AUTHOR'S NOTE: Merry Christmas, everyone - or whatever you may celebrate. Here's a present for y'all to mark the Holiday Season: A New Chapter! Please read and review!
Anyway, so this chapter parallels/replaces Episodes 43-44, concluding the events on Earth as the action returns to space. As usual, a lot of stuff changed, but the basic sequence of events remains similar.
PHASE 30: Requiem for Tragedy
Yzak Joule, leader of the Joule Team, captain of the state-of-the-art transatmospheric assault carrier LHM-BB01 Minerva, was frowning, which tended to make people nervous. Yzak, the son of a prominent member of the PLANT Supreme Council, was known for being three things: An incredibly skilled pilot; a brilliant tactician and commander; and quite possibly the most volatile-tempered officer in ZAFT - with perhaps one exception.
At the moment, his frustration had its roots in several things: One was the same report that had been exercising the suspicious mind of the young commander for several months; another was the report he was now perusing, which he had acquired much more recently from Rondo Mina Sahaku. And third, the equally recent failure to capture their target: The leader of Blue Cosmos, Logos member, and international terrorist Teivel "Lord" Jibril.
At the moment, however, he was alone in his quarters, on a secure communications link to Carpentaria, speaking with Gilbert Durendal, the Chairman of the PLANT Supreme Council.
"So, Jibril was on that shuttle, then?" Durendal asked.
- "He was." Yzak answered. "Unato Ema Seiran was killed in collateral damage during the battle, and Yuna Roma Seiran executed. But we have corroboration from Orb military police through Rondo Mina Sahaku; Jibril boarded that shuttle alone with a crew of approximately four Orb officers, acting under the orders of Unato Ema Seiran."
- "In either case, you failed to capture him, and you lost to Orb."
- "Negative." Yzak replied flatly. "We did not lose to Orb. Under my authority as both commander of this fleet and an operative of FAITH, I made the decision that in light of the flight of Jibril from Orb, it was unnecessary to continue what was becoming a pointless battle of attrition."
Durendal looked slightly taken aback at the abrupt reply, and Yzak continued. "If it had come down to it, we could have obliterated them. But there was no need to do so, and if we had, it would have created difficulties vis-à-vis the Eurasian Federation as well."
After a tense few seconds, Durendal nodded.
- "I see." he said slowly. "Thank you, Commander Joule. I believe that you made the correct decision."
- "Thank you, sir." Yzak said.
- "I am returning to space; we'll check into that shuttle from there." the Chairman continued. "As for Orb, well perhaps we should try to find another way of negotiating with them."
- "I think that would probably be best; Representative Athha at least seems willing to assist us." Yzak replied.
- "Is that so?" Durendal replied. "Very well, then. Return to Carpentaria and stand by, for now."
Yzak acknowledged the order, and the line went dead. He leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes, and sighed.
'Just what in the hell is going on, here?' he wondered. Then he stood up, shaking his head, and left, returning to the bridge.
The ZAFT fleet was already on its way to Carpentaria. The Minerva's hangar was a flurry of activity, as damaged mobile suits were repaired, and those few that were intact were resupplied.
They had lost five Lesseps-class ships, eight Vosgolov-class submarines, and close to a hundred mobile suits in the battle. Many ships had been damaged; only the Minerva and its mobile suits had escaped relatively unscathed.
The fact that so much had been sacrificed for nothing was the most frustrating part for Yzak, as it was for his perhaps equally volatile-tempered subordinate, Shinn Asuka.
At that moment, Shinn stood as was his wont on the Minerva' s starboard observation deck. He wore his uniform, the collar unbuttoned as usual, the silver-and-gold FAITH brooch pinned to the lapel, and a sour expression on his face.
The door opened with a hiss, and Athrun stepped out, walking over to the railing and standing next to him.
"What is it?" Shinn said without looking at him.
- "You tell me." Athrun replied. "You look like you've got something on your mind."
- "And you don't?" Shinn asked shortly. Then, he said "We could've used your help out there."
The statement surprised Athrun somewhat, as he had always seen that Shinn had something of a proud streak. But then again, he had grown a lot in the past months.
- "I know." He said. "From what I could tell, you were doing pretty well on your own; well, you and Stella." After a few moments, he added. "I'm gonna want that machine back, though."
Shinn laughed at the comment.
- "Sorry we didn't ask before borrowing it." He said mock-seriously. "But you'd kinda taken the cockpit of her machine."
There were a few moments' silence, then Shinn looked at him. "Why did you do it? Did you really think you could..."
"I did." He said. "Or at least, I hoped. And we almost succeeded, too. Cagalli tried her best, but the Seirans still had friends in the Council."
- "Bastards." Shinn said. "Well, at least they're dead now. I just wish we could've nailed Jibril."
- "Well, we'll get him next time." Athrun said, one hand on the younger man's shoulder.
But he did not voice the concern that both men shared, that from space, there was a good possibility that Jibril may attempt to strike at the PLANTs, a concern shared by many others, including the Supreme Council.
And with good reason.
Lunar surface - Daedalus Crater
Atlantic Federation lunar base
Teivel Jibril, leader of Blue Cosmos and sole remaining member of Logos, stood in the control room of the Daedalus Lunar Base - the second-largest base held by the Atlantic Federation on the moon - with an expression of great smugness.
With him, Commander O'Donnell, as well as the base commander, a veteran member of the Alliance military named Erik Shaw.
"So, you really intend to go through with this, Lord Jibril?" Admiral Shaw asked.
- "Of course." Jibril replied smugly. "That's the reason why I made the trip all the way out here."
- "I'm very glad to hear that." Shaw said. "It means that our efforts all the way our here are appreciated."
- "Obviously, they are." Jibril said.
- "My only concern, I suppose, would be the enemy forces at Theophilus." Shaw added as he looked across the room. Jibril scoffed.
- "A minor nuisance." He said haughtily. "This base alone has enough power to handle Theophilus, and Arzachel is more than three times its size; we can exterminate them at any time. But now, we have more important things to worry about."
- "Gounod should reach its destination in twenty minutes. Fauré should be in position in five minutes, and Czerny, Fourier, Duruflé and Britten are already in place." Shaw added, glancing over at the gigantic screen at the front of the room. Then, he addressed the personnel at the controls in front of them. "How are our preparations here?"
- "Requiem generators are operating at 85%, sir." one of them reported. "23 through 55 have already reached critical level, and the power flow is stable."
Another one then spoke up.
- "Reserve cooling systems are active, and critical deviation of reflection mirrors is within standard parameters."
Jibril smiled smugly again. The Orbital All-Aspect Tactical Cannon, code-named "Requiem", was the greatest weapons system in history, and it was the weapon that would allow them to wipe out the accursed Coordinators once and for all.
Admiral Shaw also smiled.
- "There are too many soft politicians out there blathering about how weapons such as this are necessary, but when the time comes are too cowardly to actually use them." He said.
- "Don't worry," Jibril said, an evil smile on his face, "I'm no coward like Copeland, nor a fool like Durendal or that traitor Baum. I will pull the trigger, and when I do, this war will end. Once and for all."
"Message from the Gounod Defense fleet, sir!" came a sudden report. "ZAFT forces are approaching the Relay Station!"
Onboard the Hahnenfuss Team's flagship, the Voltaire, Shiho Hahnenfuss and Dearka Elsman were on standby in their mobile suits - a ZGMF-2000 GOUF Ignited and ZGMF-1000 Blaze ZAKU Warrior, respectively.
Both the PLANTs and Gagarin-I had detected unusual movement at several points, the nearest of which was this abandoned colony, an old O'Neill I-3 closed-type, which was moving slowly towards the PLANTs.
The two ships had been dispatched to investigate, alongside with a single Nazca and an old Laurasia-class belonging to the Channis Team. And when they had arrived, they had found a massive Atlantic Federation fleet guarding it.
"There sure are a lot of them." Dearka commented. "But why in this place?"
"Who knows?" Shiho replied, "But I think it's safe to assume they're not here to make friends. Let's go!"
The two ships launched their machines, and behind them the Channis Team did likewise - a total of twenty-four mobile suits, against possibly three or four times that number of enemy machines: a mix of Daggers, a handful of Windams, and the new models from Heaven's Base.
The Daggers and Windams were mostly in base-configuration or else equipped with heavy-bombardment Doppelhorn Strikers, while the Joule Team consisted almost entirely of ZAKU Warriors, two thirds of which were equipped with Blaze Wizards, while the rest equipped Gunner Wizards and provided fire support from the rear. The Channis Team, meanwhile, had mostly GuAIZ-Rs and GuAIZ, with a handful of ZAKU Warriors and one GOUF Ignited as well.
The Alliance mobile suits were no match, and so Shiho drew her "Carnwennan" beam sword in one hand, her beam rifle in the other, and attacked, weaving through enemy lines and literally carving through the enemy mobile suits, while Dearka, armed with the Blaze ZAKU's high-capacity missile launchers and his own rifle, engaged them from long-range.
One of the mobile armors attacked, and deployed its positron reflector when Shiho fired at it. Without flinching, she stowed the rifle and deployed one of her two "Slayer Whip" heat rods, which cut through the field as if it wasn't there and sliced the mobile armor in half.
Suddenly, she saw thrusters fire on the colony, and it started to slow down.
"They're stopping it out here? But why?" Shiho wondered, then shook her head.
"All Hahnenfuss Team units, form up on me and move around to the colony's engine block! We've gotta stop that thing!" She ordered. "Voltaire, Rousseau, open fire on the colony!"
With the Channis Team running interference against the enemy mobile weapons and ships, the two Nazca-class vessels peeled off and immediately opened fire on the colony, while Shiho and Dearka led their mobile suits to target the thruster blocks that ringed the colony from each side.
At Daedalus, meanwhile, Jibril watched anxiously as the colony slowed and stopped.
"Order the escort fleet to move out of the line of fire!" Shaw ordered. "What's the status?"
- "All deflection relay stations, attitude stable, fields active." came the report. "All Requiem generators operational at 100%; 480 seconds to criticality."
- "Good." Shaw said, and turned to Jibril. "Well, what is to be our first target?"
- "Aprilius, of course." Jibril replied, still smiling his evil smile. "Obviously, this is not a warning shot."
- "Of course not." Shaw acquiesced. Then he gave the order. "Target the PLANTs' capital, Aprilius."
- "Roger, inputting target Aprilius. All generators are at critical. Disengaging final safety locks, ready to fire." Came the report. "Commencing countdown - T minus 35 to firing."
So intent on their preparations were Shaw and Jibril that they failed to notice one minor anomaly on their display, as the countdown continued and the trigger was raised off the console.
Jibril took hold of it.
"And now, Durendal," he said as he did so, "I shall play...a requiem, for you and all your kind!"
He pulled the trigger, and the gigantic cannon fired.
Above the barrel floated the first of five converted O'Neill I-3 colonies, each fitted with a Geschmeidig Panzer energy deflection system. As the massive beam of energy surged into the cylinder, it bent, then through the next one. As it approached Gounod, Shiho saw it coming.
"ALL FORCES, EVASIVE MANEUVERS!" She ordered, and the four ships and all their mobile suits scattered, evading the shot.
- "What the hell is this?"
- "The beam is...bending." Dearka said. "It's just like the Forbidden!"
He recognized the effect of the Geschmeidig Panzer, having faced the first machine to have fielded such technology, the GAT-X252 Forbidden Gundam.
"What's its target?" He wondered.
- "It's headed for the PLANTs!" Shiho suddenly realized, horrified.
And indeed it was. Four colonies were struck directly and destroyed. Nobody in any of them lived for more than a few moments. Two additional colonies were destroyed when one of the stricken colonies collided with them.
Onboard the Gondwana, the attack was also detected.
"High-energy beam detected from the far side the moon!" came the sudden report. "It's...what the hell?"
Durendal stood, looking shocked at what he saw, as the gigantic megacarrier's displays showed the beam bending once, twice, three times, then continue until it struck the PLANTs.
The reaction is the gigantic vessel's control room was horrified.
"What the...what the hell just happened?"
- "This is...this is monstrous."
- "What was that?" Durendal asked, his fists clenched, his expression frightening as he stood, shaking with barely-suppressed anger. "Where did that attack come from? I want an explanation, RIGHT NOW!"
Inside the control room of Daedalus Base, the reports were coming in as well.
"Direct hit to Januarius 1 through 4; December 7 and 8 collapsed after a collision with Januarius 4."
- "Januarius?" Jibril exclaimed, confused and angered at this development. "I told you to destroy Aprilius, damn it!"
- "How did that happen?"
- "There was a slight deviation in Gounod's angle at the last moment; we suspect it may have been caused by the ongoing battle against ZAFT forces."
The Hahnenfuss and Channis Teams too were reeling from what they had just witnessed.
"What...what the hell was that?" Shiho asked, her voice shaky, as the mobile suits of both teams regrouped.
- "Januarius...and December too." Dearka said somberly. "Who would have expected this...and all the way from behind the moon."
- "Dearka!" Shiho said sharply. "We're destroying this thing - if they get off another shot, the PLANTs are finished!"
- "Roger that." Dearka replied. "We have to take this fucking thing out, no matter what."
- "Right." Shiho said. "Channis Team, on the ships! Hahnenfuss Team, focus on destroying that colony!"
While the Channis Team's mobile suits engaged the enemy fleet, led by Shiho's GOUF Ignited, Dearka took command of the Hahnenfuss Team's Blaze and Gunner ZAKUs as they, along with all four ships, unleashed their weapons at the colony, which began to split apart.
Though the inside of the colony may have been equipped with a Geschmeidig Panzer energy-deflection array, the outside was not so protected, and the withering barrage of beam cannon and missile attacks shattered the colony, tearing it apart, even as the enemy fleet was destroyed.
Not a single one of the Atlantic Federation forces survived the battle; every last mobile suit was exterminated, and their duty done, the four ships and the Hahnenfuss Team ZAKUs turned their weapons on the enemy ships, destroying them all without hesitation or mercy.
By the time it was over, every mobile suit and every ship had been destroyed. There were no survivors among the Alliance forces.
Their bloody work done, the four ZAFT vessels retrieved their mobile suits and began to head back.
In Orb, the news of the attack on the PLANTs and the death of more than three million innocent civilians caused outrage throughout the country's mixed population of Naturals and Coordinators. In the Government headquarters, Cagalli had immediately summoned Rondo Mina Sahaku.
"This is like what happened with GENESIS..." she said, remembering the giant gamma-ray laser built by the PLANTs during the previous war. "Mina, is there a chance that they could strike Orb with that thing?"
- "To be honest, I think their next target will remain the PLANTs." Mina said. "I doubt they were intending to strike Januarius - I suspect they would target Aprilius first; for some reason, they missed."
- "You didn't answer my question." Cagalli said.
- "Then to put it simply, there is no point they cannot hit with a weapon like this. So yes, they could target Orb."
- "Send for Murrue Ramius, Andrew Waltfeld, Ledonir Kisaka, and Fumihiko Todaka." She ordered. "And relay a message to Ame-no-Mihashira: I want our space fleet ready for combat; every ship fueled, supplied, and ready for launch as soon as possible."
- "Very well." Mina acknowledged. "And will you want me to head up to supervise the preparations?"
- "No, I need you here." Cagalli said. "I will lead them personally."
Mina bowed, then left.
"So, the cycle continues." Cagalli muses. "The Atlantic Federation fired on the PLANTs; now, the PLANTs will probably attack them in return."
She wondered if they would ever break free of this chain that seemed to bind them.
Durendal had said that Logos was responsible for this, but Cagalli wondered.
"Not just the PLANTs...I don't think anyone would have wanted this."
In any case, what mattered right now was the destruction of that weapon. She made a couple of calls, then sat down.
She had done, for now, everything she could. Whether or not they had to make their move, she knew, they would be ready.
ZAFT Forces Carpentaria Base
"Captain!" Arthur yelled, panicking. "Emergency transmission from the homeland."
Yzak entered the bridge, saw the screen, and swore at the top of his lungs.
- "Motherfucking BASTARDS!" Yzak roared. "They fired on us from Daedalus, while our attention was on Arzachel."
Throughout the ship, the reaction was much the same as well.
In the ship's ready room, Athrun was standing, a horrified expression on his face as he saw six colonies destroyed; over three million innocent people dead, just like that. It was like the Bloody Valentine Massacre all over again, but far, far worse this time.
Behind him, Stella had her face buried in Shinn's shoulder, positively terrified by what she had just seen. Shinn himself was shaking, his fists clenched, rage burning in his red eyes.
"But how?" Lunamaria asked, "How could they possibly have...from the far side of the moon? It's impossible!"
- "No, it's not." Athrun said flatly. "They used massive Geschmeidig Panzer systems to bend the beam multiple times; probably, they installed them in abandoned colonies."
- "You're kidding..." Shinn said, "Is there anything these bastards won't do?"
- "Apparently not." Athrun replied grimly. "With something like this, with even just a half-dozen reflection points in the right place, there is literally no target they can't hit."
- "DAMN IT!" Shinn swore. "All this because we let that bastard Jibril get away!"
- "This is your Captain speaking." Yzak suddenly said over the ship's PA System. "I'm sure by now you have heard that Januarius 1 through 4 and December 7 and 8 have been destroyed by an attack from the Atlantic Federation's Daedalus lunar base."
The entire ship went silent, as Yzak continued.
"The situation is simple: That weapon must be destroyed. Those are the orders we have received from the homeland. We will rendezvous in orbit with the Gondwana and the Orbital Fleet. From there, we will be launching an immediate attack on Daedalus."
In the ready room, Athrun, Shinn, Stella and Lunamaria stood, listening to Yzak, their own resolve matching his.
"I know we've had a rough time, and we're all probably exhausted after the battles we've just had." Yzak said. "But we have to do this, or we might not have a home to go back to. So let's get to it!"
Preparations began to launch immediately, including the installation of a gigantic pair of reusable atmospheric boosters, which were fitted to the Minerva. Mounted to port and starboard, each one was almost the same size as the ship itself, and their intent was to provide the enormous amount of thrust that would allow the ship to exit the atmosphere. Once a certain speed and altitude were reached, the two now-useless boosters would be jettisoned and fall into the ocean to be recovered. On the bridge, and throughout the ship, her crew - pilots, mobile suits and all - was ready. Yzak sat waiting. He was tense, more tense than he had been in years. So was everyone else on board.
Never before had they sailed into a mission of such importance, and all of them knew it.
"Engines to maximum." Yzak ordered. "Sierra Antares One, Minerva is taking off!"
The ship took off, and as soon as it had left the water, the gigantic boosters ignited, and it soared upwards on its way back into space, where it belonged. Once they reached the correct altitude, small explosive charges set along the side where the boosters were attached detonated, separating the two now-empty boosters, which began to fall back towards the ocean.
When at last the ship had cleared the atmosphere and escaped into space, it began to level off, and ejected the now-empty boosters. Yzak let out a breath he had not realized he'd been holding, and asked for a status report.
"All systems green, sir." Arthur reported from his console.
- "Good." Yzak replied. "Abby, anything on the comms?"
- "No, sir." Abby replied. "Not yet."
"Sir!" Bart suddenly replied. "Detecting two approaching vessels, distance 6,000 and closing...ID code confirmed; it's the Voltaire and the Rousseau."
"Excellent." Yzak replied, then he turned to Abby. "Open up a communications link to the Voltaire."
"Yes, sir." Abby replied, and within minutes, he was looking at the familiar faces of his two closest subordinates: Dearka Elsman and Shiho Hahnenfuss.
Both of them looked much the same as always, but there was something grim about their expressions, which was understandable.
"Welcome back into outer space, Commander Joule." Dearka said, accenting the title in that slightly mocking way he did, which infuriated Yzak, but given the circumstances, he let it slide.
- "It's good to be back, Dearka." He said. "Though, under the circumstances..."
- "You've made quite a name for yourself down there, Yzak - finally taking down the Archangel and the Freedom." Shiho replied, and Yzak smirked. Dearka looked uneasy, but said nothing.
- "Well, I can take full credit for at least taking down the ship, but the mobile suit was someone else's kill." Yzak replied. "Now, I take it by your presence that you've been involved in this latest situation."
Shiho nodded, then replied grimly.
- "The PLANTs detected one of the relay stations as it approached our air defense network, and dispatched the Hahnenfuss Team to investigate. We were engaging enemy forces when...when the attack happened."
- "On the other hand, we did destroy the damn thing." Dearka added.
- "Good. That's one less thing to worry about, at least for now." Yzak said. "Now, we just have to worry about taking out the rest. You have updated orders from headquarters?"
Shiho nodded again.
- "We do. The Hahnenfuss Team and the Minerva are to rendez-vous with the Orbital Fleet and the Gondwana in lunar orbit to prepare for a full-scale assault on Daedalus." She said. Then, with a sly twinkle in her eye, but the same professional monotone, she added, "Or perhaps I should say, those are the Joule Team's orders."
Yzak raised an eyebrow, to which Dearka responded with his customary grin.
- "At least," he said, "we assumed you'd want to put the band back together."
- "Goddamn right we are." Yzak said, with a sincere smile, as he thought of how well the three of them knew each other. And now they had Athrun, too. Then there was Shinn - an infuriatingly hot-headed kid, brash, mean-tempered...and far more like Yzak himself had been not so long ago than the veteran commander was prepared to admit. But a brilliant pilot all the same.
The two Nazcas joined up with the Minerva, and the now three-ship-strong Joule Team veered on its course away from Earth orbit and towards the moon.
Soon, the gigantic mega-carrier Gondwana, a massive vessel capable of carrying nearly five hundred mobile suits, plus its escort fleet of Nazca- and Laurasia-class battleships, appeared at the very edge of the Minerva's sensor range, and Yzak was somewhat surprised to find a rather sizable fleet of Alliance vessels also positioned on the outer flank of the ZAFT fleet. Largely composed of Agamemnon-class carriers and Nelson-class battleships, with a fairly large number of smaller Drake-class escort vessels, the Alliance fleet was led by a sleek black assault carrier, which Yzak judged to be similar in capabilities to the Minerva - or perhaps the Archangel-class. Four linear catapults, a fairly impressive array of beam cannons, and he suspected a sizable number of missile launchers. He also noticed what seemed to be a panel on her starboard bow that looked like it could house a positron cannon.
"That's the same class of ship as the one that attacked us at Junius Seven." Athrun, who had come up to the bridge, commented. Yzak nodded.
"Yep." He said. "It's also the same vessel that led the Eurasian Federation fleet in the Battle of Theophilus."
Athrun did not reply, as both men were thinking the same thing; They were going after Daedalus Base, a major Atlantic Federation military stronghold, second in importance only to the much larger Arzachel. If they were going to be attacking that kind of target, the more forces they had, the better.
The Joule Team approached the fleet, and Yzak established a communications line to the Gondwana. He followed the flagship's instructions and moved, followed by the two Nazca-class ships, into a position on the inside front of the fleet, near the Gondwana.
Following orders from the enormous flagship, Yzak, Athrun, and Shinn boarded a small shuttle which transported them over to the enormous carrier. As they exited the shuttle, they were met by an armed escort, but Yzak noted with some interest an Alliance-type shuttle in the hangar, not far away.
They were led into a spacious room above the ship's gigantic main control room, where Supreme Council Chairman Gilbert Durendal was seated, waiting for them. Standing next to him was an older ZAFT officer, a short, stocky bulldog of a man named Morgan whom Yzak knew by name but had never met.
Also present, standing on the opposite side of a large holographic display table, was a woman in Eurasian Federation uniform, with short, black hair, and whom Yzak judged to be in her late twenties or early thirties. Her rank insignia identified her as a Captain.
"Ah, Commander Joule." Durendal said pleasantly, but there was a hard edge to his voice. "And Athrun and Shinn, as well. It's good to see you both again, despite the circumstances. Allow me to introduce you to Commander George Morgan, of the Hirschfelder, and Captain Natarle Badgiruel, of the Eurasian Federation's Alakhshya."
Yzak saluted, as did Athrun and Shinn. The other two officers returned the salute, then all of them gathered around the table, as Durendal dismissed the escort.
Yzak saw a map of the Earth Sphere, with the moon and the five Lagrange points clearly indicated. He also saw Daedalus, Arzachel, Theophilus, as well as the PLANTs and roughly a half-dozen additional points, which he assumed were the relay stations of the enemy cannon.
"As you can see," Durendal said, "the enemy weapon is dependent on these relay stations, which redirect the beam fired from Daedalus. Right now, there are a total of six."
- "Five." Yzak interrupted. "The Voltaire and Rousseau destroyed this one." He indicated the point nearest to the PLANTs.
- "Excellent." Durendal said, then continued, "Five, then. These relay stations would be heavily defended, and I suspect that they will launch additional forces, probably from Daedalus, maybe even Arzachel, to reinforce them. Our targets, then, are the cannon barrel itself, and the first relay station, located here."
- "Forgive me, Mr. Chairman," Morgan interrupted, "but there is a significant distance between the two targets; I am not sure whether it is worthwhile to bother - if the cannon is hit, then the relay stations become irrelevant."
- "That may be so; however, attacking at a single point would lead us into a battle of attrition that the enemy, due to the presence of reinforcements from Arzachel in addition to their own forces, could very well win."
- "Divide and conquer;" Natarle interceded. "Put the enemy in a position where they have to divide their forces between multiple points."
- "Exactly." Durendal commented. "Our strategy, then, will be simple: The Gondwana will lead the bulk of the ZAFT fleet, as well as most of the Alliance vessels, in an attack on the first Relay Station. This will draw the enemy forces out to force them to defend the station. Then, the Minerva will lead a smaller force to attack the cannon itself."
- "I see." Yzak replied. "How small a force are we talking about here...The Minerva alone won't be enough - at least the Voltaire and the Rousseau. I think maybe four or five ships, just to be sure, would be about it."
- "My own ship makes four," Captain Badgiruel spoke up. "And, if Commander Morgan is agreeable, his vessel would make five."
- "Fine with me." Morgan said gruffly.
- "Very well then." Durendal spoke up. "I think that will do very nicely. Commander Joule, if you would remain here a moment. Commander Morgan, Captain Badgiruel - we are counting on you."
- "Yes, sir." Morgan replied with a salute. Natarle nodded, saluting briefly, before turning on her heel and leaving. Yzak, Athrun, and Shinn remained.
- "You have all performed admirably these past few months, apart from the unfortunate failure of Operation Fury. Operation Retribution is perhaps the most important battle we will fight." Durendal said
- "We will not fail." Yzak replied firmly. Shinn nodded, as did Athrun.
- "I hope not. But all the same, the Minerva is being resupplied in preparation for the battle. I will also be asking that you take on one additional pilot - though it should not, I think, be a problem."
As Durendal spoke, a door entered and Heine Westenfluss entered, waving good-naturedly.
"Hey, guys." He said with a smile even as he saluted.
"Good to see you again, Heine." Athrun replied. "Are you going to be joining us for this one?"
- "'Fraid not." Heine replied. "I'm on the Prémontval, and we're assigned to escort the Gondwana. He'll be joining you guys, though." He said, and gestured over his shoulder as a second man entered.
Shinn stared, speechless. The newcomer wore a red uniform, on which was pinned the silver-and-gold emblem of a member of FAITH. Icy blue eyes looked appraisingly across the room, partly hidden by long, blonde hair, and the handsome face was heavily scarred, but even so, he knew the newcomer.
He had never thought that he would ever be standing in front of him like that again.
- "I...I can't believe it." He stammered. "Rey."
Rey Za Burrel nodded.
- "It's good to see you again, Shinn." He said, with a small smile.
- "I thought you were dead!" Shinn exclaimed. "The Freedom..."
- "The Freedom shot me down." He added. "The ZAKU was destroyed and the escape pod was heavily damaged - its emergency beacon malfunctioned and did not transmit. When you left, additional ships were sent from Bandirma to continue the search. They found me and recovered the escape pod."
- "I...I'm so glad you're alive." Shinn said earnestly, and Rey smiled in a pained sort of way.
- "I almost didn't make it - I nearly died before they were able to pull me out. But I was able to get medical treatment at Bandirma, and then in the PLANTs. I saw your battle against the Freedom. You did great."
- "Thanks." Shinn said, but behind him, Athrun noted there was something hollow in the way he said it; his best friend's praise meant a lot, but still Shinn remembered what they had talked about. Athrun was impressed, as he realized once again how much Shinn had grown.
- "So, are you going to be rejoining the Minerva?" Yzak asked from behind them. Rey looked over at him, and shook his head.
- "Since I returned to active duty, I've been assigned to the Hirschfelder." Rey said flatly. "Though, of course, I will be taking part in this operation."
- "In that case," Shinn said, "wouldn't it be better if at least until we attack you were onboard the Minerva? That way we can..."
Rey smiled again, and shrugged. "Fair enough." He said.
Durendal dismissed them, expressing once again his expectation that they succeed, especially in light of the addition of Rey and his machine, and the entire group assured him that they would not let you down.
Durendal handed to Yzak a digital readout of the capabilities of Rey's new machine, the ZGMF-X66R Legend Gundam, which would be transported from the Gondwana to the Minerva by its pilot, and the group left.
The shuttle landed in the hangar first, followed by the Legend, which took an empty berth across from the Destiny. Looking up at the new model standing across from his own machine, Shinn was struck by how alike the two of them were. It was as if they had been designed from a common base, which indeed they had been.
But most of the hangar crew and pilots had also turned up, including Lunamaria, who asked him.
- "What's with that new model? Who's the pilot?"
- "It's a temporary assignment - reinforcements to our mobile suit team for this operation." Shinn said. Stella was not far behind, and she soon took a place on Shinn's other side.
- "But who is it?" Luna asked again, but Shinn said nothing.
Then the Legend's pilot disembarked and removed his helmet, and Lunamaria screamed.
- "REY!" She ran up to him and literally threw herself at him, somewhat embarrassing the normally stoic Rey. "You JERK! I thought you were dead!"
- "Sorry." Rey said, unsure of what else to say. "I thought I was too, but I guess not. At least, not for now."
Then he saw several faces he didn't recognize, as Yzak introduced the two pilots of the ship's DOM Troopers. But the one that caught his attention was standing some distance away from him, and he glanced at her after giving the two men a perfunctory salute.
She too wore a ZAFT green uniform, but Rey was sure the very pretty blonde looking warily at him from next to and slightly behind Shinn was...different. He wasn't sure how, but something about her seemed to put Rey on his guard.
- "Oh, I see you spotted Shinn's girlfriend." Yzak said sarcastically as he followed Rey's line of sight.
- "What? Shinn's..." Rey asked, puzzled.
Shinn stepped forward at that point. The girl followed him, hanging a step behind, still eyeing Rey warily.
- "Rey, this is Stella Loussier. She...joined the Minerva while we were on Earth. I'll explain later." He spoke the last in an undertone, and Rey nodded.
Then he turned towards her. "Stella, this is Rey. Rey Za Burrel - he's a very close friend of mine."
- "It's a pleasure to meet you, Stella." Rey said pleasantly, and the girl's expression softened, but there was still something in her eyes that told Rey that she was still on her guard.
- "It's...good to meet you too." She said.
Some time later, the group of pilots - Athrun, Shinn, Lunamaria, Stella and Rey - sat around a table in the ship's rec room, as Rey recounted again what had happened to him since his ZAKU was shot down. In turn, Athrun and Shinn took it in turns to tell their returned comrade what had happened on the ship since Rey went MIA.
"I see." Rey said. "Well, a lot has happened to you guys; but I can see why Chairman Durendal values this ship so much - with everything you've been through, all the experiences you've had..." He turned to Shinn. "Especially you, Shinn."
- "Me?" Shinn replied, somewhat puzzled. "How...What'd you mean?"
- "Well, think about it - The incident in Germany, Operation Angel Down, then Heaven's Base, Orb - that's a lot to go through. Especially Orb - to have to be fighting against your homeland like that."
- "Orb may be where I was born," Shinn said flatly, "but it's not home. Not anymore."
- "Still. And then there's this whole story with you and Stella." he continued "Honestly, I'm having a hard time believing it."
- "I know!" Lunamaria piped up. "I still can't believe it either. It's like something out of a romance novel or something. But looking back, I think Commander Westenfluss saw it coming before the rest of us."
- "Except maybe Athrun." Shinn interjected, with a sidelong glance at the older pilot. "I get a sense that he had a pretty good idea what was happening pretty early on."
Athrun nodded. "I had a suspicion, at least." He said. "A couple of things about you clued me in - probably the same things Heine noticed."
Shinn nodded, smiling. Sitting next to him, Stella smiled as well, but didn't say anything.
- "I guess so. But it's pretty amazing that you were able to pull something like that off." Rey continued to say. "To have succeeded so tremendously in trying circumstances like this; I really think that between you, Athrun, and Commander Joule, we have the top three pilots in all of ZAFT on this ship."
Shinn beamed at the praise, especially from Rey - someone whom he had known since the Academy. They had always known each other, first as rivals, and then as friends. Before the end of Shinn's first year, they had become so close as to be almost inseparable - like brothers. At least, that is how Shinn saw it. He saw Rey as a brother, and so was glad beyond words that, contrary to what he had believed, he had survived after all.
"And we're going to need it." Rey continued. "This operation could very well be the final battle of this war."
- "I hope so." Shinn said firmly.
And as they sat together, even as the five-ship formation began to peel off from the main fleet as it headed out towards its own destination, each one reflected, as did every single member of the crew, on the battle they faced. Quite possibly the greatest one they ever had, or ever would face.
Shinn thought that he knew that when they got there, they would find that bastard Jibril.
The one responsible for everything.
The one he had sworn he would kill himself.
But this time, he knew as they all did, would be their final chance. If they succeeded, then the war was over; But if they failed, every man, woman and child in the PLANTs, and millions more on Earth, would pay the price.