spain and the Eurasian Federation, but he did not agree with the rising anti-Coordinator sentiments that was gradually growing among the Naturals that dominated on Earth. Morales teetered between what choice to make for months, until he saw the flash of the nuclear explosion that killed two hundred thousand innocent Coordinator civilians during the breaking news cast of the Bloody Valentine Incident of Junius Seven.

The callousness of the attack, praised by some leaders of the Earth Alliance, as the loose federation of the major nations of pro-Natural Earth called themselves, cemented Morales' choice not to fight anymore. Instead he sought for more decent work, but couldn't find any with the collapse of economies and the outbreak of chaos with the ZAFT attack on Earth and the denial of nuclear power by the rain of neutron jammers during Operation Uroboros. Morales took his family and fled their home in Barcelona, seeking refuge in the ZAFT controlled territory of Gibraltar. He settled there, and, with the help of a friend who worked in the University of Gibraltar, found work in the University's security department as a full time security guard, in charge of protecting and keeping the peace for the campus and its faculty, students and workers.

And now Morales was in his third year in the job, quietly living a simple life as the world was embroiled in two successive wars. Once in a while he wondered what if he joined up; would he have survived, maimed or killed in battle? But the old soldier knew that his body wouldn't have taken well to the stresses of combat anymore, and Morales quietly accepted his boring yet safe life as a guard with no other regrets.

And that was what Morales was thinking this New Year's Eve, as he sat on the front desk in the lobby of the Physics Department Building. He had the night shift, and was sharing the work Cortez, a younger co-worker in security, and Sergeant Yarth and Corporal Bollings of ZAFT's 3rd Military Police Battalion, who had a platoon assigned to the University, particularly this building, for reasons Morales wasn't aware of. His long years in the military made him understand the meaning of the secrecy – sensitive things important to ZAFT were kept here, thus the need for extra protection. The ZAFT soldiers were friendly enough, and they were non-invasive of the security department's work. They socialized well with the university staff, and generally well liked by all. Morales liked to work with them, they were good company and competent enough for him trust them with his life should trouble comes up. He never knew the trouble that he would face that night would signal the end of his life in this world.

The phone on the front desk rang, and Morales watched as Yarth picked it up and answered it. He spoke a few words, and silently nodded for half a minute before he put the phone down once. "That was the main gate of the campus," Yarth said, as he tightened the straps that held his mottled gray Kevlar helmet securely over his head. "We've got some maintenance people coming in on their van. But the guard there said that these three were new faces, so we better check them out." Yarth indicated to his partner to go out and meet the van, and Morales did the same with Cortez. The old veteran returned to what he was watching on the TV, a live feed of the New Year's celebration now going on near the ports of the city.

Peripherally Morales saw the lights of the maintenance van, as it reflected at the glass doors of the building. The van moved into the driveway and parked at the steps to the entrance, and two persons in drab gray worksuits and matching caps climbed out. They opened the back of the van and rolled out their trolley carrying their cleaning equipment. Cortez unlocked the front door and let the two in, and they headed towards Morales and the front desk. The two stopped in front of Morales, and gave their work papers.

Morales looked them over between reading the document, one was a tall man with gray hair tied in a ponytail; the other was a short girl with blonde hair. He couldn't see much of the facial features of the two because the caps were blocking them. Morales stood up and looked the man in the eye, which was of the color of deep purple. There was something about the man they he didn't like. He had the look of determination Morales hasn't seen since his service days. "Can I see some ID's?"

The man drew out another set of papers from his clipboard. "We're just new to the company, my friend, so our ID cards aren't with us yet, but this should clear things up." The man slid the paper over.

"I'm sorry, but I can't let you in without proper identifications," Morales answered, as he slid the paper back without looking at them. "What happened to Dominguez and his partner, what's his name? Why aren't they doing tonight's job?"

"Oh, them." The man said. "The boss took them to a long vacation. They were doing a good job so he rewarded them."

"I don't understand." Morales felt very uncomfortable with the man now. He felt something very wrong from him. "Let me call your office first to check." Morales started to pick up the phone, but the man's hand grabbed his and stopped him.

"Don't worry, Morales. Everything has been taken cared off. Yarth's there has made the necessary arrangements."

"What do you mean-" Morales started to say, as he turned to face the ZAFT sergeant. But rather than meeting his eyes directly, Morales found himself facing the end of the barrel of pistol's flash suppressor. And before he could act, Morales saw red and then nothing, as a suppressed nine- millimeter round entered his forehead, right between the eyes and above the nose, almost instantaneously when Yarth pulled the trigger and sealed his faith. Morales' life ended in an instant, without him ever knowing why he had to die like that, a helpless individual without the chance to fight back, or understand his place in the tragic drama that was about to start.


As soon as the guard turned to the ZAFT soldier, Solar began to move. By the time the flash of the point blank suppressed shot killed the guard she had her weapon out from the trolley and was drawing a bead on the other guard. The younger one was frozen in shock at what happened to his companion, and was an easy target for Solar. The MP55SD went up, and three rounds were released as Solar pulled hard on the trigger. It took nanoseconds for the rounds to travel the fifteen feet distance, and exploded the head of the guard into a bloody mass of bone and tissue. The headless guard dropped to the floor lifeless and limp.

The remaining ZAFT soldier tried to react, also with a face of wonder and surprise. He tried to bring up his Azimov assault rifle to shoot at Solar, but suddenly there was a cracking of glass, as the glass door behind him exploded. The corporal's body jerked forward and fell head first to the floor, blood gushing out of a large wound dead center on his back. Solar looked out behind the shattered doorway and unto the van's front compartment, where Naki was shouldering a sniper rifle, its barrel smoking and its user smiling with satisfaction with his one-shot, one-kill attack.

Solar turned to Adam, who was calmly drawing his own submachine gun plus a backpack and a loop of rope from the trolley. He had not moved from his spot since the short firefight started, and had not said a word. He shouldered the weapon and began to head for the stairway, gesturing for Solar and Yarth to follow. Solar grabbed a grenade fanny pack from the trolley, and tossed it to Yarth. The Coordinator took the lead, his suppressed pistol put away in favor of his own Asimov. He pointed up the stairs and sped cautiously ahead. "Third floor, last room on the west wing. Four guards." They could hear footsteps from above, and the voices of some of the guards hustling down to intercept them

Adam nodded, and Yarth took a flash-bang canister from the fanny pack and pulled out its pin. Yarth stepped up to the first corner of the stairs, and threw the flash-bang up to the second floor landing. Solar stuck to the wall and covered her ears, as the flash-bang blew up in a loud ringing sound a split second later. Solar followed as Yarth and Adam dashed upwards to take down the defenders.

One ZAFT guard was already down, stunned and unconscious, and was finished by a short burst from Yarth's rifle. Another one struggled to get up from where he fell, but Adam cut him down with a three bullets to the head. The last two guards were farther up in the third floor, distant enough to survive the assault of the flash-bang, to open fire down towards the attackers.

The team took cover along the stairway halfway between the second and third floors as the ZAFT counter-fire rained bullets around them. "Cover me!" Adam shouted at Solar, who ducked out of her corner to riddle the defenders with her own hail of rounds, which forced the ZAFT soldiers to momentarily seek cover. Adam took the chance, running halfway the stairs and jumping strong and high up from his last step.

Adam sailed past the covering defenders, and twisted his body in the air to fire at them. His sudden attack took out the nearest defender, who bumped into the second as he fell dead. The second one lost his balance and was forced to lift his rifle up into the air. Adam landed on the floor tumbling, coming up on one knee facing the last soldier. The soldier tried to desperately to bring down his weapon, but Adam riddled him with withering fire. Many bullets ripped through the soldier, who was jerking all over, as he uncontrollably pulled on his own trigger, punching holes into the ceiling of the third floor.

Adam gave a hand signal to Solar and Yarth, and the two dashed up to the third floor, while their leader covered in his overwatch position. Solar kept on going until she reached the end of the corridor and faced the aluminum and glass door into the Golov Strategic Studies Center offices. She pulled out another flash-bang, pulled the pin and rolled the grenade towards the door, which touched it as second later. She pushed away on her feet and knelt on the ground, covering herself once more in anticipation for the grenade's explosive force. The grenade blew up with a loud bang, and the soft aluminum was torn apart as the door collapsed in a rain of glass and metal.

Solar felt Adam rush past her as the controlled effect of the flash-bang was wearing off. She covered his and Yarth's entry then listened as the rattling of Yarth's rifle signaled the end of another person futilely defending the room. Another hand signal from Adam and she started off, rushing into the attacked office.

The room was a mess. Tables and chairs were overturned and office items were scattered all over, bullet holes riddled the wall to the west side, and an unknown body in a white lab coat, stain red with blood lay beneath it, a testament to the violence of the flash-bang explosion and rifle fire could do to helpless, defenseless civilians. Yarth was fumbling for something from the dead man's coat, and Solar saw the reflection of light twinkling from a set of keys that Yarth took from him.

Yarth pointed to a doorway to her left, and Adam nodded for Solar to head there. Yarth kicked the door open, dashed into the room, and then he shouted out "Clear!" as he finished his quick inspection of the adjacent office. Solar walked right in and headed for the large office table with a black laptop that dominated the private room, the office of the chief officer of this secret ZAFT think tank.

Gilbert Dullindal established this small office for strategic research of valuable technologies that may be used for war, and other practical applications for the militia. Dullindal choose the University of Gibraltar as the location, being within close proximity of the ZAFT Sector Base for security and anonymity and easy access to academicians who were contracted to work or cooperate with the study group. It was also a major contributor to Dullindal's Destiny Plan, as possessed a treasure trove of classified information that Dullindal used for the preparation and implementation of his ill-conceived escort plan for a war-weary human race.

Though the office was known among the ZAFT officer community, clearance for the knowledge it held was strictly limited, given only to officers who were trustworthy enough and reliable to be shared with. Apparently someone who knew about some of the contents was cooperative enough to share this information with Dullindal's enemies, and now Adam and his group wanted the information here, to further help their twisted crusade.

Solar sat of the plush swivel chair and began to work with the laptop. Using the passwords that they acquired from the chief of this office, she began to search the files they wanted. They picked up the chief the morning before, as he was about to leave for the Spanish mainland to celebrate the holidays. The chief was cooperative enough to tell them all they needed, after the way Naki took out his left eye with a paring knife. The chief was sufficiently motivated to help them out after which he was rewarded by having his torture ended with his throat slit across the neck.

It took a minute of fast typing and clicking for Solar to locate the necessary files, while Adam and their ally were preparing for their egress, lowering something down window facing he back of the building. They knew that hostiles were now converging on them, the open phone held by the dead academician gave witness to a last minute call for help. Solar could now hear sirens in the distance, as the remaining security forces in the campus were closing in on this building.

"Have you found it yet, Solar?" Adam asked as he watched out of the window of the room. Solar ignored him for the moment, as she found the specific folders she needed to copy. She slid a digital disk into a drive, and started to copy down the folders. She had just finished copying as she heard gunfire erupt once more, as Naki was now engaging the security forces, and Yarth was providing covering fire from an open window.

Solar pulled the disk and dashed out of the room. Adam followed her, who gave him the disk to carry. Yarth tossed another flash-bang into the private office, exploding on top of the table and destroying the laptop. Adam indicated to Solar the window, and she immediately went there. She took out a pair of climbing gloves, grabbed hold of the rope that dangled down to the ground, and climbed out of the large window. She twisted out to face the wall of the building, and gripping tightly on rope, she rappelled down to the ground, stepping off and pushing off the face of the building to guide herself safely down.

She landed on the ground running, with submachine gun up to search for hostile that might have approached her. She looked up and saw Adam rappel down as well, with Yarth looking out from the window waiting for his turn. Before Adam could touch the ground Yarth began his descent, and came down three seconds later. The three dashed to direction of the firefight, and saw Naki abandon the van as the security forces overwhelmed it. The policemen and soldier were all hidden behind their vehicles, and were pouring fire to Naki's position. It looked like that Naki would be defeated, but Solar knew that Adam still had one ace in his hole.

"Two, this is One," Adam spoke to a communicator. "We are all out side. Engage."

At first Solar saw nothing, her eyes drifting to sky above the positions of the security forces, the darkness framed by sky bursts from fireworks from the bay, but then she saw it, the shimmering effects of the small stars twinkling into existence, taking a dark humanoid form of gigantic size. Soon the form became more structure, as the mirrage colloid system was shut down, and Leva's Wraith came into complete existence.

The Wraith swooped down from where it was stealthily hovering above the campus. It began its dive, accelerating as it swooped down on the surprised security forces, who were diving for cover against the unexpected attack by the black mobile suit. The Wraith landed hard in front of Naki' battered van, and twisted to face the numerous but outgunned defenders.

The head of the Wraith disappeared in a double flash of light as the twin Iglestellung cannon whined to life, raining a storm of seventy-six millimeter high-explosive ammunition on the enemy. The effect was devastating; the large cannon rounds tore the thin-skinned police cars, and ZAFT vehicles into shreds, as well as the fragile tissue from the immolated bodies of the dead defenders.

Leva's voice came on the Wraith's external loudspeaker. "All clear, One. Some stragglers pulled back, but I see police lights from the distance. I think we should better go out of here soon."

"Roger, Two. Standby for egress," Adam responded via his communicator. "Did you find it?" He said to Yarth. Naki was walking towards them, sniper rifle slung behind him, submachine gun in hand, and stopped beside Solar.

The ZAFT soldier nodded. "I got it from him. His SUV's parked over that side." Yarth led them to the side parking spaces of the building, and they stopped beside a white sport utility vehicle that was parked in a reserved slot. Yarth deactivated its alarm system and was about to get in on the driver's side, when Adam stopped him. "I'll drive. You don't know where we're going."

Yarth gave him the keys and stepped away from the door. Adam got in and started the engines, revving it up for their escape. "Thank you, Yarth. You've done well. But I'm sorry I have to tie up loose ends." Adam nodded at Naki, who suddenly pointed his SMG at the Yarth and dropped him with two suppressed rounds to the cranium that cracked his skull open, sending blood, bone and brains spattering across the parking lot's concrete floor.


Headquarters

ZAFT Sector Base

Gibraltar City

Gibraltar

December 31, CE 74

"Chujo?" It was his intelligence officer. "We have received reports from civilian police. There's something going on down near the University. I think this is it."

"Put all forces to Condition Red!" Radul commanded. "Prepare for anything that might happen. Contact the Minerva - tell them to execute Plan Zephyr immediately!"


LHM-BB01 Minerva

In Harbor

ZAFT Sector Base

Gibraltar City

Gibraltar

December 31, CE 74

"Kanchou, the go code for Zephyr has just come in from Sector HQ," Abi reported in.

Devereux nodded to Arthur Trine, who gave voice to the pre-arranged command. "Execute Zephyr. Launch the mobile suits."


"Tai-I Hawke, you have clearance for launch."

"Roger that, control," Luna replied, as the YFX-M56 Core Splendor's cockpit dropped down and sealed her inside the fighter. Luna fired up the engines, booted up the G.U.N.D.A.M. operating system, and made last minute checks on the control surfaces as she secured herself on the pilot's seat with the safety belts. She increased power on the engines, as the main hatch at the end of the launch tunnel opened up in front of her. Luna lowered her red helmet's visor, and settled in for the catapult launch. "Lunamaria Hawke, Core Splendor. Launching!"

Luna was slammed deep into her seat as the catapult was released, pulling the small fighter jet forward, increasing speed as it was slingshot out of the cockpit and into the air in two seconds. After clearing the deck, Luna pulled back on the stick, and the Core Splendor climbed into the illuminated night sky. She veered the fighter away into the dark ocean to avoid getting in contact with the fireworks still exploding over Gibraltar. The other three remote flyers that made up the different components of the Impulse launched seconds after her, and were now aligning themselves with the little fighter, getting ready for docking.

The first to undergo transformation was the Core Splendor, with the release of the wing-mounted missile pods as the variable wings folded inwards. Luna guided the fighter through its transformation, assisted by the fly-by-wire computer built unto the G.U.N.D.A.M. OS. The nose of the fighter twisted down, with the pilot's seat rotating on its axis. The nose folded cleanly to the main fuselage of the small craft, securing the fighter into a compact shape.

Two aligning lasers shot out from the leg flyer, connecting with sensors on the Core Splendor, guiding both components for interlock. Securing seals activated as the Core Splendor attached itself to the second flyer, and the legs folded out into its standard position. Luna began inputting commands to calibrate the gyroscopes, allowing the legs to balance the mobile suit when it lands.

The chest flyer moved to the front of the combined elements of Impulse, maneuvering slowly to envelope the section containing the docked Core Splendor. It guided itself using more laser beacons, as it locked itself securely unto the leg section. The two arms spread outwards holding shield and beam rifle into its standard stance.

The last component to dock was the Silhouette Pack, which gave the Impulse its primary weapons according to the type of augmentation system used. For this mission Luna choose the Blast Impulse Silhouette Pack, a modular configuration the provided the Impulse long-ranged fighting capabilities with its twin Kerberos high-energy beam cannons, missile launchers and dual Deluge hyper-velocity rail guns. Luna decided on this system - even though she was worried that its heavy weapons would cause great damage to the facilities in and around Gibraltar - since the missile pods' use was essential against the raiders, using a special weapons package she equipped for against the raider threat.

With all components of the mobile suit joined into one, the Impulse stretched out as power surged into its systems from the hyper-deuterion compact battery. The Impulse's eyes flashed gold, and the anti-beam shield extended into its battle-ready mode. Luna pressed down on the thruster pedals to soften the Impulse landing, as it settled on the open ground of the port. She scanned the area and found what she was looking for, and launched the mobile suit up on a thruster assisted leap.

The Impulse landed on the flying green platform that flew under it - the legs connecting itself to the adaptors mounted on the GUUL subflight lifter's fuselage. The lifter gave the ZAFT mobile suit additional flight capabilities and weapons, and Luna utilized this to increase the mobility of the Blast Impulse for this mission. As she flew higher into the firework lit sky, Luna scanned her sensors and listened in on the tacnet, closely monitoring the chatter from the battle and word from the rest of her team.


Hitomi completed her final checklist as her ZAKU Warrior settled unto Minerva's catapult one. She had spent most of the afternoon hanging around the hanger bay, waiting for the call that would send her and her teammates out to intercept the suspected raiders. She didn't have a good night's rest, still excited after the events of last night. Her body still ached from where she was hurt by the goons, and that made her stiff in her joints. She was also bothered by thoughts of the encounter - her musing brought back the cold and evil faces of the bullies and the calm yet dangerous look he got from Leva. Finally she thought of her Taichou, as she knelt on the road's surface screaming in apparent fear and anger, as if she had seen a ghost, in the form of Leva's woman companion.

It was strange for Hitomi the she felt affected so much by what happened. Was it the feeling of fear and helplessness she felt when she was surrounded by the violent men who sought to violate her? Was it the strength and courage of Leva that was so attractive to her that it tempted her with uneasy thoughts about him? Or was it the pity she felt for the Luna-Taichou, for she never thought she would see her in that state.

Hitomi shook her head, hoping to drive these thoughts of doubt from her mind - she needed to concentrate now on the mission. She had to, in order to succeed and survive the fight ahead. She knew the enemy to be one not to be taken lightly, for she felt she didn't perform well during her last encounter with the raiders. Although they were driven off, it took Kira-san's intervention to save her when he mobile suit was incapacitated. She was determined not to be defeated this time, and was determined to be a victor on the last night of the year.

She saw the catapult warning sign signal readiness for her to take off, and Hitomi firmly declared her intention too as she released the catapults hold on her mobile suit. "Hitomi Minamoto, Blaze ZAKU Warrior. Taking off!"


Devereux watched as Hitomi's pink ZAKU lifted off from the starboard launch bay of the Minerva and jumped on a GUUL subflight lifter launched from the portside one. She silently prayed for the success of this mission to stop whoever had attacked the University that night, and the safety of her pilots. She still had not received any report on what the unknown raiders did in the University, and what if any specific targets they may have. She still was not sure if the raiders had mobile suits, but Lunamaria had equipped her team to match the threat, and Devereux knew she had to trust the judgment of her mobile suit team commander and her pilots. She only wished that the Minerva could be directly involved in the fight, but she knew that to bring Minerva's firepower to bear could cause massive collateral damage that Radul and High Command wanted to avoid.

So for the moment, Devereux sat and waited. Waiting for news as a battle unfolded is the hardest part of a commander's job, but she had to wade through the difficulties. She had ordered her crew to constantly update, whether if the news was bad or good.

But she never expected to receive bad news this early into the fight. "Kanchou, we have a problem down at the launch bays!" Abi suddenly reported, her voice full of tension.


Rena's ZAKU Phantom was just about to be mounted unto the catapult when disaster struck. The heat from the friction upon contact between a mobile suit's feet and the catapult plus the stresses from launching had caused microfractures on the catapult's shock absorbers, which the repair crews replaced during the ship's refit with new but defective parts. This was a mechanical error with disastrous consequences, but almost undetectable with the fractures hidden in the internals of the absorbers. It was a matter of time before the fractures gave out, and unluckily for the Minerva the time was now.

As the catapult returned to ready position after Hitomi's launch, the fractures were now superheated and very fragile. And when the Phantom's came into contact with it, the structure collapsed as the superheated parts broke under the stress of pressure. The Phantom slid off balance as the support on her leg gave way, not allowing the Phantom to immediately regain footing. Rena tried to compensate, but the suddenness of the collapse was too much for her.

The Phantom crashed unto the launch bay deck, and the smashed catapult was ripped from its moorings. An explosion erupted as the capacitors of the magnets that propelled the catapult flashed, triggering emergency lights and sprinklers to come to life inside the launch tube. But the massive surge of energy from the capacitors also damaged the main power circuits to the launch systems, causing a shutdown of power in the launch and hanger bays.

Looking down unto the fallen mobile suit from the confines of the catapult control room, tech shook off the surprise and shock to notify the bridge of their dilemma. Catapult one was now blocked by debris and the damaged ZAKU - and with the sudden loss of power all throughout the launch and hanger bay, the Minerva was effectively denied its ability to launch the rest of the mobile suit team for the moment.


&

"What is going on, Arthur!" Devereux demanded from her executive officer, who was communicating directly with the launch bay operators and damage control personnel.

"We've got a problem on cat-one," Arthur answered. "The catapult's support braces are broken and it's unusable. Ellington's ZAKU has fallen on the deck, blocking the launch bay, still attached to the catapult system. The main capacitor for the catapult shorted out and exploded; all power to the launch control systems and the hanger are out. We can't use the remaining two catapults until the backup systems cycles the power routing. Damage control estimates it to be out for five to ten minutes. As for casualties, we no reports yet, but it looks like we don't have any."

"Can't we divert power from other systems?"

"We could, Kanchou," Arthur replied. "But damage control says they need to diagnose the problem more thoroughly. The damaged systems may not take any sudden surge of high-energy without being damaged."

Devereux closed her eyes in frustration. She knew she couldn't risk another electrical explosion in the launch bay, with all the dangerous munitions stored there and the risk of harming the crews. She sighed as she accepted the inevitable.

"Very well then, XO. Tell damage control to continue working on the problem and try to get power back to launch control." Devereux looked over to Abi. "Contact HQ and then Luna. Tell them of our situation. Then tell Madison to board her GUUL and carefully launch from bay two. It may take some time but we need to get everything we can up into the air. Luna and Hitomi need all the help they can get."


"Say that again, Minerva?" Luna was disbelieving what Abi had just said, and listened more intently as Abi repeated her dire report. Luna quickly thought about the situation. She and Hitomi were flying the battle now, and the raiders looked like they had not seen them yet at least or took action against them. She knew that they were expecting them, so Luna wanted to approach them as carefully as they could. She knew they needed help, but Madison and Rena were bound to be delayed, as well as the support forces from the other ZAFT units. She knew they had to hold out and stop the raiders from escaping, and to stop this madness that was to engulf the world once more in a new year of flames.


Outside the Physics Department Building

University of Gibraltar

Gibraltar City

Gibraltar

December 31, CE 74

"NO!" Solar shouted, as saw Yarth's lifeless body fell into the ground. She knocked Naki off his feet with a tackle to his right side. Naki struck back with a blow to her face with the gun's butt, and he was about to shoot her when Adam stopped him with a command. "Back off, both of you!" Adam shouted.

Smiling evilly, Naki got up and got in the car. Her head spinning in pain, Solar picked herself from the ground and kicked Naki's door. She ran around to the other side, and got on the front passenger's seat. She turned angrily at Adam immediately after the door slammed behind her. "Why did you have to kill him!"

With uncanny speed, Adam grabbed Solar by the collar and dragged her close. "Listen to me, Louisser. He had done his job and we didn't need him anymore. We can't fit him in our units, but we can't leave him alive. So it's better to kill him, and I made that decision. Do not question my commands ever again!" Adam let go of her roughly, and Solar's struck her head on the door window. Adam contacted Leva once more. "We're all inside the vehicle. Clear the way."

Solar saw the Wraith circle above then dive down towards a point to the left of their vehicle. A missile corkscrewed out of the mobile suit's leg launcher, and struck the Campus perimeters' stonewall that was adjacent to a major road crossing through the city. A large gap was made from the wall, with a large, smoking crater as the only evidence of missile's forceful impact.

Adam slammed hard on the gas, and the wheels of the SUV smoked as the vehicle roared into life. Adam turned the SUV towards the gap, the vehicle jumped into the air as it cleared the gap. The SUV landed on a grassy knoll, and soon it swerved into the highway. The vehicle was on the opposite lane to the direction Adam wanted to go, but he didn't care. He slammed more gas into the engine, and the SUV ran at speeds dangerous to the cars flying past him or swerving out of control.

Adam drove the SUV hard, but Solar was amazed how precise his maneuvering was. Adam turned the wheel right and left, unheeding the frightened horns from incoming traffic. He glanced to the opposite lane and called out to Leva, who was flying his Wraith overhead. "How's the other lane, Two?"

"It's clear."

Adam jerked hard to his right, and SUV climbed violent over the center island to the correct lane. Sparks flew from underneath the vehicle as it landed hard on the concrete highway. Solar saw that the lane had fewer cars, but Adam was still outracing them with his dangerous speeds. "How far now?"

Leva answered once more. "About two kilometers. I'm going ahead. All clear with the road, the police are just reacting to your unorthodox exit. I can just see them diverting now towards your position." The Wraith accelerated ahead, and descended unto the open field just to the north of them, near the Spanish border.

After a few minutes of uneventful driving, SUV reached the spot where Leva landed. His wraith was looking towards the South, were there pursuers were four kilometers away. The vehicle screeched to a stop, sending rocks flying, and three raiders jumped out of it. They ran towards a clear spot in the field, seemingly devoid of anything. The three took out their small control unit, and pressed a button, that revealed their vehicles for their final escape.

The open space shimmered as the mirrage colloid cloaking the three Wraiths disappeared. The team had gambled on keeping the mirrage colloid activated when they left the mobile suits, which they retrieved from the Barracuda two hours before. The stealth system could function continuously for ninety minutes, and they had formulated their plan for their raid along that time schedule. It would leave them only a few minutes of cloaked flight available, but they gambled on that and compensated by avoiding combat after the retrieval of the suits. The three stepped unto their lift cables to board the Wraiths, and Solar last saw her compatriots as they entered the cockpit.

Solar jumped into her cockpit seat and reactivated the mirrage colloid, but was dismayed to see that her cloaking device was malfunctioning. She tried a couple of more times with the system's controls, but it was not working. Solar got on the tacnet to report this mishap.

"What do you intend to do, Three?" Adam asked in a digitized voice.

"I'll cover your retreat. I'll have to reboot the system to see if the mirrage would work." Solar responded.

Leva's voice chimed in. "I'll back her up, One. You and Four pull out. You have the disk, and that's the priority for this mission."

"Very well," Adam consented. "But leave as soon as you can - avoid combat if possible."

"I think you should go now, my brother," Naki said his piece. "Trouble's on the way. I wouldn't want to see my brother die a failure, wouldn't I?" Solar tried to figure out what he meant, and saw in her sensor the approach of two fast moving dots, heading for their position.

With grim determination, Solar began the process of rebooting the OS. She punched in the emergency shutdown protocol, and the instrumentation and lights of the cockpit died out instantly as the battery was shut down in the process. As the APU kicked in, Solar proceeded to restart the battery. But the sudden shutdown activated the safeguards for the power system, and the MFD indicated that it would take a minute before the battery could power up again. With the enemy approaching fast, every second counted, and Solar was now vulnerable within the minute, with her trans-phase armor and mirrage colloid unusable, and her mobile suit in a whole immovable. All she could rely on was Leva's protection, hoping he could cover her for the minute she had to endure.


They were five kilometers away now, flying at a thousand meters high. Through a mag scan of the area, Hitomi saw two of the four mobile suits disappear in a cloud of colloid particles. Two of the black figures stayed on the ground, not attempting to vanish under cloak. She heard Luna-Taichou's command a half a second later, and Hitomi began her attack, firing off a volley of short ranged missiles loaded with sulfur canisters to counter the cloaking device's effectiveness. The four missiles streaked towards the two, grounded mobile suits, diving at their position before it pulled up in the last second. The missiles exploded in airburst, and red-orange sulfur particles rained down on the ground, covering it and silhouetting the raider mobile suits, one of which was attempting to hide under its cloaking device.


Leva cursed as the sulfur particles rained from the sky covered his Wraith and jammed his stealth system. He angrily turned off the system, revealing the Wraith to the naked eyes of his enemies. As a counterattack, Leva volleyed off his own group of missiles, which corkscrewed upwards. The missile locked unto a pink-colored ZAKU, which was the source of the canister missiles that voided the use of the Wraith's best defense system. Leva launched the Wraith after his volley, deploying his right hand saber with a snap-hiss, preparing to deal a deathblow on the Coordinator enemy. He saw Solar's Wraith still motionless, still not completing its reboot sequence, and the Impulse dropping down to attack it.


Luna watched with satisfaction as Hitomi successfully completed her part in their initial attack. The sulfur clouds the canister released would deny the raiders the effective use of the mirrage colloid. She was irritated that two of the raiders succeeded in getting away, not affected by their attack. She didn't know if those who fled had whatever they stole from the University, but Luna was determined not to let the other two get away. We need to capture them; we need to find out they stole and what they know.

She angled the Impulse for an attack run on the two mobile suits, with Hitomi imitating her move on her wing. One of the raiders launched missiles, which towards the direction of Hitomi. She shouted out a warning, but Hitomi was already going through evasive maneuvers. The raider followed his volley with a charging attack, and she saw Hitomi already commencing her defensive fire.

Luna concentrated her attack on the grounded raider, and began her strike by a devastating volley from her Kerberos cannons. Two angry red beams propelled downwards to the raider, exploding the ground to its side, causing the raider to fall on its back from the explosion. The raider was covered totally with smoke, and Luna could not get a visual on it. She dropped her crosshairs on the spot she last saw the raider, and fired off multiple beams from her rifle. More explosions came to life, and at first Luna was sure she had made a clean kill of the raider.

But the raider was not dead, as it flew out of the smoke sideways and darted off to its right. The raider commenced her attack with a dual blast from its shoulder mounted rail guns, and two silvery projectiles rocketed towards Luna. She dragged the controls hard to the right, and the Impulse jerked sideways in that direction. The Impulse dodged one of the high-velocity rounds by a few meters, but the second caught the ZAFT mobile suit squarely on its beam shield. The shield took in much of the force, while the rest was absorbed by the variable phase armor, but Luna still felt the shockwave from the explosion and was forced to back off for seconds.

The black raider began to climb to intercept her, but had already anticipated that and reacted to it. She opened up with missiles from the bulbous pods over the Impulse's shoulders. The volley split into two, heading for both flanks of the raider. The raider continued to climb for her spinning on its axis while firing its head mounted Vulcans. The anti-missile fire raked through Luna's missiles, exploding them in midair. Some got through the withering fire, and zeroed in on the target, but the raider suddenly dropped altitude at the last moment, causing the missiles to hit each other.

Luna tried to exploit the raider's sudden move, locking onto it, putting the raider squarely at the middle of her crosshairs. She triggered both her beam cannons and rail guns together, producing a devastating volley. The raider saw the attack, and tried to avoid it, but one of the red beams caught it in its tracks. But the raider quickly deployed its beam barrier, which parried the powerful beam effectively.

The raider had now matched the Impulse height, and was coming in now from Luna's left, twin beam sabers now deployed. Luna responded on the fly, firing a swarm of canister missiles at it. The missiles were to close to deploy the sulfur particles effectively, but the suddenness of the unorthodox attack caught the raider by surprise, as ten missiles pummeled its black body. The missile didn't explode, but impact released the sulfur into the air, again effectively denying the use of mirrage particles.

Again Luna thought she had the one up on her adversary but again the raider showed its brutal skill in combat. The black mobile suit spun away from the damaging projectiles and accelerated to Luna's side. A slash from one of its sabers caught the GUUL's left engine, exploding it and the missile stored on its adjacent missile launcher. Luna had to quickly jettison the doomed lifter, but utilized it one last time to attack the raider. As the Impulse was released from the GUUL, she kicked it towards the raider, and peppered it with fire from her own Gatling cannons.

The raider avoided the falling GUUL, but was caught at the edge of its final explosion as the Gatling rounds found the unexploded ammunition. The raider fell from the sky in an uncontrolled descent, but the pilot once again showed mastery of the machine as the raider landed roughly but safely on the ground. Luna landed a few seconds later, and now she faced the black nemesis equally on the ground, with no major advantage for each of them. She knew she outgunned it, but the raider could out fly her and evade her once it got the mirrage colloid into play. For now it was a stalemate, and Luna circled with the raider, as both combatants waited for the one to make the first move.


Hitomi saw the raider come for her, but she was now caught in an evasive maneuver to escape the deadly missile attack aimed for her. She countered the attack with a missile volley of her own, and she was satisfied to see her projectiles striking true all of the raiders, but the explosions covered the raider from view. She looked all over, and almost died as the raider appeared above of her, beam saber above its head and coming down at her for a killing blow.

She raised the ZAKU's shield just before the saber connected, and Hitomi struggled to repel the power of the blow. One of the spikes mounted on the shield was severed by the beam energy, and the saber slid downwards, nearly striking the left wing of the GUUL. Due to the sudden change in momentum, Hitomi lost her balance and control of the lifter, and was struck by fear as another attack from the raider's saber cut off the top of the left missile launcher of her Wizard Pack. Emergency klaxons indicated catastrophic damage to the launcher, and the possibility of a missile explosion.

Cursing to herself, Hitomi released the Wizard Pack, but before it could get away from her, the raider was attacking once more. Hitomi slammed on the airbrakes, and pushed forward on the stick, and the lifter dropped the ZAKU out of the way as two silver slugs cored the damage wizard pack. Hitomi pushed all the acceleration she could get out of the GUUL engine to escape the explosion, and she did with inches to spare.

Hitomi rose up to gain some altitude, looking left and right for the raider. She found it coming around to the west, bearing towards her but still getting her within its firing arc. The were flying over the Rock now, the four hundred meter high limestone monolith that was the distinguishing feature of the PLANT colony. Hitomi fired first, continuously surrounding the approaching raider with beam fire from her rifle. The raider jerked left and right to avoid her strike, and fired back with its own hand held weapon. Both mobile suits danced in the dark sky, the flashes of the their fire adding to the fireworks now fading away, as the revelers on the ground had now noticed the more dangerous displays that were now playing out in the night sky.

The raider changed its tactics, and began to shimmer as it put the mirrage colloid to play. Hitomi knew she had to get it now; once the raider was cloaked, she wouldn't be able to detect it, and it could either escape or stalk her. But with the loss of her Wizard Pack, she lost her canister missiles to counter the colloid particles. She had to think of a way to keep it from cloaking away.

She decided on what to do. Screaming a loud battle cry, Hitomi pushed everything she could out of the ZAKU and dove straight at the raider. She pulled out the beam tomahawk out of its holder behind the shield, and drew it out for her attack. The raider hesitated, and Hitomi took the chance to complete her suicidal attack.

A large sonic boom was heard in the surrounding countryside as the pink ZAKU slammed into the black raider, the impact dragging both mechanical beast down from the heavens. Fighting the pain of the impact, Hitomi had the ZAKU's left arm release the shield and grip tightly unto the black raider, enveloping it with a deadly hug. Hitomi started to bring down the tomahawk, but the raider blocked that by grabbing the ZAKU's right arm. Hitomi saw the ground growing as they descended rapidly, and she closed her eyes in anticipation of the massive for of the impending crash.

The two mobile suits slammed on the east side of the rock, about two hundred meters from the bottoms. Hitomi felt metal crashed and screamed as the force of the impact shook the ZAKU violently. She was thrown up and down her seat as the world spun around her, as the two behemoths slid and rolled down the side of the Rock, taking out houses, trees and power lines along the way. The violence lasted for less than a minute, before the two crashed into a warehouse at the foot of the tall hill, settling in cloud of dust, smoke and debris.


Luna watched the raider carefully as they both continued to size each other up, not wanting to take the disadvantage of moving first. She was getting irritated with this fight, wanting to end it quickly with a pull of her triggers. She wanted this dance done right now, and was happy to see the raider share her feelings, but not her patience. The raider dashed forward, using its speed to close in on her.

She smiled inwardly, as Luna launched another barrage of missiles, this time armed with high-explosive warheads. The missiles bore down on the raider, but it continued to aim for her, again using its head cannons to shoot down Luna's volley. The raider juked to it right, then fired two more shots from its rail guns. Luna countered by drifting to her right, using her foot thrusters. The Impulse deftly avoided the attack that struck a building dead center causing it two explode. Luna watched in horror as he saw people inside the building die in the flames. I forgot about the civilians here! I have to be more careful.

Luna decided to try another tack. The Impulse replaced its beam rifle to it back hip connector, and drew out its two Defiant beam javelins, its primary melee weapons in the Blast configuration. Luna joined both weapons to form one long two-sided spear, with three bladed beam blades on both sides of the weapon. The Impulse spun the javelin above its head, and then tucked it down with its right hand, ready to face the raider's attack. Luna hoped that the length of the weapon would deter the approach of the raider, so she could use the advantage of range her other weapons can bring to bear.

She was about to challenge the raider once more when she heard explosion in the distance, and saw the fire that erupted on the face of the Rock. She wondered what had happened, then realized that her teammate had flown to engage the other raider in that direction.

"HITOMI!"


Solar hesitated, as he saw the Impulse deploy its two-sided melee weapon. It was trying to keep her away, content with fighting from afar. The Impulse had more weapons that it could use against her, but Solar knew she could out maneuver her opponent with her speed and agility. She checked the status of her mirrage colloid system; it was still hampered by the sulfur particles that showered on her Wraith. The system was getting to the point where it could be used again, but she to do it in a way that the Impulse wouldn't have a chance to use its canister missiles once more.

The Impulse turned, looking to the direction of the Rock, which made Solar do the same. A large fire had erupted there, and Solar realized that Leva was fighting in that area, and could have caused the explosion. She knew that Leva could be dead, the fire the funeral pyre for him and his Wraith, but it did serve the purpose of attracting the attention of the Impulse, giving her a chance to take the advantage again.

Solar charged once more, using a combined volley of missiles and rail gunfire. The Impulse reacted predictably, dodging to its side while firing its head cannons to take out her volley. The Wraith tried to close in from the Impulse's left, but Solar had to back off as the ZAFT mobile suit swung its javelin staff at her, narrowly taking off the Wraith's head. Solar tried to slash with a beam saber on her egress, but just missed the Impulse wildly.

She tried to run away, but the surrounding area was too lacking of hiding places to help her escape. The Impulse gained on her, and Solar knew he had to fight it off once more. She tried by using her beam rifle next, but the Impulse just parried his multiple attacks using its anti-beam shield. The ZAFT pilot again tried to take her down, with red beams reaching angrily from the hip mounted beam cannons. Solar dove hard for the ground to miss it, and slammed the Wraith into another building. She was caught in a position where the Impulse could easily destroy her, and she would not be able to react quickly.

But the Impulse stopped and did not fire. Solar wondered what could have happened, what reason there could be that the ZAFT pilot would not finish her off. Then she saw it, the injured people streaming in panic out of the intact part of the damaged building, running for their lives to escape the death that was looming above them, running through the firing arc of the Impulse mobile suit.

Solar realized the advantage she could use, and planned to exploit it to the maximum. She moved the Wraith towards the more populated area of the battlefield, putting it behind her as she turned to face the Impulse once more. She teased the ZAFT pilot to engage her while peppering him with heavy fire from her beam rifle. The Impulse was not attacking, just avoiding the murderous barrage Solar was enveloping it with. Solar knew she was winning, as she glanced for a second down at the MFD. The mirrage colloid system was coming up to effectiveness, and she could soon use the system to escape.

But the second she took to look down was enough for the Impulse to close into her without Solar noticing it, and Solar was surprised to see one tip of the beam javelin pass by her, catching the Wraith on the right arm. The beam blades on the edge sliced cleanly through the shoulder of the Wraith, cutting it off, and triggering an explosion as the energy connections to the arm shorted out violently.


Luna looked closely at the explosion that engulfed the raider after she cleaved its arm off. She glanced at her sensors to locate it, but the conflagration was making it hard for her scanners to get a good fix. Luna advanced the Impulse forward to search for the remains of the raider or finish it off. She succeeded in delivery critical damage to her opponent in its moment of hesitation, and she wanted to end the fight decisively.

Thus she was surprised as the black mobile suit appeared out of the dark clouds, rising to the air and climbing fast. Luna flexed the legs of the Impulse ready for launch, when three beam blasts caught her mobile suit on the body. The mobile crashed down on its back and Luna was shook violently on her cockpit seat, and for a second the monitor blanked out before it came back online. Luna tried to get the Impulse back on its feet and give chase to the raider, but as soon as she was up the raider fired again, catching the Blast Silhouette in its wake, slicing down the middle of the augmentation pack.

Luna pressed on the emergency release switch, and slammed on the thruster pedal to jump the Impulse away. The Silhouette blew up in a powerful explosion, but the last moments of the variable phase armor protection of the Impulse protected the mobile suit from more damage. The Impulse landed on its knees, but Luna had the reaction speed to maintain its balance.

She searched for her enemy, and found it disappearing as it activated its stealth system. Luna slammed her fist into her console in anger. I let her go! And I may have lost Hitomi in the process! She wondered if she could give chase, but the raider had vanished completely. It could attack her now when she was vulnerable without the variable phase-shift armor to protect the Impulse, but it never appeared again.

She noticed a beeping on her communicator, and an incoming communications was calling for her attention on the tacnet. Luna opened the line and heard Madison's cry. "Taichou! Taichou! Are you all right?"

"Hai," Luna responded. "But the raider got away."

"Do you want me to give chase? I have a couple of BABIs with me."

"Iie. Look for Hitomi. I last saw her going for the other one over to the east. There's no reason to chase the raider now, since we won't be able to find it while cloaked. We failed in this mission, and have to live with the consequences," Luna concluded, as she looked to the east, wondering and worrying if her comrade and friend was still alive.


She had a hard time seeing through her eyes, as it stung with pain together with all parts of her body. As Hitomi slowly opened her eyes, the view was blurred, as smoke had filled the ZAKU's cockpit and made it hard to see or breathe. Hitomi tied to move, but it was proving to be hard. She glance into the monitor, but she saw that it was broken, the Plexiglas shattered from the impact of the ZAKU's crash. Hitomi checked the other MFD for damage reports, and saw that her machine had taken critical hits all over, the ZAKU's head was torn apart, and that the left arm and both legs were totally unusable. Her sensors were out, and she had no idea what happened to the raider.

Hitomi slowly removed her broken helmet, and tossed it aside onto the back the ZAKU's cockpit. He pressed a switch on the side of seat, and explosive bolts detached the cockpit's hatch in a loud bang. The cold night's air intruded into the cockpit, mixed with the smell of gunpowder and dead bodies. Glancing into the outside, Hitomi searched for the raider, but did not locate it at once from all the smoke that surrounded her. Hitomi was painstakingly removing her seatbelts hold on her, when she saw the dark shadow that was looming in front of her. She activated the searchlight mounted on the ZAKU's body, and trained it on the shadow.

She stopped in fear, as she beheld her enemy standing in front of her, battered but not unbowed. The raider was just as damaged as she was, but was still intact and operational when it came to its legs. The raider had lost its left arm, which was shattered and dangling uselessly on its side, but the rest were all there, although scratched and bruised from the violence of their crash into the Rock's face.

How did it survive that well? And then she remembered. It activated its beam barrier before the crash. That protected the rest of its body, plus its trans-phase armor. Hitomi laughed harshly, stopping only as a bolt of pain shot through her body. I've been defeated and about to die, she thought grimly, as the raider pointed its beam rifle directly at her.


Leva brought down his beam rifle, pointing it at the fallen ZAKU. He aimed it at the cockpit, magnifying his targeting view, pinpointing at the opening caused by his saber's slash. As the crosshairs centered on the gap, Leva was satisfied. He gently placed his finger on the trigger, ready to begin to apply pressure, ready to release a deadly beam of energy that would ensure to quick death of the ZAFT pilot.

He took one last look at the target, and saw a glimpse of the pilot through the open cockpit, which caused him to hesitate from shooting her at once. He saw the long black hair, framed on her pale face, wet and glistening with sweat and blood. The cut on her forehead covered half her face red, and her eyes were closed, hiding the green eyes the shined like emeralds the first time Leva saw them, on that smoke filled club they both went to the night before.

Leva remember her for her courage, trying to fight off three thugs to protect her body and her honor. He had decided to help her, risking identification to make sure she was safe. Leva never questioned himself why he did that, given the sensitive nature of their mission required no direct contact with other people, especially members of the enemy forces. But now there was doubt in his actions, his newfound bond with this girl was cemented the moment he committed himself to her safety.

And now he was in a position to end her life. Leva knew he had to pull the trigger, for the security of his cause and the success of the mission. But deep inside he felt the need to let this girl live. Whatever the reason, he didn't want to kill her.

One more death won't make a difference, he argued to himself. I've already succeeded in my mission. And there is something about her that stops me from killing her.

She had now seen him, and reacted with anger mixed with hopelessness at her fate. Her eyes steeled, the girl was drawing up whatever ounce of courage she had left to face the fate that befell her. Leva smiled proudly at her display of bravery, gaining more admiration for her strength.

Her name is Hitomi, isn't it? What a wonderful name for such an interesting person.

Leva shifted his aim, letting the beam rifle hang limply at his Wraith's side. He twisted the mobile suit to face away from the fallen ZAKU, and took a few steps away. He prepared to activate his cloaking device, but paused as he heard her voice call out to him from the outside.


The pain from her head was throbbing, and Hitomi was having a hard time seeing with all the blood covering her eyes. Her back felt as if in flames, and she couldn't feel her legs. She felt helpless; she wanted to die, to end the pain she was going through. But the raider seemed to be relishing in her pain, as it lowered its rifle, unwilling to deliver the coup de grace that Hitomi was desperately wanting.

And then the raider turned its back on her, and began to move away. Hitomi was confused and angered at it for denying her what she desired. How dare you turn your back on me and leave me like this!

"Why don't you shoot? You've defeated me. Kill me now!" Hitomi screamed over her loudspeaker.

The black mobile suit paused, as if contemplating whether to leave or complete its former threat. "Because you fought well, and I don't need to kill a defeated and defenseless enemy." The voice of the pilot came from its own external loudspeaker.

Painfully willing herself to move, Hitomi focused all her remaining strength on her controls to lift her ZAKU's right arm. The arm groaned as it struggled to point straight at the raider, lining up the shattered remains of the beam rifle at the raider's back. "I am not defenseless. I could kill you."

The raider turned to face her once more, but did nothing to signify it as a threat, knowing that Hitomi could do nothing to hurt it. It stood there for a few seconds, before the pilot spoke again.

"Is that what you desire, Hitomi? To kill or be killed?" the raider said. "You'll get your chance. Soon. But for now, you must live."

Hitomi opened her mouth in surprise, as she slowly remembered the face behind the voice. It's him! "Leva…"

"Hai, its me. I never wanted to meet you again like this, but I guess Fate is unkind to both of us tonight." The raider's head shifted upwards, as if it sensed others approaching. Hitomi could hear the whine of mobile suit engines, and the garbled voice of Madison calling out to her over the tacnet.

The black mobile suit launched into the air, slowly climbing into the night sky. The raider mobile suit seemed to shimmer, and its physical form began to blur, disappearing into thin air, as the mirrage colloid stealth system enveloped it, back dropped by the explosions of fireworks the belied the tragedy that was happening that joyous night. The head of the mobile suit was the last thing Hitomi saw of it, and the last thing she heard was Leva's somber farewell.

"Goodbye, Hitomi. Until the next time we meet. I dread when that day should come, for then we shall settle this fight as enemies. I only hope we can see each other one day as friends."

Hitomi felt tears mix with her blood as she watched Leva's mobile suit vanish. She felt her life ebbing away, the darkness overwhelming her consciousness. As her eyes closed she concentrated on one name, the focus of her short and incomplete life, as if his name was last memory of her ill-fated dreams.

"Leva…"