PHASE 05: Chosen Paths

The morning following the Alliance's declaration of war and the subsequent attack, Athrun returned to Cagalli's residence. He had made a decision, and he needed to talk to her first.
"Athrun!" Cagalli said as she walked in, looking exhausted. "I don't really have a lot of time to talk, I'll be in cabinet meetings all morning and I'm waiting on a report from Mina. But I hope you're not..."

-"Don't worry about it, I understand. Anyway, what's the Orb government's position?" He asked. From Cagalli's sudden silence he knew they were looking at a probable worst-case scenario. "I see."

-"I guess given the circumstances it's not surprising." Cagalli replied. "Although we didn't suffer as bad as some other places, Orb was still affected. "I understand what they're saying, but that doesn't mean we should join the people who hate the PLANTs and are shouting for revenge, especially..."

-"But I take it you don't plan on taking that lying down. Otherwise you wouldn't have gone to Mina Sahaku for assistance." Athrun said pointedly, and Cagalli nodded. Athrun continued "Listen Cagalli, I wanted to let you know that I'm going up to the PLANTs. I hate to do this given the current situation, but I can't afford to just sit here. I'm worried about what the PLANTs might do."

-"Athrun, are you sure...?"

-"Given Chairman Durendal's leadership I think we can rule out the worst-case scenario; all the same, they were attacked with nuclear weapons - again. On top of that, with the Junius Seven incident...If this situation gets any worse, then everything we've been working for these last four years will all come to nothing. I know you're doing everything you can down here; I have to try and do what I can to prevent it too."

Late that afternoon, a Heli landed at the residence to pick him up and take him to Onogoro, where Cagalli's shuttle, which they had previously used to head into orbit for the inspection, was on standby. Before boarding, Athrun pulled Cagalli aside.

"Look, I know about the whole situation with you and Yuna Roma. But I don't have to like it." He fished a ring out of his pocket and slipped it on her finger.

-"What?" She looked up at Athrun, who was blushing. The sight was almost comical, but she wasn't about to laugh. She started blushing as well. "I...this is no way to give a woman a ring, you idiot!"

-"Sorry about that." He said. This time, she did laugh.

-"Take care. Keep in touch." She said after a while, looking at him.

-"Yeah. Hang in there, Cagalli." He answered. Then he leaned in and kissed her. When they separated, he looked at her for a moment longer, then turned away and boarded the Heli.

As the small craft took off, Cagalli turned and headed back inside. She needed to get back to her office - she was expecting a phone call, which came within a few minutes of her arrival.

"Yes? Good. How are you progressing so far?" she listened for a few moments, her expression brightening. At last a ray of hope, slender as it was. The telephone conversation lasted nearly forty-five minutes, and by the end of the call Cagalli slumped in her chair and leaned back, smiling for the first time in days. If all went well, she would have exactly what she needed in a few days' time...

After a rather uneventful flight, the shuttle carrying Athrun arrived in the PLANTs, where he was greeted by an unremarkable man in civilian attire. The man worked for Durendal and addressed him as "Mr. Alex".

"Thank you for meeting me. How does the situation look?" Athrun asked.

-"Not good. The citizens of the PLANTs are furious," the aide continued, "Chairman Durendal is continuing to attempt to pursue negotiations, but some are beginning to call him weak because of it. I've told them you're here as an envoy from Representative Athha, but given the situation a meeting may not be possible."

-"I understand."

-It was quite some time, but eventually Athrun was led to Durendal's office. It was nearly one o'clock in the morning, but evidently the Chairman had been busy.

-"Ah, Alex. Or rather, Athrun. Sorry for having to make you wait, but the situation developed rather more quickly than I could have anticipated." Durendal said pleasantly. "Thankfully, we were able to prevent the Alliance's nuclear attack from succeeding. Please have a seat." Durendal requested, motioning towards a pair of small seats around a low table near the front of the office.

Athrun sat down across from Durendal, who then continued speaking. "Although their course of action was not entirely unexpected, it still came as a great shock to me; the way they forced through a declaration of war was unusual enough to begin with, but for them to go straight to the nuclear option... The Alliance may have pulled back for now, but I don't doubt that their plans are unchanged. In addition, our own situation is nothing short of panic."

-"I see." Athrun said. "What steps do you plan to take to deal with this situation?"

Durendal did not answer immediately, but looked troubled. This was the third time nuclear weapons were fired at the PLANTs, and the attack had, once again, been only narrowly averted. The panic among the civilian population of the 119 colonies was almost total, and in many places riots were breaking out. Many were crying out for war, saying that force should be met with force.

"Fighting is not the answer." Athrun continued, "If we attack them now, then the entire world will be dragged into another war, and everything we've been working towards these past years will have been for nothing! Please, you can't let that happen."

-"Athrun..." Durendal started, then stood and walked towards his desk. "To be perfectly honest, I am glad you came up here. I believe that it is you, and people who feel the way you do that will be able to save this world. Some may say I'm a dreamer, but that at least is my hope."

Suddenly the display in the office changed, as did numerous public display screens as well as televisions throughout the PLANTs. It had been showing a news broadcast talking about the attack and its repercussions among the citizens of the PLANTs. Athrun gaped as he saw what he first thought was Lacus, though he soon realized it wasn't; however, the resemblance was uncanny - her face, her hair and even her eyes were a perfect match. She began to speak, an impassioned plea to the enraged citizens of the PLANTs. Her mannerisms, her expressions, even her voice was identical. And then she began to sing.
Athrun recognized the song; it was the last Lacus had written before leaving the PLANTs, and she had only ever performed it in public once. Athrun had been on Earth at the time, but he'd seen a video recording of the performance. Whoever she really was, this girl was an almost perfect duplicate of Lacus; she could've been her twin.

Durendal turned off the display as he turned to Athrun with a knowing smile.
"I'm sure you understand what's happening, here." He said. "I'll freely admit this plot is somewhat...dishonest. However, I had no choice. Even now, Lacus Clyne has tremendous power to influence, far beyond my own. For now I have a need of her strengths. Just as I need your own unique strengths."

-"My strengths?..." Athrun started to ask, confused.

-"Shall we go for a walk?" Durendal asked enigmatically. Athrun in tow, Durendal went to a hangar deep within Aprilius - the very same hangar where, years before, Athrun himself had taken delivery of the Justice Gundam. There, as the lights came on, Athrun saw a sleek new machine.

"The ZGMF-X23S Saviour. Though its capabilities differ, this machine was developed simultaneously with the Impulse." Durendal said. "You might be interested to learn that the data used to create it came in part from the Aegis, as well as the Freedom and Justice. Now, if I said I wanted to entrust this machine to you, what would you do?"

-"Are you asking me to return to ZAFT?" Athrun asked, skeptical.

-"Strictly speaking, no. Not really - I want to give you this machine. It's that simple. Though, on the surface it would appear as you say." After a short while, Durendal looked up at the Saviour again and continued. "My "Lacus Clyne" made my thoughts about this situation very clear; if at all possible, I wish to avoid a prolonged war - ideally a diplomatic solution would be preferable. However I'm not willing to sit back unarmed and wait quietly to be destroyed."

-"Strength is a necessity." Athrun quoted, his tone uneasy.

-"Precisely so. And for this reason I wish for those who believe as I do to stand firm with me, and that is why I feel that if push comes to shove it would be in our best interest if you had power. I'm confident that come what may you won't make the wrong decision, and if we should end up taking a wrong turn, I'm counting on you to steer us right."

Athrun hesitated, and Durendal continued, smiling. "Of course, I won't ask you to make an immediate decision. If you want to take some time to think about it, that's perfectly fine."

Later that evening, Athrun went to a nearby hotel, intending to go to bed after a quick dinner.
"ATHRUN!" a voice he knew well cried, and as he looked up he saw the Lacus doppelgänger running towards him, far more exuberant than Lacus had ever been. She even had a Haro, which was red. Interestingly, Athrun recalled every Haro he had ever given his erstwhile fiancée, and could not recall ever making a red one.

Whoever she was, this girl was not unattractive in her way, but Athrun was somewhat confused nonetheless as she ran and literally threw herself into his arms. "Oh, I'm so thrilled!"
-"Uh...who are you?" Athrun stammered.

-"I'm Meer - Meer Campbell!" She said in an undertone, "But when we're in public like this, please call me "Lacus", okay?" she added, and winked, still smiling.

Not long afterward, he was seated across from her in the hotel's restaurant, still not quite sure how he'd ended up there.
Now that he saw her up close her hair, while styled identically, was very slightly darker than Lacus's, and there were other differences in her appearance, some obvious and others less so; then of course her style of dress, which was much more suggestive and revealing than anything Lacus would've worn. It made him uncomfortable.

"Hey, did you see my performance today? How was it, was I just like her?" She asked excitedly. Then, more hesitantly, she continued "Or...was I not even close?"

-"No, you were actually very good." He said.

-"Honestly?" she said, looking ecstatic. He nodded.

-"You looked nearly identical - I could barely tell the difference."

-"Yeah, but you're Lacus's fiancé, aren't you? So you would be able to tell. Still, I'm glad." They ate in silence for a while, and then she spoke again "You know the truth is, I've always been a big fan of Ms. Lacus. I used to love singing her songs all the time; people started telling me that my voice sounded like hers, even then. Then one day the Chairman called for me."

-"And that's how you started doing this." Athrun said, still uncomfortable with the idea.

-"Yes," she nodded as she replied, smiling. "Chairman Durendal said he needed my strengths, for the PLANTs' sake. And that's why..." Athrun shook his head.

-"He doesn't need your strengths, he needs Lacus's." he said, thinking of what Durendal had told him. The man had manipulated her, after all. He'd suspected as much.

-"I know that." Meer said, slightly crestfallen, and Athrun realized that his comment had sounded somewhat harsher than he'd intended. "Ms. Lacus's strengths are always going to be needed, by everyone. She's strong, and kind, and she's beautiful. Me...I'm just Meer. Nobody really needs me. But, Ms Lacus isn't here now..." Athrun looked at her, surprised at her words. "So I don't mind if it's just for now. I'm game!" She sounded cheerful again and smiled, but to Athrun it seemed forced. "I'm just glad to be able to help everyone on her behalf. And I'm really glad to've met you, Athrun!"

The evening went on, and Meer left soon after they were finished eating. Athrun returned to his hotel room, and thought about what he'd seen and heard. He wondered what his next step should be, and he decided he'd have to think carefully before making his decision...

Orb Union

Cagalli read the report, frowning. "News from the PLANTs...Looks like they're going to be dropping reinforcements to Gibraltar, Carpentaria, and Victoria. Durendal's claiming it's "for self-defense purposes only", but he's just adding fuel to the flames." She remembered Durendal's talk of the necessity of strength, and she gritted her teeth. She turned to the next report. It was from Rondo Mina Sahaku, and the news was good. She smiled, then printed off several copies. That done, she closed her laptop and decided to get some breakfast before heading into the meeting scheduled that day with the Council of Emirs.
Predictably the meeting was opened by the Seirans, who were again pushing their treaty with the Atlantic Federation.

"That is absolutely out of the question!" She said forcefully, slamming her hand on the table and looking around. A few smirked, others looked almost condescending - the Seirans' cronies. She ignored them. There were a few others who looked genuinely worried. "Say whatever you want, but I refuse to allow this nation to enter into an Alliance with the Atlantic Federation."

-"I understand your apprehension, Representative Athha, but think of the current situation." Unato Ema Seiran replied. "Besides, this isn't a treaty with just the Atlantic Federation; it is an Alliance of all the nations of Earth. Naturally, provisions to provide disaster relief to affected areas are included in the treaty, which is why we are considering signing it." he replied patronizingly.]

'At the same time making Orb subservient to the Atlantic Federation' Cagalli thought, seething, glowering at Unato.

"Really?" she replied. "I might point out that for all your claims, I have it on good authority that the Eurasian Federation, for instance, did they taking part in this so-called Alliance's military action against the PLANTs. If you can call it that."

Some of the Councilmen looked momentarily confused at the apparent change of subject. A patronizing look on his face, Unato began to speak again.

-"Because you were aboard a ZAFT ship for an extended period of time, it may be difficult for you to comprehend the current situation." He began as he began flipping through a series of photographs of affected disaster areas. "The damage and the casualties suffered by Earth are far greater than words can describe. And then there's this." The next images showed the terrorists' GINNs. "We - that is, all of Earth - now know about this..."

"Spare me, Unato Ema. I was there, remember?" Cagalli interrupted shortly. "I'm perfectly aware of what happened up there - and to a much greater extent than you, obviously." She countered. "The attack was caused by a small handful of terrorists, and the PLANTs - you may not know this, judging from those photographs - sent four warships in addition to the Minerva in an attempt to stop them."

"But can we tell that to the tens of millions who have been affected by this calamity?"

"Why shouldn't we?" Cagalli countered, her voice - and her temper - rising. "While we're at it, why don't we tell them about the Earth Alliance warship that attacked the Minerva and the other ships during their attempts to disable the terrorists and destroy Junius Seven before it could fall, thereby directly contributing to their failure to do so?"

At those words she withdrew from her own pocket a small handful of printouts that had privately been given to her by Yzak shortly before she disembarked. Included were images of the mobile armor and two mobile suits that had attacked the Joule Team, as well as a shot of two Alliance Daggers, flying in formation with the mobile armor. Also included was several shots of Daggers attacking the Joule Team mobile suits, and a view of their ship as it retrieved the mobile suits, including several damaged Daggers, plus the mobile armor. She threw the photographs onto the table, in plain view of everyone.

"Taking into account the distances involved, there aren't many places that ship could've come from." She concluded. In fact, there was only one place it could've come from, and everyone in the room knew it.

Taking advantage of the silence, Cagalli began her counterattack. "You saw what they did as well as I did. A nuclear attack on the PLANTs, in blatant violation of international law. Additionally that ship was equipped with a Mirage Colloid Stealth System - also outlawed technology. So you tell me, why should we join them." The various members of the Council began protesting confusedly, each speaking over the others until Yuna Roma Seiran stood.

-"Would you please stop your childish complaining?" he said condescendingly. "We already know that the Atlantic Federation is an aggressive nation without you having to tell us about it. So now what? Should we turn our backs on this Alliance? Decide against joining the other nations of Earth? Call your friends in the PLANTs, maybe?"

-"No." Cagalli said. 'Keep talking, you smug bastard. You'll see in a minute...' she thought, fighting to keep her expression neutral. Yuna looked around at the others in a patronizing sort of way, then continued.

-"Well then are you implying we should isolate ourselves, ignore the cries of those hardest hit by this disaster?"

-"Of course not." Cagalli retorted angrily.

-"Then what do you suggest we do?" Yuna asked, clearly thinking he'd backed her into a corner. 'Gotcha.' she thought to herself - the conversation had gone exactly how she'd hoped it would. Well, almost.

-"Funny you should ask that." She said nastily. Then she pressed a button on the console in front of her. "Send them in."

Two aides entered, carrying a stack of documents. One went down each side of the table, handing out a packet to each member of the Council of Emirs. Then they left, as Cagalli produced her own packet from her briefcase.

- "And what is this?" Unato Ema asked as he began reading. Cagalli allowed herself a thin half-smile as the smug look slid off his and Yuna's faces. 'Read'em and weep.' she thought triumphantly. Then she answered the question.

-"You would have us join forces with the Atlantic Federation, a nation that nearly burned this nation to the ground four years ago." she began. "You would make us subservient to a nation whose stated goal as evidenced by their actions is an unjustifiable genocide against the PLANTs."

-Yuna started to protest, but she silenced him with a glare. "Well, I have a counter-proposal. What you see here is the current result of an ongoing negotiation between the Orb Union and the Eurasian Federation - who is itself a signatory to the World Security Treaty, and uninvolved in the Atlantic Federation's war with the PLANTs. You will note that the terms of this agreement allow Orb full rights as member state and ally of the Eurasian Federation to disaster relief as accorded by the World Security Treaty."

-That name still left a bad taste in her mouth; She would much rather have told every last one of them to burn in Hell - there was still too much potential risk to Orb in this alliance, but it was a safer option. She continued, "You will also note that the treaty makes no provisions nor concessions for military aid, either to or from the Eurasian Federation nor any other of the Alliance member nations, on the part of Orb."

-That is true..." one of the other members of the council said tentatively.

-"We will not attack another nation. We will not allow another nation to attack us. We will not intervene in the conflicts of other nations." Cagalli recited, then turned to Yuna. "Does your agreement to ally with the Atlantic Federation protect the ideals of our nation in such a way?" There was silence. The answer, of course, was no.

She looked around; the consternation was general - she had unexpectedly and brutally yanked the rug out from under them, and they seemed uncertain of what to do. Many looked to Unato, who was hesitant, or Yuna, who looked like she'd punched him.
She idly found herself wishing she had.
"I thought not." She said smugly. "The finalized document should be ready for your signatures within the week. In the meantime, unless there is other pressing business to attend to, this meeting is adjourned."

At Morgenröte's facilities meanwhile, Arthur had approached Yzak, wanting to discuss the change in their situation.
"I know the Alliance declared war against us, Arthur." Yzak said shortly. "That's why I can't authorize an early departure - not until we're done resupplying the ship."

-"My point is sir, that that doesn't matter right now. We have to make all possible speed and get to Carpentaria."

-"I can understand your wanting to hurry, but might I remind you that there is a rather large fucking fleet of Alliance warships currently blockading Carpentaria?" Yzak sneered as he responded. "Suppose we rushed out of here, improperly supplied and repaired. What do you think will happen when the Alliance attacks us as we approach? In any case, Orb is not a part of the Alliance - yet. We'll leave as soon as we're ready soon as we're ready and not a moment sooner."

Two tense days later the repairs were done at last, and the ship was fully resupplied. However, there was still no word from Headquarters, and Yzak was a little tense. He was on the bridge when Bart alerted him to a radio transmission he'd caught.
"What've you got?"

-"It's a short-range transmission, but it's on a ZAFT secret frequency; been coming in for some time now. Take a listen."

Yzak grabbed Bart's headset and heard a voice addressing them. "Minerva, do you copy? You can't wait any longer. A chip surrounded by black chips will flip and become black itself." The voice was heavily distorted, but Yzak recognized it; he knew only one man who could conceivably have talked that way. What the man was doing in Orb, he neither knew nor cared. Besides, only ZAFT ship captains and team commanders would've known this particular frequency.

-"Cut the crap, Waltfeld." He snapped. "And speak plainly."

-"Well, well. It's LeCreuset's boy." Andrew replied plainly; he recognized that voice well; silver-blonde hair, with a scar on his face. Hot-headed, angry, impulsive. The pilot of the Duel, if he remembered correctly. Ezalia Joule's brat.

-"That's Commander Yzak Joule, Captain of the Minerva. Now quit screwing around and if you've got something to say, say it plainly."

-"Well then, if you want it plainly: Before too long, ZAFT will begin a drop operation on Gibraltar, Carpentaria, and Victoria. When that happens, Orb will probably ram through a motion to join the Atlantic Federation's alliance despite Representative Athha's best efforts. You have to leave before that happens, or you're gonna be in all kinds of trouble. Your call if you want to stay and risk it, youngster." And the line went dead.

"Still nothing from Carpentaria?" Yzak asked.

-"No, sir. I don't know if it's because the Earth Forces are on high alert, but there's a lot of interference; even laser communications are no good." Replied Bart.

Yzak thought carefully about their situation. If what Waltfeld said was correct and the PLANTs were about to go on the offensive, they had to get out of Orb fast, especially if Cagalli had, even with the ace-in-the-hole he'd given her, failed.

-"Tomorrow morning, 0800. We take off. I want Shinn, Luna, and Rey on standby for immediate takeoff the moment we leave port; If Orb's about to join the Alliance, you can bet the Atlantic Federation'll have ships waiting for us."

-"Yes sir!" Bart acknowledged. If the shit was really about to hit the fan, they'd be ready.

The following morning, as the ship was beginning its launch preparations, a black limousine pulled up and Cagalli exited, alone. An armed guard met her at the gate and escorted her up to the bridge. On the way up they crossed Shinn, Lunamaria and Rey, who were on their way to the briefing room.
The three of them stopped. 'Oh no...' Luna thought, looking at Shinn, who was glaring at the Representative.

-"What're you doing here?" He asked her harshly. "The Earth Forces invaded Orb in the last war, and now you're going to join them? Just how irresponsible and selfish can you people be?"

-"It's not like that at all!" Cagalli replied angrily. This seemed to anger Shinn even more, but to Luna's surprise he didn't fly off the handle this time.

-"Yeah, right!" Shinn retorted. "If you've become our enemy...I'll destroy this country. With my own hands." He warned, and he walked past, shouldering her aside as he did so.

-"Sorry about that." Luna replied. "But is it really true? You're going to join the Alliance."

-"It's a little more complicated than that." Cagalli replied vaguely. Luna shrugged and walked past. Rey, who hadn't said a word so far, walked past with a respectful salute. Soon afterwards, she was on the bridge, where Yzak was waiting.

"Well?" He asked. "Why'd you come all the way out here?"

-"I wanted to apologize about you having to rush off so suddenly. And also, to thank you for all your help."

-"Nevermind. Sure, it's disappointing. But it can't be helped." Cagalli nodded.

-"But it could be worse. Thanks to you, I think we have a pretty good shot at avoiding a worse-case scenario." Yzak raised an eyebrow.

-"So you were able to make use of my little parting gift. I take it it was effective." Cagalli nodded gratefully.

-"Between you and the help I had from another good friend, I think Orb should be safe for now. So I wanted to thank you."

-"No problem. And hey, thanks for coming to see us off. Give my regards to the idiot when you see him." Cagalli smiled. She didn't know Yzak Joule well, and from what she could tell he was a real son of a bitch. But she could see why Athrun trusted him. All the same, she had a feeling Athrun would not be returning to Orb just yet...

-"Sure. If you'll do the same if you see him first."

Soon afterwards she stood on the dock as the Minerva set slowly out. It was 7:30 by the time the ship was clear and on its way out of Orb's territorial waters. "Good luck." She said, and turned back towards her car, which took her back to Orb's administrative headquarters. She had another long day ahead of her.