Author's Note: As the summary suggests, this story is not your usual fanfiction. I suppose this story could be classified as a hybrid of anime-based fanfiction and historical fiction. At any rate, please read, enjoy, and review. Thank you!
From the Ashes
Galileo, Alba Patera, Mars. Maius 22th, 1529 A.W.E. (After War Era)*
"Alright everyone, please buckle up and stay in your seats as the crew makes the final preparations before takeoff." Professor Pailey's voice echoed throughout the interplanetary vessel, his deep tones overpowering the voices of the other students. Phoenix would recognize his adviser's commanding voice anywhere.
He smiled in anticipation. It was his first time leaving Mars, and he was looking forward to the month-long journey almost as much as he was to their arrival on Earth.
"Be sure to turn off all pocket devices," came Pailey's voice again. Like every other student on board, Phoenix rummaged in his pocket before pulling out his PD. He checked for a last text from Lia, his older sister, and found that he had a video message from his parents' home number.
The screen flared to life when he opened the message, and he saw his entire family huddled around the home bay station. "Good luck, sweetie!" his mom called encouragingly.
"Have a safe flight, and call us when you get there." Phoenix's dad said mildly. He was always practical. He never looked concerned, and today was no exception.
Lia bobbed to the center of the screen. "Hey, take lots of pictures, right? And you'll log, right? I'll show you how to fit the pictures to the log when you get back. And I'm sure you'll get accepted into the honors program after your study abroad."
Phoenix raised an eyebrow. As if he didn't know how to fit pictures to his log. He cringed a little, though, thinking of the presentation to the History Honor Board when he returned in the fall. That was one thing he was not looking forward to.
"Well, have a good time, and learn a lot," said his mother, smiling sweetly.
"Do something off-the-wall, Phoenix. Those Honors profs like people who stand out. Do something unexpected! Something daring! Something crazy," Lia called, laughing and ignoring their mother's slight gasp and protesting face. Lia reached forward and the message faded to black. A second later, the PD returned to the desktop screen.
Phoenix smiled, and tapped the touch-screen to power down the PD before placing it back in his jacket pocket. Well, he certainly hoped he could get a little adventure from his study abroad. After this summer, he was probably going back to living in the history department's library, so he figured he had best throw his all into this trip.
A moment later, another voice resounded across the seating deck. "Good afternoon, Galileo U students," she said warmly, her accent crisp and distinctly North Martian. "This is your Captain, Aria Formose speaking. Welcome aboard the U.M.S. Marterra. In a few moments, we'll be lifting off, so I hope you have all done as your supervising professors have asked and are all buckled in safely. For those of you who have never left the planet, we'll experience some strong gravitational forces as we leave the atmosphere, then a floating sensation until we put our mock-gravity system online. The entire process should take less than ten minutes. Our flight attendants will be available during takeoff, but because of the gravitational shifts, please only ask for assistance if absolutely necessary. I'll be giving you further instructions once we've entered stable interplanetary flight."
Phoenix looked around at the students next to him, wondering if anyone he recognized had signed up for the Earth Exploration Summer Program. He knew that none of his close friends had been able to take the time off of work or other schooling programs to study so far abroad, but he wondered if some of his more distant acquaintances had signed up. He had heard a rumor that his old high school buddy, Rayne, was doing the Earth Studies Wild Nature! Program, but had not had a chance to get in touch with him before the flight. He hoped he would see him aboard, and therefore would have someone to talk to during the next month.
A sudden, deep rumbling reverberated throughout the hull of the Marterra, and the chatter of the students died down in anticipation. Across the aisle, a flight attendant buckled himself in, and leaned back into his seat. He kept one eye open to watch the mass of university students, but closed the other as if he could sleep that way.
Suddenly, the engines roared, and the Marterra shook, trembling slightly as it rolled across the airfield. Phoenix could see the space catapult as they wheeled around to line up with it properly and wait for the shuttle currently loaded to launch. The launching pad began sinking into the ground at a near vertical angle as the guiding arms extended towards the sky. The red and white lights on the tips of the towering arms suddenly flashed green, and the launching platform came rushing out of the ground, carrying the shuttle as it spewed smoke and thruster fire onto the platform. The platform halted as it reached the end of the guiding arms, and the shuttle continued its flight up into the atmosphere and beyond.
Phoenix shook his head, wondering what the world would be like without space catapults. Probably a lot like the world the long-dead Britannian Empire reigned over. Probably a lot like the world he was going to dig up when he got to Earth.
"Flight attendants, please prepare for takeoff," said the captain smoothly.
The Marterra rolled out and settled onto the launching platform once it had returned to ground level. After a moment, the light from the surface was blocked out by the ground as the platform lowered into the Martian rock. Phoenix gripped the armrest tightly, wondering how strong the gravitational forces would be, and suddenly a hand latched onto the armrest on top of his.
He looked over in surprise as the girl gave him a threatening look that clearly told him to keep quiet. "Your hand was just in the way, don't get any ideas," she said quietly. She leaned her red-haired head back against her headrest as the platform shifted, the angle in the back dropping so the Marterra had an appropriate flight angle.
The engines roared louder and the entire ship rattled, and suddenly the platform was moving them up, out of the ground, towards the sky, and the long arms were whizzing past them, the noise from the engines growing to a thunder. The green lights from the tips of the arms zipped past them, and there was nothing but the bluish-green sky with the white tops of Galileo's skyscrapers far below, surrounded by patches of green farms and brick red dirt.
Goodbye for now, Mars, Phoenix thought with a giddy feeling, even as the gravitational pressure pushed him backwards into his seat. He could feel the vinyl-covered foam of the headrest compressing behind his skull, and his elbows sliding back to press against the seat. It was becoming difficult to even draw a deep breath because his lungs had to expand in opposition to the force.
"Wow, this is intense," said the girl next to him. She gulped in a huge breath of air, and smirked steadily, facing forward.
The sky outside the shuttle was turning darker, losing the natural green tinge and becoming bluer. The air seemed to shimmer from the heat around the vessel as it rocketed out of the atmosphere, and then the air abruptly faded into a deep black, dotted with pinpricks of starry light. The shuttle continued speeding away from the red planet, the gravitational pull lessening, as a cheer rose up from some of the students who were excited to finally be in space.
"Ah-ah, stay seated," the flight attendant near Phoenix cautioned a boy in front of him. Phoenix heard the click of a seatbelt being reattached, and rolled his eyes.
"We've now cleared the Martian gravity well." The captain explained. "Please stay in your seats until we have our mock-gravity system online. I'll let you know when it's safe to move about and when you can retrieve your luggage and go to your cabins." There was a short pause until her next announcement. "Flight attendants, please ready gravity systems."
Phoenix watched as the flight attendant next to them unbuckled himself and drifted quickly down the aisle, around a corner, and out of sight.
"So…" began the girl next to him, giving him a slight smile. "I'm Rachel. Nice to meet you." She removed her hand from his, and then held it out to him.
Phoenix shook it quickly, noticing how weird it felt in the nearly nonexistent gravity. "Phoenix. What program are you doing?"
She laughed a little. "Uh, I don't remember what it's called, exactly… I'm doing it just because I want to get to Earth for the summer, but it's some kind of archeology," she explained, looking less than thrilled about the idea of digging things out of the ground.
Phoenix let his expression fall flat. Why did everyone in the world have to think that history was boring? "I'm doing that one, too. It's called Uncovering Britannia's Remains." Somehow the whole experience felt a little cheaper after hearing how even his programmates lacked all enthusiasm for the topic. He had hoped that this trip would be full of people who liked old things as much as he did….
Rachel looked away for a moment, and then returned with a weak smile. "Oh… right," she said, seeming to comprehend his disappointment in her attitude. She sighed and then relaxed. "Well, hey, we can hang out together, right? It'll be fun. I've never seen ruins and stuff."
Phoenix smiled. "It's cooler than just ruins, you know." He leaned in a little bit. "We're working in an old cemetery. There'll be tombs and stuff." Rachel seemed to like this idea. "And yeah, I'm sure we can hang out together. You're the only person I know who's also in this program."
"Oh yeah? Well, I'll be sure to introduce you to my friend who's also doing it… she's sitting on the other side of the flight deck or something, though. She's really awesome." Rachel pointed vaguely to the front of the rows of students, and then suddenly her arm dropped as gravity returned to the environment. "Whoa, that was a little sudden," she said, laughing.
"This is your Captain once again," came the familiar voice over the intercom as both Rachel and Phoenix looked upwards towards the speakers. "You are all free to move about the passenger areas of the ship. Your luggage may be picked up at the entry hall to your assigned cabin decks. I've been informed that you are to go to your supervising professor for your cabin assignments. You may turn on your PDs and make sure you are on Standard Time. There will be a flight briefing at 5:00, and all passengers are required to attend.
Have a comfortable flight, and don't hesitate to ask the flight attendants for any help at any time."
As soon as her last word faded, the clattering of buckles coming undone echoed throughout the flight deck. Phoenix stood and dodged the arms of a stretching student behind him. He looked over at Rachel. "I bet we're in the same cabin deck, because we're in the same program and all. Let's find Professor Pailey," he said, starting to inch his way down the suddenly crowded aisle.
"Wild Nature students, this way!" A voice called out from a corner, and over the tops of the seats and students' heads, Phoenix saw a hand rise in the air and wave about from where the voice had come from.
After a moment, Phoenix heard the familiar shout of Professor Pailey from the end of the aisle. "If you're not here for the history-archeology program, move away!" The boy grinned back at Rachel, who was following right behind him with one eyebrow raised.
"Don't worry, he's a really nice guy, and really smart," he assured her. Since Professor Pailey spent most of his time in his office, in the History Department's library, or out on field expeditions, those outside the History Department rarely saw him. Phoenix, on the other hand, lurked in the same places as the professor, and often found himself in the same room by accident. Rachel didn't really look as if she believed that Pailey was a man to be admired, but shrugged as they pushed their way through the crowd of students.
"Hi Professor," Phoenix chirped as he stepped up in front of the man. "Room assignments?"
Pailey looked down from over his large frame and graying mustache. "Oh, Zero, right." The man scrolled through his PD while Rachel nudged Phoenix with an elbow.
"Zero?" she whispered, raising an eyebrow.
"It's my last name, not an insult," he whispered back. Though in elementary school, there had been no distinction.
"Cabin 28," Pailey said, giving his attention to another student.
"Oh, Rachel needs hers too," Phoenix said, nodding and repeating the number 28 in his head so he wouldn't forget where he was supposed to go.
Pailey glanced at Rachel. "Last name?"
"Rivera," she said firmly.
"Twenty-six," Pailey said, and then shouted over their heads. "Britannia's Remains! Over here!"
Phoenix and Rachel winced at the bellow, and moved away towards the large map of the Marterra that was affixed to the wall by the hallway. They found their cabins on the map and then squished past students as they went down the hallways.
"I hope it's not always this crowded," Phoenix complained as he was nudged by a larger student's elbow.
"Yeah, no kidding." Rachel sighed. "Then again, this is the only summer shuttle for G.U. and everyone is packed on here."
They reached a circular room with cabins 20 through 29 lined up along the stretch of wall. In the middle was a pile of luggage with a few students tugging at what was presumably their own gear.
"I hope yours isn't the flamingo pink suitcase," Phoenix teased as he reached for the suitcase that contained all his clothing. It was a modest black.
"No, but actually, I know who it belongs to," Rachel said, laughing. She picked out a red bag, and looked around. "I guess she's not here yet." She shrugged, then looked around at the circle of doors. "I wonder what the cabins are like."
"They're probably going to get very old after a month. I've heard they're smaller than the dorms," he said, slinging his backpack over a shoulder and lifting his duffel bag. He lugged all three of his bags to the door marked with a brass 28, and pressed his thumb against the keypad on the door, unlocking it and causing the door to slide into the wall.
The room was tiny, but he managed to fit his suitcase under the bed and hang his backpack on the chair tucked into the desk, and still have room to stand. He tossed his duffel bag on the bed, and then peered out the window above it. Mars still looked rather big and red behind them, along with an enormous Phobos. He supposed that it would take a while until the planet receded into the small bright dot in the night sky, and Phobos and Deimos disappeared entirely to the naked eye. The journey was supposed to take half a month, after all. He shook his head. The wonders of interplanetary travel. Apparently it had taken the first team to Mars nearly five monthsto reach it, and they didn't even have an atmosphere to breathe back then.
Since his room was not very interesting, Phoenix let himself out to see what Rachel was up to and hopefully to explore the ship. He was startled by a loud girlish cry, and watched as his new friend was suddenly tackled by a smaller girl.
"Rachel!" the girl cried, hugging Rachel with her arms and legs. Phoenix blinked. Rachel had said she had a friend on the trip, but she hadn't said she was a girlfriend….
"Ella!" Rachel said, laughing before she fell backwards onto the pile of luggage. "Oh my gosh, get off me! It feels like you've gained a zillion pounds!" she complained, heaving the other girl off her dramatically.
"What, since yesterday?" Ella asked, raising an eyebrow. "You know me, eating all the snack packs like they're going out of style." She grabbed the handle to the pink suitcase as she climbed up off the floor.
"Yeah, you go through and steal all the cherries," Rachel added with a wink and a snort of laughter.
"Do not!" Ella smacked the redhead lightly on the shoulder. "Seriously, get your mind out of the gutter."
"Can't. I've moved in already. Got myself an apartment and everything." Rachel laughed again as Ella gave her a dry look. She rolled over and stood up, noticing Phoenix and she turned away from Ella. "Oh, Phoenix, meet Ella," she said, gesturing between the two. "Ella, this is Phoenix. I met him about ten minutes ago."
Ella pushed back a strand of her long auburn hair and held out the hand that wasn't occupied with the hot pink suitcase. "It's nice to meet you," she said, shaking his hand when he put it out there.
"Yeah, you too," Phoenix responded automatically. What on earth had he gotten himself into when he had told Rachel he wanted to hang out with her? If his old friend Rayne wasn't aboard, he was probably going to be stuck hanging out with two hormone-crazed girls who probably would squeal and talk about sex every chance they got.
Then again, it could be worse, right? Two girls spending time with him for a whole month? Either Phoenix was going to get very bored, or…. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to keep his mind from going to places it shouldn't when he had only just met them.
He blinked, wondering if Lia had been alluding to this sort of thing when she had told him to "do something unexpected." He certainly hoped not. Then again… knowing his sister, this was probably exactly the sort of thing she had been thinking of. She was always pointing out all the nice girls or boys whenever she visited him at school, and she was always really obvious about the pointing, too.**
Phoenix shook his head with a smile, waved at the girls who had already started gossiping quietly together, and headed back to his room. He was not going to Earth just to have a chance to flirt with people, no matter what Lia said. He was going on this trip to study history, and learn more about ancient Britannia. He pressed the keypad and flopped on the bed next to the duffel bag when the door opened. It slid shut behind him with a soft hiss.
Britannia and the Golden Age. The time period fascinated him. He knew it was geeky beyond belief, but he liked to imagine what it would have been like to live in that time and place. He could imagine what it would have been like to smell the roses in the garden at the Imperial Villa. And in his mind's eye, he could see Sir Lance Kozuki-Weinberg fly across the blue, cloud-dotted skies above the Atlantic Ocean in the Variable Knightmare Frame Isolde. He could hear the cheers of the people when Andreas li Britannia was crowned Emperor of the Holy Empire. He felt the tears of the country when Empress Nunnally the Gentle left the Golden Age she had created. He could almost feel what it would have been like to meet history's unsolved mystery, the masked man, Zero.
Phoenix rolled over, running a hand through his brown hair as he stared out the window at Mars and Phobos. Zero… the man shrouded in secrecy… and the subject of his honors research project. Ever since he was a child, Phoenix had been curious about the masked Japanese man who managed to raise an army from the ashes of a broken country. The man who had somehow fought back against the country that eventually took over the entire world. And somehow, despite being "killed" numerous times, Zero lived on, and freed the world from its greatest tyrant, Lelouch vi Britannia, the Devil of Britannia.
Just who had Zero been? It was a question that Phoenix longed to answer. Not only was it the greatest mystery in history, but for Phoenix, it was a little personal, too.
It was no coincidence that his last name was "Zero." Ever since he was little, his parents had told him that he was actually a descendent of the mysterious masked man who had lived and fought and died 1500 years ago. More often than not, Phoenix felt that it was simply a rather romantic and somewhat pointless idea, but at the same time, he secretly relished the fact that maybe, just maybe he was related to someone who had changed history in such a dramatic way.
It was his special link to the past, and somehow it made his decision to choose Zero as his focus of study that much more important. It seemed right, somehow, that he would look into it. Not that he thought he had any more of a chance of discovering something than anyone else.
With another sigh, Phoenix threw an arm over his face, blocking out the light. It was never too much to hope he would find something incredible, right?
U.M.S. Marterra, Halfway Between Mars and Earth. Maius 36th, 1529 A.W.E.
"So…." Rachel began, drawing out the syllable for what seemed as long as possible. She had suddenly appeared out of a side corridor as Phoenix was making his way back to his room after dinner. "Did you ask anyone else if they wanted to watch it with us?"
He blinked a bit. "Oh, yeah. Rayne said he'd come. And Kevin said he might show up."
"Kevin's hot." Rachel was decisive.
"Who's hot?" Ella asked, even as Phoenix shook his head.
"Not my type," he answered, grimacing a little. Kevin seemed to be eight feet tall of towering muscle, and wasn't even remotely pretty in Phoenix's book.
"Who?" Ella asked again. Phoenix had no idea where she had popped up from, but after Rachel had appeared, he knew to expect the other girl.
"Kevin, who's coming to the movie tonight," Rachel finally informed her. She pulled out a card-sized strawberry snack pack.
"You really shouldn't eat that in the hallway," Phoenix told her without expecting any response. She ignored him and tore the plastic edge off, and the inner plastic expanded rapidly.
"I want some," Ella chimed in as they arrived in the now all-too-familiar circular room with doorways to cabins 20 through 29. Ella slumped into the green couch, holding out a hand to Rachel.
Rachel rolled her eyes, but finished opening the snack pack and passed a strawberry to her friend. "You'll get fat, you know," she cautioned with a raised eyebrow. She turned to Phoenix and held out another berry with a raise of her eyebrow.
"Uh, sure." Phoenix took it, but hesitated before putting it into his mouth. "So, who all's going to be there?" He ate the strawberry while waiting for Rachel or Ella to answer.
"Oh, I got Tanya to come," Ella said brightly, swinging her legs up onto the couch and rolling onto her stomach.
"Oh, did you," Rachel commented, laughing as Phoenix groaned.
"Seriously, you did move into the gutter, didn't you…" Phoenix commented dryly. He rolled his eyes as, a moment later, Ella got the joke and started laughing.
"Psssst! Phoenix! Pick up! Dear little brother!" Phoenix sighed and reached for his PD, the source of the sound of Lia's rather obnoxious, sing-song voice. He held up one finger to Rachel and Ella, the time-honored signal of "just hold on a second while I deal with my annoying family member." He turned away from them as he tapped the screen.
The PD showed his fingerprint for a moment, and then unlocked, fading through navy blue to Lia's face. She was staring at him from her own PD, and Olympus Mons was towering in the background behind the hospital where she worked.
"Hey, Lia," Phoenix said, maneuvering himself to cabin 28.
"So? How's it going?" she asked nonchalantly. Phoenix wasn't fooled. Lia was always up to something, especially when she wanted to talk to him.
"Everything's great, actually. Though the gravity shift is getting really tiring." Phoenix was not looking forward to the abnormally high gravity they would all be experiencing on Earth. He was used to practicing martial arts twice a week in Galileo University's high-gravity gym, but the Marterra was slowly transitioning the gravity from Mars's level to Earth's throughout the duration of the trip. It wasn't much fun to sleep in high gravity. He said as much to his sister.
"D'awww... I'm sorry, pookie," she said in the most patronizing tone she could give him. He rolled his eyes at her as she ignored his response and continued. "Well, do you still hang out with those two girls that you told me you don't think you'll ever date?"
"As a matter of fact, I do."
"Well, have you met anyone else? Any great buddies to hang out with? You got any plans?" she asked, teasing and encouraging at the same time.
"Actually, I do have plans. We're watching a movie. And oh!" Phoenix mimicked being startled as he glanced to the upper right corner of his PD. "It looks like it's starting right now. Well, would you look at that…" He suddenly gave Lia a flat look. "Did you need something?"
She looked only slightly upset, but jumped into her real reason for calling without further ado. "Look, I have this patient who's really into all that Golden Age stuff—you know, like Knightmare Frames and FLEIAs and stuff like that—and I was thinking, maybe if you dug up some scrap of a Knightmare or something, I'd give it to her as a present—"
"What?!" Phoenix said in shock. "As if! If I find a piece of a Knightmare Frame, I'm keeping it for myself!" He shook his head, laughing. "I thought you knew me better than that…"
"No, I just meant that—sheesh, you'll be digging this stuff up for the rest of your life. If you get two pieces, or maybe a large piece and you could cut it in half—"
Phoenix gave a short laugh. "As if I'd cut up a piece of a Knightmare Frame…." He shook his head. "Though seriously, if I find something I don't want to keep for myself, I'll give it to you, and you can give it to her, okay? But no promises." He gave his sister a pointed look.
"Okay, fine. Thanks." She didn't look thrilled, but she knew she wasn't getting anything better out of Phoenix. He might be a nerd that spent more time in the history library than he did sleeping, but he was not a pushover to his own big sister.
"Anyway, my movie really is going to start soon, so I'd better get going," he said as a farewell. She waved and he disconnected, slipping the PD back into his pocket as he went to rejoin Rachel and Ella outside. They were sitting on the couch, watching some video on Ella's PD. (It, like her suitcases, was a bright pink.)
Together, the three walked down to the cinema, which had a few other students milling around at the doorway, most of them also members of the Uncovering Britannia's Remains program. He spotted Rayne, and gave him a smile, moving over to the silver-haired boy.
"Hey," he said casually as Rayne returned the smile. "Shall we head on in?" he gestured towards the door.
"Was Kevin coming?" Rayne asked, looking around, but nodding and smiling at the girls.
Phoenix shrugged. "I guess he can find us inside?"
Moments later, the four of them were settled into four comfy seats in the onboard theater. Rachel complained about not having popcorn, but was silenced as the lights suddenly dimmed and disappeared. Phoenix smiled, remembering the opening to the movie.
"Our promise! It is to defend those without power from those who have power and would abuse it! We are… the Black Knights!" The voice echoed around the theater, followed by cheers and applause, which quickly died down. From the back of the theater came sudden footsteps. A hologram of Zero strode down the center aisle, and just before he vanished into the screen at the front, he said in a low, melancholy voice, "I am Zero… the man of miracles…." His cape rippled and billowed to cover the entire screen as the opening credits and music began.
Phoenix smiled. This was probably his favorite movie, although it was nearly ten years old and full of historical inaccuracies. It told the (highly revised and romanticized) story of Zero: how he becomes an orphan and a refugee when Britannia conquers Japan, how he realizes he could become a symbol of hope for his people, how he gathers the fragments of the freedom fighters and forms an army, and how he fights against the might of an evil Empire. During this, Zero and Nunnally the Gentle fall madly in love, but realize that they can never be together. Zero is tied to the Black Knights, and Nunnally must devote herself to maintaining a peaceful Britannia.
Phoenix's favorite parts had always been the Knightmare Frame battles, especially the one where Zero's ace, Kallen Kouzuki fights Lelouch's, Suzaku Kururugi in the upper atmosphere, aboard Britannia's superweapon, the Damocles. While the Knightmares are zipping around outside, Zero rushes to the flying fortress's prison to rescue Nunnally, using ancient Japanese martial arts to get past the guards. Unfortunately, he only gets to shout "I'll definitely come back for you!" to Nunnally, and her rescue has to wait until later when he assassinates Lelouch.
As the music swelled towards the end of the movie, Phoenix glanced over at the girls. Both had tears in their eyes, and Ella sniffed in a hurried breath as Nunnally the Gentle, played by award-winning actress Lorenne Gardbuir, said her final goodbye to the man under Zero's mask, played by a then-unknown who had since become a star.
"I will… always love you…."
Zero bent down to give the young woman a kiss, and then kneeled in front of her wheelchair, taking her hand. "We are both people who have duties that demand us to be more than human, to look away from the yearning of our human hearts. We must be strong and true to our goals, so that those we serve have a chance at such a beautiful and human happiness as we have shared.
"Do not cry, Nunnally. Know that though perhaps it is silent, and hidden behind a mask, my love for you will always live on…. Nothing can change that."
After another kiss, Zero slowly raised his mask to his face, and slid it into place as tears continued down Nunnally's face. He gave her a nod, which she returned shakily, and then he turned and strode down the hallway to face the waiting crowds.
Nunnally looked upwards, and smiled as the faint shouts of the crowd reached her and the theater slowly went dark.
"Zero! Zero! Zero! Zero!"
U.M.S. Marterra, Above Earth. Maius 50th/June 6th, 1529 A.W.E.
"Zero! Zero! Zero! Zero!" Rachel said, punching her fist into the air to mimic the Black Knights in The Mask Of Zero. She aimed the last one at Phoenix's arm, and he gave her a flat stare.
"You're going to stop that once we land, right?" he asked, hoping that he wasn't going to be followed around the ancient cemetery by the sound of Rachel crying out to either him or a long-dead figure from history.
She buckled up her seatbelt, and gave him a wink. "Maaaybe."
"Wait, remind me again why I said we could hang out," he asked, his voice full of mock hopelessness.
"Because otherwise you have no friends, Phoenix. Duh," she teased back.
Captain Formose's voice echoed around the flight deck. "Alright students, we're about to begin our landing procedures. You should all be seated and buckled in. If you are not, you must do so now. We will be experiencing strong gravitational forces and some strong turbulence as we enter Earth's atmosphere and descend to the surface. The Marterra will be landing at sea, and from there it will be approximately ten minutes until we dock at Columbia Interplanetary Port. Please stay in your seats until the docking is complete."
Phoenix tightened his seatbelt and leaned back into his seat. Finally, they were arriving at the blue planet. Finally they were coming down to Earth, and towards the waiting remains of the Holy Britannian Empire.
West of Columbia Interplanetary Port, Eastern America, Earth. June 6th, 1529 A.W.E.
The jeep hovered past the thick foliage, sometimes knocking into branches and leaves. Occasionally they'd pass a brief metallic gleam—the remnants of the Golden Age and the bones of Britannia. Pheonix could feel his heart accelerate as they got closer and closer to their destination.
"It's just so green," Rachel said, transfixed at the window. Her eyes swiveled back and forth as she watched the numerous trees pass by.
Phoenix had to agree. Even the dirt looked like it had a greenish tinge. Furthermore, the green on Earth seemed to be of a different variety than the Martian kind. It was vibrant and pure, and it also happened to be everywhere. All of the trees, grass, bushes… and there were far more leafy trees, grassy patches, and scruffy bushes in one square kilometer of Terran turf than in the entirety of Galileo's extensive park system.
The caravan of jeeps started to slow, and finally it stopped and lowered to rest on the road. Despite the disgusting humidity of the air (or maybe because of it), Phoenix found himself gulping in deep breaths as he exited and took a few steps forward so he could poke a leaf.
These leaves were the same kind of leaves that Sir Lance Kozuki-Weinberg had surely touched. And that bush, Phoenix thought as he crouched next to a fern, maybe Nunnally the Gentle had put one just like it in her famous Peace Garden….
Professor Pailey's voice snapped him out of his history-induced trance. He dropped his hand from the frond he had been lovingly caressing, and stood to face his professor, his cheeks turning Martian red in embarrassment.
"Alright kids, the last leg of our journey is a short hike. It's uphill, but it's not far. Please stay on the trail, or you risk getting lost in the forest. You'll be introduced to the rest of the team when we arrive, and we'll show you what your group's duties are. Does everyone remember what group they're in and have at least one person in the group who remembers who their group leader is supposed to be?" Pailey asked, eyeing the crowd. After getting a few mumbled affirmative replies, he turned to the trail with a gesture to follow and a resounding, "Let's head out!"
Unlike any trail Phoenix had ever seen, this one was only wide enough for people to move up in single-file. There were also strange bumps and rocks and even the roots of trees crisscrossing it. Sometimes he had to duck under low branches, and everywhere the ferns were brushing against his legs. After stumbling twice in about twenty steps, Phoenix decided to keep both eyes on the ground in front of him.
His sense of hearing was still in working order, however, and he was surprised not at how quiet everyone (even Ella) was being, but at how many sounds came from other sources. Birds called and chirped in a variety of tweets and whistles. At one point, Phoenix thought he heard a frog, but he couldn't be sure.
They climbed to the top of the hill, and then suddenly they stepped out into a broad meadow. It was obvious that the trees had been recently removed from the area, because there was dark earth and low, sawed-off tree trunks spotting the clearing, and unlike a true grassy field, this one was dotted with low bushes. The sky overhead was a strange, perfect blue, with white, puffy clouds floating gently along.
"Welcome to the Britannian Royal Cemetery!" Pailey boomed, turning around to face the cluster of students. "Here's where we'll be spending most of our time for the next few months. And here's our professional team," he continued, gesturing towards the four adults who had walked over from a bench next to a tent where they had apparently been enjoying lunch.
"Shirley Arlington is a professor at Helios University—" Pailey began, holding his hand towards a short woman with close-cropped and amazingly curly hair, but stopped as she interrupted him.
"When I'm not out here, that is," she laughed, putting a hand on Pailey's arm. She only came up to his shoulder.
Pailey pulled a smile. "Right, when she's not out here on Earth, digging things up. She's the author of three books, which all of you should read if you haven't already." Pailey looked towards the next person in line, a tall, dark-haired man dressed in a tacky floral-print shirt and khaki shorts. "This is Dr. Erik Beradoire, who specializes in early Golden Age history." The students nodded appreciatively and Dr. Beradoire smiled. Phoenix noticed that he had the distinctive bad fashion of wearing socks under his sandals.
"Faery Trin is our lead archeologist here. She's the one who found the cemetery, and who got us all the funding and licensing to dig here." Phoenix liked the look of the wiry woman with hair that was fading into gray. She wore a wide-brimmed hat and a tank top, and was covered in dust. Obviously she had been working. "Dr. Trin is an amazing woman, and you are all very lucky to work with her. I doubt anyone knows more about Zero than this woman here. Please ask her questions, because I've worked with her before and I know she loves the sound of her own voice as much as she loves digging up Golden Age artifacts."
Dr. Trin rolled her eyes, stepping forward and pointing a thumb at Professor Pailey. "You guys don't actually take this guy seriously, do you?" She smiled warmly, and winked at the students. "Nah, he's a good guy, and we're all happy to have a bunch of minions, oh, I mean, excited students to do our bid—I mean, help and learn." She winked again, as the researcher at the end of the line whispered something to her. She tossed her braid and whispered something back.
"On the end there is my good friend Tony Duvalle. He's a graduate of Galileo U, and since then he's been working all over Earth, though mostly in Japan or out here in North America." Tony waved and then scratched his blond head, nodding at Phoenix and the rest of the students. "Well, that's the team. You all know your group leaders, so why don't you go ahead and introduce yourselves and get started. The day is shorter out here, so let's not waste any daylight!" Pailey took a step back, and then continued, "My group, over here!"
Phoenix looked over at Ella and Rachel, who were in his group, along with the towering Kevin and a thin, athletic girl named Hazel. Their group leader was Faery Trin.
After introductions, made a short distance from the tent, Dr. Trin told them to just "get out and explore a bit" before they got to work. She felt it was more important for them to get a general layout of the land before they went to work in one of the tombs. She ducked inside the tent, and then handed Phoenix and Hazel each a map of the surrounding area.
"Go ahead and split up if you like, but be sure to use the buddy system, and be sure to take your lunches with you. I don't want to see you until this afternoon, okay?" Dr. Trin's tanned, wrinkled face cracked into a smile. "See you later, kiddos!" She waved them off and disappeared back into the tent.
They quickly decided to split up, and which groups to split into—Kevin and Hazel were recently romantically involved, and Phoenix, Rachel, and Ella were close friends—and Phoenix held out the map for his two friends to see.
"Where do you think we should go?" he asked, though in truth, it didn't seem as if the map was very helpful in deciding that. It showed a few nearby gravesites with names, and the edges appeared to be nothing but trees, with an occasional landmark, such as, "Mud" or "Large Rock".
"Shall we just go wherever we like and hope we don't get lost?" Rachel asked, looking up from the map and gazing around.
"I like that idea," Ella said, pushing the map to Phoenix. He shrugged. It sounded all right with him. He figured they wouldn't go too far from the actual clearing and the cemetery. He glanced at the map, and saw that there was supposed to be an old stone wall that had encircled the cemetery. He made a mental note not to go very far past it as he and the girls picked a direction and started walking.
As they reached the edge of the clearing, Rachel took the map from Phoenix. "I guess they haven't found any real important tombs yet, huh?" she asked, glancing at Phoenix for confirmation. He nodded.
The only name that instantly chimed within him had been Andreas li Britannia, Nunnally the Gentle's heir and Princess Cornelia's son. Otherwise the marked graves belonged to the relatively unknown nobility and royalty that had passed through Britannia's history. Phoenix recognized a few names, but weren't sure of who their owners had been.
"The excavation has only just started, so it's not surprising," he told Rachel. "Though wouldn't it be exciting to be here when they find a really important one?" he asked, unable to contain his excitement. He could feel it bubbling up inside him, and knew that he was going to go into another horrifically nerdy moment.
"Yeah, that'd be neat," Rachel said, yawning and looking towards Ella.
"What if our group finds Nunnally the Gentle's tomb or something? What if we find where Lance Kozuki-Weinberg is buried?" Phoenix walked forward, basking in the glow of his own fantasies. In his mind's eye, he was blowing the dust off an ancient stone, no, he was pulling back the vines from a large stone in a cliff-face, and deciphering the writing underneath it. Phoenix grinned and then tripped over a bush, stumbling and catching his balance awkwardly.
The girls laughed. "You are such a geek!" Ella laughed, shaking her head.
Phoenix blushed and turned away. "Well, let's keep going," he announced, striding off, but this time watching his feet carefully. He was still excited though. Maybe they would run into something during their exploration before lunch. What if they found something important? Like Lord Jeremiah Gottwald's tomb, or maybe a piece of a Knightmare Frame? He ducked under a low branch and carefully stepped over a protruding root as he let his imagination wander. He was glad to be here, on Earth. It felt like some kind of destiny awaited him.
And now, Phoenix Zero was marching towards it. He took a deep breath of Terran air. Inexorably, his powerful imagination told him, he was moving forward, towards some kind of incredible adventure, and an amazing discovery. His footsteps felt purposeful, yet strangely uncontrolled. A smile spread across his face, and he took a deep breath of the humid air, smelling the strange scents of the moist earth and the leaves and the clumps of white clover.
Phoenix slowly increased his pace, feeling as if the air and the faint noises on the wind charged him with near electric potential. He crossed the broken remains of ancient stone wall built to protect the graveyard from trespassers, his feet taking him exactly to the only space where he could easily cross. He stepped through the passage, trailing his fingers along the time-softened edges of stone on either side where the wall was at eye level. Large chunks of rock were sunken into the moss-covered earth. Phoenix left the wall behind and began climbing the hill before him, his eyes flitting from one green object to the next, drawn forward by the sense of a culminating destiny.
It was okay every once in a while to follow one's gut instinct, wasn't it? He grabbed onto a large branch to help pull himself up the increasingly steep slope. The truth was that Phoenix hardly ever had an exciting moment, being usually cooped up in the library…. He was never out in the open, watching the sunlight play along the shadows of the hills, urging him forward… and Lia had told him to have an adventure…. He pushed his way past a low clump of ferns… and deep within, Phoenix was craving an adventure, was enjoying the tingling feeling in his veins, the slight tremble in his limbs as he crested the ridge, the thud of his heart against his ribcage… and suddenly Phoenix was perfectly still.
Eyes wide open, staring forward, Phoenix hardly dared to breath.
The hillside was cut away strangely, and two large, rectangular stones were on either side of a dark, cavernous entrance. Tall trees shaded the area, and long vines trailed along each stone, covering what appeared to be ancient writing, worn away by rain and dirt but still slightly visible.
The wind blew gently through the trees, causing the dappled shadows on the ground to sway and blur. Phoenix heard the whistle as the wind blew across the opening to the tunnel, and then all was silent again. He took a slow step forward, his heart pounding.
He reached out a hand, and then followed it, slowly moving forward until he lightly touched the stone block on the right. He looked up, and saw that there was another, hidden block resting upon the two at the side. It was covered with vines and overhanging clods of dirt and grass. But if he looked carefully, Phoenix could see the four letters spread evenly across its vine-tangled surface.
He couldn't breathe. He couldn't look away. And it was only after the girls finally caught up with him, shook him roughly to try to get him out of his trance, and asked him what the heck he was doing running off like that, only after that did Phoenix point to the letters and whisper.
The entire archeology team celebrated that evening. Phoenix had raced back down the hillside towards the old cemetery, and had shouted incoherently upon his approach so that everyone in the vicinity had gathered, thinking some wild animal had chased him. But after he had gasped out the truth and the girls had verified his tale, they had led both Dr. Trin and Professor Pailey up to the tomb. Armed with flashlights, they had entered the dark tunnel, and then went into the large room at the end, which held only a large coffin, encased in perfect, dusty white marble. The inscription on the top was in Golden Age Japanese, which Dr. Trin translated.
Here lies Zero, the Man of Miracles. May his spirit forever live on.
Phoenix was toasted a million times over, and the entire camp shouted "Zero! Zero!" in his honor. When the sun started to set, Dr. Beradoire gathered brush and wood, lit it on fire, and before too long, everyone had joined in the hysterical cavorting around the bonfire in the warm evening air. Several hours later, it was getting too dark to see clearly and they collectively decided it was time to wander back to the waiting jeeps.
A sloppy smile still graced Phoenix's features as he picked his way carefully along with the group down the narrow trail. It was full dark, and Earth's pale moon, Luna, hung over the green hills on the eastern horizon, nothing more than a shadowy silver crescent.
Phoenix hung back, staring through the dark leaves at the patches of deep blue sky. He felt the curl of excitement that had twisted through his chest earlier that morning when he turned to look up the hillside to the dark patch of dense trees, behind which lay Zero. His breath caught for a moment, and it seemed as though the world had paused to take a deep breath.
The breeze slowed. The insects quieted. Phoenix turned to follow the group….
Something white flashed in the trees to his right. Phoenix blinked, snapped out of his trance, and peered into the dim starlight that filtered down through the trees.
Had it been his imagination? A trick of the moonlight? Some terran animal?
Phoenix waited, staring and blinking for a few more seconds, and then turned back to the trail. It was just getting late, and he wasn't used to the way light moved in the Terran forests. The group was a short way ahead of him, hidden behind the foliage, though it looked like someone—was it Karen?—was waiting for him at the bend in the trail.
Phoenix made his way down the dark and narrow track, giving a wave to the girl, and then tripped on a root. He stumbled forward a few steps, catching himself by flailing his arms out and grabbing a branch. He looked up in embarrassment, but Karen was gone.
A chill night wind blew through the trees, rustling the dark leaves, and Phoenix suddenly realized how far behind the group he really was. He shivered involuntarily, the tingle of excitement becoming something more like a dark anticipation, or dread. Come to think of it, no one had been wearing such pale clothes, and certainly not a peculiar hat like the one the figure on the trail had been wearing….
Phoenix quickened his pace, his heart beginning to thump loudly in his chest. A long fern brushed past his side like gentle fingers, and he flinched away, but something caught his foot and held him fast. His face pitched towards the ground, and his hands plunged into the damp ground of the trail.
He blinked and gasped for air, feeling the humidity and sweltering gravity of Earth pressing all around him. He rose to his feet shakily, and then stared in a mixture of horror and fascination as he saw the same pale figure from before, this time much closer, just off the trail to his right.
Phoenix could not take his eyes from the man, clad in an elaborate white and gold gown, adorned with shining red eyes. The clouds fluttered suddenly away from the moon, and the silver light illuminated the man's strange amethyst eyes. Phoenix sucked in a quick breath as he realized he could see the pale shadows of the trees and bushes and ferns through the man. A tree suddenly pressed against his back, and the clawlike fingers of its branch grasped for his hair, and only then did Phoenix realize he had drawn back in fear, had twisted the low vines around his ankles. He felt paralyzed, staring straight into the man's terrifying eyes.
They shined with the dark, silent starlight, and a sharp, red despair.
Phoenix tore his eyes away, desperately, and ran.
End Chapter One
*Mars's orbit and rotation is different from Earth's, so I've taken the liberty of making up my own Martian clock/calendar. Because it takes about 24 and a half (Earth) hours for Mars to complete a full rotation, I'll just be claiming that Martian time has seconds, minutes, and hours slightly longer than Earth. This means that although it takes longer to get to "noon" on Mars than it does on Earth, the sun is still roughly in the center of the sky at "noon" on both planets.
However, the Martian year is almost twice that of Earth's, so I've taken the liberty of giving them 11 months that are 55 sols (Martian days) long, and one with 54 sols. The names of months correspond roughly to Earth's, with a Gundam SEED-esque theme.
As for years, I would like to pretend that in the future, wars don't exist. The After War Era began when the last large-scale war ended. Nunnally the Gentle, along with Zero, China's young Empress, and the leaders of other nations made the After War Era official one year after Lelouch the Devil's assassination and 1,529 years before this story takes place.
** Did you know that a long time ago, people who were left-handed were thought to be marked thus by the devil? It's strange, but true. However, we've seen a huge change in how people view lefties since then. People have even voted lefties into the presidency of America. Obviously, no one cares if you're left-handed or not, and no one believes it makes you evil.
I hope that the same is true for sexuality in the future. Today, we're at a point in history where people with atypical sexuality are persecuted, but if the trend towards tolerance continues, perhaps sexuality will someday be judged just as (un)important as handedness. In the same way that I've pretended that the future has no wars, I'm pretending that in the future, bisexuality is the assumed typical sexuality. As a product of their age, Phoenix and his friends know that it is perfectly natural for a person to be attracted to both sexes, though of course they have their preferences.
Author's Notes: Again, I hope you enjoyed the introduction to this story. Please review and let me know what you think! I respond to every review, and enjoy doing so, so please feel free to ask questions as you leave your comments and critiques. Thanks.