Chapter 9: Shooting Stars

Menelaos, bridge, 13 February, C.E. 71

On the surface, it appeared that the Earth Forces had the advantage. The Eighth Fleet outnumbered their ZAFT opponents, and the two mobile assault ships, Archangel, and Valkyrie, could bring considerable firepower to bear. Add in the six Gundams, and the coming battle looked bleak for the ZAFT forces.

Admiral Halberton knew otherwise. His goal was to get the Archangel to safety, which meant keeping it out of the fighting if possible. That would also remove one Gundam from the equation, as the Strike would not be launching; theoretically, it could survive reentry on its own, but no one (except for its pilot) was inclined to test that.

Eighth Fleet’s numerical advantage meant little. Except for the Moebius Zero, mobile armors were incapable of facing mobile suits on equal footing, and the Valkyrie’s Gundams were matched by the four machines ZAFT had stolen.

“All vessels assume a tight formation and prepare to intercept,” the admiral said crisply. “Archangel, do not move. Remain beside this ship.”

“Mobile armors, launch now,” Hoffman said. “Activate N-jammers. Prepare anti-beam depth charges.”

Halberton nodded at the image on his comm screen. “Valkyrie, operate at your discretion.”

Lia Ramius saluted. “You got it, Admiral.” Her image vanished.

Halberton sighed. “Well, we’re committed now. Let us just hope the Valkyrie’s firepower will be enough; we certainly can’t stop that many mobile suits on our own.”

The captain hid a grimace. He knew as well as his admiral did that the “black ship” was well armed, but he could not help wondering if even that would be enough to stop the weight of metal headed their way. It was not Alex Strassmeier’s relationship to the pilot of the stolen X102 Duel that worried him; it would not stop him from using a disabling attack and disarming the Duel would be just as effective as destroying it outright.

“That may be difficult, sir,” he said at last. “Leaving aside the fact that Strassmeier is related to one of the enemy pilots, I don’t know how much they can do.”

“Under the circumstances, every ounce of firepower helps,” Halberton pointed out. He gazed out the forward viewport, watching the ZAFT machines come. “You do have a point, though. Ultimately, it’s up to us.”

And may God be with us all, he added silently.

Archangel, bridge

Despite the situation, the scene on the Archangel’s bridge was almost glacially calm. Murrue Ramius sat upright in the command chair, her face set. Behind her, Natarle Badgiruel kept the temporarily undermanned CIC running like clockwork. Forward, Arnold Neumann handled the ship like the consummate professional he was.

“Activate Igelstellungs,” Badgiruel ordered. “Load Korinthos. Prepare to fire Gottfrieds and Lohengrin; remain on standby.”

Unexpectedly, bridge hatch opened, and a familiar quartet joined them. “We’re late, sorry about that,” Tolle Koenig said.

Murrue’s jaw dropped. Wha…? “Where did you people come from?” Not that she was complaining; not only were the youngsters valuable, but she had grown rather fond of them.

“They’ve officially enlisted,” Badgiruel said. The ensign smiled at Murrue’s expression. “Miss Allster as well, though we don’t have an assignment for her as yet.”

The rest of the bridge crew shared Murrue’s attitude. Chandra and Tonomura shared relieved glances as Sai and Mir took their seats behind them. Kuzzey grinned over his shoulder at Pal, while Tolle gave Neumann a thumbs-up from his station at the helm.

“Kira’s staying, too,” Tolle said, half-turning in his chair. “He joined up at the last minute.”

That was certainly welcome news. Murrue’s one worry about making it to Alaska had been what to do with the Strike. No Natural could pilot it, and the only allied Coordinators within reach were on another ship. Now that Kira was an official Earth Forces soldier, they could rest easier.

Though he will not find battling the Aegis any easier, she admitted to herself.

“We’ll have to bend the rules about fraternization,” Badgiruel murmured. She shrugged at her CO’s questioning look. “Koenig, Haw, Buskirk, Argyle, and Allster are ranked as Crewmen 2nd Class. However, as the pilot of the Strike -our only remaining mobile suit- Kira Yamato should, in my opinion, be granted the rank of ensign, and we can’t exactly tell him to stop spending time with his friends.” Not to mention his prospective relationship with Flay Allster.

Murrue nodded. “You have a point.” Her expression hardened just noticeably. “And the special dispensation regarding Athrun Zala should be continued.”

“Of course,” Badgiruel agreed. “It would be unrealistic to ask him to use lethal force in such a situation.”

“ZAFT mobile suits approaching!” Tonomura snapped. “GINNs, CGUEs…and the four stolen G-weapons.”

Murrue swore under her breath. Not that she was surprised. “Just what we need.” She looked over her shoulder at Kuzzey. “Crewman Buskirk, connect me to the Valkyrie.”

Lia’s face appeared on the monitor. “You called?”

“Admiral Halberton wants us to hold position for now,” Murrue said. “That means we can’t launch the Strike -Kira and his friends have officially enlisted- and the ZAFT forces are out of our weapons range. It looks like it’s up to you.”

Lia nodded soberly. “Our shipboard weapons can’t reach them, either, but Alex and the others are mounting up. They’ll do what they can.”

“Good luck.”

Archangel, pilots’ locker room

At that moment, Kira was preparing of his own. Pushing through the hatch with Flay at his heels, he yanked open a locker and pulled out his blue-and-white flight suit. At first, he merely looked at it, his feelings decidedly mixed. Not that he was having second thoughts, far from it. It was simply that he knew his enlistment meant he would eventually have to fight Athrun once again.

Calm down, he told himself sternly. Just because you are an official Earth Forces soldier does not mean they will suddenly tell you to kill Athrun.

“Kira.” Flay had come up behind him. “Are you all right?”

Kira turned to face her, still holding the flight suit. “Yeah. Well, sort of.” He shrugged. “It’s not that I’m having second thoughts…”

“But you don’t want to fight your friend again,” she said, nodding.

He looked away. “I know they won’t make me kill Athrun if it can be avoided, but…”

Flay touched Kira’s face, much to his surprise. “It’ll be all right.”

He blinked. “Well, anyway,” he said, trying (and failing) to cover his nervousness, “I can’t just run away. If I can make a difference, maybe this war will end that much sooner.” He smiled. “I’ll keep going until it ends, one way or another.”

Flay smiled back. “I’m behind you, all the way.” Then, to Kira’s astonishment, she leaned forward and kissed him.

He instinctively pulled her closer, feeling a surge of incredulous delight. He had dreamed of this moment since they had first met, but he had never thought it would happen.

She reluctantly drew back. “Be careful out there, Kira. I don’t want to lose you.”

Kira smiled. “You got it.”

open space

Out in space, things were going badly for the Earth Forces. The GINNs and CGUEs were bad enough; the four Gundams wrought havoc beyond anything either side had ever seen. Yzak, Dearka, Nicol, and Athrun proved the new machines’ worth, destroying mobile armors and capital ships with absurd ease.

The ZAFT forces were not, however, without effective opposition. The five Gundams from the Valkyrie were holding their own; they had already destroyed three GINNs. Though they were hard pressed, they did have one major advantage: since the goal was to see the Archangel land safely, ZAFT had to win, while the Earth Forces just had to keep from losing too quickly.

Thus far, neither side’s Gundams had come into direct contact; they were too far apart. Yzak, for one, was not complaining; leaving aside the fact that his target was the Strike, he had no desire to confront his cousin. Athrun, for his part, was glad that the Strike had not launched, both because he did not want to fight Kira, and because he knew Yzak could not possibly win.

Kira has something Yzak does not, Athrun mused, vaporizing a Moebius. He is untrained, and yet he is better than Yzak will ever be.

Yzak himself was unlikely to agree. The Duel’s pilot was supremely confident in his own skills. While that was a good thing in most cases, it could also lead to overconfidence. And with a pilot like Kira Yamato, such an attitude could be fatal. As far as Athrun could tell, the only reason Yzak was still alive was because his cousin Alex was a friend of Kira.

I just hope that is enough.

Vesalius, bridge

Rau Le Creuset watched the battle from his flagship. Thus far, it had gone just as he had hoped, despite the intervention of the Valkyrie’s Gundams. The Eighth Fleet’s mobile armors were being taken out in a fashion that suggested his own people were indulging in a little target practice. As for the Archangel…

“Admiral Halberton,” he murmured, clasping his hands. “He intends to land that ship on Earth at all costs. He has it stashed away in the rear and won’t let it take part in combat.”

Ades grimaced. “That makes it easier for us. It means they won’t be deploying the Strike.” He winced, seeing the Devastator score a direct hit on the Laconi team’s Nazca with its sniper rifle. The ZAFT ship’s starboard engine pod broke off, streaming fire. “The black ship’s machines are bad enough.”

“He knows it’s no longer possible for them to beat us with warships and mobile armors,” Le Creuset continued. “The man is quite the strategist.” He smiled. “After all, why wouldn’t he be? They say he had those things made.”

“All the more reason to take him out,” Ades grumbled.

A soft chuckle. “His belief does have merit. I will prove it to him during the next battle. It is the least I can do. As for the black ship, even if it remains with the legged ship, it will mean little. Alex Strassmeier is too much the PLANT patriot to go beyond helping that one vessel.”

open space

Le Creuset’s pilots were proving the merits of their new machines quite handily.

Ignoring the storm of cannon fire around him, Athrun transformed his Aegis and clamped onto a Nelson-class ship’s main gun turret. Triggering the Scylla, he backed off to avoid being caught in the massive backblast. Shifting back to mobile suit mode, he watched the Earth Forces ship explode.

Nearby, Nicol was making effective use of the Blitz’s Mirage Colloid stealth system. Appearing out of nowhere in front of a Drake-class ship’s bridge, he slammed the Gleipnir piercer lock right through the forward viewport. I am sorry, but I have no choice.

“Take this!” Dearka Elsman snarled. Snapping his weapons together, he fired into another Drake, the sniper blast going in one side and out the other. The enemy warship broke in half and exploded.

Yzak had a Nelson in his sights. Coming in from the side, he peppered it from bow to stern with laser blasts and railgun slugs.

Even the spectacular detonation did little to sooth his fury. “Where is he?” he snarled. “Just where could that Strike be hiding?”

Unlike his cousin, Alex knew exactly where the Strike was. He was not happy about it, though; Cagalli had informed him of Kira’s decision to stay on, and he believed that the Strike was necessary for this battle. Confident though he was in himself and his people, he did not think they could handle this kind of melee alone.

“Blast it,” he muttered, leveling his beam rifle at a GINN. The ZAFT machine exploded under his fire. “Why haven’t they launched the Strike?”

Cagalli’s face appeared on his comm screen. “The Admiral wants the Archangel to stay out of the fight.”

“With all due respect to Admiral Halberton,” Alex said tightly, “he’s making a mistake. We can only do so much out here, and, though it doesn’t have our cocoons, the Strike can go through reentry on its own.”

“I know, but…” Cagalli glanced off screen, and her face tightened. “Bad news, Alex. Coast has escaped.”

Alex swore under his breath. “How did that happen?” As if we did not have enough problems already.

“He was transferred to the Cassandros. The ship took a hit before they could get him secured, so he overpowered his guards and escaped in his GINN.”

He winced. The news was hardly unexpected, but that did not make it welcome. “Forget about him. A single GINN, even a High Maneuver type, isn’t going to mean much under the circumstances.”

“Roger that.”

Alex returned his attention to the battle, swearing in multiple languages all the while. Even with his five machines, the Eighth Fleet was slowly but steadily losing ground. He and his friends were long on skill, but short on experience. To date, they had only confronted small units, either a single team of GINNs or Le Creuset’s four Gundams. A fleet action was a new and decidedly unpleasant experience.

Then he got a good look at his cousin’s Duel, and his eyes shrank to icy crescents. The formerly sleek and streamlined mobile suit had received an upgrade. Alex’s trained eye picked out extra armor, a missile pod, and a railgun.

Le Creuset, you bastard. He keyed his comm. “All units listen carefully. X102 Duel has been upgraded with a modified assault shroud. That makes it at least twice as deadly.”

A series of acknowledgments came over the radio, and the Moebius units began giving the Duel a wide berth. Predictably, Yzak saw this as cowardice on their part, and charged off in pursuit. His fire destroyed six mobile armors before the others escaped.

Alex shook his head. He loved his cousin as a brother, but that did not make him unaware of his faults. Yzak had always been a hothead, and the injuries he had sustained in the last fight, whatever they were, had clearly intensified that.

“Watch out, Alex,” Cagalli suddenly called. “You’ve got a red CGUE heading your way.”

Only one person that could be, Alex thought sourly. “Roger.” He spun, bringing up his shield just in time to intercept a laser blast. “You again.”

“That’s right.” Daniel Bartlett stowed his beam rifle and drew his sword. “Blade to blade, Strassmeier. How about it?”

Alex did not so much as blink. “As you wish.” He did not, however, intend to limit himself to a saber. His view of war, as opposed to the martial arts tournaments he and Bartlett had competed in for so long, was simple: In battle, there is no such thing as cheating.

Bartlett, of course, knew that. Snarling wordlessly, he brought his giant blade down, then across. He knew perfectly well that the attack would not actually damage the Stormbird; his intention was to get in enough solid hits to wear down the Phase-shift.

Alex had no intention of allowing that. His beam saber came around, parrying the strike and sliding toward the CGUE’s head. Bartlett cross blocked, using the impact to drive his machine back and give himself some breathing room.

“Try this, Strassmeier!” Briefly releasing the sword, the CGUE’s right hand darted to its hip and came back up with a beam knife. Bartlett hurled it straight forward, hoping to catch the Stormbird in the cockpit.

Alex snorted. “I think not.” Abandoning any pretense of swordplay, he snatched out his rifle and fired, vaporizing the knife. Before Bartlett could react, he drew a saber again and sliced through the CGUE’s sword at the hilt.

Bartlett cursed. “I’ve had it with you!” Leveling his own rifle, he squeezed the trigger…only to see the weapon disappear in a flash of green light. “What the?”

MBF-X304 Scorpion slashed in from the side, the Stinger beam cannon blazing. “Not so fast, Bartlett!” Brian Kilgore shouted. Shifting to mobile suit mode, he brought his rifle to bear and fired once. The beam struck with almost inhuman precision, striking the CGUE’s monoeye sensor dead on.

The ZAFT commander, realizing he was beaten, spun around, and hit his verniers. “Another time, Strassmeier!”

Alex slumped back in his seat. I have a little breathing space. He turned his head, looking toward the Archangel. I hope they are doing okay.

Archangel, bridge

Murrue stared at the main screen, her lips compressed in a grim line. The Eighth Fleet had already lost four ships to the stolen Gundams, and it was only getting worse. Even with Alex and his friends out there, it was only a matter of time before the ZAFT machines got through to the Archangel.

She took some comfort in the fact that ZAFT was not getting off lightly, either. Her crew had raised a brief but heartfelt cheer when Kyle Perry disabled the Laconi team’s Nazca, and Alex and Brian’s defeat of Daniel Bartlett had not gone unnoticed.

Still, they were losing, and Murrue was not the only one to notice it. “Why am I still on standby?” Mu La Flaga demanded from the hangar. “Those four machines are at it again! The Eighth Fleet is in big trouble; even with Alex and his friends out there…” He hissed in frustration. “Maybe it won’t make much difference, but with the Strike and my Zero out there-“

“We haven’t received authorization to launch,” Murrue said. “Please remain on standby.”

“But that’s-“

Murrue looked up at Kuzzey. “Connect me to the Menelaos,”

Admiral Halberton’s face appeared on the screen. “What do you want?”

“We need to make our descent at once,” Murrue said. “Alex and his friends are doing their best, but it won’t be enough. If we do not begin our descent soon, we won’t be able to.”

“Are you running away to save yourselves?” Captain Hoffman said incredulously.

Murrue ignored him, addressing the Admiral. “This ship is the enemy’s target. We must move away from you, or the Eighth Fleet may well be destroyed entirely. Alaska is out of the question, but we can make it to Earth Forces territory.”

Halberton was silent for a seemingly endless moment. At last, he smiled wryly. “Murrue Ramius, you haven’t changed. You’re still as reckless as ever.”

Murrue smiled back. “An officer learns from her superiors, sir.”

“Very well.” Halberton glanced at something offscreen. “The Valkyrie is beginning its descent as well, along with the Inferno and the Shinobi; your niece apparently agrees with your assessment of the situation. We’ll make sure not one ZAFT vessel gets past us.”

open space

Yzak was getting progressively more frustrated. He had destroyed so many mobile armors that he had lost track, along with three capital ships, and still there was no sign of the Strike. Combined with the lingering pain in his face, it was enough to drive him mad.

A beam-equipped Moebius charged him from his left. Snarling incoherently, Yzak spun, took three hits on his shield, and fired a single railgun shot. The Moebius broke in half, then exploded.

He was far from mollified. “Come out and show yourself, Strike. Or else…or else this pain I feel will never go away!”

“Save your breath, Yzak,” a voice said in his ear. “Kira hasn’t even launched.”

Yzak cursed. “Alex, what in blazes are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Exactly what I said. Kira hasn’t launched, and odds are he won’t at all.” Almost casually, the Stormbird’s beam rifle came up and blew a GINN in half. “In any case, your mission is likely to fail.”

“How’s that?” the Duel’s pilot shot back. “We’re winning, and you know it!”

“That’s true,” Alex conceded. “But you haven’t won yet and winning the battle doesn’t mean accomplishing your mission. You need to win; all we need to do is keep from losing long enough for the Archangel to make it to Earth.”

Yzak snarled viciously. “We’ll see about that!” Knowing that the Stormbird was too far away to interfere, he swung the Duel around and hit his verniers, aiming for the heart of the Earth Forces formation…and the Archangel.

He was not alone. Dearka had also spotted the legged ship’s movements and was attempting to intercept. It was not easy; the Buster was significantly slower than the Duel, but he did not have much in his way. One Nelson-class ship tried to hit him with its main cannons; Dearka responded by combining his weapons in shotgun mode and destroying the Earth Forces ship.

Archangel, bridge/hangar

Despite the battle raging around them, the Archangel’s bridge crew kept calm. In a reentry maneuver like the one they were about to perform; a single misstep could be fatal.

“Descent sequence, reconfirm,” Murrue said crisply. “Test the ablative gel dischargers.”

Neumann complied, pressing several buttons on his console. On the underside of the hull, several circular devices extended and discharged a gelatinous substance. This ablative gel would protect the Archangel from the intense heat of reentry, thus allowing the ship and those aboard to survive.

In the hangar, Mu La Flaga felt the ship’s change in attitude. He knew immediately what it meant. “Descending? In the situation we’re in?” He was incredulous; even with their slightly unhinged (in his opinion) allies, it was still uncertain whether they would escape the ZAFT forces.

Kojiro Murdoch shrugged. “What good’s it going to do to yell at me?” He shook his head wryly. “I guess it’s better than doing nothing.”

“Even if we lose the ZAFT ships and GINNs, there’s still those four machines,” a new voice said. “I’ll stand by in the Strike,” Kira went on, smiling. “Still at Level One Battlestations, right?” He drifted to his silent machine.

Mu gazed after him, an almost paternal look on his face. “He sure has changed in over the past three weeks. Did not want to pilot that thing but did it anyway to protect his friends. Now he cheerfully suits up and waits for orders.”

“Yeah, well, I’m glad he’s staying on,” Murdoch said. “Who cares if he’s a Coordinator; I say he’s just a good kid.”

“You got that right,” Mu agreed. “Still, so young and already a veteran…” He shook his head. “It’s gonna make his life tough. Having to fight someone important to him probably doesn’t help, either.”

The mechanic raised his eyebrows. “Huh?”

Mu sighed. “Kira’s best friend is one of the guys trying to shoot us down. Patrick Zala’s son, no less.”

Murdoch winced. “Ouch. I take it the kid flies one of the stolen G-weapons?”

The pilot nodded. “The Aegis. The Captain’s been letting him use disabling attacks if he can, and if she has any sense, she will not change it. Kira’s got enough problems without having to kill his best friend.”

Murdoch agreed. He had wondered what was wrong with Kira after the battle outside Artemis; learning that the kid’s best friend was in one of the enemy mobile suits explained a great deal. He himself had nothing against Coordinators, and he had come to like Kira during the youngster’s time aboard.

That reminded him of something else. “Say, you think that girl had something to do with it.”

Mu glanced up. “Hm?”

“I heard that Kira’s got a thing for that Allster girl,” Murdoch explained. “The only reason he hasn’t done anything is because she was engaged to somebody else.”

Mu snorted. ” ‘Was’ being the operative word; it was Sai Argyle, and they had a pretty explosive breakup yesterday.” He pulled on his helmet. “We may be descending, but I wouldn’t rule out a launch yet.”

Vesalius, bridge

The Archangel’s maneuvers did not go unnoticed.

Le Creuset’s eyes narrowed behind his mask. “The legged ship’s now pulling away?” He clenched a fist. “Halberton, that bastard. Is he using the Eighth Fleet as a shield to allow that ship to get to Earth?”

Captain Ades glanced at him. “Hm?”

“Close in on them!” the Commander ordered. “It’s imperative we destroy it before it makes its descent.”

“Right.” Ades turned to the helmsman. “Boost engines; adjust course twenty degrees to port.” Then, to the man at Tactical. “Prepare main cannon; target the legged ship.” He next addressed the comm officer. “Order the G-weapons to press their attack. I want the black ship’s machines out of the way.”

“Yes, sir!”

open space

It seemed that the Eighth Fleet was finally starting to run out of mobile armors. The few that remained hurled themselves at the stolen Gundams. Such a move was both foolish and futile, as both sides knew; the Aegis simply drew back and blasted one, and another fell to the Blitz.

Having finished his opponent with minimal effort, Nicol looked for the main target. It was not hard to find. “Look at the Archangel.”

Athrun blinked. “It’s heading for Earth?”

“I won’t let that happen,” Dearka growled.

You will not be able to do anything about it, Brian thought; he had been listening in. Shifting the Scorpion to mobile armor mode, he flashed toward the Buster at high speed, his beam cannon spitting green energy. None of the shots connected, but they were enough to make the ZAFT pilot think of something besides the Archangel.

Alex was not even paying attention to the Gundams. He was focused on one of the Laurasia-class ships, the Gamow. It was closing much more quickly than any of the other ships, moving too fast for its comrades to provide support.

Zelman’s being an idiot. He cannot win, yet he is making what he must know is a suicide run. He grimaced. The Gamow was no match for either the Menelaos or the Archangel on a one-to-one basis, but Zelman did not appear to care.

Nor did at least two of the Gundam pilots. Having shaken off the Scorpion, Dearka blew past two of the remaining Earth Forces ships, accompanied by Yzak in the Duel. Athrun and Nicol were not far behind, though Nicol first had to deal with a couple of missiles a Drake had sent his way. Two laser blasts, and he was through.

Archangel, hangar/bridge

Kira sat tensely in his cockpit. Much as he hated battle, he had come to agree with Mu that the waiting was almost always much worse. At least once he was out there, he had more control over his own fate. In the hangar, all he could do was wait, and hope that the ship was not hit before he could launch.

He glanced at his instrument panel. The flower the little girl had given him rested next to his radar scope, but he gave it little thought. Kira was mainly concerned with what the bridge had relayed to him, and it was not good. Despite the efforts of Alex and his friends, the Le Creuset team was steadily pushing the Eighth Fleet back.

Then Chandra came on and made things worse. “The Duel and the Buster have broken through the forward lines!”

Tonomura spoke up mere seconds later. “The Menelaos is engaged in combat!”

Kira cursed under his breath. “Lieutenant La Flaga, we have to do something!”

“Yeah, I know.” Mu punched up his link to the bridge. “Captain!” Murrue looked down at him. “Let us fight to the last second! How much time’s left?”

Murrue stared at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. You want us to-“

“According to the catalogue specs,” Kira interrupted, “the Strike is able to go through reentry on its own.” When the Captain hesitated, his expression hardened. “If this keeps up, the Menelaos will be in great danger. Come on, Captain!”

If Murrue was hesitant, Natarle Badgiruel was anything but. “Very well,” she said, coming up behind Mir. “Launch but return before we begin the descent sequence. The Strike is theoretically capable of reentry, but it’s never been tested, and you don’t have a reentry cocoon like Strassmeier’s machines.”

Kira nodded. “Understood.”

“One more thing.” Badgiruel gave him a look that managed to mix military formality with sympathy. “The special dispensation regarding Athrun Zala remains in effect. So long as it does not endanger the ship, you may refrain from using lethal force against him.”

The Coordinator nodded again. “Thank you.”

Murrue turned to glare at her XO. “Ensign Badgiruel!”

Badgiruel did not give a millimeter. “If this ship is destroyed, then the sacrifices of the Eighth Fleet will have been in vain!”

Unaware of the small drama on the bridge, Kira and Mu moved to the catapults. While they were both nervous, they were also glad to be doing something. Maybe a mobile armor and one more mobile suit would not turn the tide of battle, but it might well buy them enough time.

Mu shook his head. “Even I’ve never made a sortie in this kind of situation.”

Kira braced himself, feeling the heavy clunk of the Aile Striker pack connecting to his machine. “Kira Yamato, launching!” The catapult spat him into space, followed closely by the Zero.

Open space

Kira had a minor problem almost as soon as he launched. The Strike seemed sluggish, as if something were holding it back.

“Tch, must be gravity pulling me down,” he muttered. A few minor adjustments, and he was on his way.

Soon enough, he had company. “There you are, Strike,” Yzak said softly. “You’ve finally showed.” He stowed his rifle and drew a saber. “This is for the nasty wound.”

Kira saw him coming. “The Duel! Upgraded!”

“Now take this!” Yzak shouted, his railgun spitting fire. His saber slammed into the Strike’s shield; Kira dodged back, firing his rifle.

Alex watched the battle, admiring Kira’s prowess. He was not worried about either combatant; Kira had no intention of using lethal force, and Yzak, though he did not know it, could not win. Kira Yamato was far out of his league.

“Aren’t you going to help Kira?” Cagalli asked. “Your cousin looks like he’s going nuts.”

Alex shook his head. “Kira doesn’t need my help; there’s no way Yzak can win at this point.”

“Because Kira’s the Ultimate Coordinator?” she said, skepticism in her voice; despite Kira’s resemblance to Canard Pars, Cagalli still was not sure of his connection.

“Partly,” Alex conceded. “But mostly because of what happened in the last battle. Kira has the SEED, you see.”

Cagalli frowned. “The SEED?” she repeated.

“Superior Evolutionary Element Destined factor,” Alex explained. “Kira’s a Berserker; not in the sense of uncontrolled rage, but rather someone who can go beyond his normal abilities. The results are often spectacular.”

“No kidding. Does your cousin know about it?”

Alex considered that, then shook his head again. “Unlikely. And even if he did, he would not care. He’s too angry.”

If anything, Alex was understating the situation. Completely berserk, Yzak chased after the Strike, alternately firing his railgun and, when he got in close, slashing with his beam saber. Kira, by contrast, was content to lead him on, occasionally snapping off a laser shot.

Dearka, meanwhile, had an annoyance of his own to take care of, in the form of Mu La Flaga’s Moebius Zero. While the Zero’s weapons could not actually hurt the Buster, the mobile armor was a distraction he could really have done without.

He grinned as a linear cannon blast slammed into his machine’s shoulder. “Yeah, this is definitely becoming dangerous.”

Mu glared at the maddening machine. “You’re all beginning to bug me!”

Vesalius, bridge

A radar operator stared at his display in astonishment. What are they up to?

He half-turned in his chair. “Captain Ades, the Gamow is breaking formation!”

“I see it,” Ades said grimly. He gestured to the comm officer. “Get me Zelman.” When the other captain appeared on the screen, Ades leaned forward in his chair. “Gamow, you’re out too far. Just what are you doing, Zelman?” he demanded.

“I can’t pull back now that I’ve managed to corner them,” Zelman said tightly. “Halberton was the one who started all this, and so we’ll see the end of him and the legged ship!” His image winked out.

Le Creuset shook his head regretfully. “He’ll never make it. That copy of the Buster is almost directly in the Gamow’s path, and I highly doubt that one of Strassmeier’s comrades would pass up such an obvious target.”

Ades sighed. “I’m afraid I have to agree, sir.”

They watched in silence as the Gamow made its final, futile run.

open space

Mu spotted the ZAFT ship making its run on the Menelaos. “I don’t think so!” His wired gun barrels spiraled out, spitting high velocity cannon rounds. He scored numerous hits, at least two on the Gamow’s engines, but it was not enough.

However, someone else did have sufficient firepower. Kyle Perry had also spotted the Gamow, and unlike Mu, he had the means to stop them. Turning to face the ZAFT ship directly, he snapped his weapons together in sniper mode, he took careful aim. A heartbeat later, he took a deep breath, let half of it out, and squeezed the trigger.

The bright yellow beam pierced the Gamow in the center of the bow, penetrating the ship’s full length. Judging by the sudden flare of light, Kyle’s shot had struck the enemy’s reactor, resulting in an uncontrollable release of energy.

When the light faded, the Gamow was gone.

Nicol stared in horror. “Captain Zelman!” He started to pursue the Devastator, but Kyle was in the upper atmosphere, reentry cocoon activated.

So much for that. Alex touched a control on his board, priming his own cocoon. “Brian, begin your descent,” he said, keeping his attention on the duel between Kira and Yzak. “I’ll be along shortly.”

“Roger that,” Brian acknowledged. He transformed his machine first; mobile armor mode was better suited for atmospheric reentry.

Alex spared him a glance, no more. He will be fine.

Neither Kira nor Yzak noticed. Despite -or perhaps because of- Yzak’s fury, Kira was pushing the pace. While the Duel slashed wildly with its saber, occasionally adding a railgun shot, the Strike held back, taking the attacks on its shield and mixing laser blasts with bursts from its CIWS.

Then Kira, tiring of the game, drove forward, body slamming the Duel and following up with a kick to the head.

“Arrgh!” Yzak glared at the Strike. “You bastard!” His beam rifle snapped into position, but his view was suddenly obstructed. “What is this?”

Kira knew exactly what it was: after the destruction of the Gamow, Admiral Halberton had ordered the launch of a shuttle carrying the refugees Kira had rescued at Heliopolis. “Oh, no, the shuttle from the Menelaos!”

“How dare you get in my way!” Yzak snarled, shifting his aim to the shuttle, which had by then descended below them.

Kira immediately tried to intercept. “Don’t do it! They’re only civilians!”

“You soldier wanna be cowards and run away, do ya!” Yzak fired once, his aim was true…but it never connected. A blue-and-white mobile suit swooped in, taking the beam on its shield. “What the?”

MBF-X108 Stormbird hovered before him. “You seem out of sorts, Yzak,” Alex said mildly.

“Alex, get out of my way!” Yzak shouted.

“I think not.” With that, Alex suddenly lunged forward. A beam saber flashed out, bisecting the Duel’s rifle. “I suggest you back off. This battle is over.”

Yzak ground his teeth furiously, but he knew his cousin was right. “I won’t forget this,” he growled. He turned away and flew toward the Buster, which was also on its way down.

And that is that. Alex sighed, remembering one more thing he had to do, and turned to face the Menelaos. “Admiral Halberton, this is Strassmeier.”

The Earth Forces admiral’s face appeared on his screen. “Excellent timing. I was just about to call you. You have our thanks, Commander.”

Alex shrugged. “I did what I had to do.” He hesitated. “Admiral, there’s something I have to ask you.”

“Go ahead.”

He sighed. “My sister Andrea was abducted by the Atlantic Federation three years ago, just after the Mandelbrot Incident. Do you know anything about it?”

Halberton reluctantly shook his head. “I’m sorry. I heard about the incident, but I’m afraid I don’t know any details.”

Alex swallowed. “I understand. Thanks anyway.” Turning away, he activated his cocoon and spread the Stormbird’s wings.

“I hope you find her,” Halberton said softly.

Alex looked at the Menelaos one last time. “Thank you.” Now here is hoping the Strike is as durable as the specs say.

Laurasia-class frigate Galvani, crew quarters

A brown-haired young woman in the red uniform of an elite ZAFT pilot studied her mirror image carefully. She was not exactly vain, but she did prefer to keep up appearances. It had been a dream come true when she was awarded the red uniform at her Academy graduation, and she refused to dishonor it in any way, however small.

“Hey, Shiho!”

Shiho Hahnenfuss turned, recognizing the voice instantly. “Troy. What’s up?”

Troy Cadwallader grinned. “Just got a message from the Vesalius. The Earth Forces’ Eighth Fleet was just wiped out.”

Shiho’s eyes widened. “Completely?”

“The flagship got away, but not much else did.” Troy’s expression soured briefly. “The legged ship escaped, unfortunately.” He shook himself. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll go down, sooner or later.”

Troy was in an unusual position. Despite being a Natural, he too wore the red uniform. Some of the more hardcore members of ZAFT resented his position, claiming it was only because of his father. Shiho was not among them; though it was true that Troy’s father was the prime minister of Oceania, he had earned the red uniform the hard way.

In April of the previous year, ZAFT had captured a Moebius Zero mobile armor. Since it was the only type that could stand against mobile suits on even terms, some in ZAFT had thought it might be useful. Unfortunately, there were few even among Coordinators who could handle the wired gun barrels.

Then Troy Cadwallader had joined ZAFT. After some testing, it became clear that his spacial awareness rivaled that of Mu La Flaga or Rau Le Creuset, so he was assigned to pilot the captured Zero. He soon proved the wisdom of that decision, destroying fifteen mobile armors and a Drake-class warship in less than three minutes in his first battle.

While Shiho found that impressive, it was not the main factor in her thinking. Genetics aside, Troy was probably her best friend in the universe. It was more a brother-sister relationship than anything else; Troy was engaged to a girl from his hometown of Sydney, and Shiho’s interest in a certain member of the Le Creuset team was well-known.

“What about the black ship?” Shiho asked.

Her friend shrugged. “They got away, too; no surprise.” He shook his head. “Get this, mate: Representative Joule’s nephew is on that ship.”

Shiho straightened in astonishment. Alex Strassmeier’s hatred for Patrick Zala was hardly a secret, but she had never expected this.

“Can’t quite figure out his motives,” Troy went on, “but you can bet there’s something under the surface.”

Shiho did not answer right away. “I think you’re right,” she said at last. “I met Strassmeier once, and I can’t see him fighting alongside the Earth Forces without a good reason.” Truth be told, she was not Committee Chairman Zala’s biggest fan, either, but helping an Earth Forces ship did seem a little extreme.

“Yeah,” Troy said, running a hand through his blond hair. “Maybe. Well, see you.”

Shiho watched him go. Somehow, though she was not sure exactly how, she knew they would find out what was going on.

Chapter 8: No Turning Back

Eighth Fleet Rendezvous Point, Near-Earth Orbit, 12 February, C.E. 71

The Earth Alliance Forces mobile assault ship Archangel slid gracefully into the Eighth Fleet formation. More than a dozen warships, Drake- and Nelson-class, commanded by Admiral Lewis Halberton from his flagship, the mighty Agamemnon-class battleship Menelaos. Among such a fleet, the Archangel looked both out of place and somehow right, its sleek lines both contrasting with and completing the Earth Forces formation.

Next to the Archangel was its not-quite sister ship, the midnight-black Valkyrie. Though its presence made some of the Eighth Fleet’s people nervous, Admiral Halberton, on learning that the mysterious ship’s captain was the niece of Archangel captain Murrue Ramius (who happened to be a protege of his), had ordered that it be allowed within the perimeter.

Even so, the vessel’s positively ominous presence was such that more than one Earth Forces soldier was incredibly grateful on hearing that it would not be remaining with them.

Archangel, bridge

“Deceleration proceeding normally,” Chief Petty Officer Arnold Neumann reported. “Matching velocity with the Menelaos.” He looked over his shoulder. “Is it a good idea to cruise this close to the flagship?”

Murrue smiled. “Admiral Halberton probably wants to see us with his own eyes. As you probably know, he was one of the biggest supporters of the program that produced both this ship and the G-weapons.” She shifted her gaze to the comm screen. “Which reminds me, the Admiral is planning to pay us a visit. Lia, if it’s all right, I’d like you and Alex to be present.”

Lia glanced over her shoulder at the hawk-faced Coordinator, got a nod from him, then turned back to her aunt. “We’ll be there.”

“Very well.” Murrue rose from her command chair and moved for the elevator hatch, accompanied by Natarle Badgiruel. “Please hold the fort while we’re gone.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Neumann acknowledged.

Badgiruel braced herself as the hatch slid shut. She knew her commanding officer would dislike what she was about to say, but she felt she had no choice. As far as Badgiruel was concerned, nothing was more important at this point than the Strike; specifically, the Strike’s current form. And since they knew of only one person capable of handling it…

“Captain, do you have any plans for the Strike?” she said at last.

Murrue frowned. “What plans?”

Badgiruel’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Everyone on this ship knows that the only reason we were able to make it this far was because of the Strike’s incredible capabilities, and because he was the one piloting it. Are you planning to just let him go?”

Murrue sighed. She knew exactly where her subordinate was headed, and she did not like it one bit. “I understand what you’re saying, Natarle. But Kira Yamato is not a member of the military.”

“His abilities are invaluable to us,” Badgiruel persisted. “We cannot afford to lose them.”

The captain sighed again. “Regardless, we can’t force him to volunteer. And if you are suggesting what I think you are suggesting,” she added, “do not. We can’t afford a repeat of what happened with Lacus Clyne.”


“And let me remind you of what he’s been going through,” Murrue said sharply. “In order to do what he believed was right, Kira had to face his best friend in mortal combat. Neither of us can even begin to understand how much that must hurt.” She turned down a side passage, leaving Badgiruel behind.

The ensign stood there for several moments. In her opinion, the benefits of keeping Kira onboard outweighed any costs. The Strike was more powerful than anything ZAFT had short of the four stolen Gundams, and since Kira Yamato was the only person capable of piloting it, they had no choice but to retain his services. As for Athrun Zala, Badgiruel had no problem with continuing the special dispensation; it was a bit much to ask Kira to strike down his best friend, and it would also be to their advantage if they recovered the Aegis intact.

Shaking her head, Badgiruel followed her commander.

Gamow, infirmary

The physical pain had faded, but the emotional pain was as fierce as ever. Not sorrow, but a deep, burning humiliation. Being beaten by an untrained rookie pilot was more than he could bear, and the knowledge that he had been warned about it only made things worse.

You will pay for this, Yamato, Yzak thought. Next time we meet, you are going down!

Half his face was bandaged; the gash extended diagonally from the bridge of his nose to beneath his right eye. He had received a hefty dose of anesthetic, but it was not enough to soothe his anger. As far as Yzak was concerned, Kira Yamato was no longer protected by his longstanding friendship with Athrun Zala. The next battle would be the final one.

If he survives, fine. But there is no way he is beating me again!

His cousin was another matter entirely. Even now, Yzak did not want to kill him, but he did not intend to let Alex get in the way again, either. If they met in battle again, the only part of the Stormbird that would be left intact would be the cockpit itself; the rest would be scrap.

I cannot kill him. Andrea would never forgive me, and I am sure she is still alive. I will bring Alex to his senses, and then we will go find her.

Yzak closed his eyes. He had no doubt that battle would once again be joined soon, and he intended to be ready. His Duel Gundam had been upgraded with a modified Assault Shroud. This equipment package, originally developed for GINNs and CGUEs, gave his machine extra armor, as well as more firepower, in the form of a missile pod and a railgun.

For now, though, he needed to rest. Even if he was not healed when they struck, he was going out there.

Valkyrie, cafeteria

Kyle Perry, Hiro Nakamura, Brian Kilgore, and Chris Madsen sat together near a viewscreen. The image before them was dominated by the two largest ships, the Menelaos and the Archangel. A few of the smaller Drake- and Nelson-class ships were visible in the background, but the two largest warships had the young pilots mesmerized.

“Gotta say, the Earth Forces build pretty ships,” Brian commented. “Sure, the Archangel was built by Morgenroete, but to the Alliance’s specs.”

Predictably, Chris had other things on his mind. “First a brand-new warship, and now the entire Eighth Fleet?” he groaned. “I mean, Lia’s aunt is one thing, but an Alliance flag officer? Do we really want to deal with this bunch?”

Kyle heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Chris, for once in your life, think with your head instead of your prejudices, okay? Admiral Lewis Halberton is one of the few -probably the only- flag officers in the Alliance that we can trust.”

“Besides, Alex thinks Halberton might give him another lead about his sister,” Hiro said quietly. He looked at Kyle. “You think they’ll find out anything?”

The nondescript pilot shrugged. “That’s more your department than mine. To be honest, I do not see Halberton knowing anything useful; there is no way he was involved in the kidnapping, and it’s highly unlikely that the incident was publicized even within the military.”

“If it had been, Ezalia Joule would’ve found out a long time ago,” Brian opined. “She was even madder than Alex after Mandelbrot; Alex’s mom was her sister, after all.”

“Mad doesn’t begin to describe it,” Kyle said. “She made a major speech just after it happened. If looks could kill, then entire Atlantic Federation government would have been struck dead right through the camera.”

Everyone winced at that. Though it was not commonly known, Ezalia Joule had started out as a moderate. She did not hate Naturals per se -she routinely met with high officials from Oceania- but the Mandelbrot Incident had driven her firmly into Zala’s camp in other respects.

Which, given that she did not believe her nephew’s warnings, made for some very strained relationships.

“I still don’t get it,” Chris said. “We all know Zala’s a homicidal maniac; why can’t Alex’s aunt realize it?”

Kyle sighed. “It’s not that simple, Chris. Patrick Zala is a consummate politician; he did not get to be chairman of the National Defense Committee by doing stupid things. He knows as well as we do that if he publicly called for the extermination of the Naturals, his own people would revolt.”

That much was certainly true. Much as Zala hated to admit it, ZAFT could not win without allies on Earth, which meant they had no choice but to deal with Naturals. Without the Naturals of Oceania, ZAFT would not have the vital Carpenteria Base, and their allies in the African Community had provided a major staging area for the operation that took Gibraltar away from the Eurasians.

“None of that matters right now,” Kyle said. “The Archangel is bound for JOSH-A in Alaska, Kira and his friends are going home, and we’re heading for Orb. Once we have settled down, then we can figure out what to do about Zala.”

Archangel, hangar

Even as they made rendezvous with the Fleet, the mechanics worked at a feverish pace. The Strike was undamaged, but Mu La Flaga’s Moebius Zero was still undergoing repairs. Fortunately, they had a spare gun barrel to replace the one Dearka’s missiles had destroyed. There were also some computer problems due to a short circuit; to deal with that, Mu had enlisted the aid of master programmer Kira Yamato.

“Would someone please tell me why we’re in such a hurry?” Kira asked, poking his head through the Zero’s hatch, and scaring Mu, who had almost dozed off, out of his wits. “We’ve met up with the Eighth Fleet, so why…?”

Mu took a moment to slow his heart. “I don’t feel safe when it’s still damaged.”

“The new pilots from the Fleet are all wet behind the ears,” Murdoch put in. “If something happens, we’ll need the Lieutenant here to sortie.”

Kira digested that. “I guess, but what about the Strike?” he went on, nodding at the silent mobile suit. “Is it really okay to leave it as is?”

Mu followed the Coordinator’s gaze, an arrested look on his face. “Never thought about that,” he said slowly. “We can’t return it to its original state, since that would reduce its performance.”

“Then we’ll just have to hope we can find someone who can pilot it as is,” a feminine voice said.

Mu and Kira looked up to see Murrue Ramius drifting toward them. “To what do we owe this honor?” the lieutenant asked, eyebrows raised.

“I just wanted to have a little talk with Kira,” Murrue said.

Kira frowned. “A talk? About what?”

Murrue smiled at his expression. “Oh, don’t give me that suspicious look of yours.” She chuckled ruefully. “Although I can’t say I blame you.”

A few minutes later, the two stood on a catwalk in front of the Strike.

“The past three weeks have been rather chaotic,” Murrue said. “I haven’t really had a chance to talk to you before now.” She sighed. “It must have been hard for you, and I admit I didn’t make things any easier. To be honest, I’d do it again if the same situation arose.”

Kira managed a smile. “I understand; and you did make it a little easier, when you let me use disabling attacks on the Aegis.”

“I was being realistic,” Murrue replied. “I couldn’t ask you to kill your best friend, after all.”

“I’m surprised Ensign Badgiruel didn’t protest.”

She shrugged. “Even she will admit that asking someone to kill his best friend is going a bit too far. Besides, recovering the Aegis intact would be a big help. Admittedly, she did not like that your friend is the son of Patrick Zala, but his reaction to Le Creuset’s abortive sneak attack changed her mind.”

Kira was silent for a long moment. “When I confronted Athrun outside Artemis,” he said at last, “he kept asking me why I was with the Earth Forces. He wanted to know why I was siding with the Naturals.” He shook his head. “I told him I was just protecting my friends, that I didn’t care what someone’s genes looked like.”

“To be honest, I can’t blame him for thinking we were using you,” Murrue said. “After what happened to his mother, I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t ready to think the worst of the Earth Forces.” She sighed, then turned to face him. “In any case, though the others might not say it, we’re all very grateful for what you’ve done.” She bowed.

Kira floundered for a moment, flustered. “Ah, thanks. I’m glad I could help.”

“I imagine things will be chaotic even on Earth,” Murrue said, straightening. She held out her hand. “Good luck, Kira. I hope we meet again someday.”

He could not help smiling back; despite the circumstances of their first meeting, he genuinely liked the Archangel’s captain. “So, do I,” he said, gripping her hand firmly.


“I wonder what Admiral Halberton wants,” Lia commented. She and Alex had arrived on the Archangel ahead of schedule. “He’s Aunt Murrue’s mentor, sure, but I don’t see that being the only reason for this visit.”

Alex shrugged. “He’s probably curious. Remember, the Strike was piloted by a Coordinator; not many of our kind cooperate with the Earth Forces under any circumstances. I’m aware that he doesn’t have any personal animosity towards Coordinators, but the fact remains that most of us are in the PLANTs these days, and that usually means ZAFT.”

Like you almost were, Lia thought, but did not say it aloud. She knew about her friend’s deep frustration at being unable to help defend his homeland.

“If it weren’t for the move to Heliopolis, Kira might have joined ZAFT himself,” she said instead. “I know he doesn’t like to fight, but his best friend is a member of their forces.”

Alex nodded slowly. “I’m inclined to agree. He is certainly no fan of the Earth Forces; if his classmates had not gotten involved, he might well have given the Strike to Rau Le Creuset just to make him go away. Or maybe-” He broke off, frowning at something ahead.

Lia blinked, confused, and then her own eyes narrowed as she picked up what Alex’s far keener hearing had already noticed. Increasingly loud shouts could be heard from the volunteers’ quarters. Two voices, one male, one female. The female voice was instantly identifiable as Flay Allster; the male was… Sai Argyle, Lia thought grimly. If this is what I think it is…

Indeed, it was. “WE ARE THROUGH!” Flay shouted, and stormed out, almost colliding with the two Coordinators. “Hey, what do you think you’re-” She froze, seeing just who she had almost mowed down. “Lia, Alex!” Flay gasped for breath. “I’m sorry! It’s just that-“

“You were too mad to watch where you were going,” Alex finished for her. He smiled when she looked at him nervously. “No harm done. I’ve been in such a state myself, albeit for different reasons.” He nodded at the hatch. “Clearly something unpleasant just happened; forgive us for overhearing, but it was physically impossible not to. You two could be heard as far away as Copernicus.”

Flay looked away, blushing. “I just broke up with Sai,” she said in a low voice. “Our engagement was arranged by my father, and since he’s gone, I don’t see why I should be bound by it anymore.”

Alex snorted; he had thought as much. “Say no more. I know exactly what you’re talking about.” His lip twitched in a brief sneer. “Frankly, I’ve always despised the very concept of arranged marriages. However, much they might love them, parents are simply not equipped to choose their child’s spouse under any circumstances, and to even make the attempt is contemptible.”

The redhead chuckled at his vehemence. “What about Lacus Clyne and Kira’s friend?”

“That may have started out as parental arrangement, but it is clearly far beyond that now, or so I judge by Lacus’s reaction to seeing Athrun again; one thing that girl will never do well is lie.” He shrugged. “Much as I love my homeland, the marriage laws in the PLANTs are an abomination; the fact that we Coordinators have a low birthrate is irrelevant.”

Lia laughed. “I’m with Alex, though I wouldn’t put it quite that strongly.” She glanced at her watch. “Sorry, Flay, but we need to get moving.”

“See you later.” Flay waved and departed.

Alex glanced at her over his shoulder. “That was interesting,” he murmured. Good luck, Kira.

“You think Kira has a shot?”

“Possibly.” Alex shrugged. “I hope so; Kira needs someone like that. He’s got a long road ahead.”

Lia frowned at him. “What are you getting at?”

Her friend waved his prosthetic hand. “It may sound strange, but I think Kira is leaning toward officially joining the Earth Forces, even if he doesn’t yet realize it. I have no doubt that they would continue the special dispensation allowing him to hold back when fighting the Aegis -even Badgiruel would insist on that; she knows better that to ask someone to kill his best friend- but that would not be enough. He needs something tangible to fight for.”

Valkyrie’s captain nodded. “And Flay would do nicely. I see.” She looked at him sidelong. “What about you?”

“You know perfectly well what I’m fighting for, Lia,” Alex said. “I’m fighting to protect my homeland, and to find my sister.”

And find her I will, Alex added to himself. No matter what it takes.

Vesalius, bridge

Unbeknownst to the Earth Forces fleet, the Le Creuset team was extremely close by. With several other teams under his command (including Bartlett’s), Le Creuset was taking no chances. He wanted to be able to smash the Eighth Fleet, and with the Valkyrie still a factor, that would take more than four G-weapons and a handful of GINNs.

“Have they spotted us?” Le Creuset asked.

Ades shook his head. “Not so far as we can tell.” He joined his commander at the tabletop display behind the command chair. “Even the black ship hasn’t noticed us yet.”

“They will,” Le Creuset said. “You can count on that; Alex Strassmeier is anything but stupid. In any case, our main problem is the legged ship.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I thought they would make for their lunar headquarters, but after further study of their actions, I think they’ll be landing on Earth.”

“Their intended target appears to be Alaska,” Ades observed.

Le Creuset frowned behind his mask. “I’d somehow like to finish them off while they’re still in our own backyard.” He looked up. “What say you?”

Ades pursed his lips. “The Ziegler has six GINNs. We have five machines, including the Aegis, and the Gamow can send out the Buster and the Blitz.”

“And probably the Duel, as well,” the masked man said wryly. “Wounded or not, I don’t see any way to keep Yzak out of the fighting.” He indicated the additional ships that had joined them: Bartlett’s Bismarck, and the Laconi and Porter teams with one Nazca and Laurasia each. “As it is, we have more than enough firepower.”

“What of the black ship?”

Le Creuset snorted. “It’s unlikely that Strassmeier will fight more than a delaying action. He has no love for the Earth Forces; helping any of their units, even one commanded by his friend’s aunt, has to be like pulling teeth without anesthetic for him.” He shook his head. “He probably won’t be involved much longer; from what we know of him, he and his companions will likely make for the Orb Union.”

“That would make sense,” Ades agreed. “Orb allows Coordinators to live openly within their borders.”

Le Creuset nodded. “The black ship is of secondary importance.” He looked at the display again and smiled grimly. “The infamous Halberton. It’s time the admiral took his final curtain call.”

Archangel, hangar, 13 February, C.E. 71

The Archangel’s officers, senior crew, and volunteers stood well back as the Menelaos’s launch settled to the deck. No one, apart from Murrue Ramius, knew why Admiral Halberton wanted to make a personal visit, but they knew the importance of making a good impression.

Alex, standing beside his friend Lia, stifled a yawn with the ease of long practice. Though Halberton was the only Alliance flag officer he considered worthy of respect, he still disliked this sort of thing. Just because he was experienced with formalities did not mean he liked them and standing in line waiting for an Earth Forces flag officer was not Alex’s idea of fun.

Without turning his head, he glanced at the volunteers. Despite his explosive breakup with Flay Allster the day before, Sai seemed remarkably composed. Tolle and Mir looked at him every minute or so, visibly concerned. Kuzzey, for his part, seemed unaffected, though he had to know what had happened.

Kira, on the other hand, knew nothing of what had transpired in the crew quarters. All he knew (or thought he knew) was that he would soon be able to go home.

At last, the launch’s hatch opened, and Rear Admiral Lewis Halberton stepped through, followed by Captain Hoffman of the Menelaos. Tall and broad-shouldered, with blond hair and a mustache, Halberton was an imposing figure.

His face lit up when he saw Murrue. “Thank goodness you’re safe,” he said, drifting toward them. “When we got word of Heliopolis, I thought it was all over.”

Murrue smiled back, saluting. “It wasn’t easy, sir, but we made it.”

Mu and Badgiruel saluted as well. “Ensign Natarle Badgiruel, acting XO,” she said crisply.

“And I’m Lieutenant Mu La Flaga, of the Seventh Orbital Fleet,” Mu said.

“Indeed,” Halberton said. “We were fortunate to have you.” He looked at the two Coordinators standing nearby. “They’re from that black ship, I presume?”

Murrue nodded to them. “My niece Lia, Captain of the Valkyrie, and her friend Alex Strassmeier.”

Before Hoffman could comment on the name, Alex spoke up. “Yes, I know what you’re going to say, Captain: Why should we trust a close relative of Ezalia Joule.” The last came out in a very dry singsong, as if he had been over the same subject before and was weary of it. (Which was of course the case; Cagalli Yula Athha, Natarle Badgiruel, and the late George Allster had all had unkind things to say about his bloodline.)

Halberton smiled. “I don’t blame you for being wary, Mr. Strassmeier. Rest assured, I have nothing against Coordinators, and I certainly don’t blame you for the actions of your relatives.” He laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I know you love your aunt but forgive me if I say that her grip on reality seems…questionable.”

“You needn’t worry about offending me, Admiral,” Alex said mildly. “I’ve thought the same thing often enough; after all, she’s supporting a homicidal madman.”

Halberton nodded, then shifted his attention to the volunteers. “And who do we have here?”

Murrue followed his gaze. “These are the civilians who have been helping operate the ship since Heliopolis.” She introduced each in turn. “Kuzzey Buskirk, communications; Sai Argyle, electronic warfare; Miriallia Haw, parasite operations; Tolle Koenig, assistant helmsman; and last, but certainly not least, Kira Yamato, pilot of the Strike.”

“We owe you a great deal,” the admiral said. “Especially you, Mr. Yamato. Without your skill, the Archangel would never have made it this far.” He raised a hand, sparing Kira the need to reply. “We’ve done some checking, and all of your families are safe.”

The students cheered quietly. With Kira piloting the Strike, their main worry was for their respective parents; Halberton’s news gave them some much-needed relief.

“If possible, I’d like to have a chat with each of you,” Halberton continued. “Unfortunately, we’re short on time.” He looked at Murrue. “We need to get some things straightened out. I’d like your niece and her friend to be present for this as well.”

Murrue looked at Lia, who nodded. “Of course, sir.”

Murrue’s office

For once, Murrue stood in front of her desk instead of sitting behind it. Admiral Halberton occupied the chair, with Captain Hoffman at his elbow. Mu and Badgiruel stood with her, while Alex leaned next to the window and Lia stood behind her aunt.

“I can’t believe ZAFT would destroy Heliopolis and Artemis all for the sake of one warship and a single G-machine,” Hoffman said, shaking his head.

“Don’t act so surprised, Captain,” Alex advised him. “Not all ZAFT soldiers would do it -Andrew Waltfeld, for example, would never pull a stunt like that- but Rau Le Creuset is probably the most ruthless commander on either side.”

Hoffman raised his eyebrows. “You’re from the PLANTs. Have you ever met him?”

Alex’s lip twisted. “Four times. And no, I do not like him. Patrick Zala is a lunatic; Rau Le Creuset is plain creepy.” He shook his head. “In any case, what’s done is done. To my knowledge, there were no civilian casualties at Heliopolis, thanks in part-” here he shot a nasty glance at Badgiruel “-to Kira picking up a damaged life pod.”

Halberton suppressed a smile at the youngster’s acid tone. “Regardless, the fact that you made it this far can be counted a significant victory for the Earth Forces.”

Alex hid a grimace, and then hid a smile at Hoffman’s response. “It seems that Alaska doesn’t share this view.”

“Bah! What do they know about the realities of space combat?” Halberton snorted derisively. “Those pencil-pushers waste resources on concessions while our people are fighting and dying, both in space and on the ground!” He gave Alex an apologetic look. “Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against the people in the PLANTs. Nor do I endorse the idiotic restrictions that were placed on them; and I certainly don’t think the Bloody Valentine was justified.”

Alex waved that away. “You chose your loyalties a long time ago, Admiral. I respect that. I hope you don’t mind my referring to your high command as a pack of murdering thugs, though.”

Halberton chuckled. “I’d be shocked if you felt any other way.”

Hoffman cleared his throat. “What of the other Coordinator, Kira Yamato? Are we supposed to just forget about him?”

Murrue took a deep breath. She had known this was coming. “Kira Yamato climbed aboard the Strike only to protect his friends. Despite great hardship, he never gave up, even when he had to face his best friend in mortal combat.”

Halberton’s eyebrows almost climbed into his hairline. “His best friend?” he repeated carefully.

“The pilot of X303 Aegis, Athrun Zala,” Alex supplied. “Not his father’s son by any means, but still committed to ZAFT.” He sighed. “I should mention here that I have a similar problem. My cousin Yzak Joule is the pilot of X102 Duel.”


Badgiruel took a step forward. “Admiral, I believe that Kira Yamato’s abilities are vital to our mission.”

Halberton’s eyes narrowed; he had a feeling he knew where Badgiruel was going with this. “He is not, however, a member of our forces.”

“I realize that, sir. However, if we held his parents-“

The ensign never had a chance to finish. Before the admiral could snap an angry rebuke, Alex turned slightly, and suddenly Badgiruel’s right shoulder board was pinned to the rear bulkhead by a throwing knife.

He smiled thinly at her expression. “I would advise you not to go any further, Ensign,” he said, his voice like a silk-wrapped blade. “The consequences could be…unpleasant.”

Badgiruel thought for perhaps half a second, and quickly decided that it would be foolish to further provoke this black-clad ice sculpture. She stepped back.

Alex’s smile thinned further. “Good.” He pulled up his right sleeve, revealing a hidden compartment in his artificial arm, in which the black handles of two additional double-edged throwing knives were clearly visible. “If Kira decides to officially enlist in your military, fine,” he said, retrieving his knife and handing Badgiruel her shoulder board. “That aside, you can’t exactly claim to be better than ZAFT if you force a foreign national to serve.”

“More or less what I was going to say,” Halberton observed. “You were more eloquent, though.”

“Surprisingly so,” Hoffman said. Alex quirked an eyebrow, and he shrugged. “You have a reputation for studiousness; I realize that Coordinators tend to be overachievers, but a scholar who also happens to be a martial arts master seems rather odd.”

Alex nodded understanding. “A common misconception; as it happens, scholarly martial artists are the rule, not the exception.” His eyes briefly took on a faraway look. ” ‘To train the mind to its full potential, you must also train the body,’ that’s what my father always said. The reverse is also true.”

“Getting back to the matter at hand,” Halberton said, “I’m afraid the Archangel will have to descend to Earth with its existing complement.”

“The replacement personnel were lost with the advance fleet,” Hoffman explained. “You will be shorthanded, but it unfortunately cannot be helped.”

Alex blinked. He had intended to leave for Orb as soon as possible, but this news changed his calculations. If the Archangel were going to continue without a full crew, they would be vulnerable. ZAFT would never just let them go, and without a capable pilot for the Strike, it would only be a matter of time before they went down.

He and Lia exchanged glances, then nodded. “I believe we may be able to help.” Alex smiled at the surprised looks of the Earth Forces officers. “I have no love for the Earth Forces, as you well know, but I have my own reasons for keeping the Archangel safe.” To no one’s surprise, he did not elaborate on those reasons. “We can see to it that this ship lands on Earth safely; I can’t say beyond that yet. We’ll have to plan further after we’re down.” And after I talk to Cagalli.

Halberton considered that. They have a lot of firepower. If they can keep the Le Creuset team off our backs, then it will be worthwhile even if this is their last battle. “Very well. I do have one question: can your mobile suits handle it if they’re forced to enter the atmosphere on their own?”

Lia took that one. “Our machines have been equipped with a feature we call a reentry cocoon,” she said. “It acts in a manner like ablative gel, shielding the mobile suit from heat and friction. They’ll be fine.”

Halberton nodded. “That’s all I wanted to know; thank you.” He stood. “Make sure those pencil pushers in Alaska get this right.”

The three officers saluted. “I’ll be sure to convey your sentiments,” Murrue said.

“As a surviving mobile armor pilot, that is one order I can’t refuse,” Mu added.

Halberton returned the salutes. “Good luck to you all.”

crew quarters

The four volunteers gazed in confusion at the papers they held. Despite the uniforms they wore, they had thought they were still civilians. Earth Forces high command appeared to think otherwise.

“Discharge papers?” Tolle said, perplexed.

Hoffman cleared his throat. “While you were instrumental in ensuring the safety of this ship, the fact remains that it is illegal for civilians to participate in battle. This is our way of getting around any potential complications. From a legal standpoint, you enlisted in the Earth Forces for the duration of the emergency.”

“The Valkyrie, of course, is a different matter entirely,” Badgiruel said. “They will be assisting us in our descent to Earth.” She handed an extra set of papers to Tolle. “Give these to Kira Yamato.”

In the back, Flay Allster raised her hand. “Excuse me.”

Hoffman looked at her. “Hm?”

She hesitated. “I… I want to enlist.”

Before either officer could respond, the other students tore their discharge papers in half. “We’re all with Flay, I think,” Sai said. Despite their breakup the day before, he did not want to just leave Flay behind.

“Sai’s right,” Tolle said. “I’ll make sure Kira gets his papers, but I’m staying.”

Badgiruel exchanged an incredulous glance with Hoffman, then finally nodded. “Very well. Welcome aboard. For myself, I’m glad you’re staying; you’ve all been extremely helpful over the past three weeks.” She smiled, much to the new enlistees’ surprise. “I think you should all go to the hangar; no doubt you’ll want to see your friend off. Just don’t take too long.”

“Yes, ma’am!” The students saluted, then moved for the elevator.

Hoffman gazed after them. “You were quick to accept their enlistments, Ensign,” he observed. There was no condemnation in his voice, just curiosity.

Badgiruel shrugged. “As I said, they’ve been a big help. Besides, if those five remain, it could induce Kira Yamato to enlist as well.”

“Which would give you a much better chance of reaching Alaska safely,” Hoffman said, nodding. “I see. How likely is it?”

The ensign shrugged again. “I’d give it at least a fifty-fifty chance. As Captain Ramius pointed out, Kira piloted the Strike to protect his friends. If those friends remain, he might well stay on so that he can continue to protect them.”

Especially Flay Allster. Strassmeier’s right about that situation, at least. Despite her by-the-book exterior, Natarle Badgiruel had a knack for reading people, and Kira’s attraction to Flay was extremely easy to spot. She did not say so, though; much as she respected Hoffman, he was a stodgy sort.

Vesalius/Gamow, hangar

The ZAFT vessels were a beehive of activity. Everyone knew that the coming battle would be important; this would be their best chance to take down the so-called “legged ship” and the entire Eighth Fleet.

“Mobile suits to launch in three minutes,” the Vesalius’ P.A. system blared. “All units, check systems.”

Athrun Zala settled into the cockpit of the Aegis and began powering his machine up. He was nervous -only a fool was not nervous before a major battle- but also confident. The four stolen Gundams (Nicol had come up with the same acronym Kira had) were more than a match for Earth Forces mobile armors.

And if Commander Le Creuset is right, we will not have to worry about the Valkyrie’s machines. Of course, from what Yzak had said, it was entirely possible that the Commander was dead wrong. Athrun devoutly hoped he was right.

Over on the Gamow, the other three redcoats prepped for action. The Blitz, the Buster, and the upgraded Duel had been repaired after their last encounter with the Archangel, and the pilots were spoiling for a rematch. Dearka was tired of swatting flies (mainly the Moebius Zero), Nicol wanted another chance at the ship itself, and Yzak, of course, had a score to settle with Kira Yamato.

His superiors, nervous at the prospect of the wounded pilot (the right side of his face was bandaged from the bridge of his nose to his cheekbone) going into battle again so soon, tried to dissuade him. “Don’t do it, Yzak. You’re not ready!”

Yzak was having none of it. “Shut up!” he snarled. “Hurry up and guide me out,” he added in a low growl. He gritted his teeth as the crew complied. Yamato, you bastard! This assault shroud will teach you a lesson for humiliating me!

Menelaos, bridge

“Eight ZAFT vessels approaching, four Nazcas and four Laurasias,” the Menelaos’ radar operator reported. “Estimated time to intercept, fifteen minutes.”

Halberton cursed. “Le Creuset. This is going to be difficult.”

“We’ve also identified at least one of the other three teams involved,” Hoffman said. “The Bartlett team, commanded by an old rival of Commander Strassmeier.”

A snort came over the comm link. “Maybe he considers it a rivalry,” Alex said, “but I don’t. I have more important things to worry about.”

“What are we dealing with?” Halberton asked. “You do know the man, after all.”

Alex snorted again. “He’s very nearly on a par with Le Creuset in terms of ability. Just remember: if he loses this battle, but survives, he will come after you again. His main weakness is his vindictive nature; he holds grudges until they die of old age and then sends them to a taxidermist.”

The two senior officers both chuckled. “Can you hold them off?” Halberton asked.

“We’ll do what we can,” Alex said. He was already in full flight gear, minus the helmet. “Count on it.”

Valkyrie, bridge

“This is going to get ugly,” Lia said. “Even with five Gundams -six, if they can launch the Strike- sheer numbers could give us a lot of trouble.”

“I know,” Alex replied. He glanced at Cagalli. “Do we stay with the Archangel, you think? Beyond this battle?”

The princess nodded firmly. “For sure. I don’t like the Earth Forces any more than you do, but the Archangel is different.”

“I was hoping you’d say that.” Truth be told, Alex was reluctant even now, but something told him the Archangel was too important to let Rau Le Creuset destroy it.

“In any case, we don’t have much time,” he went on more briskly. “In fifteen minutes, this area is going to be swarming with GINNs.” His expression hardened. “All pilots, to your machines.” Then, to Lia, “Sound Battlestations, Lia.”

She nodded, meeting his gaze without flinching, then touched a control on the arm of her chair. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Archangel, hangar

By the time Kira got to the hangar, most of the refugees had already boarded the launch. A line remained, guided by one of the Menelaos’s junior officers, a lieutenant. He had ditched his uniform, knowing that he would have no need of it when he left.

One of the refugees, a girl of about five, spotted him then. Smiling brightly, she shook free of her mother’s grasp and pushed toward him. Coming to a stop at Kira’s feet, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small paper flower. “Thank you for protecting the rest of us till now,” she said, holding it out to him.

Kira smiled and knelt, accepting the gift. “Thank you.” Watching the girl rejoin her mother, he felt a sense of relief. He had had to fight, but he had succeeded. These people would make it home safely.


He turned in surprise. Sai, Tolle, Mir, Flay, and Kuzzey, all in uniform, landed in front of him. “Huh? What’s going on?” Why is Flay in uniform?

Tolle pushed a set of papers into his hand. “Your discharge papers. Good luck.”

Kira blinked. “What about you guys?”

Tolle smiled. “We’re staying here, with the Archangel. They’re shorthanded, so we figured we should keep helping out.”

“It was actually Flay who started it,” Mir said, smiling at the redhead. “Then the rest of us decided to stay on, too.”

“All of you…” Kira was at a loss. He had thought that his friends would be joining him on the shuttle, but they clearly had other ideas. Even Kuzzey, nervous though he obviously was at the prospect of battle, wanted to remain. “You’re…”

What should I do? If even Flay enlisted?

It was humbling, somehow. His friends, nowhere near as capable as he was, had nonetheless elected to remain with the Archangel. If they want to stay, is it right for me to just leave them behind?

All this flashed through Kira’s mind in the space of ten seconds, and he made his decision. “I’m with you,” he said, crumpling the papers in his hand. “If you’re staying, then I’m not leaving you behind.”

Tolle and Mir looked delighted, and Flay’s face lit up. “That’s great,” Tolle said.

Kira smiled. “I’ll get suited up and stand by in the Strike. We might have to launch on short notice.”

“Got it,” Tolle said. “We’ll be on the bridge.”

“Except me,” Flay interjected. “I… don’t have a post yet. There hasn’t been time to figure things out.”

The Coordinator nodded. “I understand. Don’t worry, it’ll work out.” He waved at the refugees, then he and his friends left the hangar. Sai, Kuzzey, Tolle, and Mir split off for the bridge, while Kira headed for the pilots’ locker room, Flay (much to his surprise) tagging along.

They would soon go into battle once again, but they were not worried. If they stuck together, they knew they could get through anything.

Chapter 7: SEED

Archangel, infirmary, 10 February, C.E. 71

The ship’s infirmary was even quieter than usual. Sai, Tolle, Kuzzey, and Mir sat near Flay Alster’s bed; the doctor had assured them that she would recover…physically. Emotionally was another story; after watching her father’s death at the hands of a ship full of Coordinators, there was no telling how she would react.

Kira and Alex had better watch themselves, Mir thought. Flay had been friendlier towards Coordinators of late, but it was entirely possible that she would backslide after the events of the last couple of days. And since Kira Yamato and Alex Strassmeier were not only the most visible Coordinators in the group, but had close connections to the Le Creuset team…

The infirmary hatch slid open, and Alex stepped through, Cagalli in tow. “How is she?” he asked without preamble.

Mir sighed. “We’ll know when she wakes up. You might want to be careful, though. You and Kira both have connections to ZAFT, so…”

Alex shrugged. “I’m not worried. She knows that those connections made the last battle particularly difficult, since both people you refer to were out there. Kira more than me; I was too close to Bartlett for Yzak to be able to do anything.”

There was a soft moan from the bed. “What…where am I?”

Sai squeezed her hand. “You’re in the infirmary, Flay.”

“The infirmary?” She sat up and glanced around; to Alex’s relief, she showed no sign of hostility when she saw him. “I must have fainted. How long?”

“Three days,” Alex said, moving to stand by her bed. He hesitated. “I’m sorry. We tried, but we couldn’t save your father…”

Flay shook her head. She was starting to tear up but was not willing to let go quite yet. “It’s not your fault, and it is not Kira’s, either. You both had to fight people dear to you.” A hint of curiosity showed through her obvious grief. “Which machine was your cousin flying? I know Kira’s friend was in the Aegis…”

Alex knew what she was getting at; Flay did not want to blame someone important to him without a good reason. “X102 Duel, the most basic of the G-weapons. He was focusing on me, but I was too busy fighting an old irritant of mine to pay much attention. In any case, it was not a mobile suit that killed your father, it was a blast from the Vesalius’s main guns.”

“Okay.” She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry for asking, but I know you and your cousin are close, so…”

“So, you didn’t want to blame him unless you were sure he was responsible,” Alex said with a nod. “I understand.”

“Thank you.” Then she blinked, suddenly realizing who was not present. “Where’s Kira?”

Alex grimaced. “Let us start at the beginning. Just after you passed out, Ensign Badgiruel contacted the ZAFT forces. She said that Lacus Clyne was onboard, and that if they continued to attack, the Earth Forces would have to take matters into their own hands.”

Flay looked outraged. “How could she-“

“Kira wasn’t inclined to stand for that,” Alex went on, “so he…borrowed the Strike, and turned Lacus over to her fiancé, Athrun Zala. She then returned the favor by ordering Rau Le Creuset to abort a sneak attack; he was using Athrun as a distraction. Anyway, Kira is now facing a court martial.” He snorted. “Mu will be acting as defense counsel, and I’ll be along as an assistant.” He glanced at his watch. “Speaking of which, I’d better get going.”

“Alex,” Flay called after him. When he turned, she gave him a sharp look, even as tears started to fall. “You’d better get Kira off. He shouldn’t be punished for doing the right thing.”

Alex saluted, ZAFT style. “You got it.”

Archangel, captain’s office

“She’s taking things better than I expected,” Cagalli commented.

Alex shook his head. “It won’t last. Remember, Cagalli, I have been where Flay is now. She is still in shock; I give it till tonight at the latest before she goes to pieces. No way to tell how long it will take her to recover, either; true, I recovered fast, but that was because my life was hanging in the balance.” He shrugged. “It’s nice to know she doesn’t blame Kira and me for what happened.”

The princess sighed. “Kira must be hurting, though. I mean, he promised he’d save Flay’s father, and yet he failed.”

“Through no fault of his own,” Alex said. “The fact the Flay doesn’t blame him will probably help some, inasmuch as he’s secretly in love with her.”

Cagalli blinked. “He is? I didn’t notice anything.”

“You haven’t spent most of your life learning to read people,” Alex pointed out.

They came to a stop just outside Murrue’s office. Alex stepped inside, reflexively giving the room a once-over. Murrue herself sat behind her desk, face expressionless as she gazed at Kira Yamato standing at attention before her. Natarle Badgiruel sat to her left, glaring at the young man. On the other side was Mu La Flaga (in full uniform, including cap, Alex noted), looking suspiciously like he was enjoying himself.

Murrue acknowledged him with a nod, then returned her attention to Kira. “This court-martial is now in session. Ensign Badgiruel?”

The ensign rose. “Three days ago, Acting Crewman Kira Yamato, by his own admission, launched in the mobile suit GAT-X105 Strike without authorization. Moreover, he broke a prisoner of war out of confinement, and delivered her to the ZAFT forces.”

Mu started to speak, then grinned slyly and nodded to Alex, knowing that the younger man had a way with words. Take him on, why do not you.

Alex nodded back, then faced Murrue. “It is true that Kira Yamato launched without authorization. However, Ensign Badgiruel’s actions clearly constitute mitigating circumstances, in light of their flagrant illegality.”

“Regulations make an exception for emergencies,” Badgiruel countered.

He gave her an icy look. “First of all, a legal exception is not the same as a moral one, and what you did was beyond despicable. More to the point, your characterization of Lacus Clyne as a POW is a flat-out lie. Captain Ramius specifically said that Lacus was a guest; you can’t suddenly turn around and make her a prisoner.”

“I had no choice, as I told Captain Ramius,” Badgiruel said coldly. “In any case, that has no bearing on Kira Yamato’s actions.”

“Au contraire,” Alex shot back. “As I said at the time, he was only correcting the mistake you made.” He turned back to Murrue. “Captain, Kira’s only action that could be considered criminal was his unauthorized launch of the Strike, and that hardly warrants a severe punishment. Mitigating circumstances, as I said.”

Murrue was silent for a long moment. “Very well. Commander Strassmeier,” the title was Badgiruel’s idea, given the young Coordinator’s position, “is correct. Miss Clyne was not a prisoner of war, and thus the exception Ensign Badgiruel referred to did not apply. Acting Crewman Yamato’s only criminal act was the theft of the Strike, and since he clearly intended to return it, that cannot be considered a major offence. This time. Therefore, a warning will be issued.”

“In other words, don’t do that without our permission again,” Mu said with a smile.

Murrue stood. “Dismissed.”

Kira departed, and the three officers relaxed. Murrue, for one, was glad it was over; she had not been pleased when the situation came up in the first place. Indeed, she had grown rather fond of the youngster in his short time aboard. His obvious pain at having to fight his best friend made her heart ache in sympathy.

Even if that best friend almost killed me, she thought wryly.

Alex sighed and moved to follow Kira. “I’m glad that’s over,” he murmured, and then he, too, was gone.

Mu gazed after him, then shrugged. “So, where do we go from here?” he asked rhetorically. “Le Creuset’s gone for now. By the way,” he added, looking at Badgiruel, “Kira did us some good out there. I was monitoring communications, and I heard the pink princess order Le Creuset to break off his attack.”

Badgiruel nodded. “You’re right; and he’s also changed my mind about his ZAFT friend. Athrun,” she used the pilot’s first name to differentiate him from his psychotic father, “was clearly surprised by his commander’s action.”

That much was certainly true. No one doubted that Athrun’s incredulous response to Le Creuset’s abortive attack had been genuine. He had come out in good faith, only to see his own commander launch a sneak attack. Only Lacus Clyne’s personal intervention had salvaged the situation.

“We should make rendezvous with the Eighth Fleet sometime tomorrow,” Murrue said. “Almost there.”

corridor/open space

Cagalli glanced up as Kira left Murrue’s office, Alex following seconds later. “How’d it went?”

Kira smiled. “They’re not punishing me.” He nodded at the raven-haired youth behind him. “Alex convinced the Captain that I hadn’t done anything major beyond stealing the Strike, so they let me off with a warning.”

“They couldn’t do much else,” Alex said with a snort. “Not that Badgiruel didn’t try; she actually had the nerve to characterize Lacus Clyne as a POW.”

“That’s crazy!” the princess protested. “Captain Ramius said she was a guest!”

Another snort. “Precisely the point I made. In any case, though there was no dispute about Kira’s temporary theft of the Strike, letting him off was the only course.” He smiled thinly. “After all, he’s the only one who can pilot that thing.”

“That’s true,” she agreed after a moment, falling into step with him. Kira moved off; she waved, then went on, “Still, there’s something about Ensign Badgiruel that bothers me.”

Alex waved his prosthetic hand. “To be honest, I think this incident was out of character for the good ensign.”

Cagalli snorted. “You didn’t sound like that three days ago.”

“Three days ago, I had a flashback to my sister’s abduction,” he reminded her. “In any case, I don’t see Badgiruel in the same way I see their high command. She’s a little too by-the-book for my taste, but that doesn’t mean much.”

The pair reached Archangel’s hangar and climbed into their shuttle. Alex took the pilot’s seat; Kyle had offered to fly them, but, like most pilots, Alex could not stand watching while someone else flew the machine. The shuttle smoothly crossed into the ether.

Cagalli watched admiringly. She already knew her friend was a gifted pilot, but this was the first chance she had had to see his skill up close. Alex seemed to bend the shuttle to his will with the most minute control inputs, guiding it from the Archangel to the Valkyrie with minimal effort. Cagalli had only seen two other pilots with that kind of natural ability: Kira Yamato and Mu La Flaga.

“I guess flying skill runs in your family,” she said after a moment, recalling Yzak Joule’s incredible performance in the Duel Gundam.

Alex shrugged. “Partly that, partly the fact that we Coordinators tend to be overachievers, and partly my father’s very specific ideas about what people should be capable of before they leave home.”

“Like what?” Cagalli asked curiously.

He sat back, letting the autopilot take over, and began ticking off points. “They should be comfortable in at least one foreign language; I speak eight: English, of course, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Latin, and Greek.” He chuckled. “Of course, for my father, English was a foreign language; he grew up in downtown Berlin.”

“He was Eurasian?”

“He was,” Alex confirmed. “Anyway. They should be proficient in unarmed combat; my fighting style is an admixture of karate, judo, and Greek wrestling. Also, capable marksmen; as you know, I am an expert shot with most firearms.” He tapped the shuttle’s instrument panel. “Basic pilot training. I, of course, am trained in mobile suit operations. Andrea managed to get checked out in a prototype F-7D.” He jerked his head at the ship they had just left. “Kira, now, he’s another matter. He’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen, or so I judge by how quickly he learned to handle a mobile suit in combat.”

She shook her head in amazement. “You guys sure are something.”

“We try.”

Vesalius, corridor

Athrun Zala drifted slowly down the corridor, brooding. He was grateful for Kira’s efforts in returning his fiancée, Lacus, but his failure to persuade the other Coordinator to abandon the Earth Forces ate away at him. Even that ensign’s cowardly stunt involving Lacus had not shown Kira the error of his ways.

Kira, they are just using you. Why can’t you see that? I do not want to fight you. He sighed. Unfortunately, it was obvious that Kira’s heart was set. He was determined to “protect” his “friends”, even if it meant fighting his own people.

“Haro! Haro!”

Athrun gave a resigned chuckle and raised his hand, intercepting a pink ball that bounced toward him. Having built the little robot himself, he knew what this meant.

Sure enough, Lacus Clyne came around a bend in the corridor. “Oh, hello, Athrun.”

Athrun sighed again. “Lacus, you really shouldn’t be wandering around like this; the Vesalius is a warship, after all.”

She nodded. “I know. It’s just that Mr. Pink always manages to open the door, even if it’s locked.”

The blue-haired pilot chuckled, leading his fiancée to her quarters. “If I’d known that would happen when I built it…” He trailed off, then sobered. “It must have been difficult for you, over there. Being taken hostage, used as a tool.”

Lacus shook her head. “It wasn’t like that at all, Athrun. I was treated well, and your friend was exceedingly kind to me. Kira was just as you described him.”

Athrun clenched his fists. “He’s nothing but a misguided fool. They’re using him, but he justifies it with some nonsense about ‘protecting his friends’.”

She shook her head again. “That’s not true, Athrun. I met Kira’s friends, and I can tell they are all good people. He is protecting his friends because he cares for them, and they for him. No one is using him.”

“Lacus…” For one of the few times in his life, Athrun had no idea what to say.

“And the Archangel’s crew aren’t like the rest of the Earth Forces, either” the Pink Princess went on. “Yes, the ensign did wrong, but she is only one person.”

Athrun frowned. “One person? Wasn’t that at the captain’s order?”

“Ensign Badgiruel was acting alone,” Lacus said firmly. “Captain Ramius was visibly angry; her niece is a Coordinator, remember.” Her expression softened. “And she is kind to your friend. Kira told me she does not ask him to use deadly force against you. She understands that this is difficult for him.” She caressed his cheek. “He doesn’t want to fight you, Athrun.”

“You think I want to fight him?” Athrun whispered.

Lacus sighed. “And he’s not the only one. Mr. Strassmeier, Alex, is having difficulties as well. I believe his cousin is one of your teammates?”

“Yzak, yes.” Athrun shook his head. “He’s even crazier. If what you are saying is true, then Kira’s actions are understandable, even if I think he is wrong. Strassmeier is something else; he hates the Earth Forces, and yet he’s helping their new warship, even though what happened to you proves that he’s making a mistake!”

“Athrun…” Lacus whispered.

He sighed. “I shouldn’t be doing this. I ask for your forgiveness.” He turned to leave. “Please excuse me.”

“When I look at you, I see a different person,” Lacus murmured. “All I see is bitterness.”

Athrun did not look at her. “I can’t exactly fight a war with a big smile on my face.” The hatch slid shut behind him.

Gamow, bridge, 11 February, C.E. 71

With the Vesalius on its way to rendezvous with another ZAFT ship, Yzak took over command of the hunt for the legged ship; Zelman might have been Gamow’s captain, but he knew Yzak wore the red uniform for a reason. Confident as ever, he smirked as he studied the tabletop display. He pointedly ignored the brown-haired man on the comm screen.

“Got them,” he said. “If we act now, we can take down the legged ship.”

Nicol was not so sanguine. “Sure, we can catch them, but we’d only have ten minutes before we entered the effective range of their Eighth Fleet. There’s no way we can stand up to that much firepower, and that’s not even counting the black ship.”

Yzak bit back an instinctive retort. Not for the first time, he saw that what Nicol displayed openly was much the same as what Alex kept carefully hidden.

Daniel Bartlett snorted derisively. “I will never understand how Le Creuset can stand having so many cowards on his team.”

Dearka bristled. He had had his clashes with Nicol, but something like this coming from another team commander, especially someone like Bartlett, was more than he could stomach. “Watch your mouth, Bartlett,” he snapped. “Nicol’s no coward; he proved that at Artemis, when he went in solo, right past the black ship, and opened the door for the rest of us. Not to mention going one-on-one with the Strike.”

Another snort. “If he is so good, then why is the Strike still plaguing us, hmm? If he is not a coward, why didn’t Amalfi shoot to kill?” Bartlett’s lip curled in a sneer. “For that matter, why didn’t Zala blow it away when he had the chance?”

“Because the pilot is his best friend, you idiot,” Yzak shot back. “He could no more kill Yamato than I could kill Alex.” His eyes narrowed. “Not that you’d understand. You do not care about anyone else. All you want is to get back at Alex for that tournament.” That was something Yzak Joule could never stand. Hotheaded and arrogant though he might be, his persistent rivalry with Athrun aside, he had not joined ZAFT out of some insane thirst for glory. He cared deeply for his people and his homeland.

Something ugly flashed in Bartlett’s gray eyes as the barb went home. Then he smiled thinly. “It’s not that I don’t care about others, Joule; I certainly sympathized with your teammate over his fiancée’s disappearance. Still, you might want to learn to care a little less. Emotions such as yours merely get in the way when fighting a war. Alex Strassmeier is the enemy and should be treated as such.”

“Commander, we’ll be within attack range in one hour,” Harriman said from off-screen.

“Understood.” Bartlett nodded, then turned back to Yzak. “We’ll be attacking in one hour. I trust you’ll be ready.” His image vanished.

“Bastard! Idiot!” Yzak hammered a fist into the tabletop display.

Dearka shook his head. “Who does he think he is, calling us cowards?” Then he looked at Nicol. “We’ve still got time, though. The success of a surprise attack is not determined by the time involved. Ten minutes is more than enough.”

“Is only ten minutes, or is it a full ten minutes?” Yzak agreed, regaining his composure. “It’s all in how you look at it, really.”

Nicol hesitated, then reluctantly nodded. “Very well.” He tapped the icon representing the Valkyrie. “What about the black ship?”

“They could be a problem,” Yzak conceded. He thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Bartlett can keep them busy,” he said with a nasty smile. “It’ll keep Alex from helping the legged ship, and maybe get Bartlett out of our way, too.”

“Can your cousin get through alive?” Nicol wondered.

Yzak snorted. “There’s no way Bartlett’s gonna take him in a CGUE. Oh, he’ll give him a fight, but it’ll take long enough for us to hit the legged ship.”

“What about the other machines?” the Blitz’s pilot persisted.

“The Buster lookalike was badly damaged in the last fight,” Yzak replied. “And even G-weapons can be swarmed.”

Dearka gave a thumbs-up. “Works for me.”

Nicol sighed. “All right.”

The three young pilots were supremely confident; even Nicol, for all his doubts, believed they could do it. It was a given that Alex Strassmeier would be reluctant to open fire on Yzak, and he and his pilots would be occupied by the Bartlett team in any case. All the Le Creuset team would face was the Strike and the Moebius Zero.

Unfortunately for them, they were underestimating Kira Yamato, for the young Coordinator possessed a power that he himself was unaware of, a power that would enable him to best them all in a matter of seconds. Few even knew this power existed, and of those, even fewer believed it.

Archangel, cafeteria

Almost there, Kira thought. Once we meet up with Eighth Fleet, it will finally be over. I will not have to fight Athrun anymore.

He sat at a table close to the hatch, nodding a greeting to Sai and Kuzzey. Preoccupied, he chewed his food without really tasting it. Thinking of Athrun Zala had reminded him of another Coordinator with a similar problem. Alex, too, was almost certainly looking forward to the impending rendezvous. Once Kira and his friends (and the refugees) were offloaded, the Valkyrie would have no further reason to accompany the Earth Forces vessel.

And since they are heading for Orb, Alex will not have to fight his cousin again.

The hatch opened, and a familiar redhead in a pink dress stepped in. Flay glanced around, and her face lit up when she saw Kira.

He glanced up when she approached his table. “Flay?”

“Hi, Kira,” she said. “I wanted to see how you were doing.”

Kira blinked. “How I’m feeling?” he repeated. “I thought you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near me, after what happened.”

Flay shook her head. “It’s not your fault,” she said gently. “It hurts, a lot, but I don’t blame you for it. You did the best you could.”

He looked away. “But I still couldn’t save him-“

“Kira,” Flay interrupted, “it’s not your fault. You were fighting your best friend; no one could have expected you to kill him, even to save my father.” She smiled. “Actually, I’m glad you didn’t kill him; I’d like to meet him sometime.”

Kira managed to smile back. “I’ll introduce you, when it’s all over.” He glanced out the viewport. “I hope that’ll be soon.”

“Me, too.” She took a seat near Sai. “I wonder what they’ll do with that ZAFT guy, Coast.”

The pilot blinked; he had forgotten about Coast, despite going past the Doctor’s GINN High Maneuver whenever he boarded the Strike. “I don’t know. To be honest, I do not really care. It’s not like Athrun, or Alex’s cousin; Coast is plain creepy.”

“Don’t I know it,” Sai agreed fervently. “I dropped by the brig yesterday; curious, I guess.” He shuddered. “I’m glad I met you and Alex first, Kira, otherwise I might think all Coordinators were like Coast.”

“If he’s so cold, why’d he become a doctor?” Kuzzey wondered.

Kira snorted. “Alex told me he wanted to know more about the human body; apparently, he sees people as nothing more than numbers. And then he joined ZAFT…because he was curious.”

“Figures,” Sai muttered.

Archangel/Valkyrie, bridge

It had taken weeks, but they were almost there. In less than an hour the two vessels would rendezvous with the Earth Forces Eighth Fleet. From there, the people from Heliopolis (including Kira and his friends) would be offloaded, and the Valkyrie would descend into the atmosphere to begin its journey to Orb.

Cagalli, for her part, was not sure how she felt about going home. It was not that she hated her homeland, far from it; it was just that she always felt constrained. Everyone (except her father) treated her with a deference she found extremely annoying.

Not that I will be alone this time, she thought, glancing at the expressionless Coordinator across the bridge from her own position. In the space of two days, she and Alex Strassmeier had gone from almost hitting each other to being close friends, and Cagalli was looking forward to seeing his effect on people back home. Especially a certain maid, whose idea of proper behavior often got on her nerves.

There was also Alex’s little quest to consider. Cagalli had promised that she would help him, and she had every intention of following through. Orb had plenty of sources; she was certain her father would be able to find something on Hibiki.

And then there was Kira Yamato. Though they had met just minutes before Rau Le Creuset attacked Heliopolis, Cagalli and Kira had grown close enough to be siblings. Princess or not, she had made a point of promising that they would meet again.

And we will, too; I am sure Father will not mind.

Alex looked at her for a moment, mildly curious as to what was going through her mind, then shrugged mentally. Like Kira, he was looking forward to not having to fight someone close to him anymore. Once they made rendezvous, he would be free of the Earth Forces; Lia’s aunt aside, he found giving them a hand more than a little galling.

In part, his thoughts mirrored Cagalli’s. As he had told her during the journey to Artemis, her father was one of the very few politicians he genuinely respected, and he believed that, for the most part, Orb’s policies made more sense than just about anything else going on planet side.

I just hope her father does not get the same idea Mu did, he thought sourly. The day after Lacus was returned to her people, Mu La Flaga had suggested in a snide tone that Alex and Cagalli go out to dinner when they reached Orb. Alex had responded with an explosion of German invective (though, Alex reflected, it was hard to tell that it was invective; Lia had once told him that you could not say “pass the salt” in German without sounding like you were insulting someone and taking five minutes to do it).

In any case, he was confident he could achieve all three of his objectives once he had access to Orb’s resources. Finding Andrea would be child’s play for Orb intelligence, he had Cagalli’s promise of help in the search for Hibiki’s offspring, and it was an open secret that Uzumi Nara Athha did not like Patrick Zala any more than Alex did.

Hiro Nakamura’s voice interrupted his musings. “We’ve got some news, Alex.”

Alex looked up. In addition to being pilot of the Shinobi Gundam, Hiro was the group’s intelligence specialist. “What sort of news?”

“We’ve managed to track down Hibiki’s older son.” Hiro handed him a photo of a black-haired teenager. “Canard Pars, a Eurasian special forces agent. Apparently, the Eurasians have a mobile suit project of their own, trying to show their independence from the Atlantic Federation, I guess.” He shrugged. “Anyway, this guy was tapped as the lead pilot.”

“Indeed.” Alex studied the photo carefully; something in his friend’s tone had made him suspicious. Then it hit him. Is this…?

“What is it?” Cagalli had joined them.

Alex handed her the photo. “Hibiki’s older son, the guy Coast told me about. Remind you of anyone?”

She frowned, puzzled, then gasped in surprise. “He looks like Kira!”

“Exactly,” Alex agreed. “And I, for one, do not believe in coincidences of this magnitude.” He chuckled ruefully. “It seems that part of my search was over before you and I ever met.”

“Maybe.” Cagalli sounded somewhat dubious. “We shouldn’t mention it to Kira, just in case. Not unless we’re sure.”

“Which we aren’t…yet,” Alex agreed. “Still, I think there is a very real chance that Kira Yamato is indeed the Ultimate Coordinator. It would explain many things.”

“Like how fast he learned to fight in a mobile suit,” Lia put in. She glanced at the main screen, which was now displaying the Archangel’s bridge. “Aunt Murrue, how are things over there?”

Murrue glanced over her shoulder at Romero Pal, then nodded at her niece. “We’re not far from Eighth Fleet. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes before rendezvous.” Her expression softened. “I guess it’ll be a while before I see you again.”

“I don’t know about that,” Lia said. “Orb’s neutral, but it’s not like no one from the Earth Alliance ever shows up there. Didn’t Flay’s father have a house in the capital?”

Mention of Flay’s father brought a moment of silence. Though he had not been popular with the crews of either ship, everyone (especially Kira) was mourning George Alster’s death. Alex was regretting some of his words; he still was not exactly fond of the man, but the fact that Flay had turned out all right was a point in his favor.

“I believe you’re right,” Murrue said at last. “Still-“

Pal interrupted her. “Radar wave interference!” he snapped, staring hard at his display. “N-jammer levels increasing!”

“Two ZAFT vessels, the Bismarck and the Gamow,” Chandra sang out.

“Mobile suit thermal pattern detected!” Tonomura said crisply. “One CGUE, five GINNs, the Blitz, the Buster, and the Duel!”

Alex grimaced, pushing out of his chair. “Yzak. He’s always been bullheaded.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Chris, Brian, and I are launching; we still haven’t finished repairing the Devastator, and the Shinobi developed an unexpected electrical fault. It’ll take a while to fix.”

“Understood,” Murrue said. “We’ll be sending out the Strike and the Moebius Zero.”

I just hope it will be enough, she added silently.

Open space

Four Gundams and a mobile armor flew to meet the ZAFT forces. With the opposition consisting of a CGUE, five GINNs, and three Gundams, it was their most even battle yet. None of them were pleased; just minutes before the rendezvous, and they were attacked yet again.

Yzak ignored the Valkyrie Gundams completely. If Bartlett wants another crack at Alex, fine. He cannot win. He glanced at the Blitz. “I’ll lure the mobile suit away. Nicol, the legged ship is all yours.”

“Roger that.” Nicol hit his thrusters and moved away at an angle, bypassing the Strike and Zero altogether.

Bartlett, meanwhile, led his team toward the remaining three Gundams. Having learned their lesson from their two previous encounters, the team’s GINNs were equipped with heavy ion cannons of the same type of Miguel Aiman had used at Heliopolis.

Not good, Alex thought. Ion cannons would be far more of a problem than standard GINN weaponry. Good thing we all have shields.

Focused though he was on Bartlett’s people, he spared enough attention to contact his cousin. “Don’t get to far in, Yzak.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Yzak demanded irritably.

Alex hid a sigh. Same old Yzak. “Kira knows you and I are related, so he probably won’t be shooting to kill. Still, don’t underestimate him.”

“What’s there to underestimate?” Yzak shot back. “I’m taking him down!” Cutting his radio, the hotheaded pilot boosted full speed at the Strike.

Brian spared him a brief glance. “He sounds pretty ticked off,” he commented.

“Yzak always takes things too personally,” Alex said. “Enough about them, we have incoming!”

The next few moments were a hurricane of beams. Unfortunately, this time the Bartlett team had a clear advantage, especially when Chris lost his beam rifle and flamer in rapid succession. Reduced to two Gundams against six beams equipped ZAFT machines, it was all Alex and Brian could do just to hold their own.

In another area of space, Mu was having problems of his own. He had deployed his wired gun barrels and fired shot after shot from his linear gun, but it was nowhere near enough. His target, the Buster, simply shrugged off the projectile fire.

“Heck, that’s pretty useless,” Dearka said with a grin, and replied with a hail of laser fire.

At the same time, Yzak had managed to engage the Strike. Watching his beams splash harmlessly against the enemy’s shield, he drew a beam saber and charged. Before Kira could react, the Duel’s saber crashed into his shield. He was able to break away, firing as he went.

The diversionary tactic worked. Nicol’s Blitz was closing fast on the Archangel…and then it vanished. On the ship’s bridge, Tonomura blinked in surprise. “Captain, I’ve lost the Blitz!”

Murrue intuitively knew what had happened. “He’s gone under Mirage Colloid. Anti-beam depth charges and use anti-air shrapnel warheads.”

“Fire anti-beam depth charges; stern missile tubes switch over to anti-air shrapnel warheads!” Badgiruel snapped.

The anti-beam depth charges launched just as Nicol fired. He snarled in frustration as his beams were harmlessly deflected. Then he had another problem: the anti-air warheads. Knowing that his phase-shift was inoperable with Mirage Colloid up, Nicol dropped stealth and brought the Trikeros up for some extra protection.

“That’s right, this machine once belonged to you,” he said. “Of course, you’d know its weaknesses.” Smirking, he turned invisible once again and jetted away.

Badgiruel was in no mood to let him go. “Disengage Igelstellung auto-tracking. Put up a barrage!”

Forced back into visibility, the Blitz went into an evasive pattern. This is not good, Nicol thought. How am I supposed to get close?

While the mobile weapons fought in a swirling melee, the warships exchanged long range fire. Though they were outgunned, the two ZAFT vessels were putting up a terrific fight. The Gamow managed to graze the Archangel with a laser blast, taking off two radar arrays.

Alex grimaced, watching the scene. Martial arts tournaments aside, he did not believe in fair fights, and this was about as unfair as it got. He had taken down one of the enemy GINNs, but that still left five mobile suits to deal with. Brian was doing what he could, but it was not enough. They could not ask for help, either; Mu was occupied with the Buster, and Kira was hard-pressed by the Duel.

This is ridiculous, he thought, and then the flat crack of a beam against his shield jolted him back to his own battle. Cursing under his breath, Alex fired on the nearest GINN, beheading it, then raised his shield to fend off another shot from the CGUE.

“Having trouble, eh, Strassmeier?” Bartlett taunted.

Alex gritted his teeth. “Not as much trouble as you’re about to have,” he bit out, and moved. Dodging yet another laser blast, he spun the Stormbird to his right, stowing his rifle and drawing a saber. The blade of red fire slashed down, cutting off the CGUE’s left arm and the shield Gatling with it. When Bartlett whirled, snarling in sudden fury, Alex drew his other saber and slashed again, this time destroying his enemy’s beam rifle.

Bartlett swore savagely. “You’ll pay for that, Strassmeier!”

“Perhaps.” Alex watched his old nemesis retreat, then turned his attention to Kira’s battle.

It was certainly interesting. Kira was staying well clear of the Duel, his beam rifle spitting green fire. Yzak, trying like mad to close the range, was almost swearing in frustration. Tiring of the game, he pulled back for a moment, then charged at full speed, his shield in front.

The Strike fired again, but the beam splattered against the Duel’s shield. “Gotcha this time!” Yzak shouted.

Kira’s eyes narrowed, and he stowed his rifle. “I’m not about to be defeated here!” Drawing a saber of his own, he clashed it against Yzak’s.

The white-haired pilot cursed under his breath. Nicol’s right, this guy’s good. Briefly wishing that Athrun had been able to persuade the Strike pilot to join them, he drew his weapon back for another blow.

His opponent was not inclined to play. Kira had no intention of losing to anyone, let alone a hothead like Yzak Joule. Two beam sabers locked, neither pilot giving ground.

In the confusion, Nicol was finally able to slip past the Archangel’s defenses. Landing the Blitz on the warship’s hull, he proceeded to fire his beam rifle into the superstructure at point-blank range. There was a limit to how much damage even laminated armor could take, and Nicol’s attack was almost certain to exceed that limit.

The crew knew it, too. “Kira! Kira!” Mir called. “The Blitz is beside the bridge! Get back here!”

Kira stared in horror. “No! The Archangel!” Images flashed through his mind: Tolle, supporting him even after learning that he was a Coordinator; Sai and Mir, helping him get Lacus out; Kuzzey, standing by him despite a lingering distrust of Coordinators; and Flay, giving him her full support even though he had failed to save her father.

Behind his eyes, an amethyst seed bounced and exploded. “The Archangel, I won’t let you destroy it.”

Yzak yelled, slashing down hard with his saber…only to find that the Strike had moved. “What?” He stared around, bewildered, and then the Strike attacked, its saber opening a gap in the Duel’s left hip. With a growl of rage, Yzak leveled his rifle at the fleeing machine. “Take this!”

He fired repeatedly, but it was ultimately futile. “He dodged it!”

“Stop it now!” Kira shouted. He slashed his saber down, then slammed the Strike’s knee into the Blitz when it dodged. With Nicol out of the fight, he was free to deal with the other threat.

“Now I’ve gotcha!” Yzak shouted.

I do not think so. Feeling like everything was moving in slow motion, Kira drew an Armor Schneider and thrust it into the gap he had made in the Duel’s phase-shift.

Yzak clenched his control bars. That bastard! he thought, watching his instrument panel spark, then cried out in pain as something exploded, shattering his faceplate, and cutting a deep gash in his face. “Arrgh!”

Helpless, the Duel drifted back, where it was caught by the Blitz. “Yzak? Yzak! Are you okay in there?” Nicol yelled. He radioed the Buster. “Dearka!”

Still firing at the Zero, Dearka grimaced. “What’s the matter, Nicol?”

“It’s Yzak.”

Yzak clutched his face. “Urgh, it burns, it burns, it burns!”

“Yzak,” Dearka whispered.

Nicol yelped. “Dearka, we have to retreat! The enemy fleet’s coming!”

The other pilot cursed. “You’re right. Yzak’s hurt, and we’re almost out of power.”

Alex watched them go. His feelings were more than a little mixed. On the one hand, he felt profound satisfaction at their victory. On the other… I am sorry, Yzak. I wish it had not come to this.

Cagalli’s face appeared on his screen. “You okay?”

He shook himself. “I think so. It’s just…I hope Yzak’s okay.”

“He will be,” the princess said gently. “You guys are pretty tough.”

Alex reluctantly nodded. “You’re right.”

As they spoke, the Strike came to rest on the Archangel’s forward deck. The Zero passed above; Mu had lost a gun barrel in his battle with the Buster, but his machine was in working order otherwise. He barely noticed that, however; now, he was marveling at what his young friend had just accomplished. “Look at that, they’re gone! You were terrific, kid.”

Kira closed his eyes. “Not really.” I am sorry, Alex. I know how close you and Yzak are, but I could not let him… He sighed. Alex would understand; that was all he needed to know.

And then Sai’s voice came over the radio. “The Eighth Fleet is here!”

Chapter 6: Separate Ways

Archangel, bridge, 6 February, C.E. 71

Acting Crewman Kuzzey Buskirk sat up as his board beeped at him. Hmm? A signal? He tweaked his controls, adjusting the gain, then looked down at the Captain. “We’re receiving a signal, ma’am. Header indicates it’s from the Montgomery, assigned to Eighth Fleet.”

Murrue sighed with relief. “That’s Admiral Halberton’s command. We’re almost there.”

“You are, at least,” Lia said from her own bridge.

Murrue raised her eyebrows at her niece. “I take it you have a longer journey in mind?”

The younger Ramius nodded. “We’re making for Orb, since we’ve got the princess with us.” Behind her, Cagalli Yula Athha rolled her eyes. “Besides, as far as we are concerned, Orb is the only sane nation left on Earth. No offense, Ensign,” she added, glancing at Badgiruel.

Badgiruel shook her head. “None taken, Ms. Ramius; I may have my doubts about who was responsible for the abduction of Strassmeier’s sister, but I don’t blame either of you for feeling as you do. Particularly since your friend is a native of the PLANTs.”

“That reminds me.” Murrue shifted her gaze to Cagalli. “Miss Cagalli, how are we supposed to handle your presence? Given the role you have on the Valkyrie, you’re not exactly inconspicuous.”

“When I’m out on my own, I drop the last part of my name,” the princess responded. “I’ll go by Cagalli Yula.”

Murrue nodded. “That should work.”

“Another message from the Montgomery, ma’am,” Kuzzey said. “Vice Foreign Minister George Allster is on board.”

“Tell him that his daughter is safe,” Murrue said. “Kira saw to that.”

Behind Lia and to her right, Alex Strassmeier snorted. “I’m not sure how grateful he’ll be,” he said. “The Vice Foreign Minister’s opinion of Coordinators isn’t exactly a secret. Which explains Flay’s former attitude; she practically absorbed it through osmosis.”

Murrue shrugged. “We’ll just have to hope Flay can convince him otherwise. She and Kira have become fairly close since we got out of Artemis.”

“You might prove more of a problem,” Badgiruel put in. Alex raised an eyebrow questioningly, and she shrugged. “I intend no offense, but as you yourself have pointed out -several times- you are related to Ezalia Joule.”

Alex nodded. “Believe me, Ensign, I am acutely aware of the potential difficulty. I’m not a big fan of the vice minister, but I’m perfectly capable of restraining myself.” For a moment, his face had a wry look. “For Flay’s sake, if nothing else; I never thought I’d say this, but I consider her a friend.”

Murrue shook her head, bemused. He is certainly changed in the past couple of weeks. She was inclined to agree with her niece’s belief that Cagalli was responsible for the change. Alex still seldom showed emotion in public -by now, everyone knew why- but at the same time, he seemed more approachable somehow.

And if he can warm up to someone like Flay Allster… She glanced over her shoulder at Kuzzey. “That reminds me. Given that we have several Coordinators with us, we should probably have Flay present when we speak to her father. As Alex just pointed out, Vice Minister Allster isn’t very fond of Coordinators.”

Neither was Montgomery captain Koopman, as it happened. Much as some people -notably Natarle Badgiruel- would have liked to deny it, anti-Coordinator sentiment was pervasive both in the military and the government. “Space monster” was a common epithet, implying that Coordinators (the majority of whom lived in space) were inhuman and dangerous.

Such attitudes played into Patrick Zala’s hands. In his speeches, he often cited them as proof that the Naturals, despite (or because of) their “inferiority”, recognized that Coordinators were a new species. Though he stopped short of calling for a campaign of extermination, Zala did his best to incite hatred against Naturals in general. Thus far, it had only worked on the most hardcore.

“Zala isn’t helping matters,” Alex said, voicing Murrue’s thoughts. “I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his speeches, but I can tell you, even though he hasn’t actually called for the extermination of the Naturals, he manages to make it abundantly clear that it’s what he wants.”

Mu La Flaga snorted. “No kidding. I saw the one from just after the Bloody Valentine. Man, his glare could punch through the Archangel’s laminated armor.”

Alex’s lips twitched in what might have been a sneer. “And he is not exactly known for moderation; if anything, he’s even worse in private. Aunt Ezalia’s told me quite a bit.” He shook his head, visibly disgusted. “I swear, the only good thing that guy ever did was to have a kid.”

“Perhaps so,” Murrue said, “but we don’t have to worry about that right now. We have more immediate things to deal with.” She looked at Kuzzey again. “Inform Captain Koopman -and Vice Minister Allster- of our situation. Make sure they understand that the Valkyrie is a friendly.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Bismarck, bridge

So, Daniel Bartlett thought, gazing at the tabletop display. The games afoot.

His flagship had been repaired at the PLANTs, just in time to join the Le Creuset team in the search for Lacus Clyne. Search and rescue were not his preferred duty, though he understood why it had to be done. The morale effects of her loss would be profound, and Bartlett certainly sympathized with Athrun Zala, since Miss Clyne was the young pilot’s fiancée.

Besides, the Coast team had disappeared in the Debris Belt on this very mission. Given the Doctor’s skill both as a pilot and commander, that meant he had run into something nasty, and that something nasty was almost certainly the legged ship. And that, in turn, meant the Valkyrie was involved.

That will make this whole trip worthwhile, even if we must work with the Le Creuset team. Favored though he was by the high command, Rau Le Creuset had more than his share of detractors. Bartlett himself was among them (one of the few cases where he agreed with Alex Strassmeier); others ran the gamut from feckless incompetents like submariner Marco Morassim, who often referred to Le Creuset as a punk, to highly skilled warriors like Andrew “Desert Tiger” Waltfeld.

“From what we’ve heard, the legged ship and its companion were almost certainly responsible for the Coast team’s disappearance,” Michael Harriman said. “They may well be nearby.”

Bartlett nodded. “I agree. Le Creuset does, as well, or so I judge by our status. Whatever else Alex Strassmeier might be, he is not stupid, so such a large force is common sense.”

“But will Joule be willing to open fire on his cousin?” Harriman asked. “That could be a problem.”

“Le Creuset has already given Joule permission to use disabling attacks if we do encounter those two ships,” Bartlett replied. “The same for Zala and that Yamato kid.” He shrugged. “Le Creuset is in charge, so it’s his decision to make.” A feral light showed in his cold gray eyes. “I, on the other hand, am under no such constraints. If I get within range, Strassmeier is doomed.”

It did not even occur to Harriman to question that statement. Despite the skill Alex Strassmeier had exhibited in their previous encounter, despite his superior machine, Bismarck’s captain believed that his commander would win the next engagement. (Such overconfidence was why Captain Zelman considered Harriman an incompetent.)

They would get a reality check when the two forces faced off again…

Gamow, hangar

Yzak Joule sat in the cockpit of his Duel Gundam, hands flying over the machine’s keyboard. As a group, ZAFT soldiers were more individualistic than their Earth Forces counterparts. Mobile suit pilots were allowed great leeway in personalizing their machines; Miguel Aiman, for example, had customized his GINN for higher performance. (Unfortunately, he had also had more breakdowns than most.)

Even more than regulars, the four Gundam pilots were expected to make whatever modifications they felt necessary to bring out the best in their one-of-a-kind machines. So it was that Yzak found himself in his cockpit, tweaking the OS.

He sighed. His main reason for working on his machine was to try to distract himself, but it was not working. Yzak’s mind was only half on the task at hand. He could not stop thinking about the coming battle; he knew as well as anyone that they would soon be facing the legged ship again. And facing the legged ship meant another confrontation with the Valkyrie.

Alex, why do we have to keep fighting each other? Yzak was profoundly grateful that Commander Le Creuset was allowing him to use disabling attacks on the Stormbird, but that was only part of the problem. He knew perfectly well that Alex would never surrender, that his cousin would prefer death to falling into the hands of ZAFT as it now was.

“Hey, Yzak.”

Yzak glanced up. “Nicol? What are you doing in here this late?”

The pilot-cum-pianist shrugged. “Same thing you are I had an idea for an improvement on the Blitz’s OS, so I figured I’d better take care of it, ASAP. We never know when we’ll run into Earth Forces units.”

“Especially when we’re searching for Lacus Clyne,” Yzak agreed. He frowned suddenly. “But there’s something…”

Nicol blinked. “Yzak?”

“You can bet the legged ship’s going to turn up again,” Yzak said slowly. “The captain’s older brother is in the Junk Guild; the guy’s daughter is in command of the black ship, and she’s one of Alex’s closest friends…” He trailed off, then abruptly snapped his fingers. “Of course!”

“What is it?”

“About ten years ago, Alex told me he had a friend in the Junk Guild,” Yzak explained. “He didn’t mention her name, but he did ask that I keep it quiet.”

Nicol frowned. “Why would he do that?”

Yzak shrugged. “You know the Junk Guild: they’re stubbornly neutral, even more than Orb. The girl’s parents did not want her friendship with a Supreme Council member’s nephew to be widely known. Anyway, I think that she must be the black ship’s captain.”

“Makes sense,” the other agreed. He drifted towards his own machine.

Yzak watched him go. Initially, he had thought Nicol a coward, but, as he got to know the younger pilot, Yzak was reminded more and more of his cousin. Alex Strassmeier had a soft core, however much he tried to hide it; Yzak was one of the few people who had seen it.

He sighed and resumed typing. Whatever happened, he had to make sure the Duel was ready for the next battle.

Vesalius, bridge, 7 February, C.E. 71

“So,” Rau Le Creuset said, “it appears we have company.”

“Yes, sir,” Ades agreed. “A Nelson-class ship, and two Drakes.”

“Hmm.” Le Creuset gazed thoughtfully at the display. “Given that there’s nothing nearby that the Earth Forces care about, I would have to say they’re here to resupply the legged ship. In which case, we have a golden opportunity.”

Athrun Zala looked up in surprise. “Sir, aren’t our orders to-“

“I’m well aware of our instructions to search for Miss Clyne,” Le Creuset said. “However, we cannot afford to pass up a chance to destroy the legged ship.” His voice softened a little. “I don’t blame you for being anxious, but first and foremost we are soldiers.”

Athrun swallowed hard, then nodded. “I understand, sir.”

“In any case, we might find your fiancée at the same time,” the masked man went on. “I would not be at all surprised if those two ships passed through the Debris Belt after they escaped from Artemis, and from what Yzak has told me, Strassmeier, despite his cold-blooded exterior, would happily perform a rescue operation. Therefore, if we encounter the black ship, only its weapons and engines will be targeted.”

Assuming we can even see it, Athrun thought sourly.

None of them realized they were worrying about the wrong ship…

Archangel/Valkyrie, bridge

Having reached communications range with the advance force, the two mobile assault ships coasted along at a relatively slow speed. The Archangel flew slightly ahead; Captain Koopman of the Montgomery was slightly nervous about the Valkyrie.

As Murrue had requested, Flay stood on the Archangel’s bridge, and she smiled when her father appeared on the screen. “Hi, Daddy.”

Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster slumped in his chair, visibly relieved. “Flay, thank goodness you’re safe.” He looked at Murrue. “Thank you, Captain Ramius. I owe you a great deal.”

“And not just for that,” Koopman put in. “You’ve done well, keeping both your ship and the Strike intact.” He frowned. “But what of the other ship?”

“The Valkyrie joined forces with us just before Heliopolis collapsed,” Murrue responded. “My niece Lia is in command.”

Koopman nodded and shifted his attention to the younger woman. “You have our thanks, as well.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lia said cheerfully. She jerked her head at the expressionless Coordinator behind and to her right. “Alex doesn’t much like the Earth Forces, but he’s not a fan of ZAFT, either. And he really hates Rau Le Creuset.”

The Earth Forces officer blinked. “Alex?”

“Strassmeier,” Lia supplied.

Allster surged out of his chair. “Strassmeier? Ezalia Joule’s nephew?”

“Correct, sir,” Alex said, speaking for the first time. He cocked his head. “Is there a problem?”

The vice minister ignored him, addressing Lia instead. “What is someone like him doing there?” he demanded. “A Coordinator, a relative of one of the biggest radicals in the PLANTs, no less?”

Lia’s eyes narrowed. “It was Alex’s idea to build this ship and its attendant mobile suits, Vice Minister. All of this was part of his plan to stop Patrick Zala from wiping out all Naturals.” Her expression hardened. “And for your information, sir, I too am a Coordinator.”

“And so’s the pilot of the Strike,” Flay put in. “If he hadn’t picked up the life pod I was in, I’d be dead.”

That rocked Allster back a little. A Coordinator…saved Flay? But they are… Now he was confused. He disliked Coordinators (to put it mildly), and yet one of them had saved his daughter’s life.

“All right,” he said at last. “Perhaps the young man is an exception, along with your niece, Captain, but surely you realize that they are exceptions. Most Coordinators are our mortal enemies.” He glared at Alex. “As for him…”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “You seem to have a problem with me, sir.”

“Of course, I have a problem!” Allster snapped. “You clearly pose a danger to everyone on the Archangel.”

The Coordinator’s eyes narrowed to slits; Lia and Cagalli, both of whom knew the signs, winced. “Just what are you accusing me of?” he asked in a deceptively soft voice.

Allster looked at him as though he was not paying attention. “No one with your background would help the Earth Forces, so you’re obviously a spy.”

“Daddy!” Flay protested.

“Sir, with all due respect, that was uncalled for!” Murrue said.

Cagalli gazed at the vice minister with thinly veiled contempt. What an idiot. Hard to believe Flay’s his daughter; she is such a nice girl.

Alex’s thoughts were much the same. Flay’s related to this bigoted fool? The mind boggles. He stood, his face somehow more hawk-like than usual. “Sir, if you’d bothered to read any reports of the final moments at Heliopolis, you’d know that your accusation is baseless. As the crew of the Archangel will confirm, I personally struck down the Magic Bullet of Dusk, Miguel Aiman, in that battle. Even Patrick Zala isn’t ruthless enough to sacrifice his own people just to maintain a spy’s cover.”

“He’s right,” Mu put in. “Zala’s a nut, but he wouldn’t try something like that.” His gaze sharpened. “And Alex isn’t the sort of person who’d kill without a good reason.”

“In any case, you have nothing to fear from me at this point,” Alex said. “You may find it hard to believe, but I consider Flay a friend, and I have no intention of bereaving her if I can possibly avoid it.”

Allster sat back, stunned. After hearing what had happened at Heliopolis, he was not that surprised that Flay and the Strike pilot would have become friends -Kira did save her life, after all- but someone like Alex Strassmeier? “Strassmeier, what are you-“

He never got a chance to finish, for at that moment, the ZAFT vessels Vesalius, Gamow, and Bismarck reached attack range.

“Warning!” Romero Pal snapped. “N-jammer levels increasing! Three ZAFT warships approaching!”

“Checking profiles,” Chandra sang out. “Vesalius, Gamow, and Bismarck. They’re heading this way!”

Ramius immediately punched an all-call button. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Archangel, hangar

Kira hurriedly strapped himself into the Strike, barely aware of Mu La Flaga doing the same in the Moebius Zero. “Kira here. I’m ready,” he said, lowering his visor.

“Roger that, Kira,” Mir said. “Orders are not to launch but be ready in case that changes.”

“Got it.” He wondered, though. He knew that they were facing all four stolen Gundams -including Athrun, and Alex’s cousin- and that the Montgomery’s mobile armors were no match for any mobile suits, let alone Gundams. Going into battle without the Archangel was suicide.

Withdrawing will not save us, so why are they doing this? They are just getting themselves killed. Unless… “Miriallia, what about the Valkyrie? Have they moved at all?”

She glanced at something offscreen. “No sign of activity yet, but you can bet Alex won’t just sit around. He’ll want to protect Vice Minister Allster for Flay’s sake, and you know how he hates Rau Le Creuset.”

“Yeah.” I still think this is a mistake, though. Alex and his friends cannot handle everything…

Open space

Kira and Mir were right; Alex had no intention of just sitting around. Even before Murrue Ramius brought her ship to battle stations, Alex was pulling on his flight suit (a green one, ZAFT surplus; he could have gotten one in elite red, but he did not feel worthy to wear it). By the time Kira strapped into the Strike, X108 Stormbird was moving to the Valkyrie’s starboard catapult.

“What are you planning to do?” Cagalli asked.

“If possible, we’re going to save Koopman and Allster in spite of themselves,” Alex said. “Yzak and Bartlett are both out there, a complication I could really do without.”

She nodded. “You’re clear for launch. Be careful out there.”

“I will.” His hands tightened on the control bars. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

The Stormbird hurtled out into space, followed closely by the Devastator, the Scorpion, and the Shinobi. As the last machine, X112 Inferno, was guided to the catapult, pilot Chris Madsen made one last check of his systems. The flamer particularly concerned him; such weapons were not easy to adapt for space use.

This time, though, it checked out. Seeing the results, Chris nodded in satisfaction, then assumed his usual unhinged manner, which very few people knew was just as much a facade as Alex’s cold demeanor. “Chris Madsen, Inferno launching!” As the catapult spat him into space, he glanced one last time at the symbol on his status screen: the emblem of the Serpent Tail.

“All right, people,” Alex said. “Let’s do it!”

Two mobile suit forces closed at high speed. Though the ZAFT teams had the advantage of numbers, they had only four Gundams; the rest were in GINNs and a CGUE. Against five Gundams, the odds were basically even.

Alex quickly found himself engaged by two machines at once, his cousin Yzak’s Duel, and Daniel Bartlett’s custom CGUE. The CGUE was clearly the greater threat; he knew Yzak would not be willing to shoot to kill, at least not yet. Ignoring the Duel, he fired one shot at the CGUE, which simply splashed on the ZAFT machine’s shield.

Bartlett laughed harshly. “You’ll have to do better than that, Strassmeier!” He returned fire with both his beam rifle and shield Gatling; the latter intended merely as a distraction.

Alex took the beams on his own shield and ignored the bullets completely. “You persist in underestimating me, Bartlett. One day that sort of thing will get you killed.”

While the two rivals exchanged gunshots and verbal barbs (watched by an extremely nervous Yzak, who was unable to intervene), the larger battle continued unabated. Athrun ignored the Valkyrie’s mobile suits completely, concentrating on the Earth Forces warships. Kyle and Dearka found themselves trading artillery shots, while Hiro played hide-and-seek with Nicol’s Blitz. Brian, meanwhile, gave the ZAFT ships’ CIWS fits with his unpredictable maneuvers.

Scorpion’s mobile armor mode is just what the doctor ordered, he thought with a tight grin.

Alex spared him a brief glance. You are doing well, Brian. Keep it up. Boosting away from the Duel and Bartlett’s CGUE, he pulled his plasma cannon and leveled it at the Bismarck. “Try this,” he muttered, and fired. The red-orange blast cored through the ZAFT ship’s starboard engine pod.

“You’ll pay for that, Strassmeier!” Bartlett shouted, his beam rifle spitting emerald darts. When they struck the Stormbird’s shield without any noticeable effect, he cursed. “Just go down!”

“Once again, you underestimate your opponent.” Alex spun his machine and fired past his cousin’s Duel, striking one of the Vesalius’s GINNs. One spectacular detonation later, he turned back to the red CGUE. “Here’s a piece of free information: my shield absorbs energy, channeling it into the Stormbird’s battery. In other words, you’re recharging my machine for me.”

Bartlett raised his eyebrows. “Why tell me this?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because it doesn’t help you any. You still have no choice but to use beams, since projectiles are useless against Phase-shift.”

A dry chuckle from the ZAFT commander. “Perhaps so. But even your shield can only take so much.” He laughed harshly and abruptly boosted away.

Alex did not realize the danger at first. What is he up to? Then he suddenly found himself looking down the barrels of Bismarck’s cannons. Uh-oh. He kicked in his verniers just before the ship fired. Stormbird made it out untouched; the Bernard was not so fortunate. The Earth Forces vessel vanished in an instant, destroyed with all hands.

Archangel, hangar/open space

Mu La Flaga watched the battle with growing alarm. Like Kira, he had strapped into his machine as soon as the alarm sounded; now he contacted the bridge. “Captain, we need to launch, now. The advance forces are getting slaughtered, and I don’t think withdrawing will save us, even with Alex’s people out there.”

Murrue hesitated, the reluctantly nodded. “You’re right. Moebius Zero, Strike, launch at once!”

“Roger that. Mu La Flaga, launching!”

“Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!” Kira echoed.

Sai’s face appeared on his screen. “Kira, Flay’s father is on one of those ships…”

“I’ll make sure he gets out alive,” Kira said. “I promise.”

The mobile suit and mobile armor flashed into space side by side. Mu took on a pair of GINNs, while Kira moved to engage Athrun’s Aegis. Athrun, having just taken out the escort ship Law with his Scylla energy cannon, came at the Strike with his rifle blazing.

Soon it was Kira alone; Mu was able to destroy one GINN, but then took several severe hits in rapid succession and was forced to retreat. With the Moebius Zero out of the fight, and Kira effectively deadlocked with the Aegis, the mobile confrontation rested almost entirely with the Valkyrie’s machines.

Alex glanced briefly at the Strike, wincing in sympathy as Kira traded laser blasts with his dearest friend, then returned his attention to his own battle. So far, he had been able to keep Bartlett under control -he had destroyed two of the Bismarck’s GINNs- but he was not sure how long it could last.

Then his force was suddenly reduced to four mobile suits; the Buster had finally gotten a solid hit on Kyle, blowing the Devastator’s right arm off at the shoulder. “Sorry, Alex. I have to fall back.”

“Don’t worry about it. You did your best.”

Nor was that the only problem. After several crazy maneuvers, Brian, too, was forced to pull away before the Scorpion ran out of power. Shinobi and Inferno were still in action, but there was not much they could do at that point.

“You seem to be running low on mobile suits, Strassmeier,” Bartlett said mockingly, clashing his sword against the Stormbird’s shield. “I think we have the upper hand.”

Alex started to retort, then shut his mouth with a click. He is right. We must fall back, somehow.

At that moment, the Vesalius opened fire on the Montgomery, blowing the Earth Forces ship in half. On the Archangel, Flay Allster screamed once, then fainted. All but one person onboard was frozen with shock, and that person’s next action took everyone by surprise.

“This is the Earth Forces warship Archangel,” Natarle Badgiruel said. “Presently under the protective custody of this ship is PLANT Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne’s daughter, Lacus Clyne. We rescued her as a humanitarian gesture, but if you continue to attack, we will be forced to take matters into our own hands.”

Athrun Zala stared at the “legged ship” in horror. “What monsters you are!” He turned to glare at the Strike. “Well, Kira?” he demanded, his voice soft. “Do you still feel justified fighting by the sides of these cowards?” His voice rose to a shout on the last word.

Kira’s mouth worked silently, stunned by Badgiruel’s action. “Athrun, I…”

“I’m going to rescue her. That’s a promise.” The Aegis spun around, heading back to the Vesalius.

Yzak Joule clutched at his controls, a white-hot rage going through him. “See, Alex?” he whispered, so angry he was beyond shouting. “See what happens when you help the Earth Forces? It’s just like with Andrea, isn’t it?” Without waiting for a response, the Duel jetted back to the Gamow.

It was just as well that Yzak had not waited. Alex did not even hear him. His mind was not even in the present; it was in a time three years earlier.

He and his sister were running from their home, chased by Atlantic Federation soldiers.

“Come on, Andrea!” Alex said. “Hurry!” The girl tried to keep up but tripped over some debris. Alex skidded to a stop. “Andrea!” He started back but froze when his sister was surrounded.

“Alex, keep going!” she shouted. “Run!”

Alex ran, ran harder than he ever had before, tears mingling with blood where a rifle stock had split his cheek open. When he was sure they were no longer following him, he collapsed on the ground, exhausted. “Andrea, I’ll save you someday,” he whispered, then bowed his head, sobbing.

He came back to himself abruptly. After glancing around to reorient himself, he keyed his radio. “Hiro, Chris, get back to the ship. I’ll be there shortly.” The two pilots acknowledged, and he switched frequencies. “Cagalli, Hiro and Chris are on their way in. I’ll be back soon, after I… check things out on the Archangel.”

“I understand.” And she did; a matching outrage burned in Cagalli’s golden eyes.

Alex boosted towards the Archangel’s starboard catapult. Natarle Badgiruel, you just made an excessively big mistake.

Archangel, bridge

“I had no choice,” Badgiruel was saying. “I couldn’t let them destroy us.”

Murrue shook her head. “I understand that, Natarle, but still…” She trailed off, but her tone made noticeably clear that she disapproved of her subordinate’s tactics.

Both women turned as the rear hatch opened. Alex Strassmeier stormed onto the bridge, his normally expressionless face livid, his eyes blazing. Badgiruel flinched despite herself; Alex had proven his willingness to kill if necessary, and she had no desire to be his next target.

Still, in her opinion, his anger was misplaced. “Strassmeier,” the ensign began.

“Just what did you think you were doing?” the Coordinator asked in a deceptively soft voice.

Badgiruel blinked, slightly unnerved. “I was merely acting to protect this ship and those aboard. I had no alternative.”

“Oh really?” Alex responded, still softly. “What about the fact that the taking of hostages is a crime anywhere?”

“Regulations allow for emergencies-“

She did not get a chance to finish. Alex snarled viciously and backhanded her across the face. “Your treacherous coward!” he shouted, trembling with fury. “How dare you presume that you have the right to use an innocent civilian as a pawn! Lacus Clyne isn’t a chess piece, dummkopf!”

Badgiruel started to rise but stopped when she found herself looking down the barrel of Alex’s pistol at fifteen centimeters.

“Give me a reason,” Alex whispered. “Give me the slightest reason to pull this trigger, and I swear I will.”

Given the choice between remaining still and receiving a forty-five-caliber bullet through the brain, Badgiruel wisely opted not to provoke him.

Alex held his aim for a moment longer, then nodded. “Good.” Holstering the weapon, he turned to Murrue. “I will only say this once: if something like this ever happens again, I will personally reduce this ship’s engines to a puddle of molten slag. And don’t talk to me about the refugees; Valkyrie can take them on if necessary.” With that, he spun around and stalked away.

Murrue stared after him, more than a little shaken. “You know, since we left Heliopolis, I’ve often wondered what it would take to get him to explode. Well, now I know.” She shook her head, then looked at her XO. “However, he was right about one thing. Such tactics can have no justification, and they will not be used again. Is that clear?”

The ensign saluted; though she disagreed, she knew she had no choice. “As you command, ma’am.”

Murrue sighed and settled into her command chair. Sai had taken an unconscious Flay to the infirmary, so the EW station was unmanned, but that did not matter at present. Even Rau Le Creuset would not dare attack with Lacus Clyne onboard; not only was she the daughter of the Supreme Council’s Chairman, but, according to Kira, she was also engaged to Aegis pilot Athrun Zala.

She closed her eyes. Alex’s tirade had not come as a surprise; indeed, Murrue was mildly surprised the young Coordinator had stopped short of killing Ensign Badgiruel. In any case, this incident was likely to solidify his view of the Earth Alliance, which could cause problems, not for the Archangel itself, but for the whole of the Alliance.

The only reason I am still alive is because he is friends with my niece, Murrue realized. Still, she could not help wondering how far that consideration would go.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex was still fuming an hour later. It took a lot to crack his self-control, but a stunt like Badgiruel’s, especially one that brought back memories of his sister’s abduction, did the job. Badgiruel was luckier to be alive than she realized; Alex had come remarkably close to shooting her, regardless of whether she moved or not.

There was also the fact that Alex and Kira both had close connections to the opposing force. Even this was unlikely to split Kira and Athrun apart since Kira clearly had nothing to do with it. If Lacus got out alive, Athrun would be forgiving. Probably.

Yzak, on the other hand… Yzak Joule was not known for moderation. He was not likely -this time- to hold Alex responsible for what had happened, but a few more such events could change that. Eventually, his temper would get the better of him, with possibly disastrous consequences.

Alex clenched his fists, cursing the twist of fate that had forced him to cooperate with the Earth Forces. This one was not even Zala’s fault; the blame lay with the Earth Forces, who had built mobile suits and a warship inside a neutral colony, with Rondo Ghina Sahaku, who had allowed it, and with Rau Le Creuset, who had treacherously attacked the colony.

The hatch that he had forgotten to lock slid open behind him. “Alex?” Cagalli called softly.

He looked up. Normally, the only person he tolerated this from was Lia Ramius, and yet somehow… “Something up?”

She drifted over. “I was just wondering what happened…” She trailed off, looking closely at him. His eyes seemed a little red. “Have you been crying?”

Alex started to snap, then stopped himself. He only tolerated that sort of query from a handful of people; he wondered just when the princess had become part of that group. “A little,” he said at last, not sure why he was even admitting it. “When Ensign Badgiruel made her…announcement,” Cagalli winced at the venom in her friend’s voice, though she agreed wholeheartedly, “I had a bit of a flashback. Specifically, to when my sister was kidnapped.”

Cagalli was not surprised in the least. “And that’s why you were so angry.”

“That, and the fact that Badgiruel’s actions were despicable in and of themselves,” Alex confirmed.

He stood and began to pace. “This is a textbook example of why I despise the Earth Alliance. The PLANTs have been oppressed from the outset. Even before the Alliance was formed, the sponsor nations imposed ridiculous quotas while at the same time keeping the PLANTs completely demilitarized.”

“Which was why Siegel Clyne and Patrick Zala founded ZAFT.” Despite the seeming irrelevance of the story, and despite knowing most of it already, Cagalli was fascinated.

“Precisely,” he agreed. “Even I will admit Zala wasn’t always a madman; it was probably the Bloody Valentine that triggered that. Anyway, before ZAFT was formed, we were helpless against Blue Cosmos and other anti-Coordinator groups. And when the sponsor nations attacked the Supreme Council directly…”

Cagalli grimaced, remembering the incident. Her father had had some very nasty things to say about the Atlantic Federation at the time. “Talk about crazy. Weren’t the sponsor nations almost completely dependent on the PLANTs for resources by then?”

Alex nodded. “If you will pardon the cliché, it was a case of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. That, however, was only the beginning.”

She knew exactly where he was going with that one. “Copernicus.”

“Copernicus.” His voice was flat. “That, as you know, was what prompted the declaration of war; from what I heard later, they tried to claim that Chairman Clyne’s shuttle malfunction was deliberate.” He snorted. “Preposterous, of course, but that was all they had. They couldn’t let the real culprit be identified.”

Cagalli blinked. “The real culprit?”

Another snort. “Conventional wisdom has it that Blue Cosmos was responsible, but it wasn’t. It was an Atlantic Federation special forces unit -possibly the same unit that kidnapped Andrea- that carried out the attack.”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. This she had not expected. “Are you serious?”

“Very.” Alex’s eyes were suddenly very cold, but only for a moment. “Despite Badgiruel’s stunt, I still believe the people on the Archangel are different from the rest of the Alliance. And, however angry I might be, I don’t think it will be a problem much longer.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

Alex did not answer. He did not have to; a moment later, Lia’s voice came over the intercom. “Alex, the Strike is launching, and I somehow doubt Aunt Murrue authorized it.”

He pushed a button on his desk. “Understood. I’ll be heading out as well, making sure the Earth Forces don’t interfere.”

“Got it.”

He started for the door, but Cagalli’s voice stopped him. “Alex.”

Alex glanced over his shoulder. The princess was looking at him with an unreadable expression. “Be careful.”

“I will.”


While the officers debated what to do next, Kira had already made his own decision. Unable to stand the situation any longer, he drifted down the corridor towards Lacus’s quarters. He hesitated at his destination, then pressed the hatch control. “Miss Clyne?”

Lacus sat up and blinked. “Mister Yamato? What are you doing here this late?”

“Please, hurry up and get dressed,” he said. “I’m getting you out of here.”

A few minutes later, they moved quietly for the pilots’ locker room. As it was ship’s night, they did not meet anyone until they were almost at the door. Kira, hearing movement, motioned for Lacus to duck around the corner, out of sight.

She moved just in time. Sai Argyle and Miriallia Haw almost collided with Kira. “Kira, what are you doing up?” Sai asked.

Kira forced a nonchalant attitude. “Couldn’t sleep. You?”

“We were checking on Flay,” Mir said, then froze as Lacus appeared behind Kira. “Um…”

His expression hardened. “Please, don’t try to interfere. I just can’t let this go on.”

Sai and Mir conversed in low tones, then looked up. “We’ll help,” Sai said.

Kira smiled, relieved. “Thank you.”

The pilot and the princess were soon suited up (given the transfer method Kira had in mind, Lacus need a vac suit, though her bunched dress made her look somewhat overweight), and the four teens made it to the hangar without incident. Sai and Mir watched for trouble, allowing Kira and Lacus to reach the Strike.

Lacus smiled at the young volunteers. “Goodbye, then. I hope we meet again someday.”

Sai shrugged. “I’m not so sure we will.” Then, to Kira, “Kira, you’ll be back, right?”

Kira nodded. He understood why Sai wanted to make sure, since his friendship with the pilot of the Aegis was common knowledge. “I will. I promise.” He closed the hatch, ignoring the shouts Sai and Mir exchanged with Murdoch, who had come out of nowhere, and then he was launching, and it did not matter.


Murrue and Badgiruel jerked upright simultaneously as alarms blared. “What is going on?” Murrue demanded.

Badgiruel stared at her display in disbelief. “The Strike is launching!” she said, astonished. She punched an intercom button. “Kira Yamato, just what are you doing?”

“You’re wasting your time, Ensign,” Mu said from the Moebius Zero. “He’s getting the girl out, and it’s too late to stop him.”

Badgiruel hissed in frustration. “Just what does he think he’s doing?”

Pal gave them another puzzle. “Captain, the Stormbird is directly behind us!”

Before Murrue could say anything, Alex’s face appeared on the main screen. “Alex, what is going on?” she demanded.

He smiled thinly. “I think, and I’m sure you do as well, that Kira is getting Lacus out, and there’s nothing you can do to stop him. If nothing else, I will make sure of that.”

“Strassmeier, just what do you think you’re-” Badgiruel began hotly.

Alex cut her off. “Keep your mouth shut, you coward,” he snarled, his voice abruptly harsh. “He’s only correcting the mistake you made. If you interfere, you will regret it.” He cut the link before anyone could respond.

Murrue sighed. “He’s right. It is out of our hands. Still…” She met Mu’s gaze on her arm viewer. “Be prepared to launch if Kira needs help.”

He flipped a salute. “You got it.”

Vesalius, pilots’ ready room

Athrun slammed his fist into a locker. “Lacus is a civilian! How could you take her hostage?” An image of Kira flashed through his mind. “Kira, how can you be with that kind of people? Aren’t you one of us, a Coordinator like me?”

An alarm sounded, followed by the voice of a radar operator. “We’re detecting a mobile suit launching from the legged ship!”

Then Kira spoke. “Attention, ZAFT vessel. This is the pilot of the Strike. My mission is peaceful; I am returning Lacus Clyne to you. She will be given over on two conditions: that you cut your engines, and that we be met only by the pilot of the Aegis.” His voice hardened. “If these demands are not met, I cannot guarantee her safety.”

Minutes later, Athrun was strapping into the Aegis. He keyed his radio. “Commander, please let me go.”

“We don’t know if Miss Clyne is in that machine,” Ades protested. “And there’s still the black ship…”

“Alex will be helping us here,” Yzak put in, “making sure the Earth Forces don’t get in the way.”

Le Creuset considered that, then nodded. “Very well. You’ve permission.”

Athrun smiled gratefully. “Thank you, sir.”

open space

Seeing the Aegis, Kira brought the Strike to a stop. “Athrun? Is that you?”

“It’s me, Kira,” Athrun replied.

Kira leveled his beam rifle. “Open your cockpit!”

Not wanting any trouble, Athrun complied. The hatch opened, allowing him to view the Strike directly.

“Say something,” Kira told the Pink Princess. “He can’t see you from there.”

“Hello, Athrun!” she called. “It’s good to see you again!”

Athrun smiled, visibly relieved. “I confirm it’s Lacus.”

“Then prepare to receive her.”

Kira gave Lacus a gentle shove, sending her into Athrun’s waiting arms. For a long moment, the two old friends gazed at each other across the void.

I still have a chance, Athrun thought. “Kira! You come along with us, too! There isn’t any reason why you should remain with the Earth Forces!”

Kira bowed his head, feeling tears sting his eyes. “Believe me, the last thing I want to do is fight you. But aboard that ship are people I feel obligated to protect.” He looked up. “My friends are on that ship!”

Athrun teared up as well. Why? Why did it have to come to this? “Then I have got no choice, Kira. The next time we meet in battle, I will show you no mercy!”

“Same goes for me.”

The Strike closed and spun on its axis, returning to the Archangel. Even as it retreated, Rau Le Creuset sprung his trap. He had come out personally in his CGUE, intending to take advantage of Kira’s action. He had it made, now…or so he thought.

“Commander?” Athrun asked, incredulous.

“Athrun, return to the ship with Miss Clyne at once!” Le Creuset snapped, then barked a startled curse as a green blast narrowly missed him. “What the?”

The Stormbird, having abandoned its position behind the Archangel, charged in at full speed. “Le Creuset, you bastard!” Alex snarled. “Kira came out in good faith!”

Le Creuset turned to engage the new threat, but another intervened. “Commander Le Creuset, what are you doing?” Lacus demanded.

“Miss Clyne, this really isn’t the time-“

“Are you planning to turn this into a battlefield in the presence of a memorial representative like myself?” she continued. “Commander, I am ordering you to break off your attack at once!”

The masked man cursed under his breath. Of all the times… Very well. “Understood. I’m breaking off.”

Kira, Mu, and Alex watched as the three ZAFT ships pulled away. Mu felt nothing but satisfaction. The two Coordinators felt differently, both saddened that they would soon have to fight people dear to them once again.

Mu at last broke the silence. “Come on, you two. Let us head back.”

Author’s note: not much to say this time, except sorry for taking so long. The author will try to do better. The author hopes this passes muster.