I dedicate this to Zaru, Asmus, and Maderfole, without whom this fic would not be half of what it is now. Also Wing Zero Alpha, for your kind advice.
Gundam SEED, Jupiter's Dawn
A Gundam SEED fanfiction by Juubi-K
After one and a half years of fighting, the so-called 'Bloody Valentine' War was brought to an end in year 72 of the Cosmic Era. Amid the ruins of Junius Seven, a place of unparalleled tragedy, the former enemies pledged to work for mutual understanding, and to make every effort possible to maintain peace. As a result, the Earth was once more on the path of stability.
Or so it seemed.
Under the united front presented by the Earth Alliance, old quarrels began to resurface. The most significant was the conflict between the Atlantic and Eurasian Federations, the largest and most powerful members. Despite the best efforts of peacemakers and conciliators on both sides, mutual fear, suspicion and hatred threatened to tear the Earth Alliance apart. The breaking of one scandal after another, as the misdeeds of the Atlantic Federation towards its allies were made public, served to sabotage efforts at reconciliation.
By the year 74 of the Cosmic Era, relations between the Atlantic Federation and Eurasia were on the verge of total collapse. Cagalli Yula Athha, Chief Representative of the Orb Union, made a last, desperate effort to halt the oncoming cataclysm. But as history has shown so many times, the power of one is finite indeed.
Armoury One PLANT, Lagrange 4, October 2nd, CE 73.
Alex Dino, otherwise known as Athrun Zala, was trying not to be nervous.
He had never expected to return to PLANT, not after all that had happened. Not even under the name he had been given when he left, along with his Orb Union citizenship papers and a warning of what would likely happen to him if he ever returned.
And yet there he was, drifting along a transit tube into the main terminal of the Armoury One spaceport. Ahead of him were two purple-uniformed ZAFT staff officers, behind him were officials and aides of the Chief Representative's staff.
And beside him was the Chief Representative herself.
Cagalli Yula Athha, Chief Representative of the Orb Union and head of the noble house of Athha, floated beside and a little to his front, one small hand clutching the handle of the travel rail as it pulled her along. Her blonde hair was in its usual style, casually spiky, reaching just above her shoulders. Bronze eyes stared intently ahead, and even through the dark glasses that barely concealed his features, Athrun could see the turmoil within them. Her petite body was clad in the formal attire of an Orb government minister, consisting of purple trousers, white jacket, and a shorter purple open-fronted jacket that matched the trousers. Athrun sighed.
"Don't tell me that's all you've got to wear," he said, just loudly enough for her to hear him. "Tell me you brought at least one dress."
"What does it matter what I wear!" Cagalli demanded, half-turning her head to glance angrily at him. "This is good enough, right!"
"At times like this, a little bit of acting never hurts." Athrun signed again when he saw the look she was giving him. "Look, don't pretend to be something you're not, but you don't want them to take you lightly either."
That was the biggest problem Cagalli faced. She might be the hereditary Head of State, trained for the role for much of her life, but she had come to the post long before her time, and not under the best of circumstances. It was hard for experienced elder statesmen to take her seriously. Athrun did not want to admit it, but her personality did not help. She was brutally honest and easily angered.
"Even though this is an unofficial visit," he went on, drawing alongside her. "Never forget that you're the ruler of Orb."
He saw her eyes up close, and saw the uncertainty that lurked under her hard visage. There were times when he wished she could show the world her other self, her softer, gentler self. The self she had shown him, and only him.
But now was not the time.
The travel rail carried them over one of the terminals. The floor was crammed with people, queuing at the check-in desks or else standing or sitting around. Athrun could hear snatches of their conversations as they passed.
"What kind of ship is that, daddy?"
"I guess it's necessary."
"Oh yeah! We'll show it off to those damn Naturals!"
Athrun felt his stomach churn.
The journey from the spaceport to the Military HQ, from which the Colony was governed, took less than an hour. It consisted of a quick elevator ride along the colony's central pylon, after which they were transferred to an enclosed elecar to take them the rest of the way. Upon arrival they were brought to the main meeting room, which was generally used for such functions. As the door slid open, the room was revealed to be large and airy, with a long gallery window offering an excellent view of the colony hemisphere.
Gilbert Durandal, Chairman of the Supreme Council, Head of State of the People's Liberation Action Nation of Technology, stood waiting to greet them.
He was an impressive sight, as much so in the flesh as on the screens. His face was well-proportioned, with high cheekbones and narrow, almost vulpine eyes. They were coloured gold, a not-uncommon colour among coordinators. A mane of black hair hung from his high forehead, hanging over his face and spilling around his shoulders. He wore an unmarked white version of the ZAFT officer's uniform, covered by white coat with purple and black facings.
"Princess!" Durandal smiled, his eyes sparkling as he spread his arms in a gesture of welcome. "I am Supreme Council Chairman Gilbert Durandal. It is my honour to welcome you to the People's Liberation Action Nation of Technology.
"Chairman Durandal." Cagalli shook his proffered hand. "Thank you for agreeing to see me at such short notice. I understand it must have caused you great inconvenience."
"How are things in your homeland?" Durandal gestured to a pair of chairs, placed strategically by the window. Cagalli sat in one, and Durandal in the opposite, their respective followers gathering behind them.
"I understand that since you became Chief Representative, a great many problems have been resolved," Durandal went on, his tone oozing charm and sincerity. "As an ally and friend I am delighted, and more than a little jealous."
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Cagalli replied, self-effacingly.
"Yes. And under those circumstances, I cannot help but wonder what would be so urgent that you would rush out here at such short notice. Our ambassador has told me that you wish to discuss some complex issues with us."
"Personally," Cagalli retorted, "I don't consider them complex. The main issue is the breakdown in relations between the Atlantic Federation and Eurasia. Not only have you failed to state the PLANTs position openly, but you have engaged in actions that can only be interpreted as encouraging the split. At the beginning of this year you personally approved a program of military reform and expansion, making use of human and technological resources that left Orb during the Atlantic Federation's invasion."
"I will not deny that we are engaging in a revamp of ZAFT," Durandal replied, apparently unruffled by Cagalli's tone. "Forgive me, but I fail to see your point as to how this is exacerbating the problem."
"As I said, it's not complex!" Cagalli's eyes flashed, and her aides looked nervous. "You're rearming ZAFT while the Earth Alliance is falling apart! There's only one way the nations of Earth can interpret that! Don't you realise you're making a war more likely!" A shiver ran through the room. Athrun wondered if any of the purple-coated staff officers behind Durandal would say anything. The man himself seemed entirely unconcerned. His demeanour was of someone dealing graciously with a difficult child.
"I can understand your point of view, Princess. I have no doubt that the Atlantic Federation is making life difficult for you at the moment, a state of affairs that must be especially unsettling considering your nation's…history with that particular superpower."
"There's another issue," Cagalli went on, letting Durandal's levity pass. "They not only accused Orb of assisting in your rearmament, they also accused both us and ZAFT of sending military personnel to Great Britain, with a view to assisting the secessionist movement. What have you to say to that, Chairman?" Durandal's eyes widened a little in magisterial surprise.
"Very little I'm afraid, Princess. While I cannot deny that some PLANT citizens have seen fit to involve themselves in that particular contention, I am hardly in a position to stop them." His eyes sparkled. "Or do you suggest I forbid our citizens to travel on the basis of where they might go?"
"Don't condescend to me!" Cagalli snapped, her fury sending another shiver through the assembled functionaries. "You know that the Atlantic Federation will respond to any attempt at secession with armed force! If that happens the Eurasians will deploy their own forces, and you know as well as anyone what could happen!"
Athrun knew what would happen. He knew what could happen when two military forces, both of them mutually mistrustful, were put in close proximity. The fact that fighting would be going on not far away would only serve to heighten tensions.
All it needed was one mistake, one misunderstanding, one quivering finger to slip. The shot would be heard around the world. It might be the last thing the world ever heard.
The Armoury One colony was an armoury in many senses of the word. It was a place where weapons were stored, where weapons were built, and where soldiers practiced with weapons. It was intended from its conception to be capable of designing, building, and supporting anything from small arms to warships.
The population of Armoury One was about three hundred thousand, of which just less than one quarter were active members of ZAFT in one capacity or another. The soldiers, researchers, engineers and bureaucrats were expected to reside on Armoury One indefinitely, and as such had brought their families with them. As a result, the military bases were surrounded with residential areas, and all the amenities and amusements that accompanied them.
As such, it was by no means strange for a young girl to be staring into a shop window on a bright and sunny day.
Of course, the days were always bright and sunny, one of the advantages of living in a colony. Like most colonies, Armoury One also came with 'green belt' zones, great public parks with grass, trees, and even flowers. This was not simply to make living in the PLANT more pleasant, but to help maintain the quality of the air. The PLANT even included large bodies of water, amounting to small seas, to create an approximation of the Earth's water cycle. In some respects, life on a colony was actually superior in quality to life in some regions of Earth.
The girl twirled on the spot, her skirt and sleeves billowing. She stopped, staring down at her feet, as if admiring her shoes. Her two companions, both young men of about the same age, glanced back at her.
"What's she doing back there?" asked blue-haired Auel Neider.
"Acting like a merry fool," replied green-haired Sting Oakley, amused by the girl's antics. "Why don't you give it a try? You might like it."
The girl leaned in closer to the window, seemingly entranced by her reflection. There was the familiar blonde hair reaching to her chin, the bright maroon eyes, and the round, somewhat child-like face.
Stella Loussier giggled, pleased by her prettiness. Her spirit soared, and she began to twirl along the street, arms spread wide. She laughed as she span, revelling in the simple joy of it.
And then she hit someone.
She felt her back strike something, and she knew that something to be a person, because it grunted in surprise. Its arms came around her, holding her steady, the hands closing over her breasts.
"Are you all right?" The voice was young, male. As the momentary surprise wore off, Stella turned her head to look at him. She saw a handsome, somewhat boyish face framed with black hair, wearing a look of mild surprise. His red eyes were wide.
Stella's face twisted in irritation, her good humour lost. She broke away from the bewildered youth and ran off down the street. The boy stared after her, wondering what he had done wrong.
"You grabbed her rack, didn't you?" sneered his companion, leaning forward to leer at him.
"Huh!" Shinn Asuka looked down at his hands, only then realising just where they had gone. His face reddened with embarrassment.
"You lucky pervert," Yolant Kent mocked. The dark-skinned youth gave Shinn a dismissive flap of his hand as he strolled away.
"I didn't! Really! Yolant!" Shinn bent down to repack his dropped shopping bag, then hurried after his friend, protesting his innocence all the way down the street.
The military base was a scene of organized chaos. Everywhere Athrun looked, there were people at work. The vast majority wore the green uniforms of ZAFT enlisted personnel, along with a few subaltern officers in black, and some Mobile Suit pilots in red.
Things had changed since he was a soldier of ZAFT. Changing the colour-coding system had been only one of many reforms Durandal had pushed through since coming to power a year earlier. Though sold to the public as little more than tidying-up exercises, the reforms had provoked controversy at all levels of PLANT society. Athrun had noted, with some distaste, how the Chairman had dealt with those who resisted his policies.
"You are a woman of courage, Princess." Durandal led the way down the open space between two lines of Mobile Suit hangars. Cagalli walked next to him, Athrun behind, while the Chairman's bodyguards formed a loose cordon. "And you know what it's like to pilot a Mobile Suit in battle."
The talk of Mobile Suits drew Athrun's attention to the machines themselves. He recognized all of them, for he had kept himself abreast of such developments, but some were more familiar than others. There were plenty of GINNs about, though even Jane's Mobile Weapons was calling them old hat. He could see GuAIZes, successors to the GINN with the same distinctive head crest. There were one or two DINNs, and an enormous yellow-painted GAZuOOT that looked as if it could take on an army by itself.
"You are also the successor to Lord Uzumi Nara Athha," Durandal went on. "Who refused to bow to pressure, following his nation's ideal to the very end." The Chairman stopped suddenly, turning to face his guest.
"So how should we act, given the current situation? I'm sure you know the answer to that very well."
Athrun knew what Durandal's answer would have been. The evidence was in the hangar to his right. It was tall and muscular-looking, painted green but for the torso which was painted black. One shoulder was covered by a rounded pauldron, crowned with an upward-curving horn. It had a squat bullet head, with an overbearing brow and a protuberant thermal-exhaust grille, putting Athrun in mind of a soldier wearing a gas mask. He gritted his teeth.
ZGMF-1000 ZAKU Warrior. ZAFT's new mass-production Mobile Suit.
"We will protect and maintain the ideals of our nation," Cagalli replied gravely, and Athrun knew she meant every word.
"We will not attack another nation," Durandal spoke with the same gravity as he recited Orb's founding creed. "We will not allow another nation to attack us, and we will not intervene in the conflicts of other nations."
"Then our ideals are the same." Durandal gave her a smile of heart-melting sincerity. "If possible, that would be the best way. But it is not possible without power. I'm sure you can understand this, Princess. The best course for both our nations is to remain aloof, but in order to maintain our neutrality we both need military power. Is that not why Orb retains full military capabilities?"
"Please do me a favour and stop calling me Princess." To Athrun's relief, Cagalli made the request with a degree of good grace.
"Chief Representative Athha." Durandal bowed in apparent repentance. "Please forgive me." They walked on in silence for a few moments.
"But I must wonder, Chief Representative," Durandal broke the silence. "What exactly are you afraid of? Of course you are under pressure from the Atlantic Federation, though their accusations are completely unreasonable. The refugees we took in from Orb had to make a living somehow, as I'm sure you understand. But it occurs to me, Chief Representative, that you must be used to such behaviour by now. Is it something else?"
"What bothers me," Cagalli retorted, halting and rounding on the Chairman, "is that you insist on rearming ZAFT at a time like this." She was not shouting, but there was a definite edge to her voice. "And you're right, there is something else. You can tell me about the ship."
That made the Chairman's coterie of flunkies very nervous, and Athrun could have sworn he saw a flicker of something in Durandal's eyes. Was it surprise? Or was it amusement?
"I would be happy to show you around the Minerva, if…"
"The ship!" Cagalli pressed, barely keeping herself from shouting. "And don't try to tell me you haven't seen it!" There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
"Yes, Chief Representative, we have seen it," Durandal admitted with feigned reluctance. "ZAFT's long-range telescopes spotted it passing Mars eight months ago, and I suspect the DSSD has known about it for even longer. Quite an interesting development."
Interesting was not the word Athrun would have used. He remembered the look on Cagalli's face when the Sahaku twins had so politely informed her of what the telescope on their space station had spotted. Orb's government had run around like headless chickens, wondering whether the mysterious ship from beyond Mars was hostile, and whether they should admit it to the public. It had taken Cagalli a great deal of table-thumping, harsh words, and banging-together of heads, literally in some cases, to regain control.
It had saddened Athrun. It had reminded him of how different things had been only a few years earlier. Then, back when he was a young boy full of hope and dreams, he would have been blown away by the news. It would have been a cause for excitement, maybe even for joy.
Before Junius Seven.
Before the Bloody Valentine.
"Well then," Cagalli would not let up. "What do you know about it?"
The world exploded.
There was no stealth in space.
The idea had arisen towards the end of the twentieth century, during the so-called Cold War. Someone had realised that if an aircraft was the right shape, then the radiation emitted by the comparatively primitive sensors of the time could be deflected in various directions, ensuring that relatively little made it back to the sensor. The idea was that the computer tasked with interpreting what the sensor told it would interpret it as something too small to be of note.
In practice it had been a little more complicated than that. As often as not sensors might notice a stealth aircraft approaching, but be unable to precisely ascertain where the aircraft was. There would be little the sensor's operators could do, save telling their own aircraft approximately where to look.
But radar had gotten more sophisticated, able to detect objects by means other than reflected radiation. Despite the best efforts of its advocates, 21st century stealth technology had been unable to keep up. By the Cosmic Era, combat aircraft had abandoned the stealth approach the way European knights had abandoned plate armour. It was expensive, limiting, and not fit for purpose.
And space offered even less scope. That which could not be seen with the naked eye could turn up on scanners. That which could somehow avoid the naked eye and scanners would be betrayed by the laws of thermodynamics. The only way around that was to keep the heat inside, which was perfectly doable, if roasting the crew alive was not a problem.
There was no stealth in space.
So Neo Roanoke thought, sitting in his acceleration chair on the bridge of the Girty Lue. The open viewport in front of him offered a panoramic view of Lagrange 4, dominated by the massive hourglass shape of the Armoury One PLANT. His breath misted on his helmet visor, reminding him of where he was, and what he was about to do.
The Girty Lue was several thousand kilometres away from Armoury One. Any closer and it would likely have been detected, even with the Mirage Colloid rendering visual and radar identification impossible. The reactor was dialled down to subcritical, the life support systems had been switched off, and the only propulsion was provided by gas canisters set on gantries either side of the main hull. Even so, they had been forced to hide the thermal signature as best they could. They had approached via a commonly-used transit lane, the expended radiation making them less noticeable, and the starting position was sunward of Armoury One.
Even with all that, they were living on hope. Hope that they had gotten their signature just low enough that it might not be noticed. Hope that the ZAFT personnel currently on duty would be just a little less cautious than was necessary. The latter was not completely unreasonable, for there was no way ZAFT could know of Girty Lue's existence or capabilities, this mission being its first.
Hope that they would make it to the critical stage of the mission before the Colloid's exotic particles flaked away, or his suit's battery ran out. The ship's batteries would allow it to perform its functions without the reactor, as it was currently doing, but only for a limited time. Sooner or later they would have to restart the reactor, a process that could not be stopped once it had started. Once they started, they were committed. It was a call he was going to have to make.
He checked his watch.
"Conn, Scope," came a voice over his helmet comm. "The party's started."
"Understood." Neo glanced to his right, to where the Girty Lue's Captain sat in an identical chair. But the Captain had heard, and was already giving the orders. Neo felt a shudder through the deck as the Girty Lue shifted, aiming itself onto a trajectory that would take it within a few hundred kilometres of Armoury One. They would not, dared not, stop for anything or anyone.
Phantom Pain had only one penalty for failure.
It began with the howling of alarms.
The beginning was also an ending. The end of a chain of events that had begun a few hours earlier. It ended with two NCOs, who they were showing three prospective recruits the new concept models on behalf of a well-connected ZAFT higher-up. They were the first to die, never knowing that the impressive-looking credentials had been acquired care of a ZAFT commander who had been dead for three weeks. Nor had they more than a momentary inkling of what that 'cute little blonde' could do with a knife.
Out of everyone else in the high-security hangar, only one had not died straight away. As the three prototype Mobile Suits had strode towards the hangar doors, the last survivor managed to hit the alarm button.
A few seconds later, the alarms were complemented by the hissing of particle beams.
And the explosions.
Athrun pushed Cagalli to the ground, throwing himself on top of her as they fell. They landed behind a nearby staff car, but he could still feel the blast wave wash over him, hot and dry on his skin. He got up on his haunches, allowing Cagalli to pull herself up, and glanced towards Durandal, who was being helped up by his bodyguards.
"Chaos! Gaia! Abyss!" yelled a voice from nearby.
Then Athrun saw them.
Despite everything, Athrun could not help but be impressed by Mobile Suits. They were the Coordinator nation's gift to military history, the manifestation of a people's desire to stamp their identity on the art of war. They had made a weapon out of a concept dubbed impracticable, a mighty deed to prove their superiority to Naturals and their hide-bound thinking. They were war made manifest, a testament to the psychological power of the human form, a reversal of the dichotomy of human and machine.
The three standing nearby were new models, painted blue, green, and black respectively. Athrun did not recognize the configurations. He supposed they must be concept models, test beds for new ideas and technologies, a means by which ZAFT could see what it was capable of designing and building. There would be a few surprises bound up in their armoured forms.
The green one strode forward. The blue one broke right, rushing away with blazing jets. The black one headed left, starting with a flying leap. But unlike its blue counterpart, the black one began to change, its torso rotating and limbs folding as it came down. It landed in a quadruped configuration, the canine shape reminding Athrun of ZAFT's BcCue Mobile Suit. It galloped towards a nearby hangar, the beam rifle at its flank spitting green particle bolts through the open door. The bolts tore into the stationary mobile suits, blasting open their armoured torsos and detonating their batteries. The blue one did likewise, firing the guns set into its split-ovoid wings. The green one stood still, letting loose a flurry of missiles from the pods behind its shoulders. The missiles whistled as they flew, spreading out over a row of three untouched hangars. The only sound was the constant roar of explosions.
Athrun stared, and so did Cagalli.
"New models?" she said, bewildered. Before Athrun could reply, the blue one stepped into view, crimson malevolence gushing from the beam emitter in its torso. The blast wave blew the smoke away, and Athrun could see the Mobile Suit clearly. He could make out the green eyes, the face, the golden crest on its brow.
"It's a…" Cagalli began.
"A Gundam," Athrun finished.
"Get her to the shelter," Durandal hissed to one of his bodyguards, before turning to the others. "Where is Evans! We have to stop them no matter what it takes!" There was a fury in his eyes that none of them had ever seen. "Contact the Minerva for backup!"
Cagalli and Athrun held hands as they ran after the bodyguard. Their guide led them between two hangars, on a route that seemed to take them away from the fighting.
They turned a corner and ran down another path between two more hangars. A GINN stood in front of them, bringing up its rifle, but too late as the green one descended upon it. Athrun saw the beam saber in its hand, saw the glowing blade ignite.
"Cagalli!" Forgetting the bodyguard, he pushed Cagalli sideways towards one of the hangars. He pushed her through and around the open doorway, pressing her to him as the GINN exploded. He felt the familiar heat of the blast wave, and the pain in his ears.
As his genetically-engineered constitution recovered, Athrun glanced around the door frame, Cagalli at his side. The green one had moved on, and there was no sign of the bodyguard. He looked back and forth, seeking a safe path. There were no more Mobile Suits in sight.
"This way!" He grabbed Cagalli's hand and ran back the way they had come. For a second it seemed as though they might escape, only for the black one to appear from around the corner. Athrun and Cagalli froze, but the quadruped mecha did not seem to have noticed them. Gunfire pattered over its black armour, and the Mobile Suit leapt into the air. Athrun saw his chance, pulling Cagalli behind a nearby supply truck.
"But why!" Cagalli wailed, as Athrun held her down. "Why is this happening!"
Athrun had no answer, no comfort to offer. He looked up, and saw the black one meet a purple DINN in mid-air. The DINN's wing came away, and the Mobile Suit tumbled from the sky to crash into one of the hangars. Athrun pressed Cagalli to him as the hangar exploded, feeling her breathing and the rapid beat of her heart.
He would die, if that was his fate. He would die to protect her, if that was what it took.
"Athrun?" He looked down, saw the fear in her eyes. Eyes in which fear did not belong.
"I'm okay." They stood up and looked around. The black one was in front, in its humanoid form, firing the same beam rifle that it had carried on its flank a moment ago. Athrun turned around, and saw a green-painted ZAKU Warrior lying on the ground behind them. It had evidently been in the hangar that the DINN crash-landed on, but by some miracle it had merely fallen over rather than exploded.
Even better, the hatch was open.
"Come on!" Athrun grabbed Cagalli and ran for the ZAKU. He leapt onto its torso, pulling her up behind him. "Get in!"
"Huh?" Before she could object, Athrun scooped her up in his arms and dropped into the cockpit. Depositing her on one side, he lowered himself into the seat, which for some reason was the right way up. Ignoring the minor surprise, Athrun ran his eyes over the controls. They were arranged somewhat differently to the ZAFT mobile suits he had trained in a few years ago, but the logic was much the same.
"Athrun wait!" Cagalli protested.
"I'm not about to let you die in a place like this!" Athrun jabbed at the controls, the mobile suit coming alive around him. He pulled back the attitude control, felt the centre of gravity shift as the ZAKU stood up. The seat rotated as it rose, keeping Athrun and Cagalli in the upward position.
He had never thought it would happen. Part of him had never wanted to sit inside a mobile suit ever again. And yet there he was. Without hesitation, without forethought, he had climbed into the cockpit.
All for her sake. All to save her life.
There was no time to regret it, for the black one had noticed them. The mobile suit turned, regarding the ZAKU with those glowing green eyes. Athrun glanced down at the dashboard, and saw the transponder signal.
The Gaia raised its rifle. Athrun reacted, pressing his feet down on the pedals and yanking the joysticks left. The ZAKU's main thruster fired, enough to lift the mobile suit into the air, its vernier thrusters bearing it to the left as the Gaia fired. The beam hissed past, ripping through the hangar wall behind. Athrun pressed the pedals forward, felt the kick of the main thruster, and the force of intertia pressing him into his seat. The ZAKU barrelled into the Gaia, sending it stumbling back.
It felt good. The ZAKU had responded almost flawlessly, the pedals just a little stiff, having not been calibrated for him. Athrun felt his terror ease, replaced by something he had not felt in a long time.
Calm. Control. Equilibrium. His mind settled, his thoughts reordering themselves. He was in control.
He ran his eyes over the dashboard again, looking to see if the ZAKU had any kind of weapon. He found it. MA-M8 Beam Tomahawk. Whatever that was.
Athrun keyed it. A handle emerged from the top of the shield, and the ZAKU's right arm reached out to clasp it. It drew the weapon, revealing it to be a short, heavy-bladed axe. The blade glowed pink-white, giving the axe its name.
Gaia drew its own beam saber, the glowing blade emerging with a hiss of burning air. The black mobile suit came on, bringing the saber up in a right-to-left diagonal. Athrun fell back, bringing up the shield to catch the glowing blade, lashing out with his axe. The axe struck the Gaia's own shield. It did not break through. Athrun fell back again. The Gaia leapt after him, swinging right to left, cutting through empty air. It back-handed, catching the blade of the ZAKU's axe.
Athrun gritted his teeth. His enemy lacked finesse, but made up for it in aggression, keeping the pressure on. Worse, he or she had reflexes comparable to a trained Coordinator, which almost certainly meant a comparable thinking speed. The sort of tricks he might have used to turn the tables on an EA pilot would probably not work. This was going to be tricky.
"Look out!" Cagalli yelled. Something flickered to Athrun's left. He was already turning, even as the green mobile suit leapt at him, beam saber raised high. He wrenched the joysticks, willing the ZAKU to turn faster, heard Cagalli's gasp as they both knew he was too late.
The beam saber came down, slicing through the ZAKU's left forearm, cutting it clean off. The severed arm fell, as did the shield it carried.
Athrun felt his body tense, that cold prickling sensation freezing his muscles and chilling his heart. He was going to die.
Oblivious, unfeeling, the ZAKU identified the green one, displaying its identity on the forward screen, as if it thought its occupants might like to know who was about to kill them.
But Chaos did not attack. Instead it stumbled forward as something pounded into its back. Chaos and Gaia looked up into the sky, their maimed quarry forgotten as they sought the source of the attack.
It came, dropping from the clouds at daredevil speed, passing them so close that Athrun could feel the wind buffet his ZAKU. He and his two assailants looked after it, their battle put on hold as they took in the newcomer.
It was an aircraft, small and blocky in shape, painted blue and white. As it soared up into the sky, Athrun wondered what it could be. It seemed too small to be a fighter, and yet there it was, in the thick of the action. Was it some civilian trying to lend a hand?
But then there were others. Two more objects, banking in to take up formation behind the fighter. Athrun jabbed at the dashboard controls, activating the zoom function and focussing it on the trio of aircraft.
What followed was one of the most bizarre aerobatic displays he or Cagalli had ever seen.
The fighter pulled up suddenly, until it was flying vertical. Athrun and Cagalli stared in disbelief as it began to change. The nose retracted into the fuselage. The wings folded in, the empty rocket pods dropping away. One of the other aircraft took up position directly underneath it, and Athrun saw it to be a mobile suit's waist and legs. The other formed up above, and in a manoeuvre that must have required either endless practice or computer programming of unimaginable sophistication, the three began to combine. The folded-up fighter joined with the module above it, even as the legs came up from below, guided by red laser beams. The waist slotted into place, the legs spreading as they came online. And then yet another aircraft appeared, dropping in from above. The nose broke off and flew away, the rest of the fuselage closing in to attach itself to the mobile suit's back.
It fell from the sky like an avenging angel, thrusters blazing to slow its descent, drawing two swords as long as it was tall from its back. It landed right in front of the ZAKU, its torso shining red as Phase Shift armour came online. It jammed the sword hilts together, then with a final flourish twirled the twin-bladed sword over its head and brought it down in the ready position.
Athrun and Cagalli were still staring, even as the transponder code blinked on the screen.
"Why are you doing this!" yelled a young man's voice over the mobile suit's loudspeakers. "Do you want to start another war!"
There were two of them.
Nazca class destroyers, painted blue, with their distinctive trident hulls. If the registry was correct, their names were Herschell and Fourier.
The Nazca class had made a good name for itself in the Bloody Valentine war. Back then it was a new class, designed in secret over many years and rushed into production in the earliest years of the Cosmic Era's seventh decade. The Nazca combined a heavy armament and an advanced sensor suite with powerful engines, making it a ton-for-ton match with any EA warship until the short-lived Archangel class. It was expected to remain competitive for at least another decade.
So thought Samuel Alvarez as he watched the ships drift by.
It was strangely pleasant to watch them. The zoom function of his GAT-01A2R Slaughter Dagger's main camera let him see them clearly, though they were hundreds of kilometres distant. He wanted to enjoy the experience while he had the chance. For in no more than a few minutes, the main event would begin.
Not that he minded. In truth, he was looking forward to it. He wanted to see if that arrogant Neo could really pull it off.
And he had the perfect vantage point. Clinging to the wall of the colony, sensors in passive mode, the colony's heat bloom masking his thermal emissions, the chances of him being spotted were slim to none.
He glanced down at the digital clock in the bottom right corner of his main screen. The seconds counted down, the digits cold and bring in the darkness of his cockpit. He felt his beard itch. Was it with anticipation?
Or was it fear?
Alvarez liked fear. He enjoyed the rush of adrenalin, the heavy beating of his heart, the lightning running through him, readying him for battle. He would not run. He would not freeze. Fear was his servant, not his master. It was his private strength, the secret of his success.
And there it was. A distortion, the suggestion of a shape, racing across the void. The two destroyers continued along their patrol route, as they had done so many times before, their attention no doubt on the ruckus taking place inside the colony.
They would never see it coming.
Alzarez felt his heart beat faster. The distortion was on course, moving closer and closer. He leaned in closer to the screen, wishing he could have seen it directly, out in space through his own eyes.
There they were. Two pairs of emerald beams lancing across the void, there and gone in the blink of an eye, striking the outermost destroyer on the main hull. Alvarez felt his breath catch in his throat, time seeming to slow down as the crippled warship drifted on, for a fraction of a second.
Then it exploded. The second ticked as the destroyer vanished in a ball of light.
Alvarez felt that familiar thrill at the sight. Neo was…competent, he decided. But the real test was about to happen.
His passive sensors registered a massive thermal spike. He could see the flash of light from the rear of the distortion, resolving itself into the shape of the Girty Lue as the Mirage Colloid particles flaked away. Alvarez could see the warship clearly; the dark blue paint job, the heavy Gottfried beam cannon turrets positioned dorsal, flank, and ventral around the bow hangars, the blocky stern section wherein the two sets of four nuclear pulse engines were located. He could even see the skeletal gantry 'wings' set port and starboard of the stern section, with their clusters of globes. Each of those globes contained highly-pressurized gas, providing the Girty Lue with a means of acceleration and manoeuvre that created significantly less heat than the engines, albeit with a tiny fraction of the thrust.
The other Nazca was reacting, thrusters flaring as it tried to turn, to bring its weapons to bear. They had half a chance, as the Girty Lue hadn't had its reactor dialled up long enough to charge all the beam cannons. But if Neo Roanoke was half as capable as he seemed to think he was, it wouldn't matter.
Sure enough, tiny shapes leapt from the Girty Lue's central section. The missiles came about, white contrails marking their passage as they sped towards the still-turning destroyer. A few of its CIWS turrets opened up, but Neo had gotten the angle of his approach just right, and not enough of them were in a position to fire. Alvarez clenched his fists in anticipation as the missiles closed in, each explosion making his heart skip a beat. Closer, closer…
They hit. One missile struck the bridge, another the starboard engine section, while the others tore into the main hull. The engine section exploded, hurling the crippled destroyer away and out of the battle.
"Neo Roanoke," Alvarez thought wryly. "You pass."
Realising that time was moving on, he glanced at his companion. It was another Slaughter Dagger, painted in Phantom Pain black as opposed to his own dark red. He did not need to use the radio, for the other mobile suit nodded its head in understanding.
With a push of his foot pedals, his mech eased itself away. He did not activate the thrusters, the force of the movement enough to get him going. His companion did likewise, and the two mobile suits drifted towards the vast cylinder of the harbour module.
Alvarez counted down the seconds as they closed on the entrance. Based on their best known response times, they should have been about ready to launch additional ships. If he was to carry out his part of the mission, he would have to arrive before the first ship passed the harbour mouth. The plan required that no more ZAFT ships should succeed in deploying. Picking up those three would be hard enough without any more complications.
Their luck held. As they reached the entrance, Alvarez glanced back at Girty Lue. The ship was still on course, still accelerating as it approached the extraction zone. He knew that the Girty Lue dared not slow down, and that if he and those other three weren't back in time, they would be left behind. The mission did not allow for mistakes.
He checked his systems one last time. All green. Heart pounding, he pressed his feet down on the pedals, activating his mobile suit's main thrusters. He felt their force against his back, the intertia against his front, as his Slaughter Dagger began to move. He eased his feet to the left, his mobile suit drifting sideways across the open entrance.
Alvarez stared down the wide tunnel into the harbour. A Laurasia class frigate loomed in front of him, filling his forward screen as it advanced. It was the only one, unfortunately. The ZAFT personnel seemed to be following strict procedure, having no more than one ship active in the harbour at any time. There were good reasons for it, reasons Alvarez was about to remind them of.
He squeezed the thumb triggers. The 115mm railguns fired, launching two high-density darts straight into the oncoming frigate's bridge. He pictured the faces of the bridge crew, mouths gaping in horror and disbelief, in the instant before their destruction.
He turned slightly to the left, aiming his railguns at the frigate's starboard engine section. The shots struck, and the engines exploded in a bright, silent flash. The force sent the frigate drifting to the left, turning on its axis until its still-firing port engines were aimed straight at the control centre's gallery window. Alvarez watched in perverse satisfaction as the engine flare obliterated the control centre, before the frigate crashed into the wall. The green hull crumpled as momentum drove it on, putting him in mind of an egg against a stone wall.
The frigate exploded, the blast hurling white-hot debris in all directions. Some of it struck the harbour wall, scarring it black, but much of it was hurled back into the harbour, and into the ships still waiting there. Flying wreckage struck ammunition containers, fuel lines, and the ships themselves. Within seconds the harbour was a mass of explosions.
Alvarez smiled in satisfaction, letting the blast wave carry him out of the harbour entrance and away, his wingman at his side.
Shinn Asuka gritted his teeth.
The three prototypes were as deadly in the air was they were on the ground. The Gaia had been bad enough on its own, but now all three of them were on his case.
Gaia came at him again, this time in human form, swinging its beam saber. A burst of his thrusters took him up, the black mobile suit rushing underneath.
"Why is something like this happening!" Frustration made him shout the question aloud. And why was it? Why had those three come? Why were they so determined to steal the new prototypes?
Why did they want to start another war?
His heart was pounding. He hadn't trained for fighting such opponents. None of them had. Even the advanced course, all ten gruelling weeks of it, had prepared him for nothing more dangerous than Orb Astrays. No one had considered the possibility of fighting a high-end mobile suit with a top-notch pilot, one capable of reprogramming and mastering such a machine in the space of a few minutes.
Gaia came around in a smooth arc, evidently in no mood to concede. Shinn keyed for his beam boomerang, waiting a moment as Impulse's arm reached for the weapon. He pulled on the right joystick, bringing his mobile suit's arm around, back, around, and back again. When the moment was right he squeezed the trigger, letting the weapon fly. Gaia brought up its shield. The boomerang bounced away, but it had hit with force enough to send the Gaia flying.
Shinn prepared to attack, but the Abyss dropped to block his path. He saw the blue mobile suit spread its wings, heard the buzzer warn him of a target lock. He brought up his own shield as the Abyss fired, deflecting the deadly beams. As he lowered it, he saw Abyss begin to advance on him, long-handled dagger-axe held at the ready.
Particle bolts struck its right wing, causing the blue mobile suit to pause. Shinn glanced about, looking to see who had fired.
His heart leapt as two more mobile suits drew near, both of them familiar. One was a red-painted ZAKU Warrior, the other a white ZAKU Phantom, with long shields on both its shoulders. He keyed the radio, hoping they were who he hoped they were.
"Rey! Luna!" he yelled. "That you!"
"Shinn." He recognized Rey Za Burrel's no-nonsense voice. "How are you holding up?"
"I'm still here but I can't take all three on my own! It looks like they're bugging out!"
"Understood!" A familiar female voice came from the red ZAKU, that of Lunamaria Hawke. "We'll back you up!"
Shinn felt his confidence return. He knew his two old classmates well, and knew their abilities. The three of them together might be able to do it.
"You bastards!" he heard Luna snarl over the radio. "How dare you do this to us!" The two came on, firing their beam rifles. Chaos and Abyss began to pull away, their fighting spirit seemingly gone, though Shinn was certain their batteries were running low.
But Gaia was fighting on. The black mobile suit charged at him again, green particle bolts hissing from its shoulders. As it closed, Shinn could almost feel its pilot's fury, as if it were a rage strong enough to carry over the distance and into his pounding heart. He brought up his sword, catching the incoming Gaia's blow and twisting to parry it away. Gaia came around again.
And then, against all reason, all common sense, all sanity, the Gaia wasn't moving.
Shinn was momentarily stunned. But sure enough, it just hovered where it was, as if the pilot had forgotten where he was. Had he frozen?
It was a chance he couldn't miss. He hurled the beam boomerang again, but Chaos dropped in front, knocking the boomerang away and levelling its beam rifle. Shinn caught the boomerang and dodged, particle bolts hissing past. Gaia was moving again, blazing away at maximum speed, Chaos and Abyss falling into formation around it.
Captain Talia Gladys did not like being the calm centre in a storm of chaos and blind panic. It was a major part of a Captain's role, and she accepted it as such, but that did not make it any less of a headache. Especially when she was trying to think.
And then he had turned up.
Of all the people to come storming back into her life at such a time, it had to be Gilbert Durandal. Him, and three purple-uniformed Commanders of the General Staff, doubtless looking for someone to shout at. As if her bridge crew needed any more distractions.
"Minerva!" came Shinn Asuka's voice over the com. "Send out the Force Silhouette!"
"Captain?" Commander Arthur Trine, clad in subaltern black, looked worriedly down at her from his perch beside Combat Information Controller Meyrin Hawke's chair.
"Send it out," she said firmly. "I authorise it." She quarter-turned her chair, just enough to look straight at the Chairman. "There's no point in keeping it a secret now, is there?"
She could not read him. Not there and then, not in that place. Not when they were…like that.
"No," he replied levelly.
"Force Silhouette!" Meyrin barked into the com pickup. "Stand by to launch!"
She was holding up well, Talia thought. Despite the situation, and doubtless worrying about her older sister Lunamaria, she was handling her duties with calm professionalism.
Yes, ZAFT had been fortunate in acquiring the services of the Hawke sisters. They weren't the only orphans in ZAFT, but Talia would not have exchanged them for anyone.
She saw the Force Silhouette launch, soaring away into the sky, heading to Shinn's assistance. The Impulse was thus far proving to be one of the day's few bright points. The rather unusual deployment system was working like a charm.
As was, to be fair, its pilot. She had harboured doubts about Shinn Asuka, his instructors describing him as a self-centred wannabe ace who tried to do everything on his own. She knew the type, and knew how they tended to turn out. But his skill was undeniable, and beggars could not be choosers.
Talia's lip curled as she saw the colony wall glow, the honeycomb structure warping and melting under the pounding the Gaia was inflicting on it. Sure enough, the red glow turned black, and the debris drifting in the weak gravity suddenly raced out.
A small breach in the colony wall wasn't a problem. Such was the colony's size, it could bleed air for days without anyone really noticing. It would take a direct hit from a nuclear weapon to do any meaningful harm. But the stolen prototypes now had the egress route they needed, and Impulse's battery was running down.
"Captain!" Arthur protested, in the near-panic which she had come to regard as his default state. "They're heading out on their own, and the enemy ship is still out there!" Sure enough, the Impulse had just flown out through the hole, accompanied by Rey za Burrel in his ZAKU Phantom.
"Impulse is flatlining!" Meyrin reported. "Three hundred and falling!" Talia made her decision.
"We can't lose the Impulse as well," she proclaimed. "All stations will prepare to launch!" Trine gasped, and he wasn't the only one.
"Very well, Talia," Durandal acquiesced in a low voice.
"There you are."
Neo smiled a vulpine smile as he saw the tiny explosion. His smile widened as the three prototypes emerged, one after the other, heading out into the extraction zone. They were within time, and so long as they didn't screw up the interception they would be safe. That was a good thing, but having that epicure Alvarez admit he could do something right would be even better.
A certain…something drew his attention to the black mobile suit, the one out in front, running for the Girty Lue like a bat out of hell.
It was Stella. And she was scared. Very scared.
Neo sighed. One of them must have used the block word on her, most likely Auel. He knew what it did to them only too well. He understood the fate of the Extendeds better than they themselves did.
Such was the power he possessed. Such was the power that allowed him to pilot his Exus. Such was the power that sensed them coming.
Neo eased the joysticks, the verniers moving his Exus away from the colony. He felt the ship respond, as his consciousness began to expand. He saw them emerge from the hole, wreathed in drifting debris. Two mobile suits, one a white ZAKU Phantom, the other a model he had never seen before. Had there been another prototype?
It didn't matter. Those two were pursuing the prototypes, and the Girty Lue could not afford to slow down. It was up to him.
He tweaked the joysticks, aiming his Exus onto just the right heading. He felt the gravity as if it were the sun upon his face, or a gentle breeze. He knew, from practice and from instinct, how his Exus would fly. He waited, excitement shivering under his serenity, for the moment to move.
He eased the throttle forward. He felt Exus accelerate, a purple dart cutting through the void. He soared in a graceful arc, his course taking him neatly onto the tail of the fourth prototype.
It was an effortless ride, perfectly smooth but for the g-forces pressing him into his seat. The engines were perfectly balanced, the shock-absorbers well within capacity. His Exus was a finely-honed killing implement, hand-crafted to perfection, every system calibrated to his own specifications.
And it came with a special something. Something that needed his particular talents.
Neo keyed the command. The four Gunbarrels sped away, control cables unspooling as they went, spreading out to form a saltire formation around the Exus. The enemy seemed entirely unaware, even as they closed to firing range.
The Gunbarrels fired, their beams crisscrossing in front of and around the prototype. The blue and white mobile suit pulled up suddenly, trying to evade the deadly bracketing fire.
Exactly as Neo thought he would. As the crosshairs hovered over the prototype's main thruster, Neo squeezed the trigger, sending a burst of autocannon rounds across the void.
But something was wrong. He could…feel something, something in that white ZAKU Phantom. Almost like…
The white Phantom was there, the bullets bouncing off its heavy shield.
"What are you doing!" Neo felt the words as much as heard them, and knew they were not directed at him. "You're nothing but a target if you don't focus! This is no ordinary enemy pilot!"
Neo jabbed at the keys, turning the Gunbarrels on the white Phantom. But the ZAKU was too fast, dodging each Gunbarrel even as it opened fire, yet not flying into the fire of another.
"You're no ordinary enemy either," he thought. He had one last thing up his sleeve, something that pilot, despite his evident skill, was unlikely to see coming. He keyed for the Horned Moon, selecting two of the Gunbarrels.
He came about again, feeling the press of the g-forces. The Gunbarrels were already closing in, two of them keeping up bracketing fire on the white ZAKU. The enemy dodged, much as he had before, and Neo could see him, no, feel him preparing to dodge the other two. But they did not shoot. Instead they raced on, twin beam sabers set above and below activating as they closed in.
Neo let out a hiss of surprise and frustration as the white ZAKU managed to dodge. His hiss became a growl as the Phantom rounded on him, aiming its beam rifle. He drew on the stick, pulling the Exus up and away, the bolts flashing past.
The prototype's pilot seemed to have remembered what he was supposed to be doing. The fourth prototype was an impressive sight as it came on, with its saltire wings, broad shield, and blazing beam saber. It made Neo want it even more, even as he turned the Gunbarrels on it. Its pilot was not quite on the same level as the white Phantom's pilot, however, having to take some of the bracketing fire on that rather impressive shield.
Even better, he could see scorched armour plating. If he could just keep it up…
His proximity sensor buzzed insistently. Neo glanced at his sensor display, and felt his heart skip a beat when he saw the thermal bloom boiling across the void towards him.
He knew what it was.
"Lee!" he roared into the com. "I'm coming back! Max acceleration as soon as I'm on board! If I miss, go without me!"
Neo slammed back the throttle, felt the force of the engines, and the clunk as the Gunbarrels reattached themselves. He pressed the joystick forward, pushing it with all his strength, as if by doing so he could will the Exus to go faster.
The Minerva had launched. The Minerva was after him. It was less than two hundred kilometres away and accelerating. The mission was going horribly wrong very fast.
Had they underestimated the Minerva's capabilities? Had they miscalculated the angle of the launch tunnel? Or was it those three, taking too long inside the colony?
They had taken too long, but Neo knew it was not purely their fault. He had not performed much better in that regard. ZAFT, it seemed, had not only produced some excellent mobile suits, but at least one decent pilot. The latter could not have been predicted.
He looked at his rear-view screen. There was the Minerva, resplendent in navy grey and red, its forward profile looking to him like a mobile suit's foot with wings. It was a ludicrous impression, and an entirely unhelpful one.
Neo knew it was his fault. It was his fault for failing to take out that white Phantom, his fault for making Lee slow the Girty Lue down, when the whole plan was predicated on getting away in one pass. The others had made it, so what mattered was getting the Girty Lue to the safety of the Moon. He knew he should order Lee to go, key the self destruct, and save Phantom Pain the red tape. He could not allow himself to be captured by them. Not under any circumstances.
But another part of him was not ready to die, not without one last shot.
Behind him, he could see the Minerva slowing down, no doubt to collect its two mobile suits. Before him was the Girty Lue, growing larger and larger. Neo brought the Exus around, over the warship's bow, and down in front. The starboard hatch was open, waiting for him. He had to get it right.
He cut the engines, forced the joystick to remain level, willing the Exus to fly true. He could see the Girty Lue's bow grow as it caught up with him. Closer, closer, closer.
Neo felt himself slam against his seat as the crash webbing caught the Exus. He had made it.
It was a ship like no other.
It was a ship of prodigious size, made to carry tens of thousands across the gulf of the solar system and bring them safe home. It was a ship of war, bristling with mighty weapons. It was a ship of peace, bearing the hopes of millions.
Its name was Jovian Dawn.
To Daniel Scirocco, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Jupiter, it had been home for nearly two years. The observation gallery in which he was standing was one of his favourite parts of it. It was a place where he could think, or simply be alone. And there were times when he needed all the solitude he could get.
For the moment, he was content to be there. It was enough to stand before the gallery window, gazing out at the sight of their objective.
How small it had seemed two years ago, how tiny. How different had things been back then, when they set off on the greatest journey in in Jovian history since the first migrations. How different he had been, a neurotic fifteen-year-old with unreliable vocal chords and mutinous skin, sent by his father on a mission of the utmost importance, a mission that would be his making, or else his breaking.
The journey had changed him. That was the nature of journeys, or so he had been taught. He had grown, in body as well as in spirit. He had trained and learned, becoming so much more than he had previously been. He had been most comforted when his body finally regained its equilibrium, after years of adolescent mismanagement. His hair, dark brown running to black, was no longer greasy. His face, the bronze skin betraying his Jovian heritage, was no longer riddled with the vile pustules that had caused him so much adolescent anguish. His voice had finished its shift from childhood soprano to adult baritone, though no power under heaven could persuade him to sing. That was still a step too far.
At least he would look and sound presentable when they arrived. As the goodwill ambassador, that was the most important thing. If he could pull off the act, say the right things, smile the right way, then he could do his part.
And no one would have to see the person underneath. Daniel doubted they would like what they found.
He felt ashamed. Such feelings were unworthy, he knew. Compared to the suffering the Jovian people had endured, his problems were less than nothing. When up against their sacrifices, his achievements counted for little. It was a humbling thought, one he kept in mind always, lest pride or hubris get the better of him. It was not for him to judge his own worthiness, or to trust in his own righteousness.
That was why he liked being in the observation gallery. The glitter of a million distant stars was an inspiration, even after seventeen years of living in space. It calmed him, easing his troubled mind, allowing him to subsume his worries in the incomprehensible vastness of the universe.
But it was the Earth itself that currently dominated his field of vision. He could see it more clearly than ever, looming just beyond the Jovian Dawn's bow. A great blue orb, the continents green and brown, wreathed in white clouds. The place from which humanity had arisen, the nest from which it had flown.
Little was known of Earth among the Jovian colonies. Many of their ancestors had wished it so, seeking to leave the Earth and its problems behind. What little information they had received since then was patchy and inconsistent, of little interest compared to the strife of previous decades.
The Jovian Dawn would change all that, or so Daniel hoped. They would learn the fate of humanity, and establish for Jupiter a fitting place in the grand design. They would learn whether George Glenn had kept his promise.
They did not know what they would find, but the auguries were not good. They had seen the bright flashes that could only be nuclear weapons. They had seen something else too, a concentrated flare of radiation, like nothing any Jovian had ever seen before.
They had been right to make the Jovian Dawn so mighty. If it all went wrong, it might be what saved them all.
Despite his reverie, he still heard the door slide open, and the three sets of footsteps entering the chamber. He knew who they were.
"I know, Hannon, I'm standing with my back to the door." He felt himself smile, warmth spreading through him. "But I knew it was you."
"Perhaps you did," came the familiar voice, unable to conceal a tinge of amusement. "And perhaps I should shoot your Highness to make the point."
"You wouldn't do that."
"Oh wouldn't he?" said another familiar voice.
"If he was inclined to," Daniel turned to face them, "he would have done so long ago."
There were three of them, all as dear to his heart as his own father. In the centre was Hannon Gable, white-blond hair reaching to his waist, a look of amused indulgence on his delicately-fashioned face. A bronze-coloured Aquila sat perched on his right shoulder. To his right was Damien Valors, his unkempt black hair held away from his eyes by a red headband. To his left was Ninin Pulu Lemo, short and slender, her hair a reddish orange, looking as though she was about to burst out laughing. All three were dressed as he was, in the dark blue uniforms of the Royal Jovian armed forces, with the red facings and cuffs of the Royal Guards. Gold lanyards hung from their right shoulders, marking them as proven battlepod pilots, an honour he had not yet earned.
They were his Royal Guards, his mentors, and his truest friends. They had been with him since before their departure, Hannon and Damien since he was a child of seven years, Ninin since he was ten. In their own ways they had moulded him, strengthened him, tempered and improved him. Were it not for them, he would not be who he was.
Were it not for them, he would be dead twice over.
"Tell me then," Daniel said, turning to face them fully. "What have I forgotten this time?"
"This time, nothing," Hannon replied. "There's been an altercation at Lagrange 4."
"An altercation?" Daniel asked, intrigued.
"He means a fight," Damien interjected sarcastically.
"Captain Moneta said to show you," Ninin added. "Aquila! Map on the viewport!" The last she directed at the Aquila perched on Hannon's shoulder. The mechanical bird spread its wings, his long hair billowing as it took flight. Two metres across with wings fully spread, the robot was one of hundreds aboard the Jovian Dawn, used for any number of minor tasks. The Aquila flew across the chamber, pausing by the interface panel on the wall perpendicular to the right hand end of the viewport. It latched onto the wall, the electromagnets in its three-clawed feet holding it in place, its eyes flashing on and off at the panel.
An instant later the viewport was covered with the bright lines of a tactical overlay. A ring encircled the Earth, marking the orbit of the moon, the Lagrange points marked out along them.
"Focus Lagrange 4," Hannon ordered. "Maximum magnification." A box surrounded one of the Lagrange points, then zoomed in to display it in detail. Daniel could make out the space stations, perhaps hundreds of them. Most were the O'Neill Island 3 cylinders his people had used, but the centre of attention seemed to be another colony of a distinctly different type, shaped like an hourglass. There were multiple ship contacts arranged around it.
"The fight's going on around this one," Damien began as he and Hannon strode over to the viewport, pointing at the hourglass colony. "Aquila, replay from start." The contact icons disappeared, reappearing in new positions.
"This ship," Hannon pointed at one out on its own, "came in firing, and blew away these two here." As he spoke, the icons played out the scenario, the two moving serenely along, as if on patrol, while the newcomer approached from behind. The pair of icons changed, indicating the ships they represented to have been destroyed.
"After that," Damien cut in, "it destroyed another ship, and then Opticon detected multiple detonations inside the colony itself. Here," he gestured at a cylindrical module reaching out from the colony's central shaft, "and here," he pointed at the lower hemisphere.
"Then they are at war," Daniel said mournfully. "It is as we feared."
There was silence in the chamber. He sensed Ninin's presence as she stepped up beside him, comforting him as it always did.
"To be honest, your highness, I'm not entirely sure they are," Hannon interjected, noticing his mood. "We haven't detected anything like this since we passed Mars. This may be nothing but a brushfire."
"Aren't you being a tad optimistic?" Damien remarked darkly. "That was one of their bigger warships. The part I don't get is how that ship got so close without getting detected."
"Show him the others!" Ninin insisted, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Show him show him show him!"
"All right! Jeez!" Damien groused. "Aquila, display contacts B1 through B5." The display marked five smaller contacts, expanding them until their images stood in a row along the viewport. Daniel's green eyes widened.
"Battlepods," he breathed.
"That's right," Hannon replied. "Humanoid battlepods, just like our own. It seems they had the same idea."
"When were these shots taken?" Daniel asked, still examining the images closely.
"Approximately one hour ago." Hannon dismissed the overlay.
"I should compliment the scan-techs on their work. What does the Captain intend to do?"
"For now, nothing." Damien glowered, and Daniel could sense his dissatisfaction.
"The Captain reckons we wouldn't do any good even if we could get there," Ninin added. "We're four days out as it is, and if we fire the engines they'll take it the wrong way."
Daniel returned his attention to the Earth. He stepped up to the viewport, his brow furrowed.
"They must have seen us by now," he said, almost to himself.
"Indeed," Hannon agreed.
"And yet," Damien commented, standing at Daniel's side. "They still haven't contacted us."
"Maybe they don't know what to say," Daniel suggested.
"Or maybe," Ninin mused, uncharacteristically serious, "they're afraid of what we'll say."
As Daniel gazed upon the Earth, the words of a song drifted into his mind. It had come to him on a dark and lonely night, to ease his troubled soul. So it had done, on six hundred nights since then. A song, written in a language of old Terra, as if to call to him.
Shizukana kono yoru ni
anata wo matteru no
ano toki wasureta
hohoemi wo tori ni kite
are kara sukoshi dake jikan ga sugite
omoide ga yasashiku natta ne.
Hoshi no furu basho de
anata ga waratte irukoto wo
mata aeru yo ne
Itsu kara hohoemi wa konna ni hakanakute
hitotsu no machigaide kowarete shimau kara
taisetsuna mono dake wo hikari ni kaete
tooi sora koete yuku tsuyosade
Hoshi no furu basho e
omoi wo anata ni todoketai
itsumo soba ni iru
sono tsumetasa wo dakishimeru kara
ima toukutemo, kitto aerune
shizuka na yoru ni…
shizuka na yoru ni…
That's it for Chapter One. I hope you found it enjoyable. If I get enough positive reviews, I will continue as soon as possible.
A couple of points to address. For one, Neo is not Mu la Flaga this time round. Mu died heroically, and Neo will play a very different, though no less important role. I can't reveal more without spoiling it.
Also, some of you may have recognized Daniel's three companions. I may as well say that they're based on a certain rather mismatched team from Gundam Musou, a concept proposed by Zaru. To be clear, Ninin Pulu Lemo is aged fifteen in this case, as opposed to ten.