Chapter 5: Complications

Archangel, brig, 4 February, C.E. 71

Mikhail Coast glanced up as the brig hatch slid open. “Hello, Alex.”

“Doctor,” Alex said simply, folding his arms and leaning against a bulkhead facing the cell.

For several minutes, the two Coordinators regarded each other in silence. They had a history, more so than Alex had yet admitted. The prosthetic arm he wore was just the tip of the iceberg, for Coast was in fact a colleague of Alex’s father. He had worked for a time in the genetic research facility in the Mendel colony, before returning to the PLANTs and setting up a small private practice.

The last time they had met face to face was two weeks after the Mandelbrot Incident. Upon learning of his father’s involvement with Hibiki, Alex had visited Coast in search of information. Although he detested the man, Alex had known full well that Coast was his best lead, possibly his only one.

Coast had not been informative. He had said frankly that Ulen Hibiki was the only Natural who had ever earned his respect but had given little detail. He had warned Alex to stay away from Mendel, the heart of the Ultimate Coordinator project, because of the bio-contaminants. When asked why he was being so concerned, Coast had replied that he had put a lot of effort into Alex’s well-being, and did not want to see it wasted; besides which, he hated the thought of more Coordinator deaths, citing their low birthrate.

That was typical. Mikhail Coast only cared about people in the abstract, seeing them primarily as bits of data. He was utterly merciless on the battlefield, leading some Earth Forces pilots to nickname him “Doctor Death”. This proved particularly appropriate in C.E. 70. In that year, Coast, along with future Le Creuset team member Miguel Aiman, had between them destroyed over fifty Moebius mobile armors and three warships while escorting the East Asian resource satellite Nova to the PLANTs. There, it was transformed into the military fortress Boaz, one of two bases guarding the Coordinator homeland.

Coast had not stayed, preferring the front lines, where he could continue to destroy Naturals, which he regarded as a disease. (That attitude had on more than one occasion caused Yzak to snort in disgust. He had his problems with Naturals, but, like anyone else familiar with Mu La Flaga’s exploits, considered such notions both stupid and dangerous.)

“I admit I was surprised to find you out here,” Coast said at last. “Oh, once I saw your mobile suit, I realized who had to be piloting it, but the notion of you helping the Earth Forces seems a bit out of character.”

Alex snorted. “That was before Rau Le Creuset launched an unprovoked attack on a neutral space colony,” he replied.

“Unprovoked?” Coast smiled thinly. “Really, Alex, the fact that Morgenroete was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces was all the provocation necessary. They did violate their own neutrality, after all.”

The younger man rolled his eyes. “Don’t be absurd. You know as well as I do there was not the slightest possibility the Orb government was involved in that. It was Rondo Ghina Sahaku, possibly with the assistance of the Seiran family, who gave the use of the Morgenroete facilities at Heliopolis. In any case, Le Creuset’s decision to use bunker busters there was illegal, though I’d be willing to bet he lied to the Council about the colony’s collapse.”

Coast chuckled. “Be that as it may, the Naturals got what they deserved.”

“Your contempt for Naturals is one of many reasons I despise you, Doctor,” Alex said coldly. He took a step forward, his cold blue eyes hard as gemstones. “Like Patrick Zala, you forget that the Naturals are responsible for our very existence. And I seem to recall that you actually respected the late Doctor Hibiki.”

The doctor shrugged. “Hibiki was the exception that proves the rule.” He smiled thinly. “Speaking of whom, how has your search been going?”

“It hasn’t been going at all,” Alex said, more than a little disgusted. “I’ve been busy trying to find a way to stop Patrick Zala from wiping out the Naturals. All I know is that there was a single survivor of the artificial womb, that he has a Natural twin sister, and that they’re both still alive.”

“Actually, there was another Ultimate Coordinator,” the white-haired ZAFT pilot corrected. “Seized by the Eurasians fifteen years ago. I don’t know his name, but I do know he considers himself a failure.” He shook his head. “If he even survived, he’s no failure.” Coast stood and faced Alex directly. “By the way, you should keep in mind that the girl’s genetic profile is uncertain; I don’t know whether she’s Natural or Coordinator, and neither did your father.”

Alex digested that. “I see. It looks like I will have to check Mendel itself. Don’t bother reminding me of the bio-contaminants,” he added. “By now, they’ll have run their course.” He started to leave, then turned back. “Why are you telling me this?”

Coast shrugged again. “Call it curiosity. I’d like to see just how far Hibiki’s project went.”

Alex was silent for a long moment. “So, would I,” he said, and was gone.

Archangel, bridge

“Talk about crazy,” Mu La Flaga said, shaking his head ruefully. “We solve one problem and pick up another in the form of a pink-haired princess. The endless challenges we face.” He gave a rakish salute. “A real treat, Captain.”

Murrue leaned back in her chair. “This after we meet a princess at Heliopolis,” she said, throwing an amused glance at her niece.

“Whatever you do, don’t call her a princess,” Lia warned. “I don’t think there’s anything she hates more.” She glanced briefly as Badgiruel. “Which reminds me, Cagalli asked that her identity not be revealed to anyone in the Earth Forces. She doesn’t want Orb involved in this any more than it already is.”

Badgiruel hesitated, then nodded. “I believe that would be the best course, Captain. Much as I dislike having to conceal information from the high command, in this case I believe we have no choice. She’s more Strassmeier’s problem than ours, anyway.”

“Speaking of Strassmeier and the princess,” Mu said, “what’s up with them? I thought she hated his guts.”

Lia chuckled. “They had an argument just after we left Heliopolis. From what Cagalli told me later, Alex got mad enough to spill his guts about his sister. She apologized, and now they’re friends.” She looked out the starboard viewport, watching her own ship cruise alongside. “A good thing, too.”

“What do you mean?” Murrue asked. “More than just the fact that she doesn’t think he’s a spy anymore, judging by your tone.”

Her niece sighed. “Alex may not show it, but this has been really hard on him. It is bad enough that his parents are dead and his sister’s missing, now he must fight his own cousin. He hasn’t been able to relax since he left the PLANTs, not even with Kyle and me.”

Mu settled into the copilot’s seat (Tolle was off duty). “Is there anybody besides that princess that can really get to him?”

Lia grimaced. “One: Yzak Joule. Not exactly an ideal situation since he’s one of the guys trying to blow us out of space.”

“And Kira’s got the same problem,” Mu said, shaking his head. “Who’d have thought Patrick Zala’s kid would be a good guy?”

“With all due respect, Lieutenant,” Badgiruel said, “we do not know whether this Athrun Zala is such a person; for all we know, he could be cut from the same cloth as his father. And even if he is not, he did lose his mother in the Bloody Valentine.”

“Losing a parent like that would affect anyone,” Mu countered. “And, for all that Kira’s a little naive, he’s not stupid. I can’t see him being best friends with a psychopath.”

Murrue nodded agreement. “Lieutenant La Flaga is right, Natarle. I saw Athrun’s face when he saw Kira. He looked both shocked and dismayed, and I do not for an instant believe it was feigned.”

She stood, clasping her hands behind her back. “I have long felt that Alliance policy toward Coordinators is wrongheaded at best. Even those Coordinators who are official members of our forces, like Jean Carrey, are distrusted, and that is simply wrong. It is both foolish and immoral to assume that every Coordinator is a ZAFT spy or some such.”

“High command doesn’t see all Coordinators as the enemy,” Badgiruel protested.

Mu shook his head. “You’re wrong there, Ensign. I have seen it, too. Admiral Halberton’s not that kind of guy, or so I have heard, but the Alaska brass are something else. I’ve met Carrey, for that matter, and there’s a reason his GINN is painted white.” His expression turned grim. “Part of it is to distinguish him from the enemy -he is piloting a GINN, after all- and part of it is to make him an easy target if he betrays us.”

“And all that makes me inclined to believe Alex’s story about his sister’s abduction,” Murrue said. “Something doesn’t smell right. I do not understand why our forces would have engaged in an outright kidnapping -and it was our forces, Natarle; it predated the formation of the Alliance- but, as you yourself have pointed out, such an act is inexcusable.”

Badgiruel shook her head. “I have difficulty believing that the high command was involved in such a thing. It’s more likely the perpetrators were rogues, and that’s if any Atlantic Federation personnel were involved at all.”

“And what about the Mandelbrot Incident?” Mu asked pointedly. “Whatever you think of the war, that was a crime by any standard.”

The ensign had to grant that point. She had still been in the Academy at the time of the incident and the subsequent blockade, and, while she felt (correctly) that cadets -and ensigns- had no business meddling in policy, she did have the vague impression that the blockade was the wrong way to go.

Badgiruel certainly had nothing against Coordinators in general. Loyalties aside, she had never believed the official story of the Copernicus bombing (she knew perfectly well ZAFT would not be that stupid); her problem with Kira was the fact that he was a juvenile civilian, and she was naturally suspicious of Alex, since he was related to Ezalia Joule.

“In any case, there’s no point in speculating right now,” Murrue said. “I’ll speak to Admiral Halberton when we reach the Eighth Fleet.”

And maybe then we will get some answers.

Archangel, corridor/cafeteria

Flay Allster drifted down the corridor. She was not sure what she was up to, but she knew it was more than just getting lunch. The things she had heard since coming aboard the Archangel, things about the very government her father served, had her more than a little confused.

Then there was the rescue of Lacus Clyne. Flay had been prepared to hate the Pink Princess, but the combination of Alex’s experiences, Kira’s repeated acts of bravery in protecting the ship, the sight of the remains of Junius Seven, and Lacus’s own personality had made that impossible.

What am I supposed to believe? she wondered. Is everything I have heard about Coordinators nothing more than a lie? Flay did not think her father had lied to her, but she could not help wondering if he was simply wrong.

She jumped at the sound of footsteps. Turning, she spotted a familiar hawk-faced figure walking down the corridor toward her. Alex’s presence made her nervous but learning the reason for his attitude had lessened the effect. So, after a brief internal debate, Flay approached him. “Alex?”

Alex stopped and looked at her curiously. “Something on your mind, Flay?” he asked in a surprisingly mild tone.

She hid a sigh of relief at his manner. “I wanted to ask you something.” The Coordinator nodded for her to go on. “What are people like in the PLANTs?”

He leaned against the bulkhead, folding his arms as he thought. “Pretty much the same as people on Earth. Oh, there are some differences; inevitable, given the environment.” Alex gave her a piercing look. “But that is not what you really want to know, is it? What you want to know is whether or not Naturals are hated there.”

Flay nodded. “Yeah. I mean, except for Orb, Coordinators aren’t exactly popular on Earth.”

“That is largely the product of simple ignorance. Blue Cosmos is something else, of course; though how preventing the genetic modification of humans is supposed to protect the environment is beyond me.” Alex shook his head. “Anyway, to answer your question, no, Naturals are not generally hated. There are quite a few of them in the Junius farming colonies, as it happens. As for ZAFT, only the really hardcore types actually hate Naturals.”

“Since they have Natural allies in Oceania and the African Community.”

Alex nodded. “Exactly. There are even a few Earth Forces officers whom many ZAFT soldiers would happily fight besides if they could be persuaded of the error of their ways. Admiral Halberton, for example, he is known to be sympathetic to Coordinators. Then there’s Lieutenant La Flaga. Most ZAFT soldiers -my cousin Yzak included- see him as a worthy opponent rather than some sort of monster.”

“What about Kira’s friend, Athrun?” Flay asked. “His mother died in the Bloody Valentine, and you’ve said that his father wants all Naturals dead…”

“Don’t confuse the father with the son,” Alex advised her. “He knows perfectly well that Kira is a first-generation Coordinator; in fact, though you’d have to ask Kira to be sure, I believe he’s met Kira’s parents. In any case, Zala’s intentions are far from well known. I do not know Chairman Clyne very well, but I do know he would never stand for something like that. For that matter, ZAFT itself would probably revolt.”

Flay considered that. From what she had heard (mostly from her father), she agreed that Alex was probably right about how Siegel Clyne would react to a plan for outright genocide. He openly desired coexistence with the Naturals. Which, Flay admitted to herself, was a point in favor of both him and his daughter. “Can I ask you something else?”

“Flay,” Alex said gently, “just because I’m cold-blooded doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of me. I admit I’m suspicious of your father; he is a high-ranking Atlantic Federation official, after all.”

Flay nodded. She did not like it, but she understood. “It’s about that guy we captured yesterday, just before Kira brought Miss Clyne aboard.”

“Coast?” Alex flexed his right arm. “He and I go way back. He was a colleague of my father’s, and our family doctor.” He indicated a point midway down his upper arm. “My arm is a prosthesis from about here down. Mikhail Coast was the one who fitted it.”

“How did you get it?”

Alex allowed himself a smile. “I disagreed with something that ate me,” he quipped.

Flay could not help it. She burst out laughing. “It was bitten off?”

“By a half-ton shark, to be exact. My mom ran an ichthyoculture farm, and I got a little too close to one of its denizens.” He shook his head. “Coast makes Rau Le Creuset look warm-hearted, which is why I’m glad he’s no longer a practicing doctor.”

“Sounds like a real creep.”

Alex grimaced. “You don’t know the half of it. Anyway, just remember that just as there are good and bad Naturals, there are good and bad Coordinators. You have people like Mikhail Coast, Patrick Zala, and Rau Le Creuset on the one hand. On the other, there’s Siegel and Lacus Clyne, all four of Le Creuset’s Gundam pilots -ironic, I know- Kira, Kyle, Lia…”

“You,” Flay added, surprising them both.

He looked at her curiously, then shrugged. “Me,” he agreed, then turned to leave. “By the way,” he added over his shoulder, “Cagalli has asked that her identity be kept secret; she doesn’t want Orb involved in this any more than it already is. And since your father is a high-ranking official…”

Flay nodded. “I understand.” She watched him go, then stepped into the cafeteria, deciding that, for all his coolness, Alex Strassmeier really was an all-right guy.

The place was, as usual, crowded, what with the refugees. Flay greeted her fellow survivors, then spotted Kira, Kuzzey, and Mir at a far table. She moved to join them; after talking to Kira and Alex, she had decided she wanted to get to know the Strike pilot a little better.

Mir noticed her approach, and nudged Kira. “Hi, Flay.”

“Hi, Miriallia,” Flay said.

Her friend raised her eyebrows. “Something wrong?”

Flay shrugged. “I… had a talk with Alex. Curious, I guess.” She hesitated. “He kind of got me thinking. All my life I have heard about how dangerous Coordinators are. But, when Kira took the Strike out, fighting to protect the ship,” she smiled at the young pilot, who blushed faintly, “even fighting his best friend, well…I am not sure what is right anymore. And then Alex told me about the PLANTs, how people there are mostly the same as people on Earth…”

“That’s Alex,” Kyle Perry said. “If he doesn’t scare you out of your wits, he makes you think.”

Flay jumped. “Kyle! I-I am sorry! I didn’t see you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a laugh. “When Cagalli first came aboard the Valkyrie, she looked right at me for about ten seconds without noticing me.”

She could not help chuckling. She had not had much contact with Cagalli and was more than a little puzzled by her mysterious bond with Kira, but she had nothing against the princess. Still, Flay found the idea of Cagalli being startled by Kyle’s mere presence funny.

Even if it happened to me, too. She looked at Kira. “How are you doing? It must have been tough out there, at Junius Seven.”

Kira shrugged. “It actually wasn’t that difficult, physically; there’s no way a dozen GINNs are going to beat six Gundams. It’s just that, I felt rotten afterwards; I did kill two of them, after all.”

“You’ll get used to it, Kira,” Kyle said. Kira winced, and the Devastator’s pilot nodded in understanding. “I know, you don’t want to get used to it. Well, let me tell you, getting used to it does not mean liking it. Remember, I blew up one of Coast’s ships. I didn’t like it, but I knew it had to be done.”

Kira nodded reluctantly. “I understand.” He rolled his eyes suddenly. “Not that I’m feeling sorry for Coast; there’s something about that guy that gives me the creeps.”

“Alex doesn’t like him either,” Flay said, shuddering.

The students turned at the sound of footsteps. Lacus Clyne stood in the hatchway, looking around curiously, her pink robot, Haro, bouncing next to her. As Alex had noticed the day before, she showed no awareness that she was on an enemy ship. Indeed, the pink-haired pop star appeared completely at home.

“Is that Miss Clyne?” Flay asked in a whisper. Mir nodded.

Lacus caught sight of them then. Recognizing Kira as the pilot who brought her aboard, she came over, smiling. “You’re the one who recovered my life pod, aren’t you?”

Kira nodded jerkily, not quite sure what to make of this girl. “Uh, yeah.”

“I wanted to thank you,” she said. “I would probably have died if you hadn’t found me.”

“Uh, it was nothing,” Kira said.

“Still, I am grateful,” Lacus said. “May I ask your name?”

He blinked, still off balance. “Uh, it’s Kira, Kira Yamato.”

Lacus’s jaw dropped. “Kira Yamato? From Copernicus?”

Kira’s eyes widened. What the…How did she know that? “Yeah, but how did you know?”

“Athrun has told me a lot about you,” the Pink Princess explained. “He often speaks of you with great fondness.”

The young pilot felt himself gaping like a fish. She…she knows Athrun? It is true that they are both children of Supreme Council members, but… “You…you know Athrun?”

“Of course!” She smiled brightly. “Athrun Zala is the man I will eventually be marrying. It’s good to meet a friend of his, whatever the circumstances.” Kira looked away. “Is something wrong?”

Kira took a deep breath. “Athrun and I… well…” He met her gaze. “You know he joined ZAFT after his mother was killed in the Bloody Valentine, right?” Lacus nodded. “The Earth Forces were building mobile suits at the neutral resource satellite Heliopolis, where I was living. The Le Creuset team attacked ten days ago, stealing four of the new machines. I wound up piloting the fifth one so I could protect my friends…and because of that, I had to face Athrun on the battlefield,” he finished quietly.

Flay laid a hand on Kira’s shoulder. She was becoming more certain by the moment that what she had heard about Coordinators was simply wrong. Lacus was impossible to dislike, and Kira’s obvious pain cut Flay to the heart. This is wrong. Kira must fight his best friend; Alex must fight his cousin; just what is going on here?

“I’m sorry, Mr. Yamato,” Lacus said softly. “It must hurt for you two to have to fight each other.”

“It does,” he acknowledged, “but I have no choice. I’m not the only one with that problem, either; Alex is related to one of Athrun’s teammates, Yzak Joule.”

Lacus nodded. “I know. I’ve met him, of course, and I know that he and Alex are awfully close, despite having quite different personalities.” Deciding it would be wise to change the subject, she looked at the other students. “You’re all Kira’s friends?”

Mir held out her hand. “That’s right. My name is Miriallia Haw.”

“Kuzzey Buskirk.” Nervous though he was around Coordinators, Kuzzey knew better than to be rude to a guest.

“Flay Allster.” Flay was even more nervous than Kuzzey, albeit for different reasons.

Lacus smiled. “A pleasure to meet you.” She sat at Mir’s invitation, then paused, remembering the sight of a GINN in the ship’s hangar. “Alex said something about a Mikhail Coast?”

“The Doctor’s team attacked us just before Kira found your pod,” Kyle explained. “I think they may have been searching for you, but we couldn’t afford to be found.”

“I see.” Lacus’s voice sounded curiously flat for a moment, and she shivered very slightly.

Kira raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”

She shook her head. “I met Doctor Coast once, on a tour. I sometimes perform at ZAFT bases,” she explained at Kira’s blank look. “For the troops. Normally I enjoy such trips, but when I met Coast… He somehow felt wrong. He was polite, but very cold, almost soulless.”

“Talk about hitting the nail on the head,” Kyle muttered darkly. “Anybody who calls Naturals a disease…” He shook himself. “This isn’t the time for that sort of thing. Why don’t we just enjoy our meal.”

Lacus smiled. “You’re right.”

For the next hour, the six of them chatted amiably, forgetting for a while the turmoil of war.

Valkyrie, bridge

“It seems Miss Lacus is settling in just fine,” Lia said. She and Alex had returned to the Valkyrie minutes earlier. “She’s even got Flay Allster out of her shell.”

Alex snorted. “Only a convinced misanthrope -or a Blue Cosmos operative, if there’s a difference- could dislike Lacus Clyne. Normally I would be concerned about her being on an Earth Forces warship, but since your aunt is in command, I don’t think there’ll be any problems.”

He crossed to his own chair on the starboard side of the bridge. Flay’s reaction to Lacus had taken care of one of his last worries. Since she was the daughter of an important Atlantic Federation official, Alex had feared that her attitudes could cause trouble. Fortunately, those attitudes seemed to have vanished; apparently her time on the Archangel was doing her some good.

Alex sipped from a coffee mug at his elbow (he did not have Andrew Waltfeld’s obsession with coffee, but he did enjoy a good brew, and one of the few things he hated about free fall was having to drink through a straw). There was still the possibility of a ZAFT attack, but he highly doubted that even Rau Le Creuset would open fire if he knew the daughter of the Supreme Council Chairman was on the Archangel. No, his worries were far more personal, and not just about his cousin.

If only Zala had not gone off the deep end. Then Yzak and I could be fighting side by side. Few people alive knew that Alex had almost joined ZAFT himself. The deaths of his parents and his sister’s abduction had combined with the Bloody Valentine Tragedy, filling him with a desire to see the Earth Alliance destroyed.

Then he had learned of Patrick Zala’s plan to exterminate the Naturals. Feeling betrayed, Alex had vowed that he would never serve under Zala; he knew better than to blame all Naturals for the actions of a few deranged fanatics.

Alex sighed, fingering the collar of his black coat. If it had not been for Zala’s madness, that collar would have borne the insignia of the PLANTs, and the coat would have been a different color, green or perhaps even elite red; he was confident enough in his abilities that he could have won the red uniform.

It should have been green at the very least, he thought. But Zala took that away. As a patriot, having to leave the PLANTs to stop a madman from having his way hurt more than he cared to admit, but that did not make him an Earth Forces sympathizer. Indeed, were it not for the fact that he saw the Archangel as separate from the Earth Forces as a whole, he would almost certainly have opened fire on them.

A hand on his shoulder jolted Alex out of his reverie. “Hey, you awake there?”

He looked up, somehow not surprised to see Cagalli standing over him. She had changed from the drab outfit she had worn at Heliopolis to khaki pants and a red t-shirt. “Isn’t that an unusual outfit for a princess?” he asked mildly. “You’re not exactly incognito at the moment.”

She glared at him. “What, you think I should be in a dress? You know I hate that. And do not call me a princess, got it?”

“As you wish,” Alex said with a shrug. “From what I remember of that party, you looked good in a dress, but the fact that you visibly hated it spoiled the effect somewhat. So no, I don’t think you should be in a dress.”

Cagalli shook her head. “I’m still not sure what to make of you,” she muttered, but there was a glint of humor in her eyes. Her voice softened. “Brooding again?”

He shrugged again. “Something like that,” he admitted, fingering his collar. “It’s strange how things turn out sometimes.”

She frowned. Something in his voice… “What do you mean?”

Alex stared out the forward viewport for a moment before responding. “If I hadn’t learned about Zala’s madness, I would probably be helping track down the Archangel; I was literally on my way to a ZAFT recruiting center when Kyle stopped me.” His fist clenched. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so betrayed. I wanted to join the fight, make the Alliance pay for what it did to my family, what it did to Junius Seven.”

“So instead, you went underground, fighting your own fight,” Cagalli said. “Against both ZAFT and the Earth Forces.”

Alex nodded. “To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that Lia’s aunt is in command of the Archangel -and of course Mu La Flaga’s involvement- I would probably have attacked that ship at Heliopolis.” He shook his head. “Like I said, it’s strange how things turn out.”

He has got that right. Though she supported her father’s insistence on keeping Orb neutral, Cagalli’s sympathies for the most part was with the PLANTs, especially after Junius Seven. Her time on the Valkyrie had reinforced that, though she too liked the Archangel’s crew (especially the pilot of the Strike, as everyone on both ships knew).

“It must be frustrating,” she said at last.

“To put it mildly. I should be wearing a ZAFT uniform, but Zala made that impossible,” Alex said bitterly, then shook himself “What’s done is done, and there’s no point in moaning about it,” he said in his usual tone. He punched up a schematic on his terminal. “A more immediate concern is what they’ll do with the stolen G-weapons. Especially this one.”

Cagalli stared at the black-and-red machine on the screen. “The Blitz? What about it?” Then it hit her. “Mirage Colloid.”

“Exactly. I shudder to think what a man like Patrick Zala would do with such a system.” He glanced out at the Archangel. “But even that isn’t our biggest problem. Recall that the Archangel has Lacus Clyne aboard. Lacus, in addition to being the Supreme Council Chairman’s daughter, is incredibly famous as a singer, which means ZAFT will be searching for her; I think that’s probably why Coast was out in the middle of nowhere, in fact. Then there is the fact that she is engaged to Kira’s friend Athrun Zala. And since Athrun is a member of the Le Creuset team…”

She winced. “Rau Le Creuset will come out in person.”

“Most likely,” Alex agreed. “And not just with the Vesalius, either. With the defeat -from ZAFT’s perspective, disappearance- of the Coast team, Le Creuset will not be taking chances. At the very least, he’ll have the Gamow along.”

Cagalli knew exactly what was bothering her friend there. “Which means you’ll have to fight your cousin again.”

He sighed. “Almost certainly. Yzak and I won’t actually be trying to kill each other, but you know as well as I do that a mobile suit can be neutralized without killing the pilot.”

She squeezed his shoulder gently, silently cursing both Zala and the Earth Forces. Most of her ire was directed at the Earth Forces; while Zala wanted to exterminate the Naturals, his views were not widely held, even in the wake of the Bloody Valentine. The Alliance, on the other hand… Cagalli shook her head in disgust. The more she learned of the Earth Alliance, the more convinced she was that the men and women on the Archangel were too good for them.

Lia Ramius watched from her command chair, smiling to herself. While Kyle Perry was Alex’s de facto second-in-command, she knew Alex far better than he did. They had first met ten years earlier, when she visited the PLANTs with her parents.

The two had quickly become close friends, though few were aware of it; Alex had told Yzak he had a friend in the Junk Guild but had never mentioned Lia by name. This had been at the request of her parents; given that the Junk Guild was stubbornly neutral, they preferred that Lia’s friendship with a relative of a Supreme Council member not become widely known. (This was before her father’s sister Murrue Ramius joined the military.) Alex and his parents had agreed readily enough.

In any case, Lia was one of the few people with whom Alex would drop his emotionless mask. The only people who truly knew him better than she did were Andrea Strassmeier, who was missing, and Yzak Joule, whom he now had to fight.

Which was why she was glad to see Cagalli taking an interest in him. Lia could see the pain Alex had been going through ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, and facing his cousin in battle had only compounded it. He needed someone who could help him keep going, and Lia knew she herself could not do it; they were remarkably close, but there had always been a certain distance just the same.

But Cagalli can get to him without any trouble, she thought, somewhat bemused. And he does not even realize it; I will bet he did not notice the line about her looking good in a dress slipping out.

Cagalli seemed to sense her scrutiny. She glanced over her shoulder, giving Lia a look that unmistakably said, “What are you looking at?” Lia just shrugged, looking innocent. The princess frowned, then turned back to whatever she and Alex were talking about.

Those two… Valkyrie’s Captain thought, suppressing a chuckle.

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira Yamato sprawled on his bunk; Birdy perched nearby. In just ten days, his life had altered drastically. He had gone from studying at a technical college to piloting a mobile suit off an Earth Forces warship in less than twenty-four hours. In the process, he had faced his best friend in battle, fought another friend’s cousin, and befriended a princess. Since then, he had taken on two GINNs simultaneously and rescued another princess…who turned out to be his best friend’s fiancé.

Athrun. Kira closed his eyes, remembering their time together in Copernicus. They had been inseparable, despite their differing backgrounds, close enough to be brothers. For seven years, Kira and Athrun had gone to school together, not a care in the world. Even when his father, Patrick Zala, had called him back to the PLANTs, Athrun had been unconcerned.

“The PLANTs and Earth will see eye-to-eye,” Athrun said. “There will be no war. This evacuation doesn’t mean a thing.” He extended a hand, on which perched a robotic bird.

Kira reached out in turn, hands cupped, and the bird hopped into them. “Thank you.”

Athrun smiled at his friend. “You’ll join me later in the PLANTs, right, Kira?”

Kira wished he had, but that was not to be. Instead, he had to fight his friend, so that his other friends would live. It just is not fair! I am just fighting to protect my friends! Why can’t he see that?

Nor was Athrun his only dilemma. During the Battle of Artemis, he had faced off against one of the stolen Gundams, the Blitz. He had spoken with its pilot, Nicol Amalfi, and learned that Nicol, too, was a friend of Athrun. Kira sighed, knowing that, if things had been just a little different, Nicol would have been his friend, too.

Not that he was completely alone. Sai, Kuzzey, Tolle, and Mir, supported him, albeit reluctantly in Kuzzey’s case. Alex knew how he felt, since they were in the same situation. Cagalli, of course, had grown very fond of him in the short time they had known each other.

And then there was Flay Allster. Even though she was engaged to Sai (by parental arrangement, which had caused Alex to snort in disgust; he made no secret of his hate for such things), Kira had taken a liking to her.

“Taken a liking”, ha! Kira told himself. Do not fool yourself; you are in love. Unfortunately, he did not dare do anything while she was engaged to Sai, and he had no intention of trying to break that up. Kira Yamato was not that sort of person.

Flay said she is behind me; that is enough, at least for now. Putting that thought aside, Kira sat up and retrieved a photo Alex had gotten for him. It was a graduation photo from the ZAFT academy; Kira did not know how Alex had gotten a hold of it, but he was grateful. Four young men in red uniforms looked out at him. The first, with white hair and ice-blue eyes, he easily identified as Yzak Joule; while Kira had never seen him, the pilot’s resemblance to Alex was striking. Next was a tall, blond youth, whom Alex had recognized as Dearka Elsman, pilot of the Buster. The third Kira knew by sight: Nicol Amalfi, pilot of X207 Blitz.

Last, of course, was his dear friend Athrun Zala. Athrun had not changed much; he had grown some, of course, but, aside from that, he was just as Kira remembered him. A little harder in the face, perhaps, but still the Athrun Zala he had known for so long.

The picture blurred as Kira’s eyes filled with tears. Setting it down on the table, he buried his face in his pillow and wept silently.

“Birdy!” The robot had no way of knowing what was going through the young Coordinator’s mind, but Kira found its presence comforting.

Vesalius, bridge, 5 February, C.E. 71

“Our mission is to search for the missing Silverwind, and rescue Lacus Clyne, assuming she’s still alive,” Rau Le Creuset said, sweeping his featureless gaze around the assembled soldiers. “In light of the power of the warships we faced at Heliopolis, as well as the disappearance of the Coast team, the Bartlett team has been assigned to support us.” He smiled thinly at Yzak’s look of distaste. “Don’t worry, Yzak. I am in overall command of this mission, and I have no intention of allowing Commander Bartlett to interfere should you encounter your cousin again. Use disabling attacks on the Stormbird if you wish; and that goes for you and the Strike as well, Athrun.”

Athrun and Yzak looked at each other, for once in complete agreement; neither of them liked Bartlett, and they were acutely aware of their shared predicament. “Thank you, sir,” they said in unison.

“Of course.” Le Creuset tapped the display. “We will begin with the outskirts of the Debris Belt. Comments?”

Yzak grimaced. “I’ll bet Alex was at least part of the reason Coast vanished.”

Nicol looked at him curiously. “Why is that?”

“They go way back; Commander Coast was the Strassmeier family doctor before he joined ZAFT,” Yzak explained. “Alex hates him.”

“Your cousin certainly has a healthy dislike of some ZAFT team commanders, me included,” Le Creuset said. “What does he have against Doctor Coast?”

Yzak shrugged. “He’s never said what, at least not to me, except that he thinks Coast should never have gone into medicine.”

“It’s true that Commander Coast doesn’t have much of a bedside manner,” the masked man admitted. “His personality is more suited to the battlefield that the hospital.” He shrugged. “In any case, he is not likely to be a factor at this point. Dismissed.”

corridor

Drifting down the hall with Dearka and Nicol, Yzak shook his head in disgust. “So now we have to deal with the Bartlett team again. Simply great.”

“Yeah,” Dearka agreed. “They’ll just get in the way.”

“I don’t think they’ll have a chance to get in the way,” Yzak said with a snort. “Not the way Alex and Athrun’s buddy fight. They’ll be taken apart.”

Nicol raised his eyebrows. “You think your cousin has more mobile suits than we’ve seen?”

Yzak snorted again. “Bet on it. Alex is not stupid. Judging by how his ship is built, I would say he has got at least five, and probably room for more, just like the legged ship. We’re in for a major fight if we run into them again.”

“Then we’d better be ready if that happens,” Dearka said, coming to a halt next to one of the main airlocks, where their shuttle waited. “Come on, let’s get back to the Gamow.”

Athrun’s quarters

Athrun stripped off his red coat and released it to drift in the small cabin. He did not bother putting it away; his mind was on other things. He thought of the PLANTs, of his deceased mother, of Kira, and of his fiancé, Lacus Clyne.

Lacus, I will see you again, I promise. Kira…will I have to fight you again? It does not have to be this way; you are a Coordinator, just like me! We should be fighting side-by-side, not trying to blow each other out of space…

Athrun sighed. Trying to persuade Kira to join them was probably futile, but he at least had to try. He could not bear the thought of having to shoot him down. Kira, please, do not make me do this.

He shook himself. It was not all that likely that they would encounter the legged ship in any event; there was no reason for them to sail through the Debris belt. Or so Athrun hoped, at least; from what Yzak had told him, Alex Strassmeier might well have persuaded them to do exactly that. The guy was certainly devious enough.

If they did encounter the legged ship and its companion, they would be in for a fight. Athrun had a healthy respect for Alex’s skills, and while he had not actually come to blows with Kira, Nicol had reported losing badly to him at Artemis. Even with the Gamow and the Bismarck, it was far from certain that the ZAFT contingent could win.

Athrun lay back and closed his eyes. No matter how hard he tried to avoid it, his thoughts kept turning back to Kira. Once the best of friends, now their loyalties forced them to be enemies. It was tearing Athrun apart emotionally, and he knew it was doing the same to Kira.

Kira, we will find a way through this. Until then, stay alive…

Author’s note: Next, the Le Creuset team will face off against Archangel and Valkyrie once again, Alex will have another run-in with his personal irritant, and Badgiruel will make him very mad.

Chapter 4: The Songstress

Archangel, Bridge, 2 February, C.E. 71

More than one of the Earth Forces contingents saw their escape from Artemis as a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Even with the food Lia had brought over, the Archangel was low on supplies, and the Valkyrie had taken additional damage during their fight with the Le Creuset team’s mobile suits; Dearka had managed to pulverize the starboard Gottfried. Repairs were proceeding, but they would take a couple of days yet.

On the plus side, X304 Scorpion, X208 Shinobi, and X112 Inferno were finally ready for action, and their pilots (especially conspiracy theorist/pyromaniac Chris Madsen) were spoiling for a fight.

“So, we need supplies, particularly water,” Murrue said. She glanced at her niece. “Lia?”

Valkyrie’s captain grimaced. “We’ve still got plenty of food, but a freak hit during the battle with the Vesalius and the Gamow contaminated about half our water supply.” She sighed. “We’re in pretty much the same situation as you guys.”

Alex, standing next to Cagalli -What’s going on with those two? Mu wondered, I thought she hated his guts- stroked his chin. “Fortunately, we’re not in danger of imminent attack, so we can consider our actions more carefully.”

Badgiruel raised an eyebrow. “Are you certain of that?”

A shrug. “Our Parsifal attack very nearly blew the guts out of the Bismarck,” he said. “As for the Gamow, well, I don’t think we have much to worry about. As I told Kira, Yzak is the dictionary definition of ‘arrogant hothead’, but he is anything but stupid. Besides which, it’s highly unlikely that they can even find us; we’re too close to the Debris Belt.”

There was a general nodding of heads at that. The Debris Belt, an immense collection of cosmic junk left over from humanity’s early exploration of space, was virtually guaranteed to wreak havoc on any sensor system ZAFT could possibly have at that point.

Not that they expected the area to be completely deserted. The Junk Guild was known to poke around there from time to time (though since Lia’s parents were members, no one expected any trouble from that sort of encounter), and there was always the possibility of pirates. (Of course, Archangel and Valkyrie between them would make short work of such vermin.)

The Debris Belt… “I know we can’t sail right through it, but what if we scavenge the Belt for supplies?” Mu suggested. “As Alex just pointed out, we’re pretty close, so we should be able to find something we can use.”

Murrue, Lia, and Cagalli winced almost in unison. Mu’s idea made sense, but none of them particularly liked it.

“I guess we have no choice,” Lia said reluctantly.

“It sounds macabre, but it’s really our only option at this point,” Alex agreed.

Cagalli still did not like it, but she realized the necessity. “We’d better not hang around too long, though,” she said.

“Why’s that?” Murrue asked, genuinely puzzled.

The princess highlighted a recent addition to the Belt. “Junius Seven wound up right there,” she said quietly. “It’s only twelve days till the one-year anniversary of the Bloody Valentine Tragedy. You can bet that the area’s going to be crawling with ZAFT ships before too long.”

Badgiruel winced. “She’s right, Captain. We would best get what we need as quickly as possible, then get out of there. The last thing we need is a fight with multiple ZAFT teams at once.”

That was putting it mildly.

Cafeteria

At that moment, the student volunteers were discussing the same subject over lunch. They understood the ship would be low on supplies even without the refugees Kira had picked up. (Not that any of them blamed him, especially Sai.)

They were joined by Alex’s friend Kyle, pilot of the Devastator. Like all the Valkyrie’s pilots, he had enrolled in the college at Heliopolis, and he had taken some classes with Tolle and Mir. The three of them had become close friends over the past year, and Kyle had repeatedly apologized for his deception.

“For crying out loud, don’t worry about it,” Tolle said for about the fifth time, laughing. “If even half of what Alex says about Patrick Zala is true, we can’t exactly blame you for being cagey.”

Kyle smiled. “Thanks. Now, getting back to the topic at hand, anyone have any ideas?”

Sai shrugged. “Not a clue. We shouldn’t worry about it, though; I’m sure the officers have some plan.”

“With Alex helping them, you bet they will,” the pilot said with a smile. He gave Flay a gracious nod. “He might not like the Atlantic Federation, but he’s not going to desert you guys.”

Flay wondered about that. She did not like Coordinators, and she was more than a little nervous around Alex, but she believed what she had heard so far.

And what happened to his sister is every bit as wrong as what ZAFT is doing, she grudgingly admitted. “Does he have anyone he’s close to, like a girlfriend?”

Flay jumped, startled, as Kyle roared with laughter. It was nearly a minute before he could speak. “Alex Strassmeier, have a girlfriend? Ha!” He wiped his eyes. “I asked him the same question when we left the PLANTs. He gave me this icy look-” everyone, Flay included, grinned; Alex was famous for his ability to stare people down, “and said that any girl who took that sort of interest in him should have her head examined.”

A low chuckle ran around the table. While he was not rude or unfriendly -Kira had seen him grin once- Alex tended to keep to himself. Until Kira had revealed what Cagalli had told him, the others had thought it was simply Alex’s personality. Now they knew better.

I bet what happened to his sister has something to do with it, too, Mir thought. “Did you know his sister?” she asked.

Kyle shook his head. “I didn’t meet him until a year after she was abducted. It wasn’t until after the Bloody Valentine that he told me what was ailing him.” A wry smile touched his lips. “I do know Yzak, though. Nice guy, unless you are his enemy. Hotheaded and impulsive, sure, but everyone’s got their problems.” He looked at Kira. “I also know your pal Athrun.”

“What’s he like?” Tolle asked, turning to Kira.

Kira closed his eyes, smiling a little as the memories came back. “Ever since I have known him, Athrun has always been a loyal friend. I knew that if I needed him, he would always be there to help. He’s not the same as his father, that’s for sure.”

Mir raised her eyebrows. “Why did he join ZAFT, then?”

Kira’s expression darkened. “He lost his mom in the Bloody Valentine. Athrun joined up about a month later, both to avenge her, and to make sure no one else suffered that kind of fate.”

Even Flay sympathized with that. She had lost her mother when she was little, and her opinion of Coordinators aside, she had been both shocked and horrified when she heard about Junius Seven. “How can we claim to be better than they are if we do something like that?” she had asked at the time.

Further conversation was cut off by the PA system. “Volunteers, report to the bridge. Repeat, volunteers, report to the bridge.”

Bridge

“So that’s the size of it,” Mu said. “We need supplies, and this is the only way to get them.”

Sai looked troubled. “It seems wrong, somehow. It’s as if we’re feeding off the dead.”

“We’re only getting what we need,” Murrue said quietly. “We will not take things that belonged to others. Our primary concern is the water supply.”

No one questioned that. Food was not too much of a problem (fortunately, since any food they found in the ruins of space colonies would almost certainly be inedible), but if they ran out of water, they were doomed.

“It sounds ghoulish, I know, but we have no choice,” Alex said. “Water won’t be hard to find, of course. All we have to do is look for the inevitable giant chunks of ice.”

“You guys will be teamed with some of the regular crew in Mystral shuttles,” Mu said. “Except you, Kira. You’ll be flying cover in the Strike.”

That much Kira could accept without question. Since he was the only one who could pilot the Strike, it would be his job (along with the Valkyrie’s pilots) to deal with any nosy interlopers (i.e., ZAFT). He did not like it, but he recognized the necessity.

Alex seemed to sense his thoughts. “You won’t be alone out there, Kira. Kyle and I will be flying, and we have finally got the Scorpion, the Shinobi, and the Inferno operational. That should be more than enough to take care of any crazies we run into.” He stared into space. “First, however, we’re going to have a memorial ceremony.”

“A memorial ceremony?” Kuzzey repeated, frowning.

Badgiruel tapped her board, bringing up a map of the area. “The one-year anniversary of the Bloody Valentine is twelve days away,” she said. “The remains of Junius Seven fell into the Debris Belt.”

Everyone understood at once. Junius Seven, a farming colony destroyed three days after the Earth Alliance declared war on the PLANTs. Alliance personnel loyal to Blue Cosmos had smuggled a nuclear missile onto the mobile armor carrier Roosevelt. No one else knew until it was far too late.

Officially, the pilot who had fired the fatal shot had committed suicide out of guilt for his actions. What no one on Archangel or Valkyrie knew, save Alex and Cagalli, was that he had in fact faked his own death, and then secretly emigrated to the Orb Union. He was now a Morgenroete test pilot, working on Orb’s top secret mobile suit program.

Poor guy, Alex thought. It is not just Coordinators who fall victim to Blue Cosmos. Naturals are in just as much danger.

Supreme Council Chamber, Aprilius One, PLANTs, 3 February, C.E. 71

Fourteen people sat in a dimly lit chamber. Twelve of them sat around a large circular table: the PLANT Supreme Council. Foremost among them was Siegel Clyne, representative of Aprilius City and Chairman of the Council. Other notables included Patrick Zala, Chairman of the National Defense Committee; Tad Elsman; Yuri Amalfi; Alex Strassmeier’s aunt, Ezalia Joule; and Eileen Canaver, Clyne’s closest ally on the Council.

The remaining two, Commander Rau Le Creuset and Zala’s son Athrun, were there to present a report on the Heliopolis operation. So far it had gone well, though some Council members, notably Chairman Clyne and Yuri Amalfi, were visibly disturbed by the destruction of Heliopolis.

“That concludes my initial report,” Le Creuset said. “Are there any questions?”

Zala stood. “What of that black warship, Commander? You have so far said little about it.”

The masked man shrugged. “We know little about it at this point, sir. Its design is like the legged ship’s; the main differences are that it lacks linear cannons, it uses laser clusters for point defense, as opposed to the standard machine cannons, and it is clearly intended to be difficult to find.”

“Do you have any idea who is operating it?” Zala asked. “Is it an Earth Forces vessel?”

Le Creuset shook his head. “Not precisely. According to the few communications intercepts we have, its commander is related to the legged ship’s captain, one Murrue Ramius, a senior-grade lieutenant. Unfortunately, we do not have much on her, but we do know that her older brother is a member of the Junk Guild; the black ship’s captain is apparently his daughter.” He sighed. “We do, however, have a positive I.D. on their lead mobile suit pilot.”

“And that is?” Zala prompted.

Le Creuset looked directly at Ezalia Joule. “A young man named Alex Strassmeier,” he said softly.

Ezalia’s face, pale even under normal circumstances, went white. “Are you certain?” she whispered; eyes wide with horror.

“I’m afraid so,” he confirmed. “Yzak had a rather vicious argument with him during the battle. There is no doubt.”

Ezalia closed her eyes. Alex, why? What could possibly induce you to help the Earth Forces? “Did he say what he was up to?”

Le Creuset shrugged. “According to Yzak, he had some rather unpleasant things to say about Committee Chairman Zala, not to mention my own actions at Heliopolis. As for why he would help that warship, his own ship’s captain is also one of his closest friends; I assume he didn’t want to ask her to turn against her own family.”

“There may be another reason,” Ezalia said slowly. “I believe you said Mu La Flaga was involved?” Le Creuset nodded. “Alex has always admired the Hawk of Endymion,” she continued. “La Flaga is one of the few Earth Forces officers I would speak well of, one of the small groups of their officers who see Coordinators as people, rather than monsters.”

“A pity he’s on the wrong side,” Elsman agreed.

There was a general nodding of heads (notably excluding Patrick Zala). Even though he was a Natural, Mu La Flaga was not exactly hated in the PLANTs, other than among the truly hardcore factions. For most people, including the bulk of ZAFT, he was considered a worthy opponent.

Sees Coordinators as people; could that be why Kira is cooperating with them? Athrun thought. Not that he could say that out loud; his father had made clear that his friendship with the Strike pilot was to remain secret. Athrun thought the restriction was silly, given that all his teammates knew, but it was not his decision to make.

Maybe Strassmeier’s right. Maybe the legged ship is not like the rest of the Earth Forces. While he knew his father would disagree, Athrun was starting to think that perhaps the legged ship’s crew could be brought around, if they were shown the truth about the Earth Forces. After attending a lunar prep school, where everyone knew he was a Coordinator, he knew perfectly well that not all Naturals hated his people.

Le Creuset had the floor again. “To give an idea of the capabilities of the new mobile suits, I have brought Athrun Zala. He piloted one of the machines we captured and fought against the one the Earth Forces retained.”

Clyne exchanged a glance with the elder Zala, then nodded. “I will allow Athrun Zala to present his report.”

Athrun took an unobtrusive breath and stood. “First, I would like to present this machine, known as the Aegis…”

Ezalia Joule’s residence

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Yzak said. “I tried, but…” He shrugged helplessly.

Ezalia shook her head. “Don’t be. You did your best.”

The image on her comm screen grimaced. “My best wasn’t enough. The Vesalius was almost blown up in the first battle. Artemis was worse; I had him talking, and then that idiot Bartlett got in the way.”

“Bartlett.” Ezalia spat the name. “That fool. He still hasn’t gotten over that tournament on Maius Three.”

Yzak grinned. “He still can’t win, either, even with that custom CGUE. Alex kept him under control and still had enough to scatter the rest of his team. Then the black ship gave Bismarck a dose of antimatter.”

That is something, at least. Normally, she would have been furious that one of their warships was defeated so easily but getting Daniel Bartlett’s flagship out of the way would make things easier. He is good, but he is also too much of a loose cannon. “What about that other machine, the Strike?”

Yzak shrugged. “Athrun never actually fought it, since his best friend was flying it, but the guy trounced Nicol at Artemis.”

Ezalia frowned. “His best friend? A Natural?”

Her son frowned back. “Who said anything about Naturals? He’s a first-generation Coordinator, name of Kira Yamato.”

“A first-generation Coordinator? Commander Le Creuset’s report did not say anything about that. Neither did Athrun Zala’s, for that matter.” She checked a transcript of the day’s Council meeting. “Are you sure this Yamato isn’t a Natural?”

“Positive,” Yzak said firmly. “A first-generation Coordinator. Athrun was adamant about that, and since he went to school with the guy for seven years, he would know. He tried to get him to join us, but Yamato refused.”

“Why would he refuse?” Ezalia asked in disbelief. “If he’s a Coordinator…”

Yzak shrugged again. “He said something about protecting his friends, and that he doesn’t care if they’re Naturals.”

“There may be some truth to that,” she said slowly. “Yamato is an Orb national, correct?” Yzak nodded. “Orb is one of the few nations on Earth that allow Coordinators to live openly among them. Chairman Clyne has been trying for some time to persuade them to declare for the PLANTs, but so far it hasn’t worked.”

“What about the Earth Forces?”

“If Mu La Flaga is involved, that would explain things,” Ezalia replied. “By all accounts, he’s not cut from the same cloth as their high command, and you know Alex admires him.”

“Yeah…” Yzak looked like he wanted to say more, then shook his head. “I guess that’s it.”

Ezalia nodded grimly. “Be careful out there. And keep at Alex.” Her son nodded back and cut the circuit.

She closed her eyes, feeling suddenly weary. Her nephew’s actions had come as a tremendous shock, and she was still numb. It just did not make sense. Alex was well known for his passionate hatred of the Earth Forces; even with Mu La Flaga involved, it was difficult to believe.

Unless… Ezalia blinked as a new thought occurred to her. After hearing Le Creuset’s report, she had read the intelligence dossier on Murrue Ramius for herself. The woman appeared to fall into the same category as La Flaga, someone who did not care whether those around her had been genetically engineered or not. She had also been mentored by Admiral Lewis Halberton; the only Allied flag officer known to have any sympathy for Coordinators. Halberton’s protégé, brother in the Junk Guild; does Alex think this will bring him closer to Andrea?

That made sense. Ezalia remembered the days following the Mandelbrot Incident all too well. She remembered her nephew’s face, streaked with blood and tears, as he told of the assault on his home, of Andrea’s abduction, and his own escape.

Once he had recovered, Alex had sworn to find his sister, and exact revenge on those who had stolen her. Yzak had agreed; he loved his cousins as siblings, and Andrea’s disappearance had filled him with a white-hot rage. It was a rage Ezalia shared; she had nothing against Naturals per se, but the Atlantic Federation was by far the worst of the Allies.

Alex, whatever you are up too…be careful.

Debris Belt, Ruins of Junius Seven

Kira Yamato was nearing the hangar when he heard a voice. “Kira?”

He turned. “Flay? What is it?”

The redhead hesitated, visibly nervous. “I… wanted to apologize. For Artemis. I shouldn’t have blurted out that you were a Coordinator…”

Kira laid a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not your fault. They would have found out anyway, since only a Coordinator can manage the Strike’s OS.” He raised an eyebrow. “But what’s with you? I thought you didn’t like Coordinators.”

Flay glanced away. “I… I am not sure anymore. You’re the first Coordinator I’ve really gotten to know, and after hearing what happened to Alex’s sister, I can’t help wondering if everything I’ve heard about them is true.” She shook her head. “I don’t think my father lied to me or anything, but he hasn’t been around Coordinators much, either.”

“Your father is an Atlantic Federation official, isn’t he?”

She nodded. “He’s vice foreign minister.”

Kira winced. “Let us hope Alex doesn’t meet him. You know how he hates the Atlantic Federation.”

Flay winced in turn. She did not believe her nation was as rotten as their mysterious ally insisted, but she also could not blame him for thinking that way after what happened to his family. The identity of his sister’s abductors was a matter of dispute, but the Mandelbrot Incident was a matter of public record.

She shook herself. “Anyway, I wanted to say that I’m behind you. We all owe you our lives.”

Kira almost blushed at that. He did not consider himself a hero, but he had to admit it felt good to have someone like Flay (who he had a secret interest in) express gratitude for his efforts. It gave him the will to keep fighting.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling. “That means a lot.”

She smiled back. “Be careful out there.”

Six mobile suits and more than a dozen people in spacesuits stood on the edge of a cliff. Spread out before them was the vast expanse of an artificial continent, the largest piece of debris from the PLANT called Junius Seven. X105 Strike and X108 Stormbird headed the mobile suit formation, Kira disturbed, Alex expressionless as usual. Sai Argyle, Kuzzey Buskirk, Tolle Koenig, and Miriallia Haw, Kira’s fellow volunteers, stood at the foot of the Strike.

It feels different when you are there, Mir thought. This is not a news report; it is real. Stepping forward, she released a bundle of paper flowers into the void. On hearing where they were headed, the refugees Kira had rescued had made their own contribution to the memorial. The paper flowers Mir set free were made by the youngest of their charges.

That is my cue. Natarle Badgiruel, of all people, had suggested that, since he was the senior PLANT native present, Alex Strassmeier should speak at the memorial. To the surprise of most, save Cagalli, Kyle, and Murrue, he had agreed readily enough. “The Bloody Valentine, the greatest tragedy in the history of space colonization,” he said, his cold blue eyes sad, his normally toneless voice loaded with emotion. “More than two hundred thousand people, murdered in a barbaric nuclear attack.”

The Stormbird took a step forward, raising its beam rifle. “May the victims of this tragedy rest in peace, knowing that they will rest alone. The Bloody Valentine must never be repeated.” Alex fired one shot, then stepped back, resuming his place beside the Strike.

He has a good voice, when he uses it, Murrue Ramius thought.

The next few hours were relatively uneventful. Archangel’s complement of Mistral work shuttles used giant buzz saws to cut through the huge chunks of ice that dotted the colony’s remains, while the six mobile suits and Mu La Flaga’s Moebius Zero flew cover. No one was expecting trouble, but they were not inclined to take chances after their recent narrow escapes.

Kira gazed at the ruined landscape, seeing in his mind’s eye the searing fireball that reduced Junius Seven and its entire population to dust and debris. He had already moved to Heliopolis when it happened, and the event had permanently soured his attitude towards the Earth Forces high command. The crew of the Archangel were different, of course; Mu had taken Kira under his wing, and the young Coordinator genuinely liked Murrue Ramius.

He looked to the side. Alex’s Stormbird cruised next to his own Strike, primed for battle. Two other Valkyrie machines, X208 Shinobi and X112 Inferno were visible beyond it. Kira did not know either of the pilots very well, though he found Chris Madsen somewhat unnerving.

“Kira.” Cagalli’s face appeared on his screen. “How are you holding up?”

Kira smiled, grateful for the distraction. “Okay, I guess. It still feels like we are feeding off the dead, but Alex is right. We don’t really have a choice.”

“I know.” The two had grown close very quickly since the escape from Heliopolis. Nothing romantic; neither was the other’s type, (fortunately, as it developed), but their connection, whatever it was, had guaranteed they would be friends. “I don’t like it, either, but…” The princess shrugged.

Kira sighed. Will this never end?

Archangel, bridge

Romero Pal had almost dozed off when his console beeped at him. He stared at the screen for a moment, and then his eyes widened in disbelief. “Radar interference! N-jammer levels increasing!”

“Confirmed,” Chandra put in. “Detecting two Laurasia-class frigates, emerging from the debris field. They’re launching mobile suits.”

“Check profiles,” Badgiruel snapped.

Jackie Tonomura studied his display. “Thermal patterns… twelve GINNs, ma’am. Standard weapons packages- wait. The lead machine is a GINN High Maneuver.”

Murrue cursed under her breath. “Faster and more agile than a standard model. Do we have an ID on those frigates?”

Chandra punched up the catalogue. “Checking…the Pasteur and the Curie. According to our most recent reports, they’re with the Coast team.”

Alex’s face appeared on the main screen. “Coast? Mikhail Coast?”

Murrue blinked. “How did you know that?”

“He was my family’s doctor before he joined ZAFT,” Alex replied, pointedly flexing his right arm. “He fitted my prosthesis. Coast knows what he is doing, but he is still not a good doctor. He definitely isn’t one of my favorite people.”

Badgiruel frowned. “How can he know what he’s doing and yet not be a good doctor?”

Alex snorted. “Being a doctor requires more than technical skill, Ensign; you need compassion, and Mikhail Coast has the bedside manner of a mummified catfish.” Despite the tension, that line drew a chuckle from all present, including the by-the-book XO. “Valkyrie’s doctor did his residency under Coast; talk to him, and you’ll get an earful.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Murrue pressed an intercom key. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Colony ruins

“Here we go,” Alex called. “Everybody ready?”

“I’ve been ready for days!” That, naturally, was Chris Madsen.

The other pilots confirmed ready for action, and Alex tightened his grip on his control bars. “All right, people, let’s show them what we can do!” Then the battle was joined.

Kira quickly found himself beset by two GINNs at once. Fighting his instinctive panic, he flung the Strike into a spin, bringing his rifle to bear on the closer ZAFT machine. He waited for just the right moment, and then his finger squeezed the trigger, sending blasts of hard light into the GINN. One shot pierced the cockpit, vaporizing the pilot; another found the machine’s battery, triggering a spectacular explosion.

The other GINN did not last much beyond that. It charged, firing wildly with its assault rifle. Kira let it come, knowing that the bullets could not hurt his Phase-shift. When the GINN reached melee range, he calmly bisected it with a beam saber.

Kyle ignored the mobile suits entirely, focusing his attention on the pair of frigates. Two Laurasia’s, under Mikhail Coast, of all people. “Archangel, Valkyrie, I need some targeting data.”

“Coming right up,” Cagalli responded.

“On the way,” Mir concurred. “Best shot would be for the Curie.”

“Thanks.” Eyes narrowed in concentration; he snapped his guns together in sniper rifle mode. “Try this!” he snarled and fired.

There was an eye-searing flash; apparently, he had scored a direct hit on the Curie’s main reactor.

On the other side of the battlefield, Chris was having the time of his life. Despite his public persona, he was anything but unstable; he just loved to fight. Two GINNs fell to his rifle in quick succession, then he torched a third with his flamer.

“Burn baby, burn!” he shouted, laughing maniacally.

Sitting quietly in his stealth machine, Hiro Nakamura shook his head. Lunatic. Watching a GINN fly past, unaware of his presence, he slowly raised his Trikeros. At precisely the right moment, Hiro dropped Mirage Colloid and fired off his lancer darts. The GINN vanished in a boil of flame.

It did not die alone. The remaining machines, excluding Coast’s High Maneuver, swiftly fell to Brian Kilgore and his insanely agile Scorpion Gundam. He eschewed mobile suit mode entirely, flitting around in mobile armor mode and annihilating GINNs with his Stinger beam cannon.

The Doctor was overconfident, Alex thought. No surprise. He keyed his comm. “You seem to be running out of mobile suits, Doctor. Are you ill?”

A derisive snort sounded over the radio. “Natural causes, Alex,” Coast replied, not at all surprised at the identity of his opponent. “Clearly my pilots were incompetent.”

“Actually, the only Natural pilot in the area is Mu La Flaga,” Alex said coldly. “I see you still see us Coordinators as some kind of master race.” He raised an eyebrow. “You clearly have no use for the Hippocratic Oath; I believe its first tenet is ‘do no harm’.”

“Who’s doing harm?” Coast asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. “The Naturals are a cancer. I’m merely cutting it out,” he added, firing a burst from his rifle.

Alex did not even bother to dodge. “Your weapons are ineffective against machines with Phase-shift armor, Doc. And the Naturals are not a cancer or any other disease. Without Naturals, we would not exist. Even Yzak, for all his hatred of the Earth Forces, recognizes that.”

“Your beloved cousin has the same mental illness you have stupidity.”

Alex laughed at that. “I believe this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Yzak wears elite red, you do not. Plus, he is a member of the Le Creuset team, and, for all that I despise Rau Le Creuset, he is no fool. Only the best is chosen for his team.”

“True enough,” Coast conceded. “On the other hand, you can be an exceptional warrior -which your cousin is, I admit- and still be a fool, which he also is.”

“Really.” Alex unlimbered his plasma cannon and fired. Coast dodged easily enough. Blasted High Maneuver. “Yzak’s main problem -which I have pointed out to him on several occasions- is that he allows his temper to rule him. Personally, I’ve never understood how you earned a medical degree; you have all the charm of a ball bearing.”

Coast did not bother replying. Stowing his assault rifle, he drew his sword, a new version with anti-beam coating, and charged. Alex met the attack with a saber, and the two machines strained against each other.

This cannot last much longer, Alex thought grimly.

Archangel/Valkyrie, Bridge

Natarle Badgiruel stared hard at her display, feeling a grim satisfaction. Almost done. She looked up at her CO. “Strassmeier has Coast under control, Ma’am. All other GINNs confirmed destroyed, and Perry was able to take out the Curie.”

“Confirmed,” Lia Ramius said from her own Bridge. “All that’s left is the Pasteur. Suggest we focus our attacks there.”

Murrue nodded. “Agreed.” She glanced at Badgiruel. “Fire at your discretion, Natarle.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Badgiruel straightened. “Prepare Gottfrieds and Lohengrin! Target: Pasteur.”

“All weapons, match targeting data with the Archangel,” Lia said crisply. “Fire on my command.”

There was a moment of almost complete silence as the two warships locked on. Then, a single word rang out on both ships. “Fire!”

The Laurasia-class frigate Pasteur vanished in a blinding fireball.

Colony ruins

Mikhail Coast slumped in the cockpit as his flagship exploded. “It seems I have no choice,” he said, sheathing his blade. “I surrender.”

The Stormbird’s beam saber clicked off. “Wise of you, Doctor.” Alex switched frequencies. “You get that Archangel?”

“Affirmative,” Mir responded. “We’re sending out a shuttle.”

“Roger that.”

Kira, meanwhile, was starting to feel the effects of the battle, only now was it sinking in that he had just killed two people in less than a minute. Why…why did I have to kill them? Intellectually, he knew he had had no choice, but that did not mean he liked it.

Then a blip on the radar caught his eye. What is that? He keyed his comm. “Alex, you see that?” Kira knew the Stormbird had a better angle.

Alex frowned. “It’s a civilian ship. The Silverwind, hmm.” Where have I seen that before? Then it hit him. “Kira, check for any life pods, will you? I need to escort the Doctor’s GINN to the Archangel.”

“Got it.” Kira did not know what his friend was thinking, but he had no problem with a SAR run. Even if Ensign Badgiruel hates it, he thought with a trace of genuine humor.

He found a single pod almost at once.

Archangel, hangar

Practically the entire crew had gathered in the hangar. Or so it seemed to Alex, at least, as he unstrapped and opened his hatch. All three officers were present, along with Kira’s friends and every mechanic on the ship. Badgiruel, predictably for anyone who spent more than thirty seconds in her presence, was looking faintly disapproving. Mu, of course, clearly found the whole thing amusing.

Alex came to a halt near Kira. “What’s the word?”

“Almost got it open,” Murdoch said. “Stand back.”

The pod’s hatch opened, several guards raised their weapons…and a spherical pink robot drifted out, muttering to itself. Following it was a pink-haired teenage girl, one whom Alex Strassmeier, as a native of the PLANTs and the nephew of a Supreme Council member, recognized instantly.

Alex stepped forward. “It’s been a while, Miss Lacus. I don’t know if you remember me.”

While the girl looked at him in surprise, Badgiruel gave him a narrow look. “Miss Lacus?” she repeated.

“Lacus Clyne,” Alex explained. “Daughter of Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne. It should be obvious how I know her.”

The ensign nodded. “Because you’re Ezalia Joule’s nephew.”

That got Lacus’s attention. “Mr. Strassmeier? Excuse me, Alex,” she amended, recalling that he had expressed a dislike of excessive formality. “I never would have expected to see you out here.”

“Particularly on an Atlantic Federation warship,” he said, allowing himself a rueful smile.

Her eyes widened in surprise. She did not know Alex very well, but she did know of his passionate hatred for the Earth Forces. “Atlantic Federation?”

“Perhaps we should discuss this in my office,” Murrue said. She gave Lacus a gracious nod. “I’m Murrue Ramius, Captain of the Archangel. And yes, this is an Earth forces vessel, despite the mobile suits.”

“The machine that brought you in was built by Orb for the Earth Forces,” Alex put in. “The one next to it is my personal machine, and the GINN is the sole survivor of a ZAFT team we ran into just before we found your pod.”

“I see.” If Lacus was disturbed by the thought of someone like Alex fighting against ZAFT, she did not show it. “Even if you’re Earth Forces, I’m grateful for your assistance.”

Murrue smiled. “We’re not monsters here, Miss Clyne.” She looked at Alex. “Would you join us, as well? You do know her, after all.”

Alex shrugged. “Not well, but I’ll come along nonetheless.”

Murrue’s office

“To begin with, what would bring the daughter of the Supreme Council Chairman to the Debris Belt?” Murrue asked. “This is rather unusual.”

Lacus, oddly enough, was unperturbed by her current situation. “As you know, the one-year anniversary of the Bloody Valentine is eleven days away. I came as part of a committee to prepare for a memorial ceremony. However, we encountered an Earth Forces vessel shortly after we arrived. When they learned we were from the PLANTs, they demanded that we allow an inspection party aboard.”

“An inspection party?” Mu repeated.

She nodded. “Seeing no harm in this, I agreed, but when they came aboard, they began to argue with the ship’s crew. They insisted we were a ZAFT vessel, and then things grew violent. Someone pushed me into a life pod, and that was the last thing I saw.” Lacus sighed. “I hope everyone is all right.”

Alex hid a grimace. She is not going to like it, but she must know. “I’m afraid your hope is in vain, Lacus,” he said gently. “The Silverwind is a gutted wreck. As far as we know, you’re the only survivor.”

Dismay showed on the girl’s face. “Are you sure?”

“As sure as we can be. I’m sorry.”

“I see.” Lacus closed her eyes briefly. “What of the ZAFT team you encountered? Did they know anything about what happened?”

Murrue frowned. “I don’t know. Natarle?”

The ensign shrugged. “Coast was just moved to the brig. We haven’t had the chance to interrogate him.”

Alex snorted derisively. “Don’t bother. You do not have the wherewithal, and Mikhail Coast has all the compassion of a cobra. I highly doubt he’d volunteer information just to soothe a teenage girl’s feelings.”

“I thought as much.” Murrue sighed, then turned back to Lacus. “In any case, you’re safe for now. You are a guest, not a prisoner, and will be treated as such. Someone will escort you to quarters.”

Lacus brightened noticeably. “Thank you, Captain.”

Gamow, pilots’ ready room.

Yzak Joule sat on a couch, brooding. He was alone, just as he preferred; while he appreciated his teammates’ sympathy, he was not one to wallow in it. Right now, his thoughts were focused inward, as he contemplated the trinket in his hand. It had been a gift from his cousin Alex, four years before.

He still remembered that day. “A tooth?” he had said, puzzled.

Alex had smiled ruefully. “It’s from the shark that bit my arm off,” he had replied, flexing his prosthesis. “I know you’re interested in folklore, so I figured you’d be interested. South Sea islanders used shark teeth for, among other things, currency.”

Yzak remembered his cousin’s fascination with such creatures; it came with being the son of an ichthyologist, he supposed. “I’ll take your word for it,” he said with a smile, pocketing the tooth. “Thanks.”

Alex had run a hand through his space-black hair, done in the same style as Yzak’s. Both of their parents had commented on the similarity in their appearances, along with how, though their temperaments were almost exact opposites (Alex was cold and methodical, while Yzak was hotheaded and impulsive), they were close enough to be brothers. “Think of it as a link, cousin. You and I, different though we may be, are alike in the ways that truly matter.”

Tears stung Yzak’s eyes, and he angrily dashed them away, thankful no one else was present. Now was not the time or place for such things. Even though Andrea was still missing, he could not afford to give in, not now. Too much was at stake.

He sighed. “Alex, wherever you are, whatever you’re up to…keep yourself alive, okay?”

Little did he know that, at that very moment, his cousin was having similar thoughts.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex sprawled on his bunk, gazing at a tooth almost identical to the one Yzak held; not surprising, since they came from the same shark. He, too, remembered that day, four years earlier. He remembered it all…

His chime sounded. “It’s open.”

The hatch slid aside, and Cagalli stepped in. “We’ve topped out on water,” she said, taking a seat near his desk. “We’re ready to go, and so’s the Archangel.”

“At least something went right today,” Alex said. “I don’t know who I would have expected to run into in the Debris Belt, but Mikhail Coast certainly came as a surprise. And then Kira rescued the daughter of Chairman Clyne.”

Cagalli shrugged. “Stranger things have happened. How is she doing, by the way?”

“Better than I would have expected from someone in her position,” Alex replied, frowning slightly. “It’s as if she doesn’t realize she’s on an enemy warship. She was unfailingly polite and didn’t show any fear.” He snorted. “Of course, it’s hard to be afraid of Murrue Ramius unless she’s pointing a gun at you. In any case, Lacus barely reacted when she heard I was fighting alongside the Earth Forces; I may seem emotionless most of the time, but my hatred for that bunch isn’t exactly a secret.”

“Maybe she’s had a sheltered life.”

Alex considered that, then shook his head. “Unlikely. That girl is more than just a pop star, and I have a hard time believing Siegel Clyne’s daughter to be a complete idiot. Besides which, it is hard to have a sheltered life in the PLANTs, particularly after Junius Seven. No, I think there’s something else.” He chuckled softly. “Now that I think about it, maybe my presence here is not that much of a surprise, either. I haven’t exactly hidden my opinion of Patrick Zala.”

“You got that right,” Cagalli said, chuckling herself.

He started to reply, then closed his mouth as another thought struck him. “It just occurred to me that Lacus’s presence could complicate things even more.” When the princess raised her eyebrows, he grimaced. “You can bet there’ll be a search party or three headed this way soon, since she obviously hasn’t been heard from. Plus, we just wiped out the Coast team, which may well have been one of those parties…and she happens to be engaged to Kira’s friend Athrun.”

She winced. “That could be a problem.”

“No kidding.” Alex fell silent, once again gazing at the tooth in his hand.

Cagalli watched him in the corner of her eye, concerned. The young Coordinator was clearly troubled about something more than just their current predicament, and she knew him well enough by now to make a good guess at what it was. It was either his sister, kidnapped years before, or his cousin, whom he now had to fight.

Maybe both. “You okay?” she asked gently.

Alex blinked, as though surprised she was still there. “Hmm? Yeah, I guess so.”

“I don’t think so,” Cagalli countered. “I’ve seen enough to be able to tell when you’re depressed. So, what’s wrong?”

He shrugged. “Just thinking.” Alex held up the shark tooth. “This came from the shark that bit my arm off, four years ago. I had three of the teeth removed, gave one to my sister, one to Yzak, and kept the third.”

Cagalli nodded in understanding. “It reminds you of your sister and your cousin.”

“Exactly. As it happens, Yzak has an interest in folklore, so I gave him a small background story.” Alex pocketed the tooth. “In the southwest Pacific, shark teeth were once used as currency, among other things. That piqued his interest.” He sighed. “It’s a sort of link between us. As I told him at the time, we may be different on the outside, but we’re alike in all the ways that matter.”

To his considerable surprise, Cagalli came over and gave him a quick hug. “You’ll make up someday, just like Kira and Athrun. I’m sure of it.”

Alex blinked, then returned the embrace. “I hope you’re right.”

“Don’t you think otherwise,” she said firmly. “Besides, I think I’d like to meet this guy.”

He managed a smile. “Then we’ll just have to make sure we all get out of this alive.”

Looking out at the stars, Alex promised himself that they would make it, that he and his cousin would reconcile, and they would find Andrea. Yzak, keep yourself alive out there. Kira will not kill you -he is a better pilot, but he and I are in the same predicament- and I certainly will not. We will find Andrea and put an end to this insanity.

Author’s and Recorder’s note: Please, no one accuse me of having Ezalia Joule out of character, for the same reason as Yzak in earlier chapters.

Chapter 3: Enemy Unseen

Artemis Base, 27 January, C.E. 71

As the Archangel sailed into the Artemis harbor, Murrue Ramius breathed a sigh of relief. Now that they were within the Umbrella shield, there was no way the ZAFT forces could get at them. The barrier protecting Artemis was impervious to any known weapon, including the mighty positron cannons mounted by both Archangel and Valkyrie.

There was something strange, though, now that she thought about it. Admiral Garcia had insisted on sending an inspection team, to ascertain their identity, but the men surrounding the ship… Are those people armed? Murrue frowned, seeing the telltale glint of light reflected off rifle barrels.

Mu La Flaga, meanwhile, had taken Kira aside. “I forgot to mention this. Put a lock on the Strike’s OS. Make sure nobody can use it but you.”

Kira blinked. “Yes, sir, but…what’s going on?”

“Just a precaution. I don’t trust the Eurasians.” That was hardly a surprise. It was no secret that Eurasia and the Atlantic Federation were allies of convenience only and hated each other almost as much as they hated ZAFT.

Back on the bridge, Murrue’s frown deepened as the inspection party’s senior officer, Lieutenant Commander Biddaulph, joined her. “Commander, what is going on? Why are you bringing armed men aboard my ship?”

He gave her a cold look. “You would be well advised to remain silent, Captain.”

Valkyrie, just outside Artemis

“So that’s the extent of it,” Lia Ramius said. She, Kyle, and Cagalli had joined Alex in his cabin to discuss the recent battle. “We can finish the repairs in less than a day; more quantity than quality of damage.”

“Um,” Alex grunted. “Good thing we have a small crew, though; one of those leaks contaminated half our water supply.”

Lia looked unhappy. “I’m afraid you’re right. There’s not much we can do about it without docking at Artemis, and, like you, I don’t trust the Eurasians.”

“Who in their right mind would?” Kyle snorted. The December City native rolled his eyes. “Especially with a jackass like Garcia in charge; I hear the guy’s a political admiral.”

“In other words, he owes his rank to his connections within the Eurasian government,” Alex said, disgusted. “What I don’t understand is why they wasted a light wave barrier on a backwater like Artemis. There’s nothing here that either side cares about.”

No one had an answer to that.

“Well,” Lia said, rising, “I’d best get moving; even on a ship like this, the paperwork piles up. Kyle?”

Kyle moved for the hatch. “I’m going to check on the Devastator.” He glanced at the princess. “You are coming?”

She shook her head. “Not just yet; if that’s okay with you, Alex,” she added hastily.

“Fine with me,” he replied absently, poring over yet another file.

When the other two had gone, Cagalli studied her companion. Now that she had realized there was a real person in there, she wanted to know him. Despite his openness with her, Alex still had an aura of mystery about him, as if there was more than met the eye.

Of course, there is, she told herself. Sure, he obviously considers you a friend, but do you really expect him to tell you everything after just two days?

For his part, Alex had noticed her scrutiny, though he showed no sign of it. It did not exactly bother him, though he was not sure why. Not that he was thinking about it right then; he had too much else on his mind. The information he was studying…and the events of the past two days.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Cagalli asked gently, breaking into his thoughts.

He looked up. “Talk about what? The battle, or this?” He waved at the computer screen.

“I was thinking about the battle,” she said, “but I’m curious about what you’re up to.”

Alex stretched. “As it happens, the two topics are related.” He turned the screen so she could see it; the schematics for the Duel were displayed. “As you know, Le Creuset attacked to capture the five G-weapons. If Kira had not fallen into one, he would have succeeded. As it stands, he has four, even if one of them is on its way to the PLANTs as we speak.” He raised an eyebrow. “You heard the conversation Kira and I had with Athrun Zala at Heliopolis, correct?”

Cagalli nodded, seeing where he was headed. “Yeah. You said there was no possibility that the Orb government was involved.” She frowned. “But how is that possible? Morgenroete was building those things, and they had to have authorization from the government.”

“From a couple of Cabinet members, not the government as a whole,” Alex corrected. “There’s no way your father was involved in this; he’s not that stupid.” He smiled at her look of surprise. “I’ve made a practice of keeping an eye on the political scene on Earth; maybe it comes from being related to a politician. Anyway, Orb is one of the few nations that has a sane policy regarding relations between Coordinators and Naturals. I believe that Coordinators can openly live within Orb territory so long as they remain loyal, law-abiding citizens, correct?”

Cagalli nodded. “Yeah.”

“That policy appeals to me for obvious reasons, and your father is one of the few politicians I genuinely admire. Oh,” Alex waved a hand, “he’s delusional if he thinks Orb can stay out of the war.” His expression darkened. “One of two things is going to happen. The first is that Patrick Zala, following his election to replace Siegel Clyne as chairman of the Supreme Council -that part is going to happen; do not think otherwise- will order an attack on Orb as part of his campaign to exterminate all Naturals. The other, and I feel this is far more likely, is that the Alliance will demand that Orb renounce its neutrality.” He grimaced. “Either way, there is a disaster in the offing.”

The princess winced. She knew all too well what both sides were capable of. “So, do you know who was behind the G-weapon project?”

“If you find G-weapon awkward, you can use the term Kira coined for it: Gundam.” Alex snorted. “General Unilateral Neuro-link Dispersive Autonomic Maneuver Synthesis System, whatever that means. To answer your question, I have one definite, and one possible.” He grimaced. “The Sahakus are involved for sure; Rondo Ghina Sahaku’s presence at Heliopolis was confirmed.”

It was Cagalli’s turn to grimace; she knew Rondo Ghina Sahaku, of course, and she did not like him, mainly because of his ego. “And the possible?”

“The Seirans,” Alex said simply. “I know that they’ve been advocating a closer relationship with the Atlantic Federation for years. That is the biggest reason among many that I dislike them.”

This time she shuddered; if there was one person on Earth that she despised, it was the heir to the Seiran family. “I remember you ran into Yuuna Roma at that party.” Alex nodded. “What did you think of him?”

“Yuuna Roma Seiran is a big-mouthed, small-minded fool,” the Coordinator said, his voice dripping contempt. “He’s also a pathological liar.”

Cagalli nodded agreement. That is another point in Alex’s favor, she thought. Anybody who hates Yuuna Roma cannot be all bad.

She decided it was time to steer the conversation in another direction; talking or even thinking about the Seirans was guaranteed to raise her blood pressure. It clearly had the same effect on her new friend; given that he was fighting his own cousin mere hours ago, she did not want to add to his pain. He does not deserve this. He and Kira, they both must fight people dear to them, just so they can do what they believe is right.

Cagalli rose and moved to study the family portrait hanging over Alex’s bunk. She recognized his parents and sister from her own memories of that long-ago party, and Ezalia Joule from news broadcasts out of the PLANTs. And the white-haired youth next to Alex was clearly the same person who captured X102 Duel at Heliopolis. “That’s your cousin?”

Alex nodded. “Yep, that’s Yzak. The picture was taken about a month before the Mandelbrot Incident. It was the last time we were all together.”

“What’s he like?”

The other shrugged. “Hotheaded and impulsive. Occasionally reckless. Arrogant, but with the abilities to back up that arrogance.” Another shrug. “Aside from the arrogance, he’s a lot like you, actually.” He smiled at the mock-angry look she gave him. “You have a temper best described as volcanic, your decision to come to Heliopolis was certainly impulsive, and the way you charged into that factory was clearly reckless.” The smile turned almost gentle. “You have one more trait in common: you’re both fiercely protective of the things and people important to you.”

Cagalli found herself chuckling. He has a point. “I guess you’re right.” She looked out the viewport, where Artemis hung seemingly motionless. “I hope Kira and the others are okay.”

Alex sobered. “So do I.”

Artemis Base, Admiral Garcia’s office

“I apologize for the unpleasantness,” Rear Admiral Gerard Garcia said. “Your identity has been confirmed, so there is nothing to worry about.” He frowned. “However, I must ask you to explain what that black warship outside the Umbrella is doing here.”

Murrue Ramius kept a firm grip on her temper. “That ship is called the Valkyrie, and its commander is my niece, sir.”

“That seems unlikely,” Garcia’s aide put in. “You’re only in your middle twenties, and you expect us to believe you have a niece old enough to command a warship?”

“My niece is a first-generation Coordinator, Admiral,” Murrue replied. “Her father, my brother, is ten years older than I am; he and his wife are with the Junk Guild.”

Mu La Flaga spoke up. “That ship was a big help on the way here, sir. They don’t like the Earth Forces much, but since their captain is related to ours, they were willing to help.” He sent a quick warning look at Badgiruel.

The look was unnecessary; Badgiruel knew perfectly well that revealing the fact that the Valkyrie group included the princess of Orb and Ezalia Joule’s nephew was a bad idea. She still did not trust him, but she preferred Strassmeier to a man like Admiral Garcia, who had been promoted to his level of incompetence.

“Very well,” Garcia said, ending that discussion. “Lieutenant La Flaga, I must admit I’m surprised to see you here. Where were you doing on the Archangel?”

Mu shook his head. “I’m not at liberty to say, sir.”

The admiral shrugged. “As you wish.” He nodded out the viewport. “I’m afraid we can’t allow you to leave just yet; that Laurasia is still out there, so we don’t dare lower the Umbrella. Even with your mysterious friends around, it’s too great a risk.”

Murrue frowned, then spun at the sound of footsteps. Her eyes widened when she saw the armed guards, and she turned back to Garcia. “Admiral, what is the meaning of this?”

“It’s for your own safety, Captain.” Garcia’s smile was somehow malevolent. “I assure you; you will be treated well.”

The three officers were led, ironically, to what looked like a room from some terrestrial nobleman’s manor. Expensive carpeting covered the floor, and a couch and two armchairs were situated near the center, with a table in the middle. There were even a few paintings on the walls.

Mu gave the room an appraising look, then sank into one of the chairs. “Not the sort of thing you expect to see in the middle of nowhere,” he commented. “Garcia seems to be addicted to luxury.”

“I’ve heard he achieved his rank more through political connections than military ability,” Badgiruel said sourly. “It would explain why he was assigned to a backwater like Artemis.”

Murrue looked at her in surprise. It was most unlike the ensign to openly criticize any superior, let alone a flag officer. “Is something on your mind, Natarle?”

Badgiruel hesitated. “I’ve heard rumors about the military using Coordinators in some kind of experiment,” she said reluctantly. “I don’t believe Admiral Halberton had anything to do with it, and it was a rumor, but still…”

“Who’s military? Ours?” Mu asked.

“It seems to vary. I’ve heard reports about both our forces and the Eurasians; some say the Eurasians snatched a young Coordinator from Mendel, of all places.”

Mu frowned. “That is odd. When was this?”

Badgiruel shrugged. “At least fifteen years ago. The rumors I have heard about the Atlantic Federation military, however, are far more recent. Within the last three or four years.”

“And that’s why, despite the fact that you don’t trust him, you didn’t dismiss Alex’s story about his sister out of hand,” Murrue said.

“Precisely.” The ensign shrugged again. “I don’t believe he was lying there; only that he may have been mistaken about the identity of the kidnappers.” She shook her head. “And I certainly don’t blame him for being reluctant to open fire on his own cousin.”

There was a long silence. The mention of Alex’s cousin reminded Murrue of another Coordinator with a similar problem; she now realized that the only reason she was still alive was because Kira’s friend Athrun had recognized him, and hesitated.

“In any case, we can’t stay here forever,” she said at last. “If for no other reason than keeping the Eurasians from exploiting Kira, we need to get out of here.” Murrue closed her eyes. “For now, it’s up to Lia and Alex…”

Nazca-class destroyer Bismarck, Bridge

Two men hovered over the bridge’s tabletop display. The older of the two, Captain Michael Harriman, Bismarck’s commanding officer, wore the gray of a ship’s captain. Despite being five years older than his companion, the compact, brown-haired man was the other’s subordinate.

Younger though he may have been, the teen in ZAFT elite red was more than confident in his abilities and his position. Commander Daniel Bartlett knew exactly what he was about. At seventeen, he was certainly young for his rank, but did not owe his meteoric rise to friends in high places, but rather to sheer ability. (Indeed, that was the only reason he was able to remain in ZAFT at all, since Ezalia Joule loathed him.)

“So,” Bartlett murmured. “Strassmeier is back in the game, is he?”

Harriman nodded. “His identity was confirmed by two members of the Le Creuset team, Yzak Joule and Athrun Zala.”

“And Joule would certainly know if it was him. But then, so would I.” That was putting it mildly. Daniel Bartlett had known Alex Strassmeier since grade school and had always hated him. The seemingly emotionless Strassmeier had always managed to show Bartlett up in school, often beating him by a razor-thin margin. No matter how hard he tried, Bartlett had never quite managed to beat his rival at anything.

His irritation at that had slowly grown, until he had difficulty thinking about the other rationally. To make matters worse, Strassmeier had refused to see him as a rival, saying that such a thing was a waste of his time. Bartlett, by nature competitive, had doggedly tried to keep up, only to suffer a humiliating loss in a martial arts tournament a month before the Bloody Valentine.

Bartlett had joined ZAFT shortly thereafter, while Strassmeier had subsequently vanished. But now, it seemed, he was back.

“He’s helping an Atlantic Federation warship. How odd.” One of their few points of agreement was a hatred for the Earth Alliance in general, and the Atlantic Federation in particular. “Joule must be in shock.” Not that he cared; Alex Strassmeier was indifferent. Yzak Joule hated him, and the feeling was mutual.

“He’s not exactly pleased,” Harriman agreed. “He seems to think his cousin has gone off the deep end.”

Bartlett snorted. “Alex Strassmeier went off the deep end a long time ago, Michael. This is simply more proof. If he is helping a ship that belongs to someone he hates, then there is clearly something wrong with his mind.”

Harriman agreed; some of Joule’s reports proved to his satisfaction that Strassmeier was not exactly thinking straight. “In any case, there is little we can do at present, sir,” he pointed out. “The Umbrella of Artemis cannot be penetrated by any known weapon.”

Bartlett nodded grimly. “I know. Much as I hate to admit it, we are going to have to leave the initial stage of this operation to Le Creuset’s people. They do have three of the Earth Forces’ G-weapons; perhaps they’ll be able to figure something out.”

“Maybe so.” Bismarck’s captain did not like Yzak Joule any more than his commander did, but he did respect the younger man’s ability.

Bartlett turned to the ship’s parasite officer. “Prepare my CGUE and the team’s GINNs,” he ordered. “If Joule and company can bring down the Umbrella, we’re following him in.”

“Yes, sir.”

The commander returned his attention to his own displays. A map of the area around Artemis glowed on the screen. A green icon sat between Bismarck and the Artemis base: Gamow. On the opposite side of the other ZAFT ship was a blood-red icon: Alex Strassmeier’s ship, the Valkyrie. A circle, also blood-red, glowed inside the enemy harbor: the presumed position of the Archangel.

He smiled to himself. Soon, Strassmeier. Very soon, we will come to blows once again. And this time, I will take you, G-weapon or not. Count on it…

Gamow, Bridge

Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Gamow captain Zelman stood around another tabletop screen. The green icon representing Bismarck burned near the edge, but they ignored it. None of them had been pleased when they heard the Bartlett team was in the area. Yzak’s hatred for Daniel Bartlett was legendary, Dearka knew and despised most of the man’s pilots, and Nicol had met Bartlett himself once without enjoying the experience. Zelman, for his part, saw Michael Harriman as a gutless incompetent.

“Right now, our main problem is how to get past that light wave barrier,” Yzak said. “Any ideas?”

Dearka shrugged. “Got me. None of our weapons will punch through.”

Nicol, however, looked thoughtful. “I think I have a way.” He tapped a few keys, bringing up the schematics of the Blitz. “My machine, the Blitz, is equipped with a system called Mirage Colloid. It renders the machine invisible to radar, thermal detection, and the naked eye.” He looked at his comrades. “If we take the Gamow out of detection range of Artemis, I can sneak in and destroy the reflectors.”

Normally I would call this a coward’s tactic, but not with Alex and his friends out there. “Sounds good to me,” Yzak agreed. “Any problems with it?”

“Just one: the Phase-shift armor can’t be used while the Mirage Colloid is activated.” Nicol shrugged. “I think it’s a fair trade-off, since you can’t fight what you can’t see.”

“All right.” Yzak nodded. “Take out those reflectors, and Dearka and I will follow you in.” A grimace of distaste touched his face. “You can bet Commander Bartlett will be going; he hates Alex even more than he hates me. Alex humiliated him at a martial arts tournament last year.”

The other two pilots agreed; Daniel Bartlett, while an excellent pilot and a skilled tactician, was known to be extremely competitive, and extremely vindictive.

Nicol turned to leave, then glanced over his shoulder. “Speaking of Strassmeier, did you get anything out of him, Yzak?”

The white-haired pilot grimaced again. “Just what he meant by Committee Chairman Zala’s ‘madness’. It’s the same thing he told my mom last year: he thinks Zala wants to kill all the Naturals.” He smiled humorlessly at the looks of astonishment that earned him. “I know, it’s crazy, since we have Natural allies in Oceania and the African Community.” A shrug. “That’s what he believes.”

“That is crazy.” Nicol resumed walking, but Yzak caught up with him at the hatch. “Yzak?”

Yzak’s voice was unusually soft. “If Alex launches, leave him to me, okay?”

Nicol smiled; they did not always get along, but they stuck together when it counted. “You got it, Yzak.”

Archangel, cafeteria

After the officers had been removed, the ship’s senior noncoms and the student volunteers had been brought to the cafeteria. Neumann was able to keep things under control, but he was getting worried. He did not trust the Eurasians any more than Alex did.

He was also worried about Kira. Poor kid must fight his best friend, and now it looks like our so-called “allies” might have something else in mind for him. If they learn he is the one who has been piloting the Strike, and that he is a Coordinator. Unlike far too many in the Earth Forces, Arnold Neumann had nothing against Coordinators, and he had come to like Kira in the two days since Heliopolis.

The hatch slid open, and Admiral Garcia stepped in, flanked by his aide and two armed guards. “I understand the pilot of the Strike is in here,” he said without preamble.

Murdoch shrugged. “Lieutenant La Flaga was piloting it. Ask him.”

Garcia smiled thinly. “Nice try, but we already know the Lieutenant was flying the Moebius Zero.” His eyes lit on Mir. “It must be you; no one would suspect a girl like you would be a pilot.”

The guards stepped forward, and Kira shot to his feet before anyone could stop him. “That’s not true! I’m the Strike pilot!”

The admiral snorted in derision. “Don’t be absurd. That machine isn’t meant for someone like you.” Annoyed, he threw a punch at the youth.

Kira effortlessly caught it, and Garcia found himself on the deck. “I haven’t done anything to provoke you!”

“He’s telling the truth!” Flay said. “He’s a Coordinator!”

Garcia picked himself up, looking suddenly intrigued. “Is he, now? That changes things: we’ve long been aware that many of ZAFT’s mobile suit pilots are mere teenagers.” He gave Kira a narrow glance. “I wonder what could make a Coordinator side with the Earth Forces, hmm.”

Kira froze as the guards moved to either side of him. “Admiral?”

“You could be very useful indeed,” Garcia murmured. He nodded at the guards. “Take him to the hangar.”

Artemis Nearspace, cockpit of GAT-X207 Blitz

Nicol punched up a recorder; this was the first use of Mirage Colloid, so he wanted to record as much data as possible for the benefit of the engineers back home. “Mirage Colloid online,” he said. “Particle dissipation rate is thirty-five percent. Maximum time in stealth mode: approximately eighty minutes.” More than enough time to get the job done.

He gazed at the asteroid base ahead of him as the Gamow pulled out, wondering, as many on both sides had, why the Eurasians would waste such a powerful defense system on Artemis. With the collapse of Heliopolis, which was itself controlled by a neutral nation, there was nothing at the L3 point to defend. Neither ZAFT nor the Earth Alliance had any colonies in the area.

Unless the Eurasians have some secret project of their own out here, Nicol thought, then shrugged and shifted his gaze to the black ship holding station just outside the Umbrella. Though he knew the Valkyrie could not possibly detect him, he shivered at the sight. While it had the same basic shape as the Archangel, it looked somehow predatory, like a creature of the night ready to pounce on the unwary.

“And if Yzak’s right, that cousin of his is a predator,” Nicol murmured. “I’d better be careful.” Even as he spoke, the Umbrella came down. Okay, here we go. Blast one reflector, then move before the Valkyrie can localize me. He powered up his beam rifle -the saber was useless with Mirage Colloid up- and fired, blowing one of the emitters apart. Boosting to another position, he fired again and again, slagging two more.

When he had taken out six emitters, Nicol dropped stealth and keyed his radio. “Yzak, Dearka, the path is clear!”

“Roger that, Nicol,” Yzak’s voice came back. “Good job. Any reaction from the black ship?”

Nicol checked his radar. “Nothing yet, but you can bet they’re not going to take this lying down.”

“Bartlett and his people are launching,” Dearka put in, sounding more than a little disgusted. “They should be able to keep those guys tied down. You get into the harbor, see if you can find the Strike.”

“Got it.” And if I do find him, I am not shooting to kill. Athrun’s been through enough; I am not going to be the one to kill his best friend.

Alex strapped into the pilot’s seat and began powering up. “What are we dealing with? I know the Blitz is out there; that is the only way they could have taken out the Umbrella. What else?”

“There’s no sign of the Gamow, but the Duel and the Buster are closing in fast,” Cagalli responded. “Also, we’ve got a CGUE and five GINNs coming from farther back. It looks like they’re from…” she glanced at something off screen, probably a sensor readout, “a Nazca, tentatively identified as the Bismarck.”

The Bismarck, why does that sound familiar? Alex shook himself; there was nothing to gain by pondering it. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

“Roger that. Be careful.”

“Always am.”

Stormbird shot into space, followed closely by the Devastator. They had hoped to have the other three machines ready by the time they had to fight again, but ZAFT evidently was not willing to give them the time needed. Alex shrugged; it did not really matter at this point. The Blitz had gotten into Artemis, true, but Kira was more than capable of handling it. Alex and Kyle, meanwhile, could destroy the incoming mass-produced machines, then focus on the Duel and the Buster.

Even as the two mobile suit forces closed, Lia was bringing her ship into battle. Knowing that Valkyrie outgunned a Nazca-class vessel by a substantial margin, her orders came swift and sure. “Target Sledgehammer missiles on the Bismarck,” she barked. “Ready Gottfrieds and Parsifals!”

Alex watched the missile storm lance out. “That should hold the Bismarck for a while,” he told Kyle, then switched frequencies. “Here to complicate my life again, Yzak?”

Like in their previous encounter, the Duel held a beam saber in its right hand. “We don’t have to do this, Alex,” Yzak said. “You’re one of us, remember? You grew up in the PLANTs.”

Alex sighed. “Yzak, listen to me: I will not serve under Patrick Zala in any capacity. Not now, not ever.” His saber clashed against the Duel’s shield. “To do so would be to show approval for outright genocide.” Knowing that Yzak was not trying to kill him, Alex glanced at the incoming mobile suits from the Bismarck. The GINNs were clearly ZAFT standard, but the CGUE had a beam rifle, and its color scheme… Blood red? Who is that, anyway?

“The Naturals are using you!” Yzak protested. “You and Yamato both! You’re being deceived!”

“Yzak, I came to this conclusion long before I joined forces with the Archangel; before I knew of its existence, for that matter,” Alex countered. “And I have other problems with the Natural versus Coordinator argument. You and I are both second-generation Coordinators; that makes us every bit as natural as someone like Mu La Flaga. After all, it was not our genes that were modified, only our parents.” He shrugged. “Not that I expect you to accept that; it’s a distinction without a difference, as it were.”

Yzak started to reply, but another voice cut in. “Finished arguing with your precious cousin, Joule?”

Alex stiffened. I know that voice…

Kira guided the Strike into a position above and behind the Archangel. He was amazed that his hands were so steady on the controls since he certainly did not feel steady. First Garcia had locked up the officers, then he had forced Kira to reveal himself and help the Eurasians with the Strike.

Even that was not as bad as what the admiral had said about him personally. “But you’re already a traitor to your fellow Coordinators, are you not?” Garcia had asked when Kira protested. “The fact that you’re a Coordinator siding with the Earth Forces makes you very valuable.”

The young Coordinator shook his head violently. All he had wanted was to be able to live in peace, and ZAFT had taken it away. He had been enjoying a quiet life on the neutral Heliopolis colony, and then ZAFT had attacked, ultimately resulting in the colony’s destruction.

Why couldn’t they just leave us alone? Kira thought, then grimaced as a proximity alarm sounded. The Blitz. So that is it; he must have snuck in under Mirage Colloid. Once Kira had agreed to be the Strike’s regular pilot, Badgiruel had briefed him on the stolen Gundams so that he knew what he was dealing with. He grimaced again and unlimbered the massive Schwerht Gewehr. Here he comes.

To Kira’s surprise, the Blitz did not immediately attack. Instead, it radioed him. “Yamato, wait!” The ZAFT pilot activated his saber but did not charge. “Why keep fighting us? We’re Coordinators, just like you!”

He knows who I am? How? “Are you…a friend of Athrun’s?”

An amber-eyed face, framed by light green hair, appeared on his screen. “That’s right,” the other said, nodding. “My name’s Nicol Amalfi.”

Kira closed his eyes briefly. If this guy was Athrun’s friend, then he knew he had to be careful. Athrun’s already lost his mom; I am not making things worse for him if I can avoid it. “I’m fighting to protect my friends, not for the Earth Forces!” Kira yelled, bringing his sword down on the Blitz’s Trikeros. “I don’t care what their genes look like!”

Nicol jetted back and fired off his lancer darts. It was meant as a simple distraction; he knew perfectly well kinetic attacks were useless against phase-shift…

“We know which team those machines are from,” Cagalli reported. “The red CGUE belongs to Commander Daniel Bartlett.”

Alex grimaced; he had thought as much. “Just great.”

The princess raised an eyebrow. “You know him?”

“I’ve known him since grade school,” Alex replied. “He’s good, but I was always just a little better, and the fact that I refused -and still refuse- to consider him a rival drove him nuts. He hates me, and he always has. The final straw came last year.”

“What happened?”

“I humiliated him at a martial arts tournament.” Alex switched frequencies. “Hello, there, Bartlett. Long time no see.”

A well-remembered laugh sounded over the comm. “So, you remember me, Strassmeier. Good; it means we can pick up where we left off. Assuming you’re still in shape.”

“Bartlett, just what do you think you’re doing?” Yzak demanded.

The red CGUE trained its single eye on the Duel. “Putting this irritant in his place, Joule. I’ve waited a long time for this.” Bartlett leveled his beam rifle at the Stormbird. “Take this!”

Alex took the blast on his shield. “Overconfident as always, Bartlett. That’s why you could never beat me.” He reached back and drew his massive plasma cannon.

Over the next several minutes, Stormbird dueled with the red CGUE. It soon became clear that, while the two pilots had roughly the same skill level, Alex had a superior machine. His shield’s energy absorbing capability rendered Bartlett’s rifle effectively useless. Yzak stood back, unable to intervene, while Dearka exchanged long-range attacks with Kyle. Adding insult to injury, Alex drove back the approaching GINNs with no apparent effort.

Bartlett, you idiot, Yzak thought in fury. Why couldn’t you leave him to me? I could have persuaded him, I know it! Unfortunately, it appeared that the young commander’s vendetta against Alex was interfering with his thinking.

It became a moot point when three things happened simultaneously. Kyle disabled both Buster’s main weapons, the missile attack from the Valkyrie struck the Bismarck, and the Archangel burst out of the Artemis base, followed closely by the Strike and the Blitz.

Lia Ramius took advantage of the sudden distraction. “Parsifals, fire!”

The deadly antimatter stream struck the Bismarck a glancing blow, frying its main cannon and rendering the linear catapult useless.

On the ZAFT ship’s bridge, Michael Harriman coughed on the smoke. “Damage report!”

“Main cannon destroyed, half our radars are offline, linear catapult disabled…” The crewman shook his head. “We can recover our mobile suits, sir, that’s about it. If we do not return to the homeland, we’ll never fight again.”

“I see.” Harriman looked at the comm screen. “Commander?”

Bartlett’s red CGUE turned away from the Stormbird. “No choice. As soon as we return, plot an immediate course for the PLANTs.” Then, to Alex: “This isn’t over, Strassmeier.”

Alex ignored him. “Let’s head back, Kyle.”

“Roger that.”

Yzak watched them go. Alex, why? What is going on in your head? “Dearka, Nicol, let us get back to the Gamow. We can’t catch them now, thanks to Bartlett.” He turned away, Buster and Blitz flanking him.

Undefeated, Archangel and Valkyrie sailed on.

Gamow, Bridge

“Bartlett, you idiot! Just what did you think you were doing?”

Dearka and Nicol winced. They had gotten back mere minutes earlier, following their rather nasty battle with the pair of mobile suit carriers. Neither had been pleased when the Bartlett team had joined the fight, but that paled next to Yzak’s reaction. He had never liked Bartlett in the first place; the man’s sudden attack on the Stormbird had only made that worse.

Now, the two pilots stood to one side, wincing in unison as Yzak threw a screaming fit.

“I could have persuaded him,” the Duel’s pilot went on. “I had him talking, concentrating on just me, and then you had to butt in and ruin it!” Yzak glared at the screen. “What in blazes has gotten into you?”

The brown-haired commander smiled thinly. “I merely wanted to show Strassmeier that he’s only human, that he can’t win every time. I don’t see your problem.”

Yzak seemed to swell with fury. “My problem is that you can’t seem to figure out that this is a war, not some schoolyard! Alex never broke any rules, he never cheated, he just kept beating you! This isn’t a game, Bartlett!”

Bartlett snorted, visibly disgusted. “All you’re doing is rationalizing cowardice, Joule. I expected better from a member of the Le Creuset team.”

Dearka and Nicol both flinched as their teammate turned an alarming shade of puce. “DID YOU EXPECT ME TO BLOW AWAY MY OWN COUSIN?” he demanded, trembling with rage.

Nicol stepped in to support him. “Look, Commander, Yzak’s right. He cannot be expected to kill a family member just like that. You should have given him a chance.”

“I’m with Nicol,” Dearka put in. “If we can get someone like Strassmeier on our side, we’d have a major advantage.”

Bartlett snorted again. “I, for one, would not want someone who’s clearly mentally unstable anywhere near a combat unit.” His image vanished before anyone could reply.

“Bastard!” Yzak slammed his fist into a bulkhead. “Who does he think he is?”

Nicol rolled his eyes. “No kidding. Since when does thinking something crazy make a guy mentally unstable, anyway? I mean, come on. Sure, Committee Chairman Zala is a hardliner, so I can see where your cousin’s coming from. I think he’s wrong, but I don’t think that makes him crazy.”

“Yeah,” Dearka agreed. “Say, did you get anything out of Yamato?”

Nicol shrugged. “Just the same thing he told Athrun: he’s not fighting for the Earth Forces; he’s fighting to protect his friends. He doesn’t care what their genes look like.”

“He’s got a point,” Yzak conceded unwillingly, breathing hard. “I still think Athrun’s right about their being used by the Earth Forces, but Alex reminded me that we have Natural allies, in Oceania and the African Community.” He sighed. “It doesn’t matter right now. We’ve lost track of both ships, so I guess we’ll have to wait for Commander Le Creuset to get back from the PLANTs.”

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira Yamato sprawled face-down on his bunk, exhausted both physically and mentally. The battle with the Blitz had been brief but fierce, though it was clear from the beginning that Athrun’s friend Nicol was not actually trying to kill him.

“But you’re already a traitor to your fellow Coordinators, are you not?”

“We’re Coordinators, just like you!”

Those simple comments, one spoken by a so-called “ally” who was not acting like one, the other by an enemy who under other circumstances might have been a close friend, reverberated in Kira’s mind. Try as he might, Kira could not shake the feeling that he was somehow betraying his people.

“Birdy!” the bird-robot by his head chirped. Kira ignored it.

“Traitor,” he whispered.

Behind him, the hatch opened, admitting Cagalli Yula Athha and Alex Strassmeier. Upon learning of Admiral Garcia’s treatment of Kira, and the young pilot’s subsequent confrontation with Nicol Amalfi, Alex had suggested that they check on him. Cagalli had readily agreed; though she had only known the Strike’s pilot for a couple of days, she felt connected to him in a way she could not quite describe, and she hated to see him in this kind of pain.

Feeling a light touch on his shoulder, Kira rolled over on his back. “Alex? Cagalli? What are you two doing here?” Not that he was complaining; he felt the same connection Cagalli did, and if anyone could understand what he was feeling now, it was a PLANT native like Alex.

“Checking on you,” Alex replied. “Mu told me what that dimwit Garcia did with you.” He used the Lieutenant’s name at the man’s insistence; La Flaga had expressed a dislike of excessive formality.

Kira sat up, rubbing his eyes. “He said I was a traitor to my fellow Coordinators, and that guy in the Blitz, Nicol, asked why I kept fighting them.”

Alex laid a hand on his shoulder. “Kira, you keep fighting them to keep your friends alive. Remember that. As for Garcia…” He snorted derisively. “You’re from Orb, if memory serves; if you betrayed them, that would be one thing. As it stands…” His shoulders twitched. “It’s not our genes that determine who we are, Kira. Genes determine certain physical traits, nothing more. Many on both sides have forgotten that. Blue Cosmos thinks we Coordinators are evil. Zala, on the other hand, believes we’re new species, which anyone with even a cursory knowledge of biology knows is preposterous.”

“What about you?” Kira frowned. “I mean, you’re fighting your own cousin…”

The other side. “Kira, one thing you have to remember about Yzak is that he’s the dictionary definition of ‘arrogant hothead’, and, as I said, I have no intention of killing him. No, what I’m fighting is Patrick Zala’s madness, which if left unchecked will destroy both sides.” He looked Kira in the eye. “So, don’t think of this as fighting your own people.”

“I understand. But still…Athrun…”

Cagalli sat next to Kira and gently embraced him. “It’ll be all right. Alex says that your friend is not like his father at all. He’ll see what you’re trying to do sooner or later.”

“Thanks.” Kira hugged her back, a little nervously, then chuckled as Birdy landed on the princess’s shoulder. “I think Birdy likes you.”

She smiled and lightly stroked the robot’s head. “Athrun gave it to you?”

“Yeah, just before he left Copernicus.”

“I remember he had a talent for small-scale engineering,” Alex commented. “Incidentally, I have also met your recent opponent, Nicol Amalfi. It’s not exactly a surprise that he and Athrun are close; his personality is so like yours it’s almost eerie.” He moved for the hatch. “I need to get back to my own ship. Coming, Cagalli?”

She waved. “I’ll stay here a while longer, keep Kira company for a while.”

“As you wish. See you on the Valkyrie.”

When Alex had left, Kira shook his head in bemusement. “Why’d he gets so friendly all of a sudden?”

Cagalli shrugged. “He gave me a kind of long-winded explanation, something about how he prefers to keep his thoughts hidden so people can’t take advantage of him, and that he’s always grateful when he finds someone he can open up to.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” Kira looked away. “Thanks for coming, by the way. You and Alex both.”

“Hey, what are friends for?” She smiled.

They shared a companionable silence after that. Neither knew what the future would bring, but for now things seemed all right.

Author’s note: Please, no one accuse the author of having Yzak out of character. Remember, he is dealing with a split in his own family; that would affect anyone.

Chapter 2: Race to Artemis

Ruins of Heliopolis

Alex stared at the drifting wreckage; hands clenched on his control bars. An entire colony, gone, he thought, a cold rage in his heart. Just so that bastard Le Creuset could take out one warship and a single mobile suit. As far as he could tell, the lifeboats had ejected safely, which took a load off his mind, but that did not make him any less angry.

He keyed his comm. “This is Strassmeier. Anybody out there?”

Natarle Badgiruel’s voice answered him. “Archangel here. What’s your status?” Despite her distrust of him, the ensign was all business.

The Coordinator studied his readouts. “I’ve still got plenty of power; I only fired once in that last battle, and it wasn’t too hard to outmaneuver Aiman. No real damage.”

“Good.” Badgiruel looked away for a moment. “Captain Ramius would like you to board the Archangel for now,” she said. “Her niece and the princess are already onboard.”

“Copy that. I am on my way. What about Kira?”

“He’ll be along about the same time.” Badgiruel grimaced. “He’s bringing a damaged life pod.”

“I see.” Alex concealed a grimace of his own at the ensign’s tone. He cared about others, whatever Cagalli thought, and Badgiruel’s obvious dislike of a rescue irritated him. She is probably obsessed with secrecy. He glanced over his shoulder and spotted the Strike coming in. Damaged is right; life support would give out in maybe an hour, probably less.

Alex sighed and told himself not to be too hard on Badgiruel. The Archangel’s crew was probably in a state of shock; a low-ranking officer could not be blamed for being annoyed over additional problems. The Earth Forces had most likely trusted the secrecy of their project as a defense -not to mention the fact that Heliopolis was controlled by a neutral nation, Alex thought sourly- and had never thought that someone like Rau Le Creuset would launch an all-out attack.

He conceded that at least part of his own attitude stemmed from his passionate hatred of the Atlantic Federation. Only a handful of people knew the reason: Ezalia and Yzak Joule, Kyle Perry, and Lia Ramius. Alex realized that no one on the Archangel had anything to do with what had happened, but only two things kept him from hating them just as much; the first was the fact that the ship’s captain was Lia’s aunt, the second was his personal admiration for Mu La Flaga.

Andrea, I will find you someday. I promise. Alex looked in the general direction of the Vesalius, and this time spoke aloud to himself. “You will pay for this, Rau Le Creuset. I swear it.”

Side by side, X105 Strike and X108 Stormbird touched down on the Archangel’s flight deck.

Gamow, pilots’ ready room

Three teens in uniforms identical to Athrun’s gazed out at their new machines, brooding on the day’s events. White haired, blue eyed Yzak Joule, pilot of X102 Duel, sat on a couch, drink forgotten in his hand. Dearka Elsman, the tall, blond pilot of X103 Buster, hovered near the window. X207 Blitz was assigned to the team’s youngest pilot, green haired, fifteen-year-old Nicol Amalfi.

“It’s gone,” Nicol whispered.

Dearka shrugged. “So what? They called themselves neutral, even though they were building weapons for the Earth Forces.” He nodded significantly at their new mobile suits. “They call that neutral?”

Yzak was not listening. Athrun had reported the identity of the Stormbird’s pilot, and he was still in shock. Alex, why? How could you be helping anyone in the Earth Forces, let alone the Atlantic Federation? What about your parents, or Andrea? Despite their rivalry, he could only feel sympathy for Athrun, who was in a similar predicament.

Nicol looked at him, concerned. “You okay?”

Normally, Yzak would have found such a query irritating, but not now. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “Alex hates the Earth Alliance, and especially the Atlantic Federation.” He hammered a fist into the couch’s arm. “Athrun said he’s avoiding Chairman Zala’s madness, whatever that means, but that still doesn’t explain why he’d be helping an Atlantic Federation warship.” Yzak shook his head. “Yeah, one of his friends is the CO’s niece, but still…”

Dearka raised his eyebrows. “What’s his beef with them, anyway?”

The Duel’s pilot closed his eyes briefly as the painful memories came flooding back. “His parents died in the Mandelbrot Incident,” he said. “About three days later, his sister Andrea was kidnapped by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit. Alex just barely escaped, and he never saw her again.” Yzak clenched his fists; Alex and Andrea Strassmeier had always been more like siblings than cousins to him. That was one reason he hated the Earth Forces.

Nicol winced. “No wonder he hates them.” He looked out the window again. “You think it’s true, what he and that Yamato guy said? About them just protecting their friends?”

“I wish I knew.” Yzak sighed in frustration. “Athrun insisted that Yamato would never lie to him, and the one exception Alex makes to the Earth Forces is that he admires Mu La Flaga, but…” He trailed off. “I just don’t know.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Dearka opined. “No way is the Commander going to just let them go.”

Archangel, hangar/Bridge

Alex unstrapped and opened his machine’s hatch. There was already a lot of activity in the hangar; mechanics were swarming over La Flaga’s Moebius Zero, while some workers unloaded crates of food that Lia had brought over with her, knowing that Archangel was low on supplies. Directly opposite the Stormbird, the Strike set the life pod it had retrieved on the deck.

The pod’s hatch popped open, and a red-haired girl in a pink dress poked her head through. Alex recognized her instantly, having seen her with Sai more than once. Flay Allster, daughter of Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster, now this should be interesting. He knew that Flay would dislike him the moment she knew who and what he was; her only major disagreement with Sai was about Coordinators.

Fortunately, he did not have to worry just yet, for at that moment Flay spotted Kira exiting the Strike. Her face immediately lit up. “I know you, you’re one of Sai’s friends, right?” She pushed off, practically tackling him.

Kira blinked in surprise. “Flay Allster?”

She looked up at him. “It was crazy! I lost my friends in the store, and then I got into a shelter, and…” Flay took a deep breath. “Is it true that ZAFT attacked us?”

“I’m afraid so,” Alex said, joining them. “Rau Le Creuset, no less. He used heavy weaponry meant for taking out fortresses.” His lips twitched, a half-formed sneer, perhaps. “That sort of ruthlessness is why I’ve always despised the man.”

Flay frowned at him. “You’re a friend of Sai’s, too, aren’t you? Strassmeier?”

“That’s me,” Alex acknowledged. “I know you know I’m a Coordinator; what you don’t know is that I’m related to a member of the PLANT Supreme Council, Ezalia Joule, to be exact.”

Her expression turned from curiosity to horror. “Ezalia Joule? But she is one of the biggest radicals! The only one who’s worse is Zala!”

Alex shrugged. “All true. I should, however, point out that one of my closest friends is the niece of this ship’s captain.”

“But this is a ZAFT ship!” Flay protested. “There are mobile suits here!”

“The Strike is an Earth Forces machine,” Kira reassured her. “This ship was built for the Atlantic Federation, and the other mobile suit belongs to Alex.”

Flay looked unconvinced. “Even if the Strike is Earth Forces, how can Alex have a mobile suit if he’s not ZAFT?”

Alex kept a firm hold on his temper. Remember, she is George Allister’s daughter, which means she has got all sorts of garbage in her head. He is also not exactly Aunt Ezalia’s biggest fan. “The Stormbird and four other machines were built as a contingency against Patrick Zala trying something insane.”

“Why would you want to stop him?” Flay demanded.

“He’s the only person in the PLANTs I despise more than I do Rau Le Creuset,” Alex said coldly. “He wants every last Natural dead, which is, in my opinion, reason enough to oppose him.” He did not wait for a response. “Kira, why don’t you get her to the cafeteria. Sai and the others should be there.”

Kira nodded; he was only too happy to defuse the situation. “See you later.”

The first thing Alex noticed about Archangel’s bridge was that it was more cramped than Valkyrie’s. Instead of the tabletop screen, it had a large monitor set just above the forward viewport. The two helm stations were directly below it, with the command chair behind them. Communications and fire control were behind and above the captain; the XO’s station was in CIC, behind and below.

“As I see it, we have only one real choice of destination,” Murrue was saying. “Even with the food Lia brought with her, we’re short on supplies.”

La Flaga agreed. “We can’t make it to the moon in our current condition,” he said, looking at a map of the area. “Artemis looks like our best bet.”

Badgiruel was not so sure. “Artemis is a Eurasian base, and the Archangel is a top-secret Atlantic Federation vessel. Neither it nor the Strike has a recognition code that our allies recognize.”

Even if they did, there is no guarantee the Eurasians would respect it. Especially not at Artemis. “The Lieutenant is right,” Alex said. “There’s no point in going for the moon if you don’t have the supplies to make it there alive.” He shrugged. “Whether they can be trusted is your call; the Valkyrie will remain outside until your resupply is complete.”

Lia nodded. “The question is how to get there in one piece. I doubt the ZAFT forces would even notice Valkyrie, but your ship is more of a problem; it’s not exactly stealthy.”

La Flaga frowned thoughtfully. The girl has a point. Their ship is almost impossible to spot, but ours… He brought up a file on Pal’s terminal. Maybe if we use decoys… Such a maneuver could work, but only if Le Creuset did not realize how limited their choices were. And even if he did not, with two ships he could cover them without much trouble.

“If we send decoys toward the moon,” he said at last, “and then head in the opposite direction, we could make it.”

“I agree with Lieutenant La Flaga,” Alex said. “A two-hour burn with your main engines followed by a coast should get you to Artemis in… call it two days.” He tapped the back of the command chair. “If it comes to a fight, Archangel is well-armed, plus you have the Strike, assuming Kira agrees to fly it again.”

Assuming, indeed; Kira had so far shown great reluctance to fight. Not that even Badgiruel blamed him; it was a bit much to ask someone to face his best friend in battle. However, it was also true that Kira was willing to do what was necessary to protect his friends, to say nothing of the refugees he had just brought on board.

“I think he’ll do it,” Murrue said at last. “How are you people doing?”

Lia consulted a portable computer she had brought with her. “The Parsifal positron cannons -a modification of your Lohengrin design- are on-line. We’ve also got the other linear catapult working, as well as Kyle’s Devastator.”

“That should be enough.”

Let us hope so. Alex closed his eyes briefly. “I never thought I’d be helping an Atlantic federation warship.”

Badgiruel glanced up sharply at his tone. He sounds like he is bitten something sour. Just what is with him, anyway? “Do you have a problem with us, Strassmeier?”

He did not even glance at her. “With you personally, no. With the Atlantic Federation, yes,” he said acidly.

“What kind of problem?” This youngster was beginning to grate on the nerves.

Alex finally looked at her, and for the first time the Archangel’s crew saw signs of emotion in the young Coordinator: anger. “I lost my parents in the Mandelbrot Incident,” he bit out, “and my sister was kidnapped by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit just three days later.” A shadow crossed the young Coordinator’s face. “I never saw her again.” He spun on his heel and stalked out.

There was a long silence. Of the group on the bridge, only Lia had heard the story, and she had promised to keep it secret. The others, particularly Badgiruel, were having trouble coming to grips with this new revelation. None of them liked the thought of their own nation engaging in outright kidnapping. Murrue was disturbed; leaving aside the fact that her niece was a Coordinator, the scenario Alex had just described disgusted her.

La Flaga, for his part, was less surprised than he might have been. Even before Endymion, the rhetoric coming out of the Alliance high command had been growing increasingly hardline, and, for all his dislike of ZAFT, he had never believed that they were responsible for the Copernicus bombing.

And now this. He looked at Murrue. “Captain, I think we should make some discreet inquiries when we get the chance. If he is telling the truth, then there’s something very wrong with the Alliance.”

Even Badgiruel agreed. “Such a move would clearly violate the military’s own code of conduct. I still don’t trust Strassmeier,” here she glanced half-apologetically at Lia, “but the sort of action he described is inexcusable.”

“I’ll talk to Admiral Halberton,” Murrue said. “We could check at Artemis, but since the events occurred before the Alliance was formed, it’s unlikely they would have any information.”

Not to mention the fact that the Eurasians do not exactly like us, she added to herself. If they heard about this, it could split the Alliance apart.

Archangel, Cafeteria

Cagalli stepped through the hatch, eyes sweeping the room. Unlike Lia, she had come over because the refugees were Orb nationals, and she wanted to be sure they were safe. Also, she was curious about the other Coordinator she had met at Morgenroete. Something about him had caught her attention.

Oh, come on, she told herself. There is nothing special about him; you just wanted to apologize for the way you treated him at Heliopolis.

Still, Kira seemed like a nice guy, and it certainly beat having to deal with Strassmeier’s cold attitude. She was glad to escape it, if only for a little while.

Cagalli spotted Kira quickly enough. He was sitting at a table with his friends -Sai, Tolle, Kuzzey, and Mir, if she remembered correctly- and a redhead she did not recognize. She shrugged. Now, she would take almost anyone over Alex Strassmeier.

Kira looked up, and his eyes widened in surprise. He rose as Cagalli approached their table. “Uh, hi.”

She smiled; there was something about Kira that made you trust him even if you had only just met. “I wanted to apologize,” she said. “For snapping at you, back at Morgenroete.”

He waved that away. “Don’t worry about it. Things were simply crazy; I didn’t blame you.” He hesitated. “Is it true that you’re the princess of Orb?”

Cagalli winced. “Please, don’t call me that. I really, really hate being a princess. I prefer just Cagalli.” She chuckled softly. “Just about everyone back home would be horrified, except for my father. He doesn’t mind that sort of thing, even if it drives everyone else nuts.”

“Uh, okay.” Kira was not sure what to make of this girl. A princess who hates being one, now that is simply weird. “Why did you come to Heliopolis, anyway?”

“I’d heard that Morgenroete was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces, so I came to see if it was true.” She shrugged. “I was right. Even though we are supposed to be neutral, we’re building weapons for the Alliance.”

Kira frowned, remembering the scene in the factory, and Alex’s words to Athrun during the later battle. “But the government wasn’t involved. At least that’s what Alex says.”

Distaste flickered over Cagalli’s face. “What does he know? He is from the PLANTs, not Earth. Besides, the guy’s probably a ZAFT agent himself.”

“Hey,” Tolle protested. “We watched him take out one of ZAFT’s top aces; you think he would have done that if he was a spy?”

“He was probably trying for a disabling attack, but missed,” Cagalli countered.

Mir shook her head. “No. He is cold, but… No. Alex is obsessed with efficiency; if he shot that GINN dead center, then that was where he meant to shoot. I know he hates the Atlantic Federation, but…”

“It’s like he sees the Archangel as separate from the Earth Forces as a whole,” Sai put in. “Maybe it’s because he’s friends with the captain’s niece, but it doesn’t matter.”

“He must be hurting, though,” Kira said. “Even if he doesn’t show it. I mean, he has to fight his own cousin.” He winced, then shrugged. “Besides, he knows we’re carrying refugees. Do you think he’d try to get them killed?” he asked pointedly.

Cagalli hesitated. Do I think he would go that far? No, but still… “He’s related to Ezalia Joule, one of Patrick Zala’s closest allies. Why would someone like that help an Earth Forces ship?”

Kira had to think. “I know the refugees are one reason,” he said slowly. “I’ve heard him say some nasty things about Patrick Zala, and the tactics the Le Creuset team used today are just about guaranteed to make him mad, even if he doesn’t show it.”

“Kira’s right,” Kuzzey said reluctantly; he was wary of Coordinators at the best of times. Learning that one of his classmates was related to one of the most radical members of the PLANT Supreme Council had made him even more so.

The princess still was not convinced, but she let it go. “Maybe.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to get going; Lia’s shuttle leaves soon.”

Kira waved. “See you later.”

Cagalli could not help smiling; somehow, she knew they were going to be friends. “See you.”

Over the next day, the crews of the two ships settled into an almost comfortable routine. Kira’s friends wound up assisting the shorthanded Archangel, Kuzzey taking over communications, Tolle helping Chief Neumann at the helm, Sai handling electronic warfare, and Mir acting as combat operator for the Strike and Le Flaga’s Moebius Zero. Murrue and Badgiruel coordinated with Lia on battle plans, Alex occasionally contributing to an almost toneless voice.

Both crews knew perfectly well that they were far from safe. Rau Le Creuset was anything but stupid; with two ships, he had his choice of tactics. He could take one ship on the lunar route and send the other to cover Artemis. On the other hand, it was possible (as was in fact the case) that he would see through the decoy attempt and cut them off.

Either way, everyone knew all too well that a battle could well be imminent…

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters, 26 January, C.E. 71

Cagalli drifted down the corridor toward Alex’s cabin. She had just spent half an hour pumping Valkyrie’s other pilots for information on their leader, and not getting much. Brian had only said that he considered Alex a friend, as had Hiro. Kyle, on the other hand, had seen precisely where she was going.

“Look, I know Alex isn’t the friendliest guy around, but he has a heart,” the Devastator’s pilot had told her. “I don’t blame you for your attitude, not when he’s related to someone like Ezalia Joule, but he’s not what you think, either.”

“Why does he hate the Atlantic Federation, then, if not because of his relatives?” she had shot back.

Kyle had taken a moment to respond. “I don’t think I should be the one to tell you,” he had said at length. “Alex doesn’t like that being spread around; if you want to know, you’ll have to ask him yourself.”

Cagalli had decided to do just that, though at the same time she could not suppress a chuckle at what had happened next. Chris Madsen, the flame-haired pilot of X112 Inferno, had turned up just as she was leaving.

“Are you sure we can trust them, Kyle?” he had asked, referring to their Earth Forces allies. “What if they’re with Blue Cosmos or something?”

Cagalli had burst out laughing at Kyle’s response. “Will you give the conspiracy theories a rest, Chris?” he had groaned, in the tone of someone who had been over the same subject at least a hundred times. “I swear, you see black helicopters every time somebody sneezes.” Chris had just looked innocent.

She shook herself. That is enough. You are here for answers. She pressed the buzzer key next to the door.

“Enter,” Alex’s voice said.

Cagalli stepped through the hatch and looked around. The cabin was sparsely furnished, with a military bunk against one bulkhead, a bookcase directly opposite, a desk with a built-in computer terminal and two chairs, and what looked like a supply cabinet of some sort. A framed photo hung over the bunk.

Alex glanced up from whatever file he was perusing on the terminal. “Have a seat,” he said, waving at the other chair. “I think I can guess why you’re here: you want to know what I’m up to.”

“Something like that,” she acknowledged; once again, he had unnerved her. “Everyone I’ve talked to says you hate the Earth Forces, so why are you helping them?” she asked bluntly.

His eyes narrowed slightly at her tone. What is she getting at? “Lia is one reason; I could hardly ask her to turn against her own family.” Alex shrugged. “More to the point, Le Creuset’s attack on Heliopolis forced my hand. I knew we’d have to leave eventually; I just didn’t think it would be quite so soon.” He quirked an eyebrow. “What, did you think I was part of some deep-cover intelligence op?”

Cagalli blinked, then glared at him. “What am I supposed to think? You knew about the attack, your aunt is on the Supreme Council, and your cousin is a member of the Le Creuset team. What else can you be?”

He snorted. “A patriot who doesn’t like the direction the PLANTs are taking,” he said.

“Then why not work from within?” she challenged. “You’re Ezalia Joule’s nephew; you must have had some influence.”

“Not enough.” Alex’s voice was as cold as the space around them. He looked her in the eye. “There is far more going on than you realize; don’t talk when you don’t understand. I don’t need a lecture from some pampered aristocrat,” he added.

His words spared an explosion. “Pampered?” Cagalli shouted, bursting out of her chair. “Just who do you think you are? I have had military training; I do not just sit around doing nothing! And at least I am trying to change things, instead of betraying my people and my own family!”

The flat crack of Alex’s palm striking the desk was like a pistol shot. Cagalli flinched, realizing in an instant that she had gone too far. “You have no idea what you are talking about, Cagalli Yula Athha,” Alex said, very softly. “I tried to tell Aunt Ezalia that Zala was trouble. I tried to tell her that he wanted more than victory, that he wanted the Naturals extinct, but she did not believe it. She told me I was being paranoid. So, I left. I came with a few friends to Heliopolis, and we decided to counter Zala’s madness. In the process, I got to know Kira and his friends. And now, because of Patrick Zala and Rau Le Creuset, I must fight my own cousin, a cousin I have long seen more as a brother. Do you have any idea, any idea, how much that hurts?”

The princess looked away, ashamed. She had been convinced that Alex was a spy, a ZAFT agent, but now she knew she had been wrong. The pain in his voice was too clear; if he had wanted to keep up a charade, he would simply have maintained his emotionless mask. How could I have been so stupid? “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

To her surprise, Alex leaned back in his chair, looking suddenly weary. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s as much my fault as it is yours; I have a tendency to keep things bottled up, and that sometimes gives people the wrong idea.” He smiled wryly. “And I admit that the ‘pampered’ line was a bit over the top; my apologies.”

Cagalli found herself grinning; under the mask, she suddenly realized, was a genuinely likeable human being. “Like you said, don’t worry about it. I guess I had it coming.” She raised an eyebrow. “By the way, why do you hide your feelings like that? And why are you being so friendly suddenly?”

He shrugged. “I learned at an early age that the best way to avoid being taken advantage of was to make sure no one could tell what I was thinking; sometimes I overdo it. To answer your second question, there are few people I trust enough to really be open with; it’s always a relief to find another person like that.” Alex glanced out the viewport, watching the Archangel cruise alongside. “To be honest, Kira probably falls into that category, along with Mir Haw and Lia’s aunt. Plus, Mu La Flaga; I’ve long admired him.”

“But why me?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t mind; I can see now that you’re an all-right guy, but still. We only met yesterday.”

“Not quite,” Alex countered. “We actually met once before, about four and a half years ago. It was at an official function in the Orb capital. You were wearing a green dress, and visibly hating it. I was with my parents and younger sister, dressed in a black suit of military styling.”

Cagalli’s eyes widened. “I remember now!” She chuckled. “You had about as much expression as the wallpaper, but I remember thinking you were a nice guy, deep down inside. I think it was the way your sister stuck close to you; I figured that anyone that devoted to a sibling had to be okay.”

“That’s about right,” Alex agreed. “My first thought was something along the lines of ‘tomboy’, an assessment I now see was more accurate than I originally thought.”

She chuckled again. “Yeah, everyone says I’m a tomboy, and they’re probably right.” Cagalli looked at the photo over Alex’s bunk, which she now realized was a family portrait of sorts. “So, how’s the family?”

His face darkened, a mixture of grief and barely suppressed rage. “My parents were killed in the Mandelbrot Incident, and Andrea was abducted by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit shortly thereafter. I’ve been searching for her ever since.”

“I hope you find her.” Cagalli was an only child, but she knew how much Alex had to be hurting, and besides, she would rather like Andrea Strassmeier the one time they had met. No wonder he hates the Earth Forces. “Was there something wrong with your arm?” Alex looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “I remember you seemed to be favoring your right side.”

“Oh, that.” He grimaced, indicating a point halfway down his upper arm. “From here down, the arm is a prosthetic. You see, my mom ran an ichthyoculture farm, specializing in sharks. My arm was bitten off by a half-ton mako.”

Cagalli blinked. “Sharks?”

“Sure; shark meat is very nutritious.” Alex grinned. “I got fitted with a prosthetic, and we had the offending shark for dinner.”

She had to laugh at that. “Eat and be eaten.” Another thought struck her. “You said your mother ran an ichthyoculture farm. What about your father?”

“Dad was somewhat more highbrow.” Alex tapped his computer screen. “He was a geneticist. Some of his work I only learned about after he was killed.” He considered his words carefully. “Have you ever heard of Ulen Hibiki?”

Cagalli frowned. “Should I have?”

“I guess not.” Alex stood and began to pace. “He was a colleague of my father’s, famous in his field. He died almost sixteen years ago. Anyway, Dad was working with him on a project to produce the ultimate Coordinator, and it was not exactly kosher. In his attempt to improve mankind, he constructed an artificial womb, eliminating the mother’s body as a variable.” Another grimace. “Hibiki’s wife was not pleased, since he used their unborn son for the experiment,” he said, visibly disgusted.

“His own son?” Cagalli repeated carefully.

“Yep. Nor was that the worst of it; apparently he cloned the poor kid many times over.” Alex shook his head. “None of the clones survived, as far as I know. The ‘original’ lived, the only viable child that thing ever produced. The kid wasn’t completely alone; his twin sister, a Natural, was born about the same time.” His lip curled. “I have no objection to Coordinator technology per se, for obvious reasons, but what Hibiki did was downright nauseating. In any case, he and his wife died in a Blue Cosmos attack about a year later, and the twins were split up and put up for adoption.”

Cagalli nodded; she saw where this was going. “And you’re trying to find them.”

Alex nodded in turn. “Exactly. You see, I am in a sense a byproduct of that project. Dad had me enhanced in extremely specific areas: my hearing is far better than normal, I have reflexes about twice Coordinator norm, an enhanced sense of spatial awareness, and eyesight that would make a hawk jealous.” He sighed. “Until the end of his life, Dad seemed to have something eating at him. Now I know what: guilt for using me in the experiments. I think the only thing that kept him going was the fact that Mom forgave him.” He sat again. “Anyway, I intend to find the Hibiki twins, and bring this madness to a close once and for all.”

This guy has a gift for understatement; madness does not begin to describe it. “If I can help you at all, let me know,” she said. “My father has plenty of sources; we might be able to find something.” She waved at the screen. “Does anyone in the PLANTs know you’re doing this?”

“Aunt Ezalia and Yzak do, that’s about it.” Alex smiled. “Thanks for the offer. I just might take you up on it.”

“No problem.”

Artemis Near space, 27 January, C.E. 71

Murrue Ramius looked at her niece’s image on the comm screen. “We’re approaching Artemis. How are you people holding up?”

Lia checked her board, then nodded. “Okay so far, Aunt Murrue. I do not think we are out of the woods yet, though; we just picked up a heat signature off to starboard. Checking…it’s a Nazca, almost certainly the Vesalius.”

“Concur,” Pal said. Then, “Where’d that come from?” He looked down at his Captain. “Ma’am, we’ve spotted another thermal trace, definitely a Laurasia.”

A curse sounded from the Valkyrie. “We’re in for a fight, then,” Alex said, stepping into view. “I was afraid of this. How’s your parasite complement?”

“The Strike is fully operational, and repairs are complete on Lieutenant La Flaga’s mobile armor,” Badgiruel said. “What about you?”

“We’ve got the rear Helldart launchers ready, but as for mobile suits, we’re still limited to my Stormbird and Kyle’s Devastator.” Alex shrugged. “We’ll make do.”

Murrue nodded. “Understood.” She pressed an intercom stud on her chair. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Kira Yamato settled into the Strike’s cockpit and strapped in. Here goes nothing. A green-eyed face, framed with dark blue hair, appeared in his mind’s eye. Athrun, will I face you again? Will you try to shoot down the Archangel He keyed his radio. “Kira Yamato here.”

Mir’s face appeared on his left screen. “I read you, Kira. Strike to starboard catapult, attach Aile Striker pack.” As she spoke, the mechanics attached the requisite equipment. A subflight unit with two beam sabers went on the back, an anti-beam shield was set on the left arm, and a beam rifle on the right. “Moebius Zero to port catapult.”

“Roger that.”

The other screen displayed Mu La Flaga’s helmeted visage. “Here’s the plan, kid,” he said crisply. “The Archangel will fire a blast from the Lohengrins to cover me while I sneak up and attack the Vesalius from behind. Valkyrie will engage the Gamow directly; you help Alex and Kyle deal with the mobile suits.” His voice softened. “Use disabling shots on the Aegis if you want.”

Kira nodded, smiling gratefully. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, kid.” There was a loud whine as the Lohengrin positron cannons cut loose. “That’s my cue, don’t get shot down before I return. Mu La Flaga, launching!”

So, it begins, Alex thought, fastening his restraints. Yzak, at least hear me out. Please. “Kyle, you up?”

Kyle Perry grinned from the left-hand comm screen. “Ready any time, Alex.”

“As soon as Kira launches from Archangel, so do we.” Alex flicked several switches. “Stormbird is on-line.”

“Devastator is up and running,” Kyle echoed.

“Roger that.” To his surprise, Cagalli looked at him from the other screen. “Ready for launch when you are.”

Alex raised his eyebrows. “Cagalli?”

The princess gave him an innocent look. “Hey, I can’t just sit around, can I? I told you I have had military training; Lia suggested I coordinate the ship’s mobile suits, since I do not hate your guts anymore. This way, I can help you and Kira both.”

He considered that, then shrugged. “Works for me.” He smiled, knowing that the only other person who could see him knew him well enough not to be surprised. “Any word from the Archangel?”

“Lieutenant La Flaga just launched; Kira will be heading out soon,” Cagalli replied. “Almost time.”

Alex sighed. “So, it begins.”

“Strike, go!”

Kira’s hands tightened on the controls. “Kira Yamato, Strike Gundam heading out!”

“Kira’s launching,” Cagalli said.

Alex felt his stomach clench. It is now, or never. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!” The g-forces pressed him back in his seat as the linear catapult spat him into the ether.

“Kyle Perry, Devastator launching!” The Buster near-lookalike followed Stormbird into space.

“What are we dealing with?” Le Creuset asked.

The radar operator checked his readouts. “A single mobile suit off the legged ship, two from the black ship. The extra machine appears to be based on the Buster’s design.”

“I see.” The masked man nodded. “No mobile armor; I suppose they haven’t finished repairing it yet.” He looked at the main screen. “Well, Athrun, it seems you have another opportunity to get your friend to see reason. Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.” Athrun’s image vanished as the Aegis launched.

Ades shook his head. “This is getting more bizarre by the minute,” he said. “First Athrun learns that his best friend is piloting an Earth Forces mobile suit, then Yzak’s cousin turns up, helping a warship belonging to a nation he hates more than anything else in the world.”

“It is odd,” Le Creuset agreed. “In fairness to young Strassmeier, he is in a rather difficult position. His cousin is piloting one of the machines we captured, and one of his closest friends is the niece of the legged ship’s commanding officer, if Athrun’s report is accurate. This could be remarkably interesting…”

Seven mobile suits closed at each other through the vastness of space, from four different directions. Kira Yamato’s Strike headed directly for his friend Athrun Zala’s Aegis. Alex Strassmeier flew his Stormbird at his cousin Yzak Joule’s Duel, while his friend Kyle Perry took the Devastator after Dearka Elsman’s Buster. Nicol Amalfi ignored the other machines entirely, taking his Blitz directly after the Archangel.

Aegis and Strike both activated beam sabers, although neither struck. “Kira!” Athrun called. “Please, put away your sword!” He felt tears stinging in his eyes. “We are not enemies! Am I right?”

Kira winced. “I told you, I’m not part of the Earth Forces! I am only protecting my friends! I don’t care if they’re Naturals!” He held his position, still unwilling to attack. “Besides, why are you with ZAFT? You used to tell me you hated the whole idea of war.”

“That was before the Bloody Valentine,” Athrun responded. “I lost my mom there,” he said softly.

Kyle, meanwhile, divided his attention between keeping the Buster out of firing range and harassing the maddeningly elusive Blitz. He is good, he thought, firing his gun launcher at the latter machine. With the Blitz temporarily out of the fight, Kyle snapped his weapons together into a sniper rifle and aimed for the Buster.

Dearka wrenched his machine out of the way at the last minute. “What’s with this guy?” He responded in kind, sending a sniper blast at the Devastator.

Now the Duel and the Stormbird were almost in range. Both machines drew beam sabers, but, as with the Strike and the Aegis, neither was willing to attack, at least not yet. Two pairs of eyes, the same shade, widened in dismay.

Yzak spoke first. “Alex?” he said softly, still hoping that Athrun had somehow been mistaken. “Is that you?”

Alex winced, hearing that voice for the first time in over a year. “It’s me, Yzak.” He managed a smile. “Long time no see.”

Hothead that he was, Yzak was instantly furious. “Why are you helping the Earth Forces?” he demanded, boosting forward until he was just within melee range. “How can you even think of helping an Atlantic Federation warship? What about Andrea?”

The crimson beam sabers locked together, bathing both mobile suits in fire. “It’s not a matter of helping the Earth Forces, although I doubt, you’ll accept that,” Alex replied. “It is more a matter of ensuring that a bunch of innocent civilians make it out alive.” His voice hardened. “In any case, what happened to my sister has nothing to do with this. The G-weapon project is the brainchild of Admiral Lewis Halberton, and there is no way he was involved in the events you refer to. The Archangel’s captain promised me she’d look into the matter, and since she’s the aunt of one of my closest friends, I’m inclined to believe her.”

Frustrated, Yzak fired a burst from his Igelstellungs, knowing they were useless against a Phase-shift-equipped machine. “But the Atlantic Federation killed your parents!”

“Irrelevant. As I pointed out to Athrun, the Archangel’s CO is a senior-grade lieutenant. I highly doubt she was in any way involved in the blockade.” Alex clashed his saber against the Duel’s shield. “If you’re trying to get me to see the ‘error of my ways’, don’t bother. Under Zala’s leadership, ZAFT has been reduced to nothing more than the Coordinator equivalent to Blue Cosmos.”

“That’s crazy!” Yzak protested. “Blue Cosmos wants to wipe out all Coordinators!”

“And Patrick Zala wants to kill all the Naturals,” Alex countered. “Forgive me if I fail to see a difference.” He raised his eyebrows. “Tell me: do you want all the Naturals dead?”

Yzak started to reply hotly, then closed his mouth. He knew ZAFT had allies in Oceania and the African Community, but he had somehow never thought of them as Naturals, even though most of them were. “Of course not,” he said at last. “But Committee Chairman Zala doesn’t, either.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Alex sighed. “I tried to tell your mother, but, as you probably know, she said I was paranoid.”

The two machines danced through space, sabers clashing repeatedly. “She was right!” Yzak shot back. “They’re the ones trying to exterminate us!”

Closer to the Archangel, the Strike and the Aegis were still locked in a stalemate. “So, you’re trying to kill all the Naturals because of Junius Seven?” Kira asked incredulously. “I mean, I’m sorry about your mom, but is that what you want?”

“We’re not trying to kill all the Naturals!” Athrun protested.

“Oh, really?” Alex spared a moment of attention from his cousin. “You wouldn’t know that from the propaganda coming out of your father’s HQ.”

Athrun did not have an answer to that. The truth was that his father’s rhetoric had become increasingly extreme ever since the Bloody Valentine, much as the Alliance’s had. He did not care, though; he was determined to defeat the Earth Forces, both to free the PLANTs and to avenge his mother’s death.

Aside from a few bursts from their close-in weapon systems, none of the capital ships had fired on the mobile suits. The Vesalius was sitting quietly while Le Creuset watched the battle with interest, Gamow and Valkyrie were doing their best to pound each other into scrap, and the Archangel was waiting for the next blow to be struck.

They would not have long to wait…

A lone Moebius Zero mobile armor approached the Vesalius from behind. Mu La Flaga, having once shot down five GINNs in a single engagement, was more than confident he could pull off the attack. Even the fact that Le Creuset would detect him was not enough to shake him.

Not this time, Rau Le Creuset, he thought viciously. Just…about…now!

On the bridge of the Vesalius, Le Creuset sat bolt upright. Him! He leaned forward in his chair. “Boost engines! Lower bow, pitch angle sixty!”

Ades looked at him in confusion, and then a crewman spoke up. “Heat source approaching below! It’s a mobile armor!”

That was all he needed. “Activate CIWS! Boost engines, lower bow pitch angle sixty!”

Even as Ades gave the order, La Flaga let out a war cry and opened fire with both his linear cannon and wired gun barrels. The attack stitched across Vesalius’s hull like a sewing machine, setting off secondary explosions and short-circuiting half the ship’s computers. Then, for good measure, the Zero’s grappler lanced out, using the ZAFT ship’s hull to slingshot it back towards the Archangel.

Ades coughed on smoke. “Damage report!”

“Number five sodium wall damaged,” a tech replied. “We’ve got fires all over the place.” He looked up. “We can’t take the legged ship in our current condition, sir.”

The captain grimaced. “I see.” He looked at Le Creuset. “Orders, sir?”

Le Creuset clenched his fists. Mu, you bastard. You will pay for this. He sighed. “We’re pulling out. Send word to the Gamow and order our mobile suits to return.”

Alex immediately noticed the explosions. “Well, well, it appears that Lieutenant La Flaga’s idea worked like a charm.” he gave his cousin a sardonic look. “You’ve lost this round, Yzak. If Le Creuset has any sense at all, you’ll be getting a recall order any time now.”

The Duel’s pilot would have disputed that if he could, but the message appeared on his screen just as Alex finished speaking. Not to mention the fact that their fight had taken them perilously close to the Archangel, and Yzak was not so sure he could take that ship singlehanded, at least not yet.

He boosted away, joining Dearka and Nicol. “Another time, Alex.”

Athrun received the order at the same time. The Vesalius was hit? He spun around, hitting his thrusters. “I guess there’s nothing more to be said.” He gave the Strike one last look, tears in his eyes. “I hope you come to your senses, Kira.”

Kira watched him go, blinking back tears of his own. Athrun, I am sorry, but I have no choice. I cannot let my friends die. Then, he too turned back to his mothership. I hope we meet again, as friends.

“Let’s get back to the Valkyrie, Kyle,” Alex said. “We’ve won this round.”

“Roger that.”

“Athrun is back aboard, sir,” the comm officer reported. “Captain Zelman reports Yzak, Dearka, and Nicol have also returned safely.”

‘Very well.” Le Creuset studied the message in his hand. They had received orders to return to the PLANTs and report directly to the Supreme Council. No help for it. “Order the Gamow to remain on station for the moment. Sooner or later, the legged ship must leave Artemis. When it does…” He trailed off, then looked at Ades. “Remind me to request extra forces when we head out again, Ades. That black ship is an extremely dangerous opponent, and I would not be at all surprised if they have additional mobile suits.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alex and Kyle stepped onto Valkyrie’s bridge, exhausted. The fight with the Le Creuset team had been short, but fierce. Archangel had not taken much damage, but Valkyrie was not as fortunate. The Gamow had gotten in several nasty hits. Was it not for the redundancy Alex had insisted on including, the ship might well have been destroyed?

“We’re still operational, but it’ll take time to complete repairs,” Lia was telling her aunt.

Murrue nodded. “I understand. You’re still not coming inside?”

Alex took that one. “We can handle the repairs ourselves,” he said. A grimace briefly touched his angular face. “Besides, I don’t trust Eurasia any more than I do the Atlantic Federation. I’ve also heard a lot of things about Admiral Garcia, all of them bad.” He consulted Lia’s terminal. “On the plus side, Scorpion, Shinobi, and Inferno are almost ready for action. Two, three days till they’re fully operational, max.”

“I understand. Archangel out.”

Lia sat back in her chair. “Now we wait.”

“Yeah.” Alex gazed out the forward viewport; the Gamow -and Yzak- still lurked out there somewhere.

Cagalli approached him, concerned. “Are you all right?” she asked softly.

He was silent for a long moment. “I will be. It’s just that…” He shook his head. “Yzak’s always been more like a brother than a cousin to me. He is a hothead, but I can usually get through to him. This time, though…” Alex sighed. “He doesn’t believe me. Naturally, he brought up what happened to my parents and my sister, wanting to know why I would help an Atlantic Federation warship. I know he doesn’t want to fight me any more than I want to fight him, but still…” He shrugged. “It hurts,” he said simply.

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

He managed a smile, ignoring the surprised looks from the bridge crew, not noticing the way Kyle and Lia exchanged knowing grins. “Thanks.” He investigated space again, then shifted his gaze to Artemis. “I hope Murrue, and the others are all right. I have a bad feeling about this…”

Author’s note: A little faster than I anticipated. Next up is the Battle of Artemis. Not much else to say.