PHASE 18: Fleeting Dream

Kythira, Eurasian Federation
LHM-BB01 Minerva

Several hours had passed since the Orb fleet's departure and the end of the battle against it and the Alliance, and after recovering its mobile suits - including the remains of the Saviour - the badly-damaged Minerva had taken shelter in a narrow inlet of the small Greek island of Kythira.

Because of its small size and lack of strategic or military value, the Island was largely ignored by the Eurasian Federation government, which made it an ideal hiding place for the ship while they requested supplies from Gibraltar.

Yzak stood on the bridge, where Arthur delivered a report on the damage they had sustained. Because of the damage to the upper part of the superstructure, the bridge had, at Yzak's instruction, remained lowered in its well-protected combat configuration.

"There is substantial damage to most of the hull, sir," Arthur said matter-of-factly, "but the main engines have taken no significant damage. As for the weapons, we've lost the bow Isolde and the starboard Tristan. The central and port Tristans have also been damaged, and seven CIWS turrets are no longer operational."

-"We're in bad shape, all right." Yzak replied, seething with repressed anger. "What about our mobile suits?"

-"The ZAKU Warrior is severely damaged, and the Saviour is irreparable." Arthur answered. "At the moment, that leaves us with only the Impulse and GOUF Igniteds operational."

-"And Athrun?" Yzak replied.

-"He's in medical. It doesn't look good, sir. His injuries are extremely severe. The doctor's doing everything he can, but the sooner we can get to Gibraltar, the better."

-"I'll contact them and request supplies and assistance. We'll need to stay here until then. Keep an eye out for incoming aerial and underwater enemies. I'll leave it to you, Arthur."

-"Yes, sir."

Yzak's next move was to contact Gibraltar. He briefly summarized their situation and location, and ask that they send supplies, stressing that the ship's condition made it imperative that repairs were made before they could continue.

Perhaps because he didn't want to risk his ships, the base commander balked at the request.

"The distance from your position is not that great; I don't see why it would be necessary to go through the trouble, especially as we could do a better job of it here at Gibraltar when you arrive."

-"Oh you don't, do you?" Yzak replied. "Well I think that given I'm the one who's out here on the ship, I've got a better idea of the condition she's in and whether she's able to cross two thousand-odd miles without repairs." The silver-and-gold pin on his lapel gleamed dully in the low light as he spoke.

-"Oh very well then." The commander said reluctantly. "I'll send a couple of ships out with enough supplies to make at least rudimentary repairs - just enough to get you here without incident. We can make more complete repairs once you arrive."

-"That's all I ask." Yzak said by way of thanks, and the line went dead.

That chore accomplished, he left the bridge and headed down to medical. He barely even glanced at the Extended as he entered, and saw that Lunamaria was in medical as well. Injured in the destruction of the ZAKU, she was wearing a cast on one arm and bandages on her head. She appeared to be sleeping, and so Yzak turned to Athrun. Lunamaria's injuries, which included a broken arm and a rather severe concussion, were minor compared to the condition Athrun himself was in. They had recovered him from the Saviour's cockpit after he was shot down, unconscious and critically injured. His wounds had been treated, but he'd lost a lot of blood, and he had yet to regain consciousness.

As he stood there, Heine walked in and looked over at him.

-"He's in rough shape, eh?" the normally jovial FAITH pilot said somberly.

Yzak nodded. "What happened out there?" Heine asked.

-"The Freedom happened." Yzak snapped angrily, though Heine did not mind - he knew that it wasn't him Yzak was angry at - it was the Freedom's pilot, and probably also himself. "I don't know what the hell happened, but he just...blindsided him. Ripped the Saviour apart."

The two men stood silently for a moment. Yzak thought about the chances that Athrun would recover. Right now, they were slim.

-"First Rey, and now this..." Yzak mumbled. "Those bastards..." As he stood there, his thoughts reached farther back, and memories of the losses sustained against the Archangel in the previous war floated back to mind. Nicol, brutally killed by the Strike in an attempt to save Athrun's life. Miguel.

The thought suddenly occurred to Yzak that Miguel had had, he knew, a custom-tuned GINN, which he had been unable to pilot at Heliopolis because it had been damaged in a prior sortie - Like the mobile suits favored by the man who stood beside him, the GINN had been painted a rather striking orange color. Yzak shook his head, dismissing the coincidence.

"Next chance I get...I am going to destroy that fucking ship." Yzak said firmly. "Count on that."

In the hangar meanwhile, Vino and Yolant were looking over at the crippled ZAKU and the dull-grey, shattered remains of what had been a Gundam.

"Man...there is no way we're gonna be able to fix that." the latter commented.

Vino nodded.

-"I hear the Freedom did that." he said. Yolant sighed wearily.

-"I guess even a member of FAITH couldn't stop that one." He said, as they turned their attention to the ZAKU. "We're short on parts, but we might be able to salvage that one at least."

Meanwhile, Aves directed some of his best men to start dismantling the Saviour's remains, with himself leading the effort. He had been watching the battle, and something had seemed strange about it, near the end...he had a strange feeling that something was just off about the way it had been moving. Moreover, he wanted to know why its ejection mechanism, nearly the same as that of the ZAKU, had not functioned.

From another part of the hangar, Shinn glanced over at the wreckage, an inscrutable expression on his face. Then he turned and left the hangar. It was late, and he was exhausted after the battle. He briefly stopped by medical, where he checked on Stella first. Her condition appeared to have stabilized for now, but Shinn knew, as the doctor had told him once previously, that it was only temporary; there was no telling how she might react.

He turned to the other side of the room, where he saw Lunamaria and Athrun. He considered the two of them, the condition they were in because of the battle, and the thought angered him. Especially Athrun's condition.

Shaking his head, Shinn left the medical bay and headed up to his quarters.

The supply ships arrived as promised a couple of days later: Two Vosgolov-class submarines and a Lesseps-class battleship. Originally designed as a land battleship, the Lesseps's scale system - an unusual propulsion system that allowed it to smoothly move through sand or loose soil easily - also enabled the ship to navigate equally well on the water. Sliding into the inlet with the Minerva, it began to offload the supplies requested, and repairs were soon underway.

In the hangar, Aves oversaw the loading of the parts they would need to repair the ZAKU. As the loading neared completion and the work on the red mobile suit began, Aves left the hangar and headed up to the bridge.

"You're sure about this?" Yzak asked Aves when the latter found him and explained what they'd discovered. The chief mechanic nodded.

-"Yes, sir. Given the way in which it was taken out, it's nearly impossible for internal damage of this nature to have taken place as the result of the Saviour's destruction. The only possible conclusion is that some other factor caused it. This is also the reason why the escape pod failed to function - it was damaged and rendered inoperable in the explosion."

-"I suspect that's also the reason the pilot was so badly injured." Yzak replied darkly, to which Aves nodded. "But how..." The question died unasked as Yzak realized the answer. There was only one possibility: While the machine was being repaired in Çanakkale. The real question to ask was why. And to that, Yzak as yet had no answer.

Meanwhile, Shinn was in the ship's medical bay again. He'd asked about Athrun when he arrived, and the doctor had told him that he was stable, but there was as yet no sign of improvement, and he still hadn't regained consciousness.

Glancing at the prone figure of the older man, Shinn then turned away and sat down next to Stella. She was asleep at the moment, but as he looked at her he thought that she was extremely pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She wasn't getting better.

After a while she stirred, and she started shaking.

"Stella? What's wrong - are you okay?" He asked worriedly. She turned her head at the sound of his voice, and her eyes opened slowly.

-"You...you saved Stella. You said...you'd protect me." She said, her voice barely rising above a whisper.

-"That's right, I did." He replied. Suddenly, she cried out, apparently in pain.

-"Stella!" Shinn exclaimed. He looked around for the doctor, who saw what was happening and rushed over, pushing him aside to get to her.

In the ship's mess, Lunamaria - her arm still in a sling, but otherwise doing well - was discussing the recent battle with Abby, Vino, and Yolant.

"Man, to think the Saviour would be trashed this badly," Luna commented, "It's pretty unbelievable."

-"Yeah," Vino replied, "I still can't believe it went down so easily. Still..."

-"It's kind of hard to accept that a member of FAITH would lose so badly, but then again it was the Freedom - that thing's one of the most powerful mobile suits ever, after all." Yolant replied.

-"I don't think we would have made it out if it wasn't for Shinn. Taking out those enemy ships like that - and he was about to destroy their carrier, too." Abby replied.

-"It's just like against that Alliance fleet when we were in Orb, you remember?" Vino piped up. They all nodded - everyone could remember the apparent ease with which Shinn had eliminated that mobile armor, along with those Alliance ships.

-"He's been utterly amazing, lately." Abby commented. "And the way he's always yelling commands, like when he orders the launch of one of the Silhouette flyers."

-"Yeah," Luna assented, "He's like some kind of super ace or something. It's pretty incredible."

At that moment, Shinn himself entered.

-"Shinn!" Luna exclaimed as she saw him. She thought he looked worried about something, and she wondered if he'd been visiting that girl again. None of them had any idea why he'd even brought her onboard, but they didn't ask.

-"You all right?" Shinn asked as he walked in, addressing Luna.

-"Yeah. They did a real number on me, but I'm fine. What about Athrun - d'you know how he's doing?"

-"Still the same." Shinn said flatly as he got himself a drink. "Stable, but still unconscious."

-"I see." Luna answered.

-"The Freedom trashed him pretty bad - took him apart. It's weird - why is someone like him a member of FAITH? He doesn't seem to be that strong." Shinn said. He shrugged, before adding "Maybe it's because he used to be stronger, once." He added dismissively, then left.

As was his habit, Shinn went out to the Minerva's rear deck. The sun was setting, and as he stood there and thought about what had been happening, he heard the door open. Glancing over his shoulder, he recognized Heine.

"Hey Shinn." Heine said as he limped over, still leaning on a crutch. Most of his injuries were healed, except for his leg. He moved towards the railing.

-"What is it?"

-"I could ask you that. Something on your mind?" The older man replied. Shinn nodded.

-"Just thinking about the battle." he said vaguely, though Heine sensed an undercurrent of anger in his tone.

-"I see. You're upset - the Orb fleet and the Alliance hit us pretty hard. It must be especially difficult for you; first Rey, and now Athrun."

Shinn scoffed at the mention of Athrun. Over the months they'd known each other, Shinn had come to respect Athrun, who had seemingly acted as a kind of mentor for him. And yet, his weakness in that battle...

"He acts like a big shot, but that's all it is, really - just an act." He said dismissively. "And Orb...all that crap about their so-called ideals, and yet they're still dogs of the Alliance. It's pathetic."

-"Now, that's not fair." Heine admonished. "I know you lost your family during the last war, but it's no reason to blame Representative Athha for a mistake her father made years ago. After all, she lost her family in that war too."

-"That sounds like the sort of thing Athrun would say." Shinn replied with a pained sort of smile. Then he remembered that Athrun had indeed said something to that effect once.

-"And he'd be right. Besides, remember what the Orb commander said in the battle: It was by her order that they withdrew."

-"That's true." Shinn agreed reluctantly. "To be honest, I wouldn't have believed it of her."

-"I on the other hand was not surprised at all. It's the same with Athrun - he's not weak by any means. He's just conflicted about what to do about the current situation."

Shinn was skeptical about that. On the one hand, he'd gotten a feeling that for all his calm demeanor, Athrun had great strength. If the Chaos had been anything to go by, Athrun was certainly not weak. The more he thought about it, the more Heine's statement seemed correct. It seemed stupid to Shinn, and he said as much.

-"He needs to get his act together. The Earth Forces...no, the Atlantic Federation are the ones responsible for all of this. I would've thought he realized that - that's why he returned to ZAFT."

For a few moments, the two men remained silent. Heine looked curiously at Shinn for a moment as the younger pilot seemed to become pensive.

-"The doc was telling me you're spending a lot of time in medical." Heine began. "You visiting that girl?"

-"Stella." Shinn replied absently.

-"Stella, right." Heine said slowly, before continuing. "You're worried about her."

-"I just..." Shinn started to say, but Heine interrupted with another question.

-"You love her, don't you?"

The question surprised Shinn, and he looked at the other pilot. He'd never really thought much about it, but at the same time, he reflected on everything that had happened since he had met her, the way she made him feel, and he knew deep in his heart that there was no other word for it.

He nodded.

'I had guessed as much.' Heine thought. It made little sense to him, but the evidence was there, and Shinn himself confirmed it. "Well listen. I know the Doc is doing everything he can, and when we get to Gibraltar I'm sure they'll have even better-equipped facilities. Just don't do anything rash, okay?"

Some time later, Shinn was on his way up to his quarters, when as he passed by the hallway that led down to the medical bay he overheard Yzak speaking.

"I see," the Captain was saying, "and there's no way we can reverse it?"

-"Unfortunately not. At this point, it's only a matter of time." Shinn stopped, as he had recognized the voice as belonging to the doctor. He stopped and listened as the man continued. "I'd like nothing more than to hand the girl over alive once we reach Gibraltar, but if that's not possible, then I'd recommend against keeping her on life support any longer - it could make it more difficult to obtain accurate data from an autopsy."

What he heard angered Shinn, as it seemed to him that the doctor was talking about Stella as if she wasn't even human - just some laboratory experiment, like the Alliance themselves would. With some difficulty, he stopped himself from lashing out and simply stayed out of sight, listening as the Captain replied.

-"We already have more than enough tissue samples gathered from the corpses we found at the lab - what the Council wants is a living Extended. Our orders from Headquarters are to hand her over alive - Keep her on life support until we reach Gibraltar." Yzak said.

-"I understand - I'll continue her present course of treatment."

-"Very good, thank you." Yzak replied, and he started to leave when he turned back to the doctor. "Hey, doctor. One other thing: Does Shinn still come to see her?"

-"Yes, quite often. For the life of me I can't understand why, though."

-"Is that so?" Yzak replied "Well, I don't think it's necessary for him to know this. Just do what you can to keep her alive."

-"Right. I'll do what I can to keep her stable as long as possible." The doctor replied.

Yzak walked away, thinking about the doctor's report. The entire conversation left a bad taste in his mouth. He found it repulsive that the Alliance could even have done something like this to someone so young - he guessed her to be no older than sixteen or seventeen - and it bothered him that there was apparently little they could do about it. Worse yet, he was worried that if Shinn knew, he might try something stupid. Irritated, he headed up to the bridge, while Shinn waited for a moment to make sure the doctor had returned to medical before running up to his quarters.

Several hours later, Shinn returned to medical. The door slid open, and he saw that the doctor was nowhere to be seen - just a single nurse on duty. He ran in and, as she turned around, took her out with a blow to the stomach that knocked her unconscious. He turned to Stella, and softly called her name, trying to wake her. She opened her eyes, smiling weakly when she saw him.

"Shinn?" she asked as she looked at him.

-"Let's go. I'm going to keep my promise to you." He answered. "I'll protect you, Stella."

He unfastened the straps that held her in place and, taking her in his arms, carried her out of the medical bay.

This late at night, the hallways were deserted; almost everyone was asleep. Even in the hangar, only a minimal guard was posted. Still, Shinn moved cautiously as he headed down to the lift that would take him to the hangar. He knew a spare Core Splendor was loaded in the central catapult; his plan was to take it and get Stella out. Based on its course when it had left, the Jones had to have moored in Iraklio, in nearby Crete. He'd carefully checked and made sure before setting his plan into motion.

He hated the idea of returning Stella to them, but he refused to sit by and let her die. Besides, judging from what he'd heard, the Council were no better. Reaching the hangar, he told Stella to wait for a moment, then he spotted the guard. Using the wreckage of the Saviour for cover, he slipped down to him, and slammed him in the back of the neck. Out cold, the guard collapsed, falling heavily to the ground.

Retrieving Stella, he made his way over to the central catapult. He'd gotten the Core Splendor's canopy opened and was lowering her carefully into the cockpit when he heard a voice.

"HEY YOU! What do you think you're doing over there?"

'Shit. A second guard.' Shinn thought. As the guard ran towards him, rifle held at the ready, Shinn stepped towards him. Then he lunged slightly to the side and ran towards him. In the couple of instants it took the guard to adjust the rifle, Shinn had reached him. and took him down with a vicious right cross to the face.

After checking that the coast was clear, he opened the catapult and entered the Core Splendor's cockpit himself.

In medical, the doctor suddenly entered to find the duty nurse unconscious and the bed that had held the Extended empty. But by the time he sounded the alarm and the bridge was alerted, the Core Splendor was airborne.

"What the hell's going on?" Yzak demanded. "What's the emergency?"

-"Medical bay reports the Extended is missing!" Bart replied.

-"She's WHAT?!"

-"Captain!" Abby suddenly reported. "The spare Core Splendor just launched!"

-"Did she...no. From what the doc told me she's in no condition to even walk, much less hijack the Core Splendor...then that means..."

-"It's Shinn." Heine simply said. He sounded disappointed, but not surprised.

-"WHAT?!" Yzak roared. "He's deserting now?"

-"Oh, no." Heine said. "If he was deserting, he would have taken the Impulse, not the spare Core Splendor. I think we can be pretty certain he'll be back."

-"Good." Yzak fumed. "Because when that moron gets back, I'm gonna kill him."

"Okay...location of the Earth Forces ship. Coordinates...good. Now then." Shinn muttered in the Core Splendor's cockpit, then he flipped a switch that began broadcasting the Gaia's IFF code. Stella stirred. "Just hang on a little longer, okay?" He said, focusing on maintaining his course.

Onboard the Jones, the night watch was on duty when the ship's sensors detected the transmission. Immediately, Captain McCaffrey and O'Donnell were summoned to the bridge.

"Gaia's IFF code? and it's airborne? What the hell's going on?" Lukas demanded.

-"I don't know sir. But someone's broadcasting it trying to contact us. And they're transmitting a set of coordinates." The officer at the sensor console replied, and displayed the coordinates on the screen.

-"Hmm...that's about a hundred kilometers from here. Try responding."

When they did so, a new message was transmitted.

"To Lukas. Stella's waiting. Come alone..." The Commander read. "The problem is, none of our mobile suits are ready to sortie at the moment." Lukas commented. "I'll take a chopper."

-"Take Kinney with you." McCaffrey stated. "If it really is Stella, then after all this time she's going to be in bad shape. No point bringing her back dead. I'll have Holcroft's and Cal Bayan's machines prepped and standing by if things go south."

-"Fair enough." Lukas replied. Soon enough, launch preparations were underway for both of the Windams, while a helicopter, piloted by Lukas and carrying Doctor Kinney and emergency medical equipment, took off.
As the helicopter neared the designated point, Lukas spotted a tiny fighter sitting among the deserted ruins, and guessed this aircraft was the one that had transmitted the signal. He noticed its canopy was open, but could not see inside in the darkness.

In the cabin, Doctor Kinney had seen it too. As soon as the helicopter touched down, she was out the door and running towards it, but then she stopped dead in her tracks. In the fighter's cockpit, she saw a young man, dark-haired and pale, in a wine-red uniform. In his arms, he held Stella, who appeared to be in extremely bad shape, with a bandage around her head and wearing a loose-fitting hospital gown. Of more concern was the heavy semi-automatic pistol in his hand, which was aimed squarely at her.

-"Who are you?" he asked harshly.

-"I'm Doctor Kinney." she said, without moving or taking her eyes off the muzzle of the gun. "Lukas O'Donnell brought me here to take care of her."

Behind her, Shinn saw the man Lukas, wearing a black-and-grey uniform, with his hand hovering near a holstered sidearm at his waist.
Focusing on the woman, he glared at her for a moment, then lowered his weapon. There was something about her that convinced Shinn that she was telling the truth. Something about her eyes, the way her gaze shifted to Stella as she spoke.

"She's dying. I'm bringing her back because I don't want her to die. You'll make sure she survives?" he asked. Kinney nodded. Shinn stood, stepping down from the Core Splendor with Stella in his arms.

"Look, Stella. Doctor Kinney's here - and Lukas, too." Shinn said to Stella.

-"L...Lukas?"

-"That's right." He said softly. O'Donnell was still out of earshot, but Kinney heard the way he spoke to her, and it surprised her. There was a warmth, a kindness in his tone that did not match the hard look that had been in his eyes before. Shinn stepped down from the fighter's wing, but moved no further.

-"I want you to promise me something." Shinn said.

-"Yes?" Kinney replied as O'Donnell stopped, now standing next to and slightly behind her.

-"Promise me that you'll take her away from all this. Away from the war, from death. Take her to some place where she can find the kindness, the warmth she deserves." He said, looking from one to the other. After a second's hesitation, Lukas nodded.

-"I give you my word." Kinney said. "As long as I have anything to say about it, she will never again see a battlefield."

Shinn stepped forward and handed her over to the doctor. As Kinney took her in her arms, something caught her eye. Around his neck, he was wearing something. It took a few seconds for her to recognize what it was: a seashell, identical to the one that even then, Stella wore around her neck. And then she remembered the incident in Bandirma, some weeks earlier.

-"Perhaps a "Thank you" would be appropriate." O'Donnell said.

-"Save it!" Shinn snapped. "Just don't forget what I said."

If there was one thing Kinney prided herself on - and she knew there were few enough things she had done that she could feel proud of - it was that she was a good judge of character. This boy's feelings were genuine, she knew, which was why she had agreed to his request...Just as she knew that O'Donnell, who stood now next to her, was almost certainly never going to let that happen. She turned towards the chopper. After a second, Lukas followed, but Shinn addressed him one last time.

-"If I found out you lied...I'll kill you myself." He threatened, then climbed into the Core Splendor's cockpit. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he started up the Core Splendor's turbines.

'Don't forget me, Stella.' he thought, then the small craft took off, heading back towards the Minerva.