AUTHOR'S NOTE: The next two chapters broadly correspond to episode 35 of the series, and the events depicted therein essentially act as a transition from this point of the story to the next major arc, replacing episodes 36 and 37. The events in those two episodes as depicted in the series do not take place.
PHASE 23: Eve of Chaos
Quite a crowd had gathered in the Minerva's hangar as the starboard catapult opened for Shinn's return. With the amount of damage the Impulse had taken, the Chest, and Leg Flyers were complete write-offs, as was the Storm Silhouette.
Shinn ejected the wrecked components, and the Core Splendor alone returned to the Minerva. The little aircraft landed and Shinn taxied into the hangar, where he stopped. He opened the canopy and clambered out, helmet in hand, and was met first by Vino and Yolant.
"Wow, man. You were awesome out there." Vino said. "I can't believe you defeated the Freedom! Not even Athrun could handle that one!"
- "That was incredible." Lunamaria assented as she and Heine came up to him. She was beaming, and visibly impressed. "You were amazing."
- "Excellent work, Shinn." Heine added, holding out his hand. Shinn shook his hand, smiling gratefully.
- "Thanks, sir." He answered. "But I couldn't have done it without you. You were the one who came up with the strategy."
- "And your skill helped pull it off." Heine replied. "And what have I told you about calling me 'sir'?" He added mock-seriously, to general amusement.
Some distance away, Athrun stood, watching. Shinn spotted him, and shouldering his way through the crowd, walked in his direction. Walking up to him him, he looked at Athrun, and adressed the older pilot.
- "I took revenge today." He said. "For both of us."
- "Revenge?" Athrun replied angrily. "You feel pretty proud of yourself, don't you?" Athrun replied. "Wha..."
- "Yeah. And why shouldn't I be? Is it wrong for me to be proud when I defeated a powerful enemy?" Shinn replied. He was somewhat surprised at Athrun's reaction, as if what he'd done was somehow wrong - which it wasn't.
"You bastard! Kira wasn't even trying to kill you! He never tried to kill anyone! Ever!"
"That's bullshit, and you know it." Shinn retorted, his temper rising. "And what's your problem, anyway? Are you pissed because I took him down and you couldn't? Or maybe you'd like it better if I'd been the one to die out there. Well?"
At that, Athrun lost it. All of the emotions he felt, the anger and the grief of Kira's death, came to the surface and, as he faced Shinn, he cut loose with a punch that slammed in the younger man's face. Reeling from the blow, Shinn staggered a couple of steps back, but before he could retaliate, Heine stepped in between them, an angry expression on his face.
- "Shinn, cool it." He said, but Shinn ignored him, glaring at Athrun. The younger man looked like he'd like nothing better to punch Athrun himself, but he restrained himself.
- "He never tried to kill anyone? Just how stupid are you?!" He spat contemptously. "He killed Rey, and who knows how many others! He almost killed you, damn it!"
-"Shinn, I said stop it!" Heine said again, more firmly. Shinn stepped back, glowering from Athrun to Heine, then turned around and left the hangar. As he stood in the doorway, he turned back to the older two men.
- "He was the enemy, and I took him down." Shinn said, glowering at Athrun as he spoke. "I'm not going to apologize for that. And the truth is, I couldn't have done it without your help either, Athrun." Then he left the hangar.
Shinn's comment left Athrun speechless for a moment, as he recalled what he had told Shinn before, and realized that Shinn was right. If he was honest with himself, Shinn had proven to be even more skilled of a pilot than he'd expected - despite his age and his impulsive nature, he was easily a match in raw talent for Kira or Athrun himself. And on a certain level, Athrun should have expected that something like this would happen. Heine, meanwhile, turned to face Athrun, a reproachful look on his face.
"No offense, but you can't blame the kid. What'd you have to slug him like that for?" He asked. "Listen, I know he's got an attitude problem, but honestly Shinn's right. Personal feelings aside, you're the one who's out of line here; We had specific orders from the homeland to take down that ship, and Shinn carried them out brilliantly."
Athrun opened his mouth to reply, but Heine continued, guessing what Athrun was about to say. "I know you feel they aren't our enemy, but their actions to date prove otherwise. I would think that after what they did to you, you'd get that."
At a loss for words, Athrun turned and left the hangar, heading for his quarters. Heine looked after them, a concerned expression on his face, as Lunamaria walked up. She had an odd expression on her face, part concerned, part exasperated.
"Oh brother." She said, sounding exasperated. "Now what's going to happen?"
"Hopefully, they'll both calm down and work it out." Heine said. However, something like this would take time, and he was worried that something worse might happen before they did...
In his quarters, Athrun thought about what had happened, how he had had a hand, however indirectly, in the events that had just transpired. He thought back to the events of the last few months, and finally to the last time he and Kira had met face to face, after the disastrous first battle in the Dardanelles. As much as he had tried to believe otherwise, Heine was right.
"Still...that doesn't mean that you had to kill him." Athrun said bitterly, and he wept for the death of his best friend.
Later, he realized that as angry and as devastated as he was at Kira's death, Shinn too had lost a best friend, and must have felt much the same. And he mused that they certainly seemed to be stuck in exactly the same kind of situation that Cagalli had described, so long ago.
He would talk to Shinn later on, he decided.
Its mission accomplished, the Minerva set a new course south, heading directly back to Gibraltar. Heine headed up to the bridge, where Yzak was expecting him.
"Heine." He said, "Good. I was just about to call you."
- "Something the matter, sir?" Heine asked.
- "Not really. We've received orders from HQ to return to Gibraltar. The Minerva will resupply there and stand by. You, on the other hand, will not. The Supreme Council's relayed orders for you to hop a shuttle and rendez-vous with the Vermeer in lunar orbit; you're to be assigned to the lunar fleet, based off the Gondwana." Yzak replied.
Heine, like Yzak a member of FAITH, understood that these orders were from the highest possible authority. He nodded, then shrugged.
- "Pity; I was looking forward to sticking around for the next act. But I guess it can't be helped." He said philosophically. Still, he was worried about Shinn and Athrun.
- "No, that it can't." Yzak said. Then he noted something in the other man's expression. "Something on your mind?"
Heine then explained what had happened in the hangar, and Yzak rolled his eyes as he spoke, an exasperated expression. "I'll talk to them later. Damn, that guy's a royal pain in my ass."
- "Which one?" Heine asked half-jokingly, before leaving the bridge. Yzak just shook his head.
The Minerva had been under way for several hours, and the sun was setting. Shinn stood on the observation deck, looking out at the sunset. He fished a small, pink mobile phone out of his pocket, and he flipped through the photographs that were stored in the device's memories. Most were of him, alone or with Mayu, his sister. Some were of his parents, and there were a fair few of Mayu herself.
Lost in his memories, he did not hear the door slide open, nor the footsteps as someone came up behind him. Suddenly, the new arrival spoke, jolting him out of his rêverie.
"A pink phone? That's kind of unusual."
Shinn whipped around, glaring angrily at Athrun where he stood, a few paces away. Athrun, expecting to find Shinn out here, had wanted to talk to him about what had happened, and had been surprised to see such an odd object. He'd never seen Shinn with it before.
Had he asked Lunamaria, or even Yolant, they could have warned him that the phone was a touchy subject, and to be careful when bringing it up. However, neither was anywhere nearby, and so he asked Shinn about it directly.
Perhaps too directly.
The expression on Shinn's startled the older man, who had never seen him look this angry. And what startled him perhaps more was that Shinn's red eyes were rimmed with tears.
- "It was my sister's." the younger man growled. Athrun suddenly remembered that Shinn's family had been killed in Orb.
- "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..." Athrun started to say, but he stopped, unsure of exactly what to say to Shinn. A tense silence followed that lasted several moments, before Shinn snapped the phone shut and pocketed it. His expression softened, but a simmering anger remained in his eyes.
"It's fine." Shinn said a little shortly, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "You didn't know."
His expression became distant as he thought back to the events of that terrible day.
He wasn't sure why he was telling Athrun this. But somehow, telling someone about it seemed to relieve the weight of the grief and anger he had carried so long. And so, he continued to speak.
"She was three years younger than me. We used to play together all the time. She never went anywhere without it, and she was constantly taking pictures with it. When we...were evacuating, it fell from her purse and it went down the hill. It seems stupid, but I went down to try and retrieve it, because it was so important to her. It saved my life. When the attack hit, I was blown off my feet and down the hill. I landed on the ground at the docks. But when I looked for her..."
Shinn's voice cracked, and he fought back tears, as he remembered the gruesome sight of his family's mangled corpses. Tears were flowing down his pale face again.
Athrun looked at him in silence, surprised that, given the recent hostility between them, Shinn would tell him this. He could guess what was next; Shinn had lost his entire family that day, when the Alliance attacked Orb. All the same, Shinn's next words struck him like a hammer blow.
"It was the Freedom that did it." He said flatly.
- "What?" Athrun replied, shocked. Off-balance, for a moment he didn't know what to say. Then after a moment slowly, hesitantly, he spoke. "I...I'm sorry, I had no idea...I think, if Kira were here, he would be as well."
- "What makes you say that?" Shinn asked, his voice hollow.
- "Because he was my best friend. I've known him for years - we went to the same prep school in Copernicus on the moon when we were kids. He was from Orb, and I was from the PLANTs, but all the same..." Athrun's voice trailed off, as he thought of when they met again, on the battlefield.
Shinn stood silently, lost in his thoughts. The burning desire for revenge that had sustained him for so long, now that the Freedom and its pilot were destroyed, was gone. He had told the truth before - he had felt proud that he had defeated him, and he had thought that, with Rey avenged, he would feel...different. A sense of closure, perhaps. But there was nothing - he just felt empty.
And now, listening to Athrun, he could not help but draw parallels between what he heard and his own friendship with Rey.
- "I think...I think I understand what you meant." He said, with a sad sort of smile on his face.
- "What do you mean?" Athrun said, puzzled.
- "In Bandirma. When we were having dinner with the Chairman." Shinn said. "You said "If a person kills for vengeance, and then is killed for being a killer, then how will we ever find peace?" - remember?"
- "Yeah, I do." Athrun said. He remembered very well. He remembered just as well the first time those words were spoken to him. Eerily, it had been shortly after he himself thought he had killed Kira, in the Marshall Islands.
- "He killed my family. And he killed my best friend." Shinn said. "Now I've killed him - but he was your best friend. So where does that leave us?"
- "I still don't know." Athrun said. "But I wish I did."
There was silence for a moment. Then Shinn spoke again. "I'm sorry."
- "So am I. He was a great guy. I wish you could've met him - I think, notwithstanding what happened, you would have liked him."
Athrun turned to head back inside. Shinn still leaned at the railing. The sun had set, and stars were beginning to appear in the darkening sky. As Athrun reached the doorway, Shinn addressed him one more time.
- "Was it him? The one who said that to you?" Shinn asked.
"No, it was his sister." Athrun answered. "Her, you have met though."
- "I have?" Shinn asked, confused. Athrun nodded, before replying, and he couldn't help but smile as he wondered how Shinn would react.
- "It was Cagalli who said that." He said. Then he headed back inside.
Shinn stayed out a while longer, and as he looked up at the sky, he thought of Cagalli Yula Athha, the fiery young Chief Representative of Orb. He thought back to the second battle with the Orb fleet, and he realized that, whatever grievances he might have had, he was perhaps mistaken in his judgement of her...
He cast the thought out of his mind, and as he looked up at the stars, he began to wonder about Stella. He had hoped that they would stop at Wilhelmshaven - he wanted to see her again. But they had sailed straight southwards, leaving Germany far behind on their way back directly to Gibraltar. He hoped his faith in the woman, Dr. Kinney, had not been misplaced. And he wondered whether he would ever see her again, hoping that he would.
He took a deep breath, and then he turned to head back inside.
Haakonsvern Naval Base
Kingdom of Scandinavia
Three vessels of the Scandinavian Navy made their way into port in the nation's main naval base at Haakonsvern. A much smaller installation than the major military installations of the Alliance or the PLANTs, such as Gibraltar, it was nonetheless home to a sizable number of surface warships and three of the nation's six submarines.
Once the vessels were docked, their commanding officers disembarked, along with a number of others, who did not wear the uniform of the Scandinavian armed forces. Of these, a number were brought down on stretchers to waiting ambulances, which immediately made for the base's medical facilities.
Leading those who were able to walk on their own was Murrue Ramius, former Commanding Officer of the late LCAM-01XA Archangel. With her was Andrew Waltfeld, as well as Juri Wu Nien, Canard Pars, and a number of the ship's bridge crew.
The mood was somber as the few of them were led to the base commander's facilities. Many of their shipmates had not survived their ship's destruction. Kojiro Murdoch, the ship's grizzled, experienced mechanic, was among them. And even of the wounded, there were a number in critical condition, and who might not make it.
All the same, she thanked the base commander for his assistance.
Though crippled, the Archangel had been slow to flood, and she had sunk in shallow water.
Once the ship hit the bottom, she had broadcast a Mayday, and soon after the Minerva left they had been located by a Scandinavian submarine, which had communicated their position to three surface ships.
Regretfully, she had said good-bye to the Archangel, a ship that had seen them through so much, and they had abandoned the ship.
And now, the few of them that remained had to decide what to do.
It was Canard who spoke first. "Kira said that we should go back to Orb, and I think that's still what we should do - Cagalli may need our help."
- "Maybe." Murrue said. "But in this situation, how much can we do? The Archangel destroyed, the Freedom and the Buster as well. And the Strike Rouge was so badly damaged by that positron cannon, we had to abandon it too."
Juri nodded, shuddering. It had been an extremely close call, and she was lucky that, unlike Commander LaFlaga three years earlier, the attack had not been a direct, head-on strike; all the same, the attack had completely blown away the Strike's legs.
- "All the same, I happen to agree with the kid." Andrew suddenly spoke up. "We can't exactly sit here with our thumbs up our asses - I don't know about you guys, but I don't trust Durendal much, not after this."
Canard nodded, before he began to speak again. Of the ones present, he was the one who was least acquainted with Kira, and he had known only a handful of the Archangel's crew; all the same, he felt grief and anger in equal parts at what had happened, and there was one thing he was sure of: Durendal was the real enemy.
- "No, I have to agree. I'm going to return to space; there's a couple of things I can do up there that might help. But the rest of you should stick to our original plan and return to Orb; I was planning on heading up once we got there anyway."
"All right. We'll travel by civilian shuttle. I guess though that those that are too injured will stay here." Murrue said. She looked from Canard to Andrew.
The latter spoke next, voicing his own concerns, which Murrue shared.
- "Things are moving pretty fast. With Durendal's announcement, plus what happened in Germany, the Alliance has never been in a worse situation, politically or militarily." Andrew said. "I was just chatting with the Commander, and there've been massive popular uprisings all over Western Eurasia; the Blue Cosmos and Logos-sympathizers in the governments and military are being completely overwhelmed - a lot of really high-ranking guys are being rounded up and arrested. Plus, the Atlantic Federation's been pulling their forces back to Heaven's Base and Panama."
- "And there's word that the Atlantic Federation forces at Plymouth in the British Isles are in open rebellion, as well." Canard supplied. "It's so close to Eurasia, there's traditionally been a lot of cooperation and communication between them and the Eurasian bases at Wilhelmshaven and Brest. So with the top brass cutting and running, the guys in the lower ranks are turning on them."
- "Well, that's kinda unexpected." Andrew said, looking surprised. "Plymouth's a pretty big base - smaller than say, Panama or Heaven's Base, but all the same I'm pretty sure they had at least a couple of carriers home-ported there."
"Things are going to keep getting worse." Murrue said, her decision made. "And it's time for us to go home."
Everyone in the room nodded.
ZAFT Forces Gibraltar Base
A couple of days had passed since the Minerva, at long last, returned to Gibraltar. It was expected that they would be there for quite some time, and so under the supervision of Matt Aves, a complete overhaul of the ship was begun, including much-needed, comprehensive repairs as well as resupply.
Yzak was on the bridge, having briefed a complement of new pilots who had been assigned to the ship; after having dinner with the rest of the crew, Heine had left the previous evening.
Yzak had been interested to note a subtle change in the interactions between Athrun and Shinn, and it seemed that whatever unresolved issues they may have had, the two had finally buried the hatchet.
"Maybe now the little bastard won't be as much of a pain in my ass, since Athrun seems to finally be able to handle him." Yzak mumbled, somewhat relieved. He had meant to talk to the two of them, but apparently Athrun had beaten him to it, and whatever the hell he'd said had worked. Good, he thought - the kid was a brilliant pilot, but a lousy soldier; but now it was Athrun's problem.
The crew had been granted shore leave, and Lunamaria, Vino, and Yolant had taken immediate advantage of the opportunity. Shinn had gone into town with them once the previous day, but today he'd opted to stay on base. To his surprise, he found that Athrun had stayed as well, when he entered the ship's shooting range and found the older man was there.
Shinn watched him for a moment, then stepped into a separate booth with his own service weapon, set up a target, and started.
"You're a pretty good shot." Athrun commented a half-hour later, when Shinn finally removed his ear protectors and started to pack away his weapon. The empty shell casings he threw into a bin. Athrun had finished some time earlier, and had been watching the young man at work.
- "Not as good as you, though." Shinn said lightly. Athrun smiled.
- "Is that such a bad thing?" He asked. The question was rhetorical, and Shinn did not answer. Athrun, however, continued to speak. "You're a quick learner - you'll get better."
The two men walked out together, both storing their weapons in their respective racks in the ship's armory, which was adjacent to the range. Then they left and walked out to the deck - a habit they seemed to be sharing more and more.
"You think we'll be here long?" Shinn asked Athrun.
- "A couple of weeks at least, if not more." Athrun replied. "The overhaul to the ship will take at least that long, possibly as much as a month."
- "The situation in Eurasia's getting worse." Shinn said darkly, thinking of what they had heard as to the latest developments in Western Eurasia, with the escalation of conflicts in a number of regions.
- "I know." Athrun replied. "But President Baum's committed to ending this as peacefully as possible; on the other hand, Blue Cosmos is a terrorist organization - you can understand their wanting to arrest and prosecute anyone affiliated with them, especially after what happened."
- "Yeah." Shinn said pensively. "I still can't believe it..." His voice trailed off as he thought of the devastation he'd witnessed in Hamburg; before that there had been Berlin, and before that two other cities. Again he thought of Stella, who'd been forced into it, he knew.
"You're thinking about her again." Athrun said knowingly, glancing at the seashell on its cord around Shinn's neck.
Shinn nodded, but did not immediately reply.
- "I wonder if she's okay." He said.
- "I think so." Athrun said. "The doctor you spoke to - was it the same as before, when you took her off the Minerva?"
- "Yeah. That guy Lukas wasn't there, though." Shinn replied. Casting around for a change of subject, he then asked. "So, what do you think Orb will do?"
- "Well, they are technically a member of the Eurasian Federation, since signing that treaty." Athrun replied. "However, if I know Cagalli, she'll probably keep the Orb forces out of this one."
- "Good." Shinn thought, thinking of Todaka, and how close he had come to killing him - he owed a lot to that man, he thought, and wondered if they would ever meet again.
Athrun smiled again. "You know, you've changed." He said, looking out to sea.
- "How so?" Shinn asked, looking somewhat puzzled.
- "It's not so long ago, you'd have flown off the handle at any mention of Cagalli or Orb. And now, I tell you Orb probably won't be getting involved in this mess, and you're relieved." Athrun said.
- "S...So what?" Shinn stammered, looking embarrassed.
- "Nothing. I'm just saying, you've matured quite a bit since this whole thing started." He paused for a moment. Then he chuckled.
"What's so funny?" Shinn asked.
"Just thinking how much the two of you have in common." Athrun said. "She's just like you - impulsive, hot-headed. Stubborn as an ass, too, but smart, and really dedicated to doing the right thing."
Shinn did not reply; as much as he disliked Cagalli, he recognized the compliment. And he too smiled.
Iceland, Atlantic Federation
OMNI Enforcer Supreme General Headquarters
Heaven's Base, located in Iceland, had become, since the destruction of JOSH-A in C.E. 71, the largest military base in the Earth Alliance other than Panama, and had replaced JOSH-A as the General Headquarters of the Alliance military - and most especially, of the Atlantic Federation, which controlled Iceland.
So when a number of private shuttles arrived in stages, all of them late at night and flying at low altitude, the base commander was ready; the men who disembarked were among the most prominent figures in the Alliance's massive military industry, as well as a number of civilian-sector manufacturers and influential politicians. These men were Logos.
Many of them were worried; several of their number had already been killed in the uprisings that had swept up throughout the Alliance, and especially in Western Eurasia. For that reason, those that remained had decided to congregate in the safest place any of them could think of, the most heavily defended base on Earth.
The most powerful of them was the last to arrive: Teivel Jibril, the fanatical leader of Blue Cosmos, and in a sense the leader of Logos itself.
Jibril was met by a taller man in a black Alliance officer's uniform, an ugly scar bisecting his long, angular face, copper-skinned with black hair tied in a high ponytail.
"Well, Commander O'Donnell." Jibril said coldly. "I see you survived Hamburg."
O'Donnell shrugged. It had been simple enough, in the chaos, to slip away. He had told them that he was an Alliance pilot shot down during the Destroy's attack, which was true as far as it went; he didn't elaborate who had shot him down or what machine he'd been flying in. He'd simply used the name of the 501st, and they had stopped the questions.
Of course, the 501st was never his unit, but by the time they'd found that out, he was long gone, on his way out and to Heaven's Base, where he still was. In his view though, it was only a matter of time before either the Eurasian Federation or ZAFT tried to attack this place.
Jibril likewise suspected that the best case scenario was that they could expect an attack on the base within a matter of a couple of months at the most. But at the moment, they were safe, as that fool Baum was too busy dealing with the chaos within his own borders to worry about them just yet. And by the time either he or that arrogant bastard Durendal were ready, it would be too late.
So it was that as he strode into the conference room occupied by his cohorts of Logos, his expression was one of smug confidence.
"I don't see what cause you have to be so confident, Jibril." Bruno Azrael said dryly once the group was seated. "Your grand demonstration in Germany seems to have made things worse rather than better."
- "A temporary setback at best." Jibril said dismissively. "That idealistic buffoon Baum is too overextended trying to keep his own military in check to worry about us."
- "Maybe so," said another, "but you're forgetting about ZAFT. Durendal certainly won't wait idly by while we gather our strength and regroup."
- "Oh, but he will. They themselves don't have the forces to oppose us. And by the time they do, it will be too late anyway." Jibril said confidently. "This place makes JOSH-A look like an open-air campground; its defenses are near-foolproof, and soon enough they will be completely so."
- "That's all very well, but what if they drop reinforcements from orbit?" A third spoke. "ZAFT has a substantial fleet in lunar orbit, so we can't count on our own space forces, and it would be a simple matter for them to move forces to Earth orbit and drop reinforcements, like when they took Kaohsiung and when they destroyed Panama."
- "That has already been taken into account." Jibril replied haughtily. "Don't worry. Whenever that fool Durendal and those idiots in Eurasia dancing to his tune turn to us, we will show the world how foolish it was for them to oppose Logos...let them try to strike at us here; we will destroy them all."