AUTHOR'S NOTE: Okay, so this chapter has some more new stuff. Mainly though, it continues to lead up to the Battle of Orb, so parallels/replaces Episode 40.

By the way, I want to take a moment here to thank someone I consider to be a friend, though I don't know him that well. Because your help is what made this Chapter happen.

So thanks, man. You know who you are.

PHASE 28: Another Way

LHM-BB01 Minerva
Pacific Ocean
En route to Orb

The Minerva, at the head of the ZAFT fleet, continued steaming through the night, making a steady forty knots - just fast enough for the slower Vosgolov and Lesseps-class ships to maintain formation. Currently, only a skeleton crew was on the bridge, where Arthur had the conn - the others having gone to get some rest.

Much of the ship slept. Not all, however, slept easily.

Shinn Asuka snapped awake with a start, his heart racing, his pale skin slick with sweat. Panting, he looked around, and as he did he saw soft, bright eyes looking at him through the gloomy darkness of his own quarters onboard the Minerva, and he knew that the terrified screams ringing in his ears had been only from his dreams.

Still, it took another couple of minutes for his breathing to return to normal, for his mind to settle down after dark dreams, nightmares punctuated by the blinding flash of explosions. He reached feverishly for a water bottle at the side of his bunk and drank from it until it was empty, then tossed it aside, where it rolled onto the ground.

He felt a soft hand on his shoulder, and saw that a towel was being held out to him. He grabbed it, wiping the sweat from his face and hair, and as he set it down he saw that Stella was sitting on his bunk next to him, looking concerned and a little afraid.

"Shinn..." she said softly, "are you all right?"

- "I'm fine," he lied. "It's just a bad dream, that's all."

He had not had nightmares like this in years. Not since he had come to the PLANTs, and those dreams had been mostly about his family's violent death in the war.

These were even worse.

- "Did I wake you?" He asked her as he glanced at the alarm clock. He saw that it was just after 0200. He could feel that the ship was still moving at the same, steady speed, and guessed that by now they were more than halfway to Orb.

She slid a little closer to him, and he felt her rest her head on his shoulder.
- "I was afraid...scary things were..."

He gently held her hand, and wrapped one arm around her shoulder. Her presence, so close, comforted Shinn, calming his frayed nerves and preventing him from dwelling on his nightmares. And soon they fell asleep together, she still nestled against him, the two of them on a bunk rather too small to comfortably fit two people.

But still they slept peacefully.

Shinn awoke first, and the first thing he saw upon opening his eyes was Stella sleeping peacefully in his arms. He slowly, carefully pulled himself free of her and stood, leaving her to sleep. He showered, pulled on a clean uniform, carefully pinning the silver-and-gold FAITH pin to his collar.

Stella awoke as he did so, and smiled as she greeted him.
He sat down to wait while she got ready, and the two of them went down to breakfast together.

There, they found an exhausted-looking Vino and Yolant, who'd both just come off watch and had decided to get some food before crashing. Also present was Lunamaria, who was chatting animatedly with Abigail Windsor.

Of Athrun, he saw no sign.

Once the two had their trays, they made their way over to sit together with the group.

"Morning you two." Luna said mock-seriously. "You sure slept in - it's almost 7:30, and I've been up for nearly an hour."

- "Sorry." Shinn said with a shrug. Luna simply rolled her eyes.

- "Whatever." she said, but Shinn, who had known Luna for years, knew she was kidding. Then she turned to her newest teammate and fellow Impulse pilot. "How about you, Stella? How're you doing this morning?"

- "I'm doing good." The blonde replied, then looked inquiringly at Abby.

- "I'm fine - I was about to head up to the bridge, actually - I come on duty in a few minutes." Abby said. "I'll see you later, though."

- "Okay. See you later." Stella said as Abby stood and left.

- "You okay, Shinn? You look kinda tense." Lunamaria asked as she looked at her old friend, seated across from her with a concerned expression on his face.

- "It's nothing." Shinn said dismissively. "Just thinking about this next operation."

- "Orb, huh?" Luna said understandingly. "Yeah, I get what you mean...I mean, I was only there for a bit that one time when we first got to Earth, but you were born there, right? That's gotta be a tough situation to be in."

Shinn shrugged noncommittally before answering.
- "And their military forces are going to be tough - remember how much better those Murasames are than the Alliance's Daggers." Shinn said, and there was an odd edge to his voice. "So we have to be sure that all our own forces are in top shape - no wonder Aves is working his crew so hard."

- "Yeah; though I guess you don't have to worry about that as much as I do - especially not with what you're piloting." Luna said half-jokingly. "The Impulse is way beyond a Zaku, but still you and Athrun are so lucky to be piloting brand-new machines."

- "I guess..." Shinn replied vaguely. "Say, where is Athrun, anyway?" Shinn asked.

- "Dunno. Haven't seen him." Luna replied with a shrug.

At that moment, Athrun Zala was on the bridge, in full uniform, and in deep conversation with his CO and old friend Yzak.

"You're outta your fucking mind." Yzak said shortly.

- "Yzak, hear me out. Please." Athrun said, and with a long-suffering expression, the slightly older Yzak turned to face his long-time teammate.

- "I'm probably going to regret this, but fine - shoot." He said. "What makes you think it's even possible to get to Jibril without having to blow the Orb fleet to hell and back?"

Athrun shook his head, but then he started to explain the idea that, during a long and restless night, had begun to form in his mind.
- "I've been in Orb for years, you know that." He said, "Now obviously, I wasn't in any position to personally make any major decisions." Yzak let out a derisive snort. Athrun, he knew, had been a glorified bodyguard. Athrun ignored this. "But I was frequently in close proximity to Representative Athha - and it's known that we both served together during the last War, and that we were pretty close."

- "Get to the point, Athrun. You're not telling me anything I don't already fucking know."

- "I know Cagalli would never deliberately shelter Jibril - and the Seirans are no longer officially members of Orb's government, which means they have a lot less influence. I think if I can approach the Orb government diplomatically, on their own ground, between Cagalli and I there's a better than even chance we can get ahold of Jibril without a shot being fired."

- "You do know we have our orders, right?" Yzak asked.

- "Right - our orders are to apprehend Jibril by any means necessary." Athrun assented. "Which means we are authorized to engage militarily if it should come to that. It does not mean we can't try something else before exercising the military option."

- "You know...You actually have a point, there" Yzak said hesitantly, "Smartass bastard." He added under his breath, which caused Athrun to smile.

- "Between you and me, an ultimatum is not gonna do it. Once we get there, this is going to be a bloodbath, guaranteed." Athrun said. "And I have to try anything I can to prevent that."

Yzak shook his head exasperatedly. But the worst part was, he agreed. Militarily, Orb was technologically at least a match for the PLANTs, if not better; their only disadvantage was numerical - even with the restrictions of the Lindemann Plan - and thus the Treaty of Junius Seven - the ZAFT forces outnumbered Orb's more than ten to one. The totality of the Alliance forces was more than triple that - the only reason that ZAFT had been so successful this time around was the schism within the Alliance itself.

- "This is way above my pay grade, Athrun - we have to contact Carpentaria for a decision on this."

Both men were members of FAITH, and they understood what that meant. They would have to sell their idea to Durendal himself - absent the Supreme Council, only he could authorize a move like this.

" certainly is an intriguing proposal." Durendal said slowly after Athrun had explained his idea. "But why did this occur to you now, Athrun?"

- "Ever since we set sail, I've been racking my brain trying to find a solution for this. Because I honestly believe that a battle with Orb is one that we can avoid; I know that their ideals, their desire for peace is something that we all share and aspire to. And I believe that it is possible to prevail upon them to turn over Jibril to us."

- "Yes, I see." Durendal said pensively. "And of course, you wish to avoid the country becoming a battleground again."

- Athrun thought of Shinn, his family ripped from him by war when he was just fourteen. He thought of Cagalli, not much older than that when she had been forced to watch her father die, along with so many others.

- "If we do this - if we attack the end, are we really any better than them?" He asked Durendal, the meaning of the question plain: Them was the Atlantic Federation and Blue Cosmos - or rather, Logos, the enemy of the PLANTs and of all mankind.

Durendal hesitated for a moment, seeming impressed by the bold rashness of the statement. "There is something else, as well." Durendal added then, with the same sly expression Athrun had seen on his face a few times before. "Jibril, as we now know, is in Orb, under the protection of the former Prime Minister."

- "Unato Ema Seiran." Athrun supplied, nodding his agreement. "And his son Yuna Roma Seiran, who was also a member of the Council of Emirs."

- "Quite so. And of course, Jibril himself must be brought to justice, to answer for the appalling crimes he has committed." Durendal replied. "But while the Seirans themselves are no longer of much concern, they may still have allies in Orb's government, allies who are in a position to...influence the course of action Orb may take."

The blood drained from Athrun's face as he considered the implications of Durendal's statement. He had worried that the Seirans may still prove troublesome, but had not considered it from this angle. Which, he reflected, was probably why he was a soldier and not a politician.

- "You mean," Yzak interjected, "that Jibril may, through these allies, attempt to manipulate Representative Athha."

- "Indeed." Durendal answered with a nod. Athrun steeled himself, his resolve greater than ever.

- "That is all the more reason why I have to do this." He said firmly.

- "Very well, then" Durendal said finally. "I will authorize your mission - you may of course, with my permission and under your authority as a member of FAITH, make any arrangements with the forces you have currently available to carry it out as you see fit."

- "Thank you, sir!" Athrun replied sincerely.

- "You can't take the Saviour." Yzak said sharply. "A top-of-the-line, armed ZAFT mobile suit on potential enemy territory? No fucking way."

- "I agree." Durendal said. "That I am not allowing - you may not, under any circumstance, take the Knight Saviour on this endeavor."

- "A Core Splendor, then." Athrun said, and after a moment's hesitation, Durendal nodded.

- "Right - Get to the hangar, tell them to strip the weapons from Core Splendor Two and fit it with external propellant tanks on the wing hardpoints, then get it prepped for launch." Yzak assented. Athrun thanked the Chairman, then Yzak, and left Yzak's quarters to head down to the hangar.

"Commander Joule." Durendal added gravely once Athrun was gone.

- "Sir?" Yzak inquired stiffly.

- "Your own orders still stand." The Chairman added. "You will place your forces in a blockade of the island. You will issue an ultimatum demanding they hand over Jibril. And you will give them a delay of no more than three hours."

- "Right."

- "I will add this: You have my authorization to begin your attack, at your discretion, at any point before that delay is expired, if you should deem it necessary." Durendal then said. "I do not want this attempt at diplomacy to jeopardize in any way your attack plan." Then Durendal cut the link. Yzak shook his head, then left his quarters and returned to the bridge.

Soon, however, the second of the Minerva's two Core Splendors was ready for takeoff on the central catapult. Its nose-mounted 20mm vulcan guns had been stripped of their ammunition, as well as the two light missile canisters it carried on wing-mounted hardpoints. Instead, a propellant tank had been installed under each wing, ensuring a sufficient fuel supply for the little aircraft to make it to Orb and back, if necessary.

Athrun, wearing his red-and-black flight suit, was in the ship's ready room adjacent to the hangar, waiting anxiously. He looked up at the wall-mounted monitor as it lit up, and a communication from Abigail Windsor on the bridge informed him that the Core Splendor was ready for takeoff. He thanked her and headed down to the hangar, where he boarded the aircraft and began launch prep.

"Course clear; all systems normal. Core Splendor, cleared for takeoff." Abby's voice announced over the radio link.

- "Roger that. Athrun Zala, Core Splendor launching!" Athrun announced, as the little blue-and-white aircraft shot forward from the catapult and took flight.

"Man, I don't know what he's playing at." Yolant commented from the hangar. "Besides, doesn't he realize that taking the Core Splendor means we can't deploy the Impulse?"

- "We still have the other one. Though if he's not here, we can't launch the Saviour either." Vino replied. "But I'm sure he knows what he's doing."

"Man, I hope you're right." Yolant said, sounding unconvinced.

Orb Union Military HQ

"The Second Home Defense Fleet is reporting they are ready and standing by for immediate deployment." An officer announced in the massive primary control room of Orb's Military HQ, and Cagalli Yula Athha let out a sigh of relief.

The Takemikazuchi, fully repaired and freshly supplied with a corps of thirty-six Astrays and 12 Murasames, plus its escorts, were ready. She also had land-based forces, an even mix of Flight and Littoral Type Astrays, plus a smaller number of Murasames, along with the First Home Defense Fleet, which while it lacked a dedicated carrier flagship, was still a fairly numerous force of Aegis-class ships, each one carrying between one and three Astrays on its decks, as well as Kuraomikami-class escort ships.

- "Thank you." she said, sounding as relieved as she felt.

- "It seems preparations are under way." Rondo Mina Sahaku said. Cagalli nodded.

- "As much as I would prefer to believe otherwise, it seems at this point that a battle against ZAFT is inevitable." Cagalli said resentfully. "And I would prefer that Orb not burn to the ground again. I will do everything in my power to prevent it."

- "A wise course." Mina agreed. At that moment, a new contact appeared on their screens as an unidentified aircraft entered the range of Orb's shore-based long-range sensors. After a brief exchange with the aircraft's pilot, a younger NCO stood and walked over to where the two women stood.

- "Ma'am, I have an unidentified aircraft incoming whose pilot is demanding to speak to you personally." He said. "He claims to be a diplomatic envoy from the PLANTs, and is requesting clearance to land."

- "What type of aircraft?" Mina asked sharply.

- "Unknown, ma'am." The NCO asked. "Best guess, it appears to be a short-range fighter."

- "Which means it did not come directly from the PLANTs - but from an approaching ZAFT fleet. The enemy is nearly upon our doorstep." Mina replied evenly, with a significant look at her young leader.

- "Yet they extend an olive branch. If they are attempting a diplomatic solution, we may be able to avoid a battle after all." Cagalli replied, sounding hopeful. Then, turning to the NCO. "Send two Astray-Fs to intercept. Direct the aircraft to land here, and have MPs standing by. I am heading down to meet this diplomatic envoy personally."

- "Yes ma'am!"

A short time later, Cagalli and Mina both stood, flanked by a half-dozen MPs carrying automatic rifles, as two Astrays approached, in between which she saw approach a tiny, blue-and-white fighter, which to her eye appeared unarmed and was carrying two wing-mounted propellant tanks.

"Was it wise to come out here in person, milady?" Mina asked. "I could have met this individual myself and ensured he was brought before you and the Council."

Cagalli, as soon as she had made her decision, had called for an emergency meeting of the entire Council of Emirs, which would take place within half an hour.
She smiled at Mina's concern, but she herself was not worried. If a ZAFT fleet was approaching, it was better than even odds the flagship would be the Minerva. Which meant, based on what she had learned after speaking to her friends from the Archangel after their return, that she knew exactly who the envoy was.

'There can't possibly be two people in the PLANTs bone-headed enough to try something like this.' she thought. But her reply to her trusted military Commander-in-Chief was carefully neutral.

- "He asked to speak with me personally. It's only natural that I be here - and besides, I'm not so naïve as to be here without protection." She said evenly.

- "Very well, then." Mina answered skeptically, but said nothing else.

The aircraft landed, and Cagalli was struck by how small it was - less than half the size of a SkyGrasper. She watched the pilot step out onto its wing, wearing a red-and-black ZAFT mobile suit pilot's flight suit, with a peculiar white emblem on the left breast. The tinted visor of the helmet was lowered, so she could not see his face, but as she watched him, he removed the helmet, and she found herself, for the first time in several months, standing face to face with Athrun Zala.

He glanced from her to Mina and the six armed MPs, weapons at the ready, and smiled briefly before setting the helmet down on the seat of his aircraft, then shut and locked the canopy before stepping nimbly down onto the ground.

"Representative Athha." He said formally. "Athrun Zala of the Joule Team, FAITH Special Forces. I'm here with the authorization of Supreme Council Chairman Gilbert Durendal, as a diplomatic envoy. It is urgent that I speak with you on a matter of significant importance."

Cagalli nodded.

- "A special session of the Council of Emirs has been called." she replied with equal formality. "We are to meet them in thirty minutes. If you'll follow me."

Athrun nodded, and the group began to head towards the edge of the runway, where a black limousine stood waiting, its driver standing by the door. Athrun recognized the hulking silhouette of Colonel Ledonir Kisaka, and guessed correctly that since his own departure, the massive officer had taken up, once again, the task of bodyguard for Orb's unruly Princess.

Before entering the vehicle, Cagalli turned to Mina.
- "Mina, I'm trusting you to handle the preparations from here until I get back."

She then entered the limousine, and Athrun slid in next to her. Kisaka closed the door, which locked, and stepped into the driver's seat.

No sooner was the vehicle moving that Cagalli turned to Athrun and, without warning, punched him in the shoulder as hard as she could.

"You IDIOT!" She yelled. "What do you think you're doing, coming back here like this?" In the front of the car, Kisaka smiled.

So did Athrun, in spite of his shoulder - though the heavy flight suit had softened the blow quite a bit.
- "Exactly what I said." He answered. "By now I'm sure you've guessed the Minerva is leading a ZAFT fleet here. The reason they are, I'll bet you know as well."

- "Jibril." Cagalli grumbled. "The Seirans are sheltering him."

- "I know." Athrun said. "And we want him turned in to ZAFT custody. Peacefully if possible."

- "So Durendal sends you to try and sweet-talk us into handing him over before he invades and takes him by force - carrot-and-stick diplomacy." Cagalli said flatly.

Athrun cringed at the metaphor, but could not deny it was appropriate.
- "Actually, this was my idea - though Chairman Durendal approved it." He said, and Cagalli grinned in a way that told him she had guessed anyway.

- "Figures." she said. "Only you would be bone-headed enough to try something like this."

Athrun smiled and said nothing. He had not seen Cagalli at all since leaving Orb, all those months before, but she seemed much more confident than she had been there - he guessed that having first masterminded the Treaty that had kept Orb from the clutches of the Atlantic Federation, then successfully ejected the Seirans from the Council had a lot to do with that.

"Well," Cagalli continued, "We're going to have to stop by the residence - your flat's been locked since you left, and it would not be great if you showed up for a diplomatic meeting dressed like that.

- "Says the one who wouldn't wear a dress for the memorial ceremony." Athrun said, grinning. Cagalli rolled her eyes and punched him in the shoulder again.

Half an hour later, Athrun was impeccably dressed in formal civilian attire, consisting of a pair of polished black dress shoes, black formal trousers, a white button-down shirt, and a navy-blue, double-breasted blazer, to the lapel of which he had pinned the silver-and-gold FAITH pin, which he had removed from his uniform jacket before he left the Minerva and taken with him. His flight suit he had packed in a slender suitcase, which he took with him - he would leave it in the car during the meeting, changing back into it before he left.

He and Cagalli stepped into the large chamber in which the Council met to find all of them present and waiting.

Cagalli took her customary seat and motioned for Athrun to take a seat next to her.

"Gentlemen," she started, addressing the room at large and looking from each man to the next, wondering which would follow her and which would side with the absent Seirans in their protection of an internationally wanted criminal. "I have personally called this emergency session of the Council for only one reason: A ZAFT fleet is currently approaching Orb. The reason for this is simple: They want Teivel Jibril, known to be an international criminal, and who is currently being sheltered at the Seiran estate."

One of the members of the Council, a man named Asahina whom she knew was a close friend of the Seirans, was the first to object.
- "It's all well and good for Durendal to make his outlandish accusations, but..."

- "There is nothing outlandish about this." Cagalli interrupted sharply. "Teivel Jibril arrived in Orb by aircraft, at night. He is now somewhere inside the Seiran estate. This information was verified internally by our own forces." She tossed onto the table the report Mina had personally given her a few days earlier.

- "And what does this...young man have to do with it. He is not, as far as I am aware, a member of this Council?" asked Kawaguchi, another one of the councillors. "Who authorized his presence?"

- "I did." Cagalli said firmly, as if daring anyone to challenge her decision. No one did, and she glanced at Athrun, who stood.

- "My name is Athrun Zala, of the PLANTs' FAITH Special Forces, attached to the Joule Team. Flight commander, LHM-BB01 Minerva." He said formally. The room erupted in whispers at this unexpected development, and Athrun held his silence for a moment, until they died down. "I am here as a diplomatic envoy on behalf of Supreme Council Chairman Gilbert Durendal, to request that Jibril be turned over to ZAFT custody."

- "I would like to know, young man, what makes you so certain that this man you seek is here in Orb?" Kawaguchi asked skeptically.

- "Our intelligence services, with assistance from the Eurasian Federation and the United States of South America, have verified that Jibril left Iceland onboard a San Francisco-class submarine, which made its way west to Porta Pamana."Athrun said evenly. "From there, Jibril was spotted boarding an aircraft, which took off, also heading west. We have intelligence that proves the same aircraft landed here in Orb. We have further evidence that Jibril himself was seen in the company of ex-Prime Minister Unato Ema Seiran, at the latter's residence."

- "Evidence that is verified by this report, which was delivered to me personally by Rondo Mina Sahaku." Cagalli replied, indicating the report again.

- "And how does this involve Orb?" came the inevitable protest from Asahina. "Is it not our policy not to meddle in the affairs of other nations? What business is it of ours what the PLANTs may claim about this individual, assuming that he is who they claim?"

Cagalli's fist slammed down on the table.
- "What business is it of ours?" She began to say, increasingly irritated. "To begin with, Jibril is not only an enemy of the PLANTs, but also of the Eurasian Federation, with whom Orb is currently allied. Second, Jibril is also an ally of the Atlantic Federation, the same nation that four years ago burned this country to the ground, and much more recently massacred close to six million innocent civilians in the Eurasian Federation. Therefore, he is an enemy of Orb." She said firmly. "The PLANTs' request is not unreasonable - this man, for what he has done, must stand trial. And I for one would rather he be arrested and turned over to the PLANTs."

- "Or what? Will you then allow your friends the Coordinators to walk in and take him at gunpoint? I, for one, wonder whether you are most suited to be making this decision, given your...personal history." Asahina replied.

- "And what do you mean by that?" Cagalli growled. Then, she took a deep breath. "I don't know what the intentions of this council are. But my intentions are to protect this nation and its ideals, as I have always done, and as I am continuing to attempt to do."

- "By caving to the demands of the PLANTs?" Asked Nakamura, another one of the councillors.

- "By ensuring that an enemy of the Orb Union is brought to justice." She retaliated sharply.

Nearly an hour later, as the deliberations continued, it became clear to Athrun that Asahina, Nakamura and Kawaguchi were still in Seiran's back pocket, and that the best efforts of Cagalli and the allies she did have in the Council were for nothing; a peaceful solution, in these circumstances, was out of reach if it meant going up against the Seirans, and those members of the Council who did support Cagalli were too few to override these three. Most of them had remained silent.

Then, everything changed.
There was a knock on the door, and a young NCO in uniform entered, stating that the presence of Chief Representative Athha was urgently requested at Kaguya.

She thanked him and stood, then looked around the room, pausing in particular to glare at the three who had forestalled her only shot at ending this situation peacefully.

- "Gentlemen, it has become unfortunately clear to me that we do not see eye to eye where the best interests of this nation and its people are concerned." She said. "Unfortunately, other matters critical to the safety of our country demand my attention at this time. You may therefore consider this meeting adjourned. But rest assured that this discussion is not over."
She did not add that if it did indeed come to a battle, she would personally ensure that all three of them faced the consequences of their actions.

She turned and left. Athrun stood and, glancing around the room, saw the helpless expressions on the faces of Councilmen Namikaze, Yano, and Himura, who had been Cagalli's only supporters, and smiled thankfully, though his expression turned stony as he glanced at the self-satisfied contempt he saw on that of the three who had opposed them.

He sighed, and left the room, following a furious Cagalli as they headed back towards Orb's military HQ.

Meanwhile, at the Seiran compound, Unato Ema Seiran was seated in the living room of the enormous mansion. Seated opposite him was Teivel Jibril, looking as haughty as usual, a glass of wine in his hand. Unato's own glass stood on the low table in between them, untouched.

"Anybody with a brain in his head can see through Durendal's deception here." Jibril stated confidently. "And if he were to take over this world, you know there would be no place for people like you."

- "Right." Unato replied, but he sounded worried.

- "Well, not to worry." Jibril continued. "We will be ready to begin our own counterattack soon enough." At this Unato looked up, a puzzled expression on his face.

- "Is that so?" he asked, and Jibril nodded.

- "Soon enough...once I return to space the Requiem will begin, and everything will end - once and for all."

- "The Requiem?" Unato asked, wondering what Jibril meant.

- "You're an intelligent man, Unato Ema Seiran. And if you wish to stand among the victorious when all is said and done, then you know what is required of you."

Unato nodded. Soon, his shuttle would be ready. They just had to hold out a little longer...

Athrun thought he knew what the reason was for this sudden summons, and when he glanced up at the gigantic screen he saw that he was correct: the ZAFT fleet had arrived, and Orb was surrounded.
A blockade was in effect, the ships stationed outside Orb's territory, just beyond the range of Orb's shore-based defenses - though, Athrun knew, those defenses were within striking range of the Minerva's devastatingly powerful Fafnir long-range missiles.

In Orb's Military Defense Headquarters, the atmosphere was one of tense readiness.

"What's the situation?" Cagalli asked as she glanced up at the screen.

- "Well, ma'am," the officer on duty started to say, "They've pretty well blockaded Onogoro and Kaguya, which is where the bulk of their forces are concentrated, but they have forces all around the main island as well - in international waters, just outside the range of our shore defenses. Just before you arrived, they issued an ultimatum."

'Just like Heaven's Base' Cagalli thought, worriedly.

"They're giving us a maximum of three hours." She said as she read the printout the officer had handed her. "Past that delay, they will invade. DAMN IT!" Cagalli swore as she threw the printout into the nearest wastebasket. Then she turned and began to issue additional orders.

"Open up a communications line to the flagship - I want to talk to Commander Joule immediately." Cagalli ordered, a panicked edge creeping into her voice. "If I can just talk to him, maybe I can convince him to hold his forces back and give us a little more time."

Then, she turned to Mina to ask for her assistance, when suddenly another voice rang out.

- "I'm getting a new broadcast signal, ma'am."

- "From the ZAFT fleet?" She asked.

- "No ma'am." came the reply. "We're still triangulating, but it seems to be coming from the Seiran compound!"

Cagalli blanched, dreading what was coming next.
- "Put it on the monitor immediately!" She ordered frantically. 'What the hell is Seiran up to?' she asked herself, afraid of the answer.

The image that appeared on the screen confirmed her worst fears. Yuna Roma Seiran, in uniform - the gall of him, when he was neither a military officer nor a member of Orb's government, angered Cagalli almost as much as his words horrified her.

- "My name is Yuna Roma Seiran, and I address this message to the fleet that is currently illegally blockading this nation. The individual by the name of Lord Jibril, whom you have claimed to be in Orb and demanded we hand over, is in fact not present. Furthermore, this kind of intimidation, threatening to use force if your unreasonable demands are not met is an insult and a violation of the sovereignty of this nation. We find it distasteful, and therefore insist that you withdraw your forces at once from our waters."

- "That MORON!" Cagalli roared in anger. "Does he seriously think that crap is helping?"
She turned to Mina.
"Mina, I want you to take personal command of the military police." she said.

- "Of course, milady." Mina said impassively. "And their orders?"

- "Invade the Seiran compound." She said, her voice shaking with barely-controlled anger. "Find Jibril and arrest him. Also, arrest Yuna Roma Seiran and Unato Ema Seiran - the charge is treason."

- "As you wish, Lady Cagalli."

Athrun, meanwhile, looked up at the screen, as while the Minerva remained in the rear, the other ZAFT ships slowly closed in, entering Orb territorial waters as they began to deploy their forces.

- "So it begins." He said grimly. Cagalli, at his side, nodded.

She only hoped that, this time, she could find a way to stop this before it was too late...