AUTHOR'S NOTE: Right. So here we begin a four-chapter arc marking the next two major divergences from canon, starting with the Destroy Gundam attack. For this arc, I introduce new equipment I created for the Impulse, which will first appear in the next chapter. So this is mostly a set-up chapter, with a few small differences from canon.
PHASE 19: Endless Nightmare
Kythira, Eurasian Federation
The sun was rising as Shinn flew the Core Splendor back to the Minerva, and when he arrived he found the port-side catapult was open. He knew that he was in for trouble, but after what he'd heard, if it meant Stella lived instead of being dissected like some kind of lab specimen, it was worth it.
He landed in the hangar and stepped out, though he felt more prudent to leave the big semiautomatic in the cockpit. Several MPs were waiting for him, assault rifles leveled.
"Shinn Asuka," one of them started to say, "You are under arrest for violations of military law including Article 3, Section G." Another stepped forward and handcuffed him.
Under close guard, Shinn was brought to Yzak's quarters. Absently, he noticed Heine and Lunamaria were waiting outside, the latter looking worried. The MP announced himself.
"Excuse me, sir. We've arrested Shinn Asuka and brought him here as ordered."
-"Bring him in." Yzak ordered from inside as the door opened.
The MPs stepped in, Shinn behind them. Yzak was at his desk, and he was livid. Arthur stood next to the desk. Yzak dismissed the MPs, leaving Shinn standing handcuffed in front of the desk, his face expressionless.
-"Well, kid. You've really done it this time." Yzak said, his tone indicating clearly how angry he was. It was taking Yzak every ounce of self-control he had not to throttle the kid. "Obviously, you know what you're facing here. Releasing a prisoner without authorizations; Multiple attacks on fellow crew members; Unauthorized use of military equipment; Unauthorized contact with enemy forces. I've never heard of such boneheaded disregard for military regulations! Just what in the hell was going through your head, Shinn? I don't care if you felt sorry for this girl, she was still..."
-"She was dying." Shinn said firmly. "Not that you would care." He added spitefully, glaring at Yzak.
-"What'd you say?" Yzak said, his voice rising. Next to him, Arthur looked appalled.
-"Alliance or not, Stella was a human being. And yet you treated her like some kind of animal! Like it didn't matter if she died, so long as you got your precious data!" Shinn continued, his voice rising. "You may talk about the Alliance as if they're some kind of inhuman monsters for the things they did. But as far as I'm concerned, sir...you're no better."
At that, Yzak had had it. He stood, walking around the desk, and cut loose with a right cross straight to Shinn's face. Shinn rolled with the punch so the impact was minimized somewhat, but the blow still threw him to the floor.
-"And you think that justifies your actions, you little bastard?" Yzak roared. Shinn just glared at him, his expression defiant. "The fact is, we had specific orders from Headquarters to deliver her to Gibraltar. Defying orders because of your personal opinion is unacceptable."
"I'll be reporting this to Headquarters." Yzak said as he sat back down. Shinn stood up, still glaring at Yzak with that defiant expression. "Until such a time as a formal decision is reached regarding your punishment, you are hereby confined to the brig."
The MPs entered Yzak's office and collected him, then escorted him to the brig, locking him in one of the cells. Shortly thereafter, the door to the brig opened.
"You know, when I said not to do anything rash, this is the kind of thing I was referring to." Heine said as he entered, still leaning on a crutch, although his injured leg was on the mend. "So, I take it you returned her safely?"
-"I did." Shinn said tonelessly. "I just couldn't stand it anymore. Stella is a victim here too; It's not like you or me - we volunteered for this. She didn't. But nobody cared about that - they only thought of her as some kind of lab experiment; like she wasn't even human! And nobody care whether she died or not."
-"Except you, lover boy?" Heine quipped mock-seriously. Then he continued. "Well then if that's what worried you so much, then I think we can be pretty certain that at least for now, she won't die. But have you thought about what happens next?"
Shinn looked at the older pilot, who continued. "You're not wrong; At least as far as that goes, I happen to agree. But face the facts, kid: She is one of the Alliance's Extendeds - and volunteer or no, she's killed her fair share of ZAFT soldiers, and then some.
-"So does that mean I should've done nothing, and let her die? She was suffering, and she was scared!" Shinn retorted.
-"That's not what I said. But do you really think you solved anything by returning her to the ones who made her that way in the first place?" Heine said. "I know you loved her, and you hated to see the way she was treated. But remember that the Alliance would treat her no better; they might even treat her worse. And mark my words: I don't care what they told you, as soon as they can they'll put her back out there. Just think about that."
Heine then left the brig, leaving Shinn alone in the dark with his thoughts. On a certain level, as much as he hated to admit it, Heine was right.
But that woman...that doctor. She had promised. And somehow, he knew that she had meant it when she did.
That was enough for him...for now.
The following day, repairs were completed on Lunamaria's ZAKU, while the emergency repairs on the ship itself continued. Yzak and Heine were on the bridge, when the medical bay contacted the bridge and asked for them to come down. Given that there was only one patient in medical currently, Yzak was worried. However, the news was good.
"Hey, look who's back from the dead." Heine commented as they entered. Athrun, who had regained consciousness, looked from Heine to Yzak, smiling weakly.
-"Sorry." He said, "Didn't mean to make you guys worry."
-"Save it, Athrun." Yzak said, but all three of them knew his anger was at least partly feigned. "I'm just glad to see you're on the mend. We're a little short on pilots with brains in their heads around here."
-"What do you mean?" Athrun asked. Then he looked around, and he saw the empty bed, heavy straps still dangling from its frame. "Hey, where's..."
-"The Extended? What did Shinn say her name was? Right, Stella." Heine interrupted. "Well, Shinn got it into his head to return her to the Alliance. Hijacked the spare Core Splendor and flew her out last night. He's in the brig for now."
-"If it were me, I'd have tossed the little idiot overboard." Yzak glowered as Heine recounted the events of the previous night.
-"That sounds familiar." Athrun commented dryly.
-"How so?" Heine asked.
-"During the previous war, Lacus's shuttle, the Silverwind, went missing, do you remember?" Athrun started. Heine nodded, vaguely remembering having heard of the incident at the time. "Anyway, she ended up being recovered by the Archangel, which was being pursued by the LeCreuset Team. When one of the officers onboard used her as a hostage to force us to back off...well after that, the pilot of their mobile suit returned her to us, to the Vesalius."
-"That was completely different." Yzak started to say.
-"Was it though?" Heine contested. "There are some differences, and unlike this Stella girl Lacus Clyne was a civilian. But the general circumstances are not entirely dissimilar..."
-"In any case, I've reported the matter to Headquarters." Yzak interjected. "We're still waiting to hear back, so he can cool his heels in the brig until we reach Gibraltar."
It took another day for the emergency repairs to the ship to proceed to a point where it could safely travel the rest of the way to Gibraltar. Escorted by the Lesseps-class and two Vosgolov-class subs, the Minerva reached ZAFT's second largest base several days later than it had originally intended, but it had arrived. Shinn had remained in the brig during this time, with only occasional visits from Lunamaria or Heine. Athrun remained in medical.
Yzak, Arthur and Heine left the ship and headed up to the base to report, and to receive their latest orders. The gathered data and what tissue and biological samples they did have from Lodonia were offloaded as well, to be analyzed further at a more specialized facility. The Gaia was also taken off the ship.
Meanwhile, more extensive repairs and resupply was begun on the ship as well as its mobile suits, especially the lost weapons, destroyed as a result of the battle. Aves was overseeing the loading of replacement parts and mobile suits, when the foreman in charge of the work approached him.
"That should be just about everything. Additional parts and supplies for ZGMF-1000 ZAKU Warrior, ZGMF-2000 GOUF Ignited. Additional mobile suits should be assigned to the ship shortly; we're just waiting to hear from the Homeland. I've also got additional parts here for a ZGMF-X56S Impulse."
-"New parts for the Impulse?" Aves asked. He glanced at the readout the other man handed him. "Hmm...Okay. The new parts for the Impulse go in there." Aves indicated the loading bay for the central catapult, which held the Impulse's various Flyers.
The crews began loading the new components, and Aves noted with some interest that the Force Silhouettes were offloaded to make room for the new equipment. Soon enough, the loading was complete. With the resupply finished, the only thing remaining now was completing the ship's repairs.
The VTOL transport plane, escorted by a single Dagger, approached its destination: A gigantic, steel-grey land battleship, the Atlantic Federation's Hannibal-class Bonaparte. Onboard the transport plane was a single mobile armor, and several Dagger-Ls. The pilots of the half-dozen or so machines were in the craft's passenger compartment, along with three others: Lukas O'Donnell, Doctor Martin Rice, and Stella Loussier. The latter was sedated at the moment.
Upon returning to the Jones, Doctor Kinney had just about worked a miracle, stabilizing Stella's condition and bringing her back. However, orders had come down from the top brass: Rice, Lukas, and the Extended were transferred out; Kinney was ordered to remain with the Jones.
And now, here they were. The pilot transmitted the craft's ID code, identifying it as belonging to the 81st Independent Battalion, and received permission to land. As they disembarked, Lukas and Rice were shown to their own quarters, and then to where Stella would be kept, personally supervised by Rice and a couple of orderlies.
Returning to his own quarters, Lukas thought about the last conversation he'd had with Jibril, shortly before leaving the Jones.
"Miscalculations happen even with the best-laid plans. I suppose one can conclude that the Minerva is too much to handle, even for you." Jibril had said. "Fortunately, the X1 is nearly complete. I've decided to hand it over to you - although an operation like this one wouldn't be necessary if your team had just destroyed the Minerva in the first place, but these things happen."
He thought about the specified targets as he briefly glanced at the specifications for the new model mobile armor GFAS-X1, aptly code-named "Destroy".
Broadly speaking, his orders were to use the new mobile armor to bring Eurasia into line. He supposed wryly that the fact that both Baum and Marshall were supposedly going to be in one of the target cities could not be a coincidence. Then he pondered Jibril's last words to him before the line had been cut.
"You have to cut off the diseased limb swiftly, before the cancer spreads." He had said.
Lukas shrugged. "The only good Coordinator's a dead one." He muttered. As for the Naturals who sided with the PLANTs, they were no different in his view.
A few days later, they were ready. Stella's recovery was complete, and for good measure Rice had done a complete wipe of her memories, removing the incident beginning with her capture and leading up to her arrival on the Bonaparte, as well as any recollection of Lodonia itself.
Lukas took her into the ship's cavernous primary hangar, where the gigantic mobile armor was waiting for her. Developed from data gathered from the Zamza-Zah and Gells-Ghe, combined with technologies introduced in the Chaos, it was the most powerful mobile weapon in existence, with more than five times the power of a traditional mobile suit such as the Gaia.
"This is the new machine you're going to pilot." Lukas announced as they looked up at it.
-"This...is my machine?" Stella asked, turning from the Destroy to look at Lukas. "A new one?"
-"That's right." Lukas said, nodding. "You have to use it to fight again, Stella. Otherwise...enemies will come. And they'll kill us all." As Lukas spoke, he thought of the kid who'd brought her back. So naïve - and Kinney was just as foolish.
-"Kill us...all? Stella too?" she suddenly asked, frightened. "Even Lukas?" Lukas nodded.
-"That's right." He answered.
-"No!" Stella exclaimed, shaking her head, leaning into his shoulder. "No way! I don't want to die!"
-"Then I'm afraid you'll have to fight." Lukas replied. "I know you can do this, Stella. Use this machine to get rid of them all."
Stella nodded, and with Lukas watching she climbed into the Destroy's spacious cockpit, as launch preparations began.
"Linkage to Biological CPU, satisfactory. GFAS-X1, standby for launch. Emergency crew, stand by. Opening gates for X1 launch platform."
As Lukas headed to the Chaos, the gigantic dome that made up the top of the Bonaparte slid apart, and the platform carrying the enormous mobile armor slid upwards. Once it was in place, the Destroy's thrusters carried it up and forward, and it took up a position in front of the ship.
"All right. Let's get out there too. Lukas O'Donnell here. Chaos, launching!" Lukas said, and the Chaos took off, taking up a position above the Destroy, along with a team of roughly a dozen Jet Daggers, as the formation continued on its course towards their target.
ZAFT Forces Gibraltar Base
Repairs on the Minerva's hull continued, and its destroyed weapons had already been repaired. In the hangar Aves and his team were hard at work ensuring that all of their mobile suits were ready to go.
Shinn had remained in the brig this entire time. In the darkness of the small cell, he brooded over the events of the last few months, especially what had happened with Stella, and he thought about Heine's words to him when they had last spoken.
With every fiber of his being, he wanted to believe in that doctor's promise, that Stella was okay, somewhere away from the war. But Heine's words had made him realize that there was little chance of that.
He'd also heard from Lunamaria that Athrun had regained consciousness, although he was still in extremely bad shape, and with his injuries it would be a while before he could leave medical. The news had relieved him. After losing Rey, he didn't think he could stand to have the Freedom take away another friend.
That thought had surprised him - he'd never really thought of Athrun as a friend before; he respected the older pilot, yes. But a friend? Even now, Shinn shook his head at the idea.
He knew that they had arrived at Gibraltar, and this entire time he had remained in the brig. Shinn wondered what would happen to him now...
"Sir," Abby announced on the bridge, addressing Yzak. "Emergency Level-One communication from Headquarters."
-"Route it to my personal terminal. I'll take it in my quarters." Yzak ordered, standing as he did so.
-"Right." Abby acknowledged, as Yzak left the bridge, Arthur at his heels.
"I wonder what's going to happen to Shinn." the latter wondered out loud.
-"Normally? Given the severity of his offenses, he would probably be executed." Yzak commented. "Still, taking into account his impressive record so far, I think he should escape the death penalty."
They reached his quarters, and Yzak entered and sat down, with Arthur standing behind him. "Because we failed to stop him, we'll probably be charged as well." Yzak continued, then unlocked his terminal. The communication came in, and Yzak found himself facing the Chairwoman of the National Defense Committee - his own mother, Ezalia Joule.
"Captain Joule." She said formally.
-"Ms. Chairwoman." he replied stiffly.
-"Concerning the escape of the captured Extended, it is an unfortunate setback. However, the raid provided ample data as well as biological samples for study, so it is not too significant."
-"And what about Shinn?" Yzak asked.
-"According to your report, he's been incarcerated since his return, is that correct?" Ezalia asked.
-"That is correct." Yzak replied, wondering what she was leading up to.
-"In light of his accomplishments and the exemplary record of your ship thus far, as well as the gravity of the current war situation, the National Defense Committee has decided not to proceed to a court-martial. An official letter of reprimand will be issued, and any additional punishment will be left to your discretion, Captain."
-"Very well. Thank you, ma'am." Yzak replied, then the line went dead.
Several hours later, a team of MPs entered the brig and unlocked Shinn's cell.
"You - get out." one of them ordered. Shinn stood impassively, exiting the cell and letting himself be handcuffed, as the MPs escorted him up to Yzak's office.
Yzak dismissed the MPs, who removed the handcuffs and left. Then Shinn stepped up to the desk, where Yzak handed him the letter of reprimand.
Shinn read it without a word.
"There you have it." Yzak said flatly. "Consider yourself lucky; if the Council had pressed charges, you would have been executed. Well, do you have anything to say for yourself?"
-"No, sir." Shinn replied tonelessly.
-"Then beat it. And don't do something that stupid again - next time, I'll personally have you court-martialed."
Shinn left the office without another word, then headed down to the mess to get something to drink. There, he found Vino, Yolant, and Lunamaria. Heine, who had at last been able to forego the crutch, was also present.
"Shinn!" Vino exclaimed when he saw him. "I'm glad to see you! We were so worried, man."
-"I'm sorry for any trouble I caused you." He said sincerely. "But I'm all right now. I truly appreciate your concern." As he spoke, he looked to Heine.
-"Okay. Just promise me something. Don't do something like that again." The older man said with a slight look of concern.
-"Sure." Shinn replied.
Warsaw, Eurasian Federation
Land battleship Compton
The Eurasian Federation heavy land battleship Compton had been stationed outside of Warsaw, an area that in the months since the war had seen significant unrest as a result of the growing rift between Eurasia and their powerful neighbors. A second ship of the same class, the Martindale, had also been stationed here. The situation had been exacerbated since, in the aftermath of the Break the World incident, ZAFT relief forces had been stationed not far away, purportedly for humanitarian aid to parts of the region affected by the fall of Junius Seven.
However, nothing had prepared them for what they were facing, as the ship's CIC suddenly reported large numbers of incoming units.
"What are we talking about here?" Colonel Rankov, the CO, asked.
"Looks like about thirty mobile suits...they're Daggers, sir!" The CIC responded. "Plus two unknowns. Signatures are at least battleship-class."
-"Bring them up on the monitor." Rankov ordered, and the large screens suddenly showed what they were facing. In the very rear, an enormous land battleship, at least as large as the Compton itself, flanked by several formations of Jet Striker-equipped Daggers and a handful of Windams. In the foreground, a mobile armor that the systems recognized as the Atlantic Federation's TSX-MA24F Chaos, along with still more Daggers. But what shocked them most was the machine at the head of the line, a monstrous black behemoth with enormous twin-barreled cannons on its back.
Then the GFAS-X1 Destroy attacked, firing its two twin-barreled "Aupfrall Dreizehn" beam cannons at the two ships and the mobile suits arrayed around them. The attack tore the Martindale apart before it even had a chance to counterattack, annihilating at least half of the mobile suits around it and continuing past until it struck the outermost sectors of the city itself.
"The hell? Counterattack - send out all our mobile suits...and send out a mayday on the International Rescue Channel!" Rankov ordered. The response was immediate, as the Compton began deploying its mobile suits and fired at the enemy mobile armor.
The Destroy immediately deployed a positron reflector, which blocked the incoming barrage, rendering the attack ineffective, and counterattacked with a barrage of missiles that devastated the mobile suit forces on the ground.
In the air, the Daggers that were escorting the Destroy found themselves engaged directly by the Compton's own aerial assault teams, composed almost entirely of the significantly superior Windam. Though the Daggers had the advantage in numbers, the Eurasian pilots had equal skill and better machines.
However, the Destroy fired a massive barrage of missiles indiscriminately into the melée, taking out several Windams as well as any Daggers unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire.
Then they heard a response.
"Compton, this is the Rommel. We read your mayday loud and clear." came the message, as from the south a pair of ZAFT Lesseps-class land battleships closed at long-range, firing on the Destroy along with a massive formation of TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, roughly half of which were of the newer W2 "Kerberos" model, as well as equal numbers of aerial units, a mix of DINNs and the brand-new GOUF Ignited. Caught between the two formations and now outnumbered three to one, the Daggers that were escorting the Destroy soon went down. However, the Destroy itself attacked, firing an array of beam cannons mounted around the circumference of its body that targeted all of the ZAFT forces. Roughly half of the BuCUEs and most of the GOUFs were able to evade the attacks, but the slower DINNs and many of the remaining Daggers were destroyed. With another attack, the Destroy fired an array of enormous multiphase beam cannons as well as its two back-mounted weapons at the ZAFT ships, obliterating them both then it continued into Minsk itself.
The Compton sought to pursue, but it was engaged by the ship to the rear, along with its own remaining mobile suits.
At the same time, the remaining ZAFT mobile suits and the handful of the Compton's Daggers that remained moved in to pursue, but were unable to land any significant hits on the Destroy, thwarted by its multiple positron reflectors and its incredibly thick armor.
When a team of ZAFT aerial mobile suits tried to attack it from behind, the Destroy unleashed a barrage from the missile launchers on its back, followed by a shot from its back-mounted cannons. The onslaught obliterated the remaining GOUFs and tore through the city itself before catching the Compton broadside, tearing apart the ship's hull and destroying the bridge.
With its enemy destroyed, the Bonaparte continued following from a distance as the Destroy, escorted by the Chaos, continued its rampage unhindered.
Yzak was reading through a report from Aves. Repairs on the ship itself and what mobile suits it carried were nearly complete. However, even though nearly two weeks had passed they had yet to receive additional forces from Headquarters. Yzak had been informed that replacement mobile suits were being flown in from Carpentaria, but they had yet to arrive. Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a message from Abby Windsor.
"Emergency message from Headquarters, sir!" the ship's communications officer reported from her console. "The Alliance is staging an invasion in Western Eurasia. Minsk and Warsaw have already been destroyed! The enemy has already eliminated the Bridger and Craig Teams when they attempted to support Eurasian forces attempting to engage the enemy force, and is now continuing towards Berlin. All ZAFT forces are to go to emergency status!"
-"What the hell? Three cities taken out already?..." Yzak exclaimed. Then they brought up the footage that was transmitted to them from what remained of Berlin.
-"What in God's name is that thing?" Arthur exclaimed. There was a crashing sound, as Yzak slammed his fist down on the arm of his chair.
-"That really doesn't matter at the moment, Arthur." the Captain glowered at his XO. Then he gave out his orders. "Upgrade to Condition Red. Minerva, prepare for immediate emergency takeoff! We're going in - we have to stop that thing, no matter what!"
And soon enough, the Minerva, sorely under-equipped as it was, took off from Gibraltar, heading northeast across Eurasia towards its next mission.
He only hoped they could take that monster down...