Chapter 13: Waltfeld

Valkyrie, cafeteria, 18 February, C.E. 71

Kyle Perry leaned back in his chair, looking out at the stretch of sand. “Four days since landing, and already things have gone crazy.”

Hiro Nakamura snorted. “We’re up against Andrew Waltfeld himself. What did you expect, a tea party?” He sipped from a cup of, fittingly, tea. “From what I’ve heard, he’s even better than Rau Le Creuset.”

“Hiro’s right,” Brian Kilgore said from his seat near the counter. “Waltfeld isn’t as ruthless, but he’s a lot more devious. We’re in for the fight of our lives.”

“At least you and Alex can fight at all,” Chris Madsen said sourly. He waved at Kyle and Hiro. “The three of us aren’t much more than armored gun turrets in the desert. Our machines don’t have any mobility worth talking about in this environment.”

Kyle sighed. “I hate to say it, but I agree with you, Chris. There just isn’t much we can do here.”

Much as they wanted to, no one could disagree. If they were in the desert, the Devastator, Shinobi, and Inferno Gundams were of limited use. Unlike the Stormbird, Scorpion, and Kira’s Strike, they could not fly, and while OS modifications would allow them to run in sand, they would be hopelessly outmatched by BuCUEs (or worse yet, Waltfeld’s LaGOWE).

“Say,” Chris said, changing the subject. “How long do you think it’ll be before Alex admits he’s in love with the princess?”

“Won’t happen,” Brian said. “You know him. He keeps everything inside except with a select few.”

“And Cagalli happens to be one of those few,” Chris pointed out.

Hiro looked at the Devastator’s pilot. “What do you think?”

Kyle did not answer at first. “I think Chris is right,” he said at last. “I wouldn’t have said that a month ago, but now…” He waved a hand. “Frankly, I think it’s a good thing. You all know what Alex has been going through.” His companions nodded. “He needs someone who can keep him going, and Cagalli is the only one who can really do that. Sure, he and Lia have been friends for a long time, but it’s not the same.”

“It’s strange, though,” Hiro murmured. “Alex is cold as ice most of the time, whereas Cagalli is more like Yzak Joule, except that she’s not arrogant. Hard to imagine those two together.”

Kyle shrugged. “Opposites attract, Hiro, you know that.”

“So how long will it be?” Chris asked again.

“I give it a month. Maybe two.” Kyle grinned. “I can’t wait to see how the higher-ups in Orb react. I don’t think her father would mind, and the Sahakus would probably swallow their pride, since Alex is related to Ezalia Joule, but some of the others won’t be so sanguine.”

“Like the Seirans,” Lia Ramius said as she stepped through the hatch. “Especially the Seirans; Cagalli used to be engaged to Yuuna Roma.”

Brian looked at her in surprise. “That creep? Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes. She told me herself.” Lia raised an eyebrow. “What, you know the guy?”

The young pilot grimaced. “I saw him at a diplomatic function in Aprilius a month before the war broke out. My dad’s an aide to Representative Canaver, so I got dragged along.”

“What did you think of him?” Hiro asked.

“He’s an arrogant, slimy, smarmy, worthless, lying, incompetent, bigoted fool,” Brian said, an uncharacteristic edge of contempt in his voice.

Hiro chuckled appreciatively. “That’s what I thought.” He looked at Lia. “Where’s Alex?”

She smiled. “In his quarters, talking to Cagalli.”

Chris grinned. “Bingo.”

Alex’s quarters

Despite Chris Madsen’s innuendos, there was nothing romantic going on. Alex and Cagalli had simply settled into a routine in the weeks since Heliopolis. They had lunched together frequently, true; Lia had said that it only made sense for the princess to take some of her meals with what passed for the ranking officer. Alex, for his part, was starting to suspect she had an ulterior motive.

Not that he cared. He was happy to give Cagalli a chance to relax, and it was a relief to have someone to talk to occasionally. This time, they had somehow wound up talking about Alex’s family history.

“We’ve been able to trace the family at least as far back as World War II,” he said, sipping his coffee. “An ancestor of mine was a Luftwaffe fighter pilot, Oberleutnant -that’s First Lieutenant- Heinrich Strassmeier. He was no Nazi, mind you; there actually weren’t very many Nazis in the military.”

Cagalli leaned forward, fascinated almost despite herself. “Did he survive the war?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Alex grinned. “He actually became close friends with a British pilot; Sergeant Michael Rork, I think the name was. They shot each other down repeatedly over the course of four years, starting at the Battle of Britain.”

The princess shook her head. “Kind of weird, shooting each other down so many times, and when the war ends suddenly, they’re friends.”

“It’s not as weird as you might think,” Alex said. “Frequently, warriors on all sides of any given conflict have a lot in common. Oh,” he waved a hand, “there are exceptions. A large number, possibly a majority, of Earth Forces soldiers are Blue Cosmos sympathizers.”

Cagalli frowned. “Come on. Do you really think most of the Earth Forces like people getting blown up?”

Alex shrugged. “Maybe sympathizers isn’t the right word. Most Earth Forces soldiers don’t support blowing people up at random, which is essentially what Blue Cosmos does, but they do share the idea that Coordinators are a disease.”

Having met some Earth Forces diplomats -primarily from the Atlantic Federation- she had to agree. “The people on the Archangel are too good for the Earth Forces.”

“I agree. Leaving aside the fact that Murrue Ramius is Lia’s aunt, that crew is definitely not typical Earth Forces.” Alex stood and opened his cabinet. He drew out an ancient-looking auto pistol. “On a more pragmatic note, Murrue has asked me to help with a supply run in a couple of days.”

Cagalli raised her eyebrows. “A supply run. Where?”

“Banadiya.” Alex chuckled at her expression. “Yes, Waltfeld has his headquarters there. Unfortunately, it is also the only settlement within a hundred kilometers that could charitably be called ‘civilized,’ which means it’s the only place our Desert Dawn friends can get better equipment.”

She winced. He had a point. “Anyone besides you?”

“Colonel Kisaka is going to meet with some arms dealer,” Alex said. “Kira and Flay are also going, mainly to get those two off the ship for a while; believe me, they need it. Lieutenant Badgiruel will supervise the initial steps, and Ensign Neumann will be driving.” He tucked the gun under his jacket. “I was wondering if you’d like to come, too.”

Cagalli thought for a moment, then grinned. “Sure, why not. It’ll be fun.” Another thought struck her. “But what about you? Waltfeld met you before, so wouldn’t it be dangerous?”

“Andrew Waltfeld has no intention of killing me; I realized that in the last battle. Probably because of my aunt.” He chuckled. “This will be worth it just to see Natarle Badgiruel out of uniform.”

The princess could not help laughing. Badgiruel was so by-the-book that it was hard to imagine her in anything remotely resembling a relaxed situation.

There was, of course, a certain amount of risk. Alex himself might be safe, but there was no guarantee that Waltfeld would be so gracious with the others if they were caught.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

Murrue dashed her signature at the end of the last report and sat back, closing her eyes. Even in the middle of nowhere, the paperwork never seemed to end; she was fortunate to have an exec like Natarle to carry the load. The younger woman (who was rumored to share Alex’s obsession with efficiency) made the Archangel run like clockwork, leaving Murrue mostly free to consider their next move.

The hatch slid open. “You wanted to see me, ma’am?” Natarle said.

Murrue sat up. “Yes, I did. Have a seat.” She waited until Natarle had complied before continuing. “First, do you have a team set up for the supply run?”

Natarle nodded. “Colonel Kisaka and Mister Ashman will meet with an arms dealer in Banadiya. Meanwhile, Ensign Yamato, Crewman Allster, Commander Strassmeier, and the princess will have a look around the town itself, getting some much-needed rest in the process.”

The Captain raised an eyebrow. “Much-needed?”

“They’ve all been on edge since we left Heliopolis, Ensign Yamato especially,” Natarle explained. “Leaving aside the fact that his best friend is with the Le Creuset team, we have gotten this far largely through his efforts. With all due respect for Commander La Flaga, we could not have survived without the Strike. True, the Valkyrie was with us, but you know as well as I do that, they have their own agenda.”

Murrue nodded. “We’re fortunate that the agenda doesn’t mean fighting us; I highly doubt we would have survived otherwise. It seems unlikely that Kira could have taken five G-weapons on his own. He’s good, but not that good.”

“I agree.” Natarle smiled wryly. “It’s lucky for us that your niece is close to Commander Strassmeier. In any case, he volunteered in part because he knows his own limitations.”

“In other words, Alex wants to get a better feel for the local environment. Makes sense.” Murrue frowned. “One thing, though. Alex has met Waltfeld before. What if they run into each other again?”

Natarle shrugged. “As Strassmeier himself pointed out, they only met once, and briefly. It’s entirely possible that Waltfeld won’t recognize him.”

“Perhaps. Still, Alex showed me a picture of his family, and I can tell you that his resemblance to Yzak Joule is uncanny. I would not be at all surprised if he were recognized through that alone.” Murrue sighed, shaking her head. “If Alex says he can handle it, then he can handle it. He can take care of himself.”

That was true enough. Natarle knew from personal experience that Alex Strassmeier was an extremely dangerous adversary. A crack shot with most weapons and a martial arts expert, he would be more than enough to deal with any sticky situations.

Natarle stood. “Is there anything else?”

“No.” Murrue smiled. “Thank you. Dismissed.”

“Ma’am.” The XO saluted and left.

Murrue leaned back in her chair again. Unless she was greatly mistaken, Natarle’s attitude toward Alex had changed for the better since they had landed. The by-the-book exec still did not like the youngster, but it appeared that she no longer distrusted him.

It was, Murrue decided, a good thing.

Gibraltar Base

This is boring, Yzak thought. We have been sitting here for days. When are they going to turn us loose? He slammed a fist onto the table in front of him. The Duel and the Buster had been repaired in less than a day, despite the local mechanics’ lack of experience with the ex-Alliance machines. Yzak and Dearka were ready, so why hadn’t anything happened?

Footsteps sounded behind him. “Got some news,” Dearka said, coming around and sitting across from Yzak. “Commander Bartlett just landed at Carpentaria.”

Yzak frowned. “Carpentaria? What for? He’s spent the war in space, just like us.”

“He’s had some training in submarine ops,” Dearka reminded him. “They’re putting him in command of the Ballard, something about a new operation.” He shrugged. “I don’t really care; it keeps him away from us, at least.”

The scarred pilot had to agree. There were not many people in ZAFT that he genuinely hated, but Daniel Bartlett was at the top of that short list. Anything that kept that idiot as far away as possible was something Yzak was in favor of.

Bartlett, of course, was not the only problem. “What about the legged ship?”

“They’re in the desert, in the Waltfeld team’s area of operations, or so I hear.” Dearka snorted. “Rumor has it that we might be loaned out to the Tiger; those two ships beat him twice, so he might need some heavier firepower.”

Yzak grimaced. He wanted to take down the legged ship, but fighting them meant fighting Alex, which was something he desperately wanted to avoid.

Dearka noticed his friend’s sudden brooding. “Hey, Yzak, forget about the black ship.”

“How can I when they insist on sticking with the legged ship?” Yzak shot back.

The Buster’s pilot waved a hand. “Everything we’ve heard suggests that they’re headed for Orb; if we can take out the legged ship, your cousin and his friends should stop bothering us.”

That made sense. Alex’s one connection to the Earth Forces was the Archangel; if that ship were destroyed, there was every reason to believe that he would simply resume his journey to Orb. It was not the best outcome -Yzak desperately wanted his cousin to return to the PLANTs- but it was the most likely.

“You’re right,” he said at last. “I won’t fight Alex unless he comes for me. I’ll concentrate on the legged ship…and the Strike.”

Of course, he probably will come for me, Yzak added silently. If he is so determined to protect the legged ship, then there is no way he had just let us sink them.

“Say,” Dearka said suddenly. “Has your cousin been to Orb before?”

Yzak thought back. “Yeah, about four years ago. He was at a reception of some sort. Why?”

Dearka reached into his red coat and pulled out a computer disc. “I intercepted some transmissions between your cousin and his ship up in orbit.” He plugged the disc into a laptop he had brought along. “Wait till you see who he’s talking to.”

Yzak watched the recording, not sure what his teammate was getting at. Alex was talking to an unfamiliar blond-haired girl. There was obviously a rapport between them; Yzak knew Alex well enough to see that. It was strong, too; Alex was showing more emotion than was normal with someone outside his own family.

He looked up when it ended. “Some girls? So what?”

“She’s not just ‘some girl,’ Yzak.” Dearka pocketed the disc. “I got curious, so I ran a voiceprint analysis. That’s Chief Representative Athha’s daughter.”

Yzak sat bolt upright. “Are you serious? What would someone like that be doing on Alex’s ship?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” the other said. “Obviously, you know your cousin a lot better than I do; I’ve met him maybe twice. Why would he have the Chief Representative’s daughter be on his ship?”

Yzak wracked his brain. There was a certain logic to the situation; Alex had made no secret of his belief that Orb was the only sane nation on Earth. What that did not explain was how Cagalli Yula Athha could have gotten on the black ship.

Unless… “Maybe she was at Heliopolis. Alex recognized her and got her aboard his ship when everything went to pieces.”

“Even if she was there, why would she have escaped on the black ship instead of an Orb ship?” Dearka was more than a little skeptical. “With her connections, it wouldn’t be too hard; she is a princess, after all.”

Yzak through up his hands. “How should I know?” He shook his head. “Just as well that the black ship is not a priority target, though. The last thing we need is to kill the Chief Representative’s daughter.”

“Tell me about it,” Dearka agreed. “They were screaming after Heliopolis; if we off their princess, they’d get mad enough to declare war, and we’d be toast.”

All too true. Their failure to duplicate the Alliance’s Phase-shift aside, it was well known that Orb had better technology then either ZAFT or the Earth Forces. If the Orb Union were to enter the war as anything other than an ally of ZAFT, the PLANTs were finished.

“So, what do we do?” Dearka asked.

Yzak sighed. “We keep quiet. I do not like it, but it is not like this is going to hurt ZAFT any. I’ll talk to Alex about its next chance I get.” That there would be such a chance, he had no doubt.

“Okay,” Dearka agreed. “I don’t like it either, but you’re right.”

Banadiya, African Community, 20 February, C.E. 71

A slightly overloaded jeep came to a stop just inside the city. Even though the driver and passengers were a rather mixed group, no one gave them a second glance. This was very much desired by all concerned.

“Good luck, all of you,” Natarle said. Though she tried to hide it, she was acutely uncomfortable out of uniform. “We’ll see you later.”

Four youngsters stepped out, and the jeep sped off, presumably heading for a meeting with an arms dealer. Only two of them, Kira Yamato and Flay Allster, were military, and neither was in uniform. Kira wore a blue outfit borrowed from his friend Tolle Koenig and Flay was in the same pink dress she had worn when Kira retrieved her life pod at Heliopolis.

The other two were more ambiguous. While Cagalli held rank in the Orb military, she was seldom seen in uniform; for this trip, she wore her usual khaki pants and red t-shirt. Alex, for once, had discarded his usual black outfit in favor of tan pants and a light blue shirt.

“Pretty dusty,” Flay remarked, stifling a sneeze.

Alex barely twitched. “It’s a desert, Flay. What did you expect?” His voice held no condemnation, however, and Flay did not take offense. “If you can stop yourself from sneezing, you should be able to have a little fun.”

The redhead punched his shoulder lightly, something she would not have dared do a month earlier. “What do you know about fun?” she asked in a teasing voice.

He smiled. “I’ll grant that my idea of fun is probably very different from yours, but I do know how to enjoy myself.”

“I know. I’m just teasing.” Listening to her words, one would find it hard to believe that Flay had once been afraid of Alex.

“We should probably split up,” Alex said. “We don’t look suspicious, but best not to take chances.”

“Colonel Kisaka told me about a restaurant not too far from here,” Kira said. “Why don’t we meet there later?”

Alex nodded. “Good idea. Don’t go too far, though; we need to be able to support each other if necessary.”

Flay waved, then tugged at her boyfriend’s arm, dragging him to the nearest shop; she knew perfectly well that it was unlikely she would be able to find anything of interest, but it never hurt to look. Kira went along, feeling out of his depth; his experience at shopping was limited to computer supply stores and an occasional grocery run.

It would have amused him to learn that Alex was having similar problems. He had gone shopping before, true, but he had never had any real enthusiasm for it. He preferred to practice martial arts or spend time on a firing range. Wandering around a bazaar looking for who-knows-what was not his area of expertise.

Cagalli smiled, noticing his discomfort. Finally, she had found a situation where she was more comfortable than he was. Not that she wanted to drive her cold-blooded friend insane; she simply owed him for all the times he had unnerved her.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you,” Alex muttered, a barely discernable sour note in his otherwise toneless voice.

Cagalli looked at him with an innocent expression that fooled neither of them. “What makes you say that?”

“Don’t play innocent with me,” he grumbled. “I haven’t stayed alive this long without being able to read people, and one thing you aren’t good at is concealing your emotions.”

She laughed. “Come on, don’t tell me you’ve never gone shopping before.”

“Of course, I have. That does not mean I like it, and I don’t.” Alex suppressed a grimace. “Andrea, on the other hand, loves it; the one thing I’m dreading after I find her is what will happen if -when- she meets Flay.”

That will be fun, Cagalli thought. One thing she remembered about Alex’s sister was that the girl was perky beyond belief. Combining that with someone like Flay Allster was a recipe for weirdness.

She started to say as much, then froze at Alex’s expression. “What is it?”

He nodded at two men across the street. “See those guys?”

Cagalli felt her eyes narrow. She knew by how the men moved what Alex was talking about. “They’re military.” Now that she knew what to look for, she spotted several more. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. It’s not that surprising that Waltfeld would have some of his people out in civilian clothes.” Alex frowned. “The question is, why?”

“Do you think he knows we’re here?”

Alex shook his head. “The Tiger isn’t omniscient. Oh, it is possible that he is onto us, but it is not likely. No, I’d say that whatever ZAFT is up to right now, it has nothing to do with us.”

Cagalli grimaced. “So, we just keep acting normal, and hope Kira and Flay do the same.”

“Right. Unlike me, neither of them has the look of a soldier.”

As it happened, Kira and Flay had no idea that anything was amiss. The two of them chatted happily, just like a young couple out on a date. Kira especially enjoyed it; it was his first chance to just let go since he had found himself in the cockpit of the Strike almost a month before.

Flay had not found anything she cared about, not that she had expected to. Still, the day was not a total loss; she got to enjoy Kira’s company outside the confines of the Archangel. The ship was more comfortable than most such vessels, partly because they were so shorthanded, but it was still nice to get out in the open air for a change.

“It’s been so long,” Kira murmured. “I don’t think I’ve been on-planet more than three times since we moved to Heliopolis.”

“You were born in Orb, right?” Flay asked.

Kira nodded. “It’s been a while, though. I spent more time in Copernicus, with Athrun.” He suppressed the twinge that name produced. “Then we moved to Heliopolis, after things started to edge towards war.” He checked the bag he was carrying, making sure he had not lost anything.

Flay smiled. “Haven’t you ever shopped before?”

“Sure, I have. Athrun and I spent a lot of time in electronics shops, looking for stuff to use in our projects. He was hardware, I was software.” Kira smiled wistfully. “I miss those days.”

Talking about someone like Athrun Zala while in ZAFT territory might have seemed dumb, but Kira’s friendship with the Aegis’s pilot was not that well known.

Flay kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll both make it, and you’ll meet again as friends. Remember that.”

Having finished with their shopping, the two youngsters headed for the restaurant Kira had mentioned earlier. They found a table with four chairs and sat; Kira paid for the whole thing, explaining that he and Flay were waiting for a couple of friends.

Those friends joined them half an hour later. A waiter appeared as if by magic, asking what they would like. Kira and Cagalli both ordered kebabs and juice, Flay chose an exotic-looking salad dish, while Alex ordered (predictably, for those who knew him) seafood.

“How did they find something like that around here?” Flay wondered, looking at Alex’s plate.

Alex swallowed. “Modern transportation, Flay.” He indicated his lunch, a hammerhead shark, of all things. “Besides, we’re not all that far from the Mediterranean.” He took a sip of coffee. “Sharks are also found in fresh water, believe it or not.”

“He’s got a point,” Cagalli said. She chewed thoughtfully on a kebab. “This is really good.”

Kira agreed. Not normally an adventurous eater, he had found the local cuisine very much to his liking. “It’s a nice change.”

“Enjoy it while you can, Kira,” Alex said, lowering his voice. “I’ve spotted several ZAFT soldiers in civilian clothes.”

Flay barely kept herself from jumping in fright. “Are you sure they’re military?”

“Positive. Soldiers have awfully specific mannerisms that are exceedingly difficult to disguise.” Alex shrugged. “I don’t know why Waltfeld would have his people out and about like that, but the fact of it remains.”

They quieted for a while after that. It was unlikely that ZAFT was onto them in any case; four teenagers in a restaurant were hardly recognizable as Earth Forces (especially since only two of them were in the military to begin with). No, it was more likely that Waltfeld had something else on his mind.

And then a voice spoke behind Kira. “Excuse me,” the tall, brown-haired stranger said. “I couldn’t help noticing what you ordered. As it happens, kebabs go great with yogurt sauce.”

Cagalli promptly started arguing with the newcomer, insisting he was dead wrong. Alex, however, was not listening; he had gotten a good look at the stranger’s face, and his blood ran cold. Of all the things he had thought could go wrong, the idea of coming face to face with Andrew Waltfeld had never occurred to him, and he cursed himself for the slip.

Flay looked at him, concerned. “Are you okay?”

The Coordinator hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m fine,” he forced himself to say. “It remains to be seen for how long, though.”

“Don’t worry,” the Desert Tiger said. “I’m not after you right now…Strassmeier.”

Alex let out a resigned sigh. “You knew who I was right away, didn’t you, Commander?”

Waltfeld grinned. “I never forget a face, Strassmeier. We only met once, but you stuck in my mind.”

The other three looked at each other, then at Alex. ” ‘Commander?’ ” Kira repeated carefully. “Alex?”

Alex sighed again. “Kira, Flay, Cagalli, this is Commander Andrew Waltfeld, the Desert Tiger.” Knowing that their number was up, he decided he might as well lay it all out. “Commander, my friend Cagalli Yula -she’s a civilian I rescued at Heliopolis- and two members of the Archangel’s crew, Ensign Kira Yamato, and Crewman Second Class Flay Allster.”

Cagalli gaped. “He’s…the Desert Tiger?”

“That’s what they call me,” Waltfeld said cheerfully. “Don’t worry; like I told Strassmeier, I’m not after you today.”

Alex snorted. “Then why do you have a bunch of guys out here in civilian clothes?” he asked pointedly. “Don’t bother denying it; I know soldiers when I see them.”

“I’ve got other prey on my mind right now. You’ll find out soon enough.” Waltfeld looked at Kira. “Besides, I was hoping I’d be able to meet you.”

Kira met his gaze, wishing he had Alex’s poker face. “Why would you want to meet me?”

“You gave me quite a fight a few days ago,” the Tiger said. “I wanted to see the man behind the machine. Not to mention,” he looked back at Alex, “I wanted to find out what’s going through his head.”

Alex gazed at him coldly. “This is hardly the time or place, Commander,” he said, his voice even colder than his expression.

Waltfeld was unruffled. “True enough, but we’ll have a chance to talk later. In fact, I don’t think you kids will have any problem with what I have in mind.”

“Why should we believe you?” Cagalli spat.

The Tiger shrugged. “I don’t expect you to-” He broke off, gazing at the rooftops through suddenly narrowed eyes. “It’s about to start.”

None of the youngsters had to ask what he meant; without warning, a rocket arced out from a concealed position. Kira, reacting on instinct, tackled Cagalli, upsetting their table and dousing her in sauce. Flay collapsed on top of them, while Alex, cool as ever, drew his peculiar auto pistol.

“Always prepared, eh Strassmeier?” Waltfeld asked, crouching behind the upended table.

Alex ignored him, sighting along the barrel of his weapon. The moment one of the attackers appeared in his sights, he squeezed the trigger. His opponent fell dead, a struck between the eyes by the nine-millimeter round.

“Who are they?” Flay asked plaintively. “Why are they attacking us?”

Waltfeld grunted, spraying another gunman with his machine pistol. “They’re Blue Cosmos,” he said, jamming a fresh magazine in. “I had people out here so I could take them out. Didn’t expect it to happen like this, though.”

No kidding, Alex thought, cursing as his gun jammed. Unfortunately, his weapon of choice was notorious for that. He holstered the gun, then twitched his right arm, causing the knife compartment to spring open. Another twitch of the arm, and a knife appeared in a terrorist’s throat.

“You’ll pay for that!”

Alex whirled, just in time to stop another thug from taking him unawares. A vicious chop to the throat ended that problem, and a bone-shattering punch with his right hand disposed of another. At almost the same moment, Kira took a flying leap, driving his foot into an enemy’s chin. There was a sickening crunch as the man’s neck broke.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

Andrew Waltfeld got to his feet, brushing himself off. “That went well, even if it wasn’t what I’d expected.”

A red-haired man in ZAFT green appeared. “Commander, are you all, right?” he asked, saluting.

Waltfeld smiled. “I’m fine, DaCosta. They took us by surprise, but we handled them.” He nodded at Kira and Alex. “These guys helped out, too.”

DaCosta looked them over. He recognized Alex instantly; his resemblance to Yzak Joule was truly uncanny. Given that, it was obvious that his companions were connected to the Archangel. The two girls did not seem like much, but the brown-haired young man standing protectively over them was something else. From the way he moved, he was almost certainly a Coordinator.

“You’re right,” Waltfeld said, seeming to read DaCosta’s mind. “He’s a Coordinator. And not just any Coordinator, either. He’s the pilot of the Strike.”

DaCosta’s eyes widened. “Sir? Are you sure about this?”

The Tiger smiled. “It’s fine. Like I was telling them, they’re not today’s prey.” He looked back at the youngsters. “Why don’t you come to my place, get yourselves cleaned up.”

Cagalli glared. “Why should we trust you? You know who we are if you think we’re going to-“

“Don’t worry about it.” Waltfeld waved a hand. “You especially need to get cleaned up, and your Coordinator friends helped out in that little skirmish. I owe you for that.”

Alex laid a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be fine. Andrew Waltfeld is ruthless in battle, but he never breaks his word.”

She nodded reluctantly. “All right.”

Andrew Waltfeld’s headquarters

“Well, well, well.” A dark-haired woman greeted the small group as the entered the mansion Waltfeld used as his HQ. “So, this is the guy you’ve been talking about?” She nodded at Kira.

Waltfeld grinned. “That’s him, Aisha. The pilot of the Strike. Doesn’t look like much, does he?” He gestured at Cagalli and Flay. “Why don’t you get them cleaned up. I’ll take care of the other two.”

“Right. Come on.” Aisha smiled at the girls. “Nothing to worry about.” They reluctantly followed.

Alex and Kira trailed their host into a large office. It was sparsely furnished; Waltfeld apparently did not care for excessive decoration. There was a desk with two chairs, one behind and one in front, a small couch, and a large stone object on a table near one wall. Alex recognized it as a replica of Evidence Zero One, the artifact George Glenn had brought from the outer system. He had seen the far larger original before.

Kira had not seen it in person, but there were plenty of pictures. “Is that…?”

Waltfeld nodded. “Evidence Zero One,” he confirmed. “Not the original, of course; that’s an awful lot bigger. Right, Strassmeier?”

“I’ve seen it before,” Alex acknowledged. “I’ve been to Aprilius One several times, after all.” He and Kira accepted mugs of coffee from the Tiger. “Never paid much attention, though,” he added, sipping from his mug.

Kira did not know much about it; he had never been extremely interested in giant space fossils. He sipped his own coffee in silence.

“I have no idea why they call this thing a Whalestone,” Waltfeld said, sitting behind his desk. “Doesn’t look much like a whale to me.” He shrugged. “You might say that thing is the root of this whole conflict.”

Kira looked over at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Waltfeld nodded at the replica. “It was George Glenn’s revelations that started the whole Coordinator boom. And that was what turned the environmental group Blue Cosmos into a full-blown terrorist organization.”

“Leading to the Mandelbrot Incident, the Copernicus bombing, and Junius Seven,” Alex said tonelessly. “I will never understand how preventing the genetic enhancement of humans is supposed to protect the environment. Particularly since we are so well suited for life in space, where there is no environment save that which we create.”

Their host snorted. “Since when are terrorists rational?” he asked rhetorically. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what they do.”

“All too true,” Alex admitted.

The door opened, and Aisha stepped through. “They’re ready,” she said.

Kira felt himself gaping. His girlfriend was dressed in an evening gown of the same color as her hair. She…she is…Kira forced his mouth closed. He had always thought Flay was beautiful, but this was far beyond anything he had ever imagined.

For his part, Alex was having flashbacks. Cagalli wore a green dress startlingly like the one she had worn at that party, four years earlier. She had been striking then and had only matured since. If there was any doubt that she was a princess, that was dispelled. As always, Alex kept his face expressionless; if it had been just the two of them, or maybe Kira and Flay as well, that would have been one thing, but he did not dare react in front of the Tiger.

For some reason, maintaining his poker face was harder than usual…

Aisha broke the silence. “You know, Andy, I think these two boys are lovestruck.”

Waltfeld grinned. “You know, I think you’re right.”

Reactions to that varied; Kira and Flay both blushed, while Cagalli glared at both ZAFT officers. Alex did not bother responding; he considered the teasing to be beneath his notice. Instead, he remained vigilant, his hand near the grip of his holstered pistol, while his friends sat on the couch.

That settled for the moment, Waltfeld turned to Alex. “I’ve been wanting to ask you, kid: Why are you fighting against ZAFT?”

Alex sighed. “Didn’t Aunt Ezalia tell you why?” He did not wait for an answer. “I am deeply, unalterably opposed to everything Patrick Zala stands for. I do not know why, but it has been obvious for months that he is lost his mind. Maybe it was the Bloody Valentine…” He shook his head. “In any case, he wants every last Natural dead.”

Waltfeld did not bother debating that point. For one thing, he had his own suspicions about Patrick Zala. “What about the fact that you’re fighting alongside an Earth Forces warship? One that your cousin is trying to bring down, no less.”

The younger man hissed through clenched teeth. “Because Rau Le Creuset launched an unprovoked attack on a neutral space colony. I had no intention of getting involved with the Earth Forces, but Heliopolis forced my hand.”

Waltfeld raised an eyebrow. “Unprovoked? The Earth Forces were building a warship and new mobile suits there, and they did cause the colony’s collapse.”

“The first statement is irrelevant, and the second is an outright lie,” Alex shot back. “The Orb government had no knowledge of the Earth Forces project, and the collapse of Heliopolis was triggered by the Le Creuset team’s illegal use of D-package weaponry inside the colony.”

The Tiger blinked. The report he had received had blamed the Earth Forces for the collapse. Maybe he should have been a little more skeptical. Strassmeier was not lying, that much was clear. With a mental shrug, he tabled the matter. “All right, then,” he said, reaching into a drawer. “It doesn’t matter, anyway.”

Alex tensed. This is not good. His hand closed around his pistol grip.

“What matters is that we’re in a war, and there are no clear rules for ending a war like this,” Waltfeld went on. His hand came out of the drawer, holding a large auto pistol. “So how do you determine the winners and losers? When every single one of your enemies has been destroyed?”

Kira, Flay, and Cagalli leapt off the couch, Kira in front, and Alex whipped his own gun out. “Don’t do anything foolish, Commander,” the hawk-faced Coordinator said softly. “I’m well aware that we probably couldn’t fight our way out of here; I’m the only one armed, and all of your people are Coordinators.”

Waltfeld spared him a glance. It was his first good look at the youngster’s weapon. “A Luger, huh? There’s something you don’t see every day.” He shifted his attention to Kira. “I have no idea what your reasons are for fighting against your own people. Especially since your best friend is with the Le Creuset team.”

Kira swallowed hard. I… I do not…

“Save the mind games, Waltfeld,” Alex said coldly. “It’s not a matter of fighting his own people, Kira is an Orb national, and his only reason for fighting ZAFT is to protect his friends. The fact that they’re Naturals means nothing.”

Waltfeld held Kira’s gaze for a moment, then slowly lowered his pistol. “It makes you wonder if we have no choice but to destroy each other.”

Cagalli stared at him suspiciously. “You’re letting us go?”

“We didn’t meet today as enemies. This isn’t a battlefield.” He smiled. “I just wanted to talk this time.”

Next time, you will not be so merciful. “Of course,” Alex said. He looked back at Kira. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll catch up in a minute.”

Kira nodded. “All right.”

When the others had left, Alex holstered his weapon. “Commander, could I ask a small favor.”

Waltfeld raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“My cousin Yzak landed on Earth at the same time we did.” Alex hesitated. “Could you tell him…that I’d like to talk to him? Face to face, before everything goes crazy again. There should be time; you know as well as I do that it will be several days before either side is ready to move.”

The Tiger slowly nodded. “I can do that.”

“Thank you.” Alex turned on his heel and followed his friends.

Libyan desert

Sitting in the driver’s seat of a jeep the resistance had left for them, Alex explained his plans to the others. They were sympathetic, as he had expected; fighting against a relative was one of the most painful experiences imaginable.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Cagalli said.

Kira nodded. “You need to clear the air with him, if it’s possible.”

“It might not be,” Alex said, sighing. “Yzak’s pretty stubborn. Thanks for the support, though, all of you.”

Flay smiled. “What are friends for?”

“I know.” Alex was silent for a moment, then spoke in a lower voice, so that Kira and Flay could not hear over the engine noise. “Cagalli… that dress looks good on you.” He looked away before she could respond.

Cagalli blushed. Did he say that? Not that she minded; it was just surprising. Maybe there was more to Alex than even she had realized.

They drove the rest of the way in silence. Soon enough, they would go into battle once again.

Chapter 12: Teeth of the Tiger

Libyan Desert, 16 February, C.E. 71

Murrue and Mu hastily jumped back, narrowly avoiding a trampling by Desert Dawn guerrillas. They had gone from cautiously affable to almost blind with rage in a matter of seconds, and no one needed to ask why. If there were fires visible from Tassil, then the whole town had to be on fire.

Kisaka, predictably, had joined Sahib in a jeep driven by the youngster named Ahmed; he trusted Alex to take care of Cagalli in the interim. The three guerrillas roared off, Ahmed showing extraordinarily little regard for the concept of safe driving.

“Something nasty must have happened,” Mu observed. “If we can see fires from Tassil all the way out here…” He did not have to finish.

Murrue sighed. “We can’t take the Archangel out there, not when we’re not sure if it’s a trap. Still, someone should go.” She smiled at the Hawk. “How about it, Commander?”

Mu blinked. “You’re asking me?”

“We need someone to keep an eye on things,” the captain pointed out. “I’m sure Alex will be going, but that may not be enough.”

“And he has his own priorities anyway,” Mu agreed. “Okay, I’m on it.” He took off running.

“I’ll send Lieutenant Badgiruel with the Doctor and some supplies,” Murrue called after him.

Alex dashed into the Valkyrie’s hangar as fast as his legs would carry him. “Is the Stormbird ready?”

The chief mechanic saluted. “You didn’t take any real damage in the last fight, and the battery is already recharged. It’s ready to go.”

“Thanks, Chief.” Alex stepped onto the elevator that would take him to the cockpit and reached for the control.

A hand on his arm stopped him. “Alex, wait.”

He turned and blinked despite himself. Cagalli stood beside him, dressed in a form-fitting red flight suit. Alex was grateful for his iron self-control; it was the only thing that kept him from staring at her. As it was, he just barely stopped himself from blushing at his own thoughts.

Not now, Alex. “What is it?”

She stepped onto the lift. “I’m going with you.”

“Cagalli, this really isn’t a good time-“

“I told you before, I’ve had training,” she interrupted. “I’ve never piloted a mobile suit before, but that doesn’t make me useless in the field.”

Alex frowned. That was true, but still… “Is there any reason you bring this up now?”

Cagalli shrugged. “My father kept saying that I don’t know anything about the outside world. Well, it’s time that I learned.”

He regarded her a moment longer, then shrugged. “All right.” He tapped the lift controls. “Hang on, though, there’s only the one set of straps.” She nodded. “And keep that gun ready. We don’t know what we’ll find out there.”

“Got it.” Cagalli checked the weapon, a ten-millimeter auto pistol.

Moments later, they were ready for launch. Both were grateful that no one could see into the cockpit, as the single seat forced them into an… awkward position for launch. It was embarrassing, but the alternative was for Cagalli to be smashed against the back of the cockpit, with unpleasant results.

“I am very glad Mu didn’t see that” Alex muttered as the princess moved to his right.

Cagalli raised an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”

A snort. “Just before we landed, he suggested that you and I go out for dinner when we reach Orb. Need I say more?”

She rolled her eyes, knowing exactly what Alex was talking about. Mu La Flaga had a gift for innuendo, prompting Murrue to jokingly accuse him of harassment. Cagalli herself had nothing against the Hawk of Endymion, but his idea of humor could be irritating.

“That’s what I thought.” Alex nodded to the left. “Speaking of Mu, there’s his Skygrasper.” The figure in the machine’s cockpit waved a gloved hand at the Stormbird.

One thing both teens could easily see: Good though Mu was in a mobile armor, he was downright magic in an air-breathing fighter. The Skygrasper had a lean grace which the Zero lacked, and the Hawk was making the most of it. His plane seemed to read his mind, responding precisely to the control inputs.

“He’s good,” Cagalli murmured.

Alex nodded. “Better than I am, in atmosphere at least. I could probably take him in a space battle, but down here I would be at his mercy. Especially if he used the Launcher; a half-second burst from the Agni would take out even the Stormbird’s shield.” He glanced at her sidelong. “You have any pilot training?”

She nodded. “My father insisted. He said it might be useful someday.” She laughed softly. “Not that I was complaining. It’s a lot of fun.”

“I know what you mean.”

Tassil (or what was left of it) was coming into sight. Alex guided the mobile suit in for a gentle landing next to Mu’s Skygrasper.

He unstrapped. “Let’s get moving.”

Refugee camp, outskirts of Tassil

What a mess, Mu thought, doffing his helmet. Waltfeld had been thorough; after warning the people and giving them a chance to evacuate, he had burned Tassil to the ground. Even now, hours after the event, some of the fires still smoldered.

One of the Archangel’s jeeps pulled up next to the Stormbird, Natarle Badgiruel at the wheel. She stepped out and surveyed the scene before them. “The Desert Tiger doesn’t believe in doing things by halves,” she commented.

“You got that right,” Mu said, shaking his head. “He’s not as bad as Le Creuset, though; that bastard wouldn’t have given the people any warning.”

Natarle agreed. Andrew Waltfeld was highly skilled and extremely ruthless, but he was also a fundamentally decent man. “Somehow, I don’t think these people will agree.”

“You’re probably right. Not that I blame them.” He looked up, hearing the distinctive sound of a mobile suit’s zip line. Alex and Cagalli descended together, much to Mu’s amusement, a feeling which only grew when he saw Cagalli’s flight suit.

If either of the youngsters noticed his amusement, they did not show it; Alex was unreadable as usual, and Cagalli was focused on the improvised tent city. She soon broke away, looking for Sahib and Kisaka.

Alex moved to stand with the officers, shaking his head. “No wonder we could see the fires all the way from the Desert Dawn camp. I doubt there’s enough left of Tassil to provide decent housing for a rat.”

“For once, I agree with you,” Natarle said softly. She frowned, gazing after the princess. “Why did she come along?”

The Coordinator shrugged, though it was hard to tell in the dimness. “She told me that her father kept saying that she didn’t know anything about the world.” He waved a hand. “She decided it was time to change that.”

“And you gave her a ride, huh?” Mu said, grinning slyly.

Alex shot him a brief glance, no more. “If you are implying what I think you are implying, forget it. I have no interest in romance; Cagalli Yula Athha is a friend, nothing more.” He walked off after Cagalli.

Mu chuckled to himself. “Just a friend, huh? Yeah, right.” He turned back to his fighter. “I’d better report to the Captain.”

Natarle nodded; she had her own duties. Gesturing for the ship’s doctor to accompany her, she eased carefully into the crowded camp. Despite the mass destruction, no one appeared to be seriously injured; evidently Waltfeld had given them more than enough time to evacuate.

Strangely, most of the civilians seemed to find her Earth Forces uniform reassuring; perhaps it was because their immediate enemy was ZAFT. The fact that Sahib Ashman, leader of the Desert Dawn, trusted the Archangel’s crew was likely a factor as well.

A medic came up to her and saluted. “No fatalities, ma’am, and only minor injuries.”

“Strange,” Natarle murmured. “Even with the advance warning, you’d think the situation would be worse. The whole town destroyed, but no one badly hurt, let alone killed? It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s his nature,” a young voice said.

The XO turned. Brian Kilgore stood nearby, looking somehow even younger than he was. “What do you mean?”

“Andrew Waltfeld doesn’t kill without cause,” the Desert Rat replied. “He doesn’t like to, and besides, it would mean ZAFT is no better than the Earth Forces.”

Natarle frowned. “How do you know that?”

The youngster shrugged. “I read up on him after the Battle of Suez last year.”

She did not press him further. All five of the Valkyrie’s pilots were from the PLANTs, and though none had shown it, the current situation had to be eating at them. Natarle had no intention of adding to that unless she absolutely had to.

Archangel, Bridge

“…So that’s the situation, Captain,” Mu finished. “They can rebuild, but it’ll take a while.” He grimaced. “And in the meantime, we’ve got the Desert Tiger on our hands.”

Murrue closed her eyes briefly, suppressing a sigh. As they had unfortunately expected, Waltfeld had been very thorough. Almost all the Desert Dawn’s munitions stockpiles had been destroyed; now all they had left was a few artillery trucks and some small arms. The guerrillas would be helpless if Waltfeld attacked again.

“I suppose we don’t have a choice,” she said at last. “We can’t help these people or get out of the desert without first stopping Waltfeld.”

Mu nodded. “I think you’re right.” He glanced at something offscreen. “Talk to you later, ma’am.” He cut the circuit.

Murrue looked up at Kuzzey. “Connect me to the Valkyrie,” she ordered.

Lia was online moments later. “Hi, Aunt Murrue. What’s up?”

“It’s clear that we’ll need to fight our way past the Tiger if we are to get anywhere near Alaska,” the elder Ramius said. “In addition to that, with Tassil destroyed, the people are suffering greatly. We have to help them however we can.”

Lia nodded. “I’m already on it. Commander La Flaga gave us the coordinates of the refugee camp, so we will be sending supplies over. How are the Desert Dawn for weapons?”

“All they have left are a few artillery trucks and some small arms,” Flay Allster said; she had been assigned to logistics. “Nothing they have could handle ZuOOTs, let alone BuCUEs.”

“That’s what I thought,” Lia said with a sigh. “Alex and Cagalli went out in the Stormbird, and Brian followed them with the Scorpion. Unless we can get our other machines set up for desert warfare, there isn’t a whole lot we can do.”

Murrue drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I guess Alex, Brian, and Kira will have to take up most of the load,” she said reluctantly. “I hate to have to leave it to them, but as you said, there isn’t much we can do. Our ships can deal with the land battleships, but they will have to take care of the mobile suits.”

Lia nodded unhappily. “You’re right.”

Refugee camp

Alex stretched wearily, stifling a groan. Tassil had been destroyed just after midnight, and he had arrived at the camp an hour later. Now it was nearly dawn, and only a combination of his martial arts training and Coordinator stamina kept him awake at all.

If only Yzak could see me now, he though sardonically. Seeing to the well-being of refugees after ZAFT reduces their town to rubble.

Cagalli appeared next to him. “Only minor injuries, but it’ll take a long time for them to rebuild.” She looked him over. “How are you doing?”

“I don’t think full gravity agrees with me,” Alex said, stretching again. “I haven’t been planet side in four years, and a couple of days isn’t enough time to get reacclimated.”

“I guess you’re right.” The princess took a breath and blew half of it out. “My father was right about me. I didn’t know much about the world outside Orb.”

Alex grunted softly. “You’re getting a crash course in it, now. First you get caught in an attack by the Le Creuset team, then spend three weeks running from them, and now you are in the middle of a fight with Le Creuset’s Earthbound counterpart. Fun.”

“Yeah.” She shook her head. “I’m still not sure Father wasn’t involved in the G-weapon project. I don’t see how it could have gotten this far otherwise.”

Her friend snorted. “Cagalli, let me remind you that we have identified one, and only one, person connected to the Orb government: Rondo Ghina Sahaku. Do you really think your father is going to cooperate with the Sahakus on something like this?”

Cagalli sighed. “You’re right. It’s just…I guess I was just shocked by what I saw at Heliopolis.” Her face took on a faraway look for a moment. “I still can’t figure out why the Sahaku twins would be helping the Earth Forces.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”

“They’re both Coordinators,” she replied. “You know even better than I do how the Alliance feels about that.”

An understatement, that. Alex knew more about the Alliance’s attitude towards Coordinators than he had ever wanted to learn. He had been mildly surprised that none of the Archangel’s crew had anything against his kind. It was to be expected that Murrue would be kindly disposed, but someone like Natarle Badgiruel, who came from an old military family, was another matter entirely.

Both turned at the sound of angry voices. “What’s that?” Cagalli wondered. She and Alex moved nearer. “Sahib?”

Alex frowned. “Sounds like he’s arguing with someone.” He checked his sidearm; with emotions running wild like this, it was all too possible that something would break.

Sahib was arguing with another guerrilla, a man with a bandana covering the lower half of his face. “It’s suicide!” the leader was saying.

“So, are we just supposed to be the Tiger’s lap dogs?” the other shot back.

Alex stepped to Sahib’s side. “Sahib is correct. If you intend to pursue Waltfeld, you are making a serious mistake.”

The masked guerrilla gave him an icy look. “We’ll see about that,” he spat.

Alex covered a sigh. “You have eight artillery trucks and some small arms against three top-of-the-line TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, commanded by Andrew Waltfeld.” He let his tone cool. “If you go after him, the only thing you will accomplish is a meaningless death.”

That visibly infuriated the man. “You little bastard,” he snarled. “Who do you think you are? Was it your home the Tiger destroyed? Is it your people he oppresses every day?” Without waiting for a response, he spun around and stalked off.

This is going to get ugly. Alex went for his machine, knowing that the guerrillas would need all the help they could get.

Cagalli paced him for a few steps. “Sahib’s going after them. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to try to save them from themselves,” he said darkly. He reached for the zip line. “Sorry I can’t take you along, but there’s only the one seat.”

Since flying in combat was a lot different their journey to the camp, she had no intention of arguing. “I understand.” She gave him a quick hug, much to his surprise. “Be careful.”

“I will.”

The Stormbird lifted off. Cagalli watched it go, feeling more than a little frustrated. She did not blame Alex, of course, but she was tired of sitting back while others did all the work. Her role on the Valkyrie helped some, keeping her occupied, but she did not want to be stuck in the rear echelon forever.

A gloved hand landed on her shoulder. “You okay?”

Cagalli looked up, surprised. “Commander La Flaga?”

The Hawk of Endymion smiled. “You look kind of down, kid.”

She frowned, not sure what he was getting at, then shrugged. “I’m just frustrated. I have had training, but I have always had to stay in the back. It’s not Alex’s fault -there’s no way I could help in something like the Stormbird- but still.”

“Hey, I know what you mean.” He looked at her speculatively. “You’ve had training, huh? Would that include pilot training?”

Cagalli blinked. What is this about? “Yeah, why?”

Mu smiled slyly. “If we are going up against the Tiger, we need every machine we’ve got. Think you can handle a Skygrasper?”

She gaped. “Y-Yeah, but…”

“Then let’s get going.” He waved her to his own machine’s rear seat. “Besides, you want to keep Alex out of trouble, don’t you?”

If he had not been an officer, Cagalli would have smacked him.

Archangel, Bridge

Murrue frowned. “Are you sure about this, Commander? What about the refugees?”

Mu waved his hand. “Lieutenant Badgiruel can handle that. In the meantime, we need everything out there. Alex has already left, and I’ll bet his buddy Kilgore will be going, too.”

She sighed. “You’re right.” She investigated CIC. “Crewman Haw, have Ensign Yamato launch at once.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“We’ll have a little extra help,” Mu said. “It seems the princess has had some pilot training. I figure she can handle a Skygrasper.”

Murrue started to object, then closed her mouth and forced herself to consider more carefully. If Cagalli was trained in fighter operations, then it would be helpful, allowing them to get both Skygraspers in the air. And her experience with the Valkyrie had taught her not to turn down free help.

“All right, then,” she said at last. “You’re right, we can use the help. Cagalli, stay close to Commander La Flaga. You may be trained, but you don’t have any experience.”

The princess nodded. “I understand.”

Mu’s Skygrasper made a smooth landing on the starboard flight deck. Moments later, refueled and rearmed, it launched again, this time with another plane on his wing. While an occasional hesitation betrayed her inexperience, Cagalli clearly knew what she was doing.

A humanoid shape flashed past them, Kira’s X105 Strike. He had learned from the night’s battle and had insisted on the Aile pack for this mission. Mobility was far more important than raw firepower when fighting BuCUEs. Since the Aile pack allowed the Strike to fly, this time Kira would have the advantage.

Good luck, Murrue thought.

Libyan desert

Cagalli felt a thrill as she took to the air. As far as she was concerned, nothing beat the feeling of atmospheric flight, though space travel came close. Though she had never flown a Skygrasper before, it was Cagalli had little trouble keeping pace with Mu’s fighter.

“You okay back there?” Mu called.

She grinned. “I’m fine. The controls are a little more sensitive than I’m used to, but I’ll be all right.”

Mu smiled to himself. Cagalli was clearly having the time of her life. He knew how she felt; his first solo flight had been the biggest thrill of his life. “Glad to hear it.” He glanced at his scope. “No sign of the BuCUEs yet, but there’s Alex. Wonder where his buddy is.”

“Probably under the sand; the Scorpion is meant for desert warfare, after all.”

“Makes sense,” Mu agreed. “As soon as we find Waltfeld, give Alex some backup. I know the Captain said to stay close to me, but I’m hard to keep up with in a fight.”

“Roger that.”

Alex had spotted the BuCUEs with his machine’s more capable scanners. There you are, Waltfeld. He powered up his weapons, not taking his eyes off the ZAFT mobile suits. BuCUEs had given him trouble in his first planet side engagement, but he had learned. This time, he and Kira would both be ready.

“Hey, Alex!”

He looked back, seeing not one but two Skygraspers behind him. “Cagalli? What are you doing out here?”

“Commander La Flaga gave me a ride to the Archangel.” Her blue-and-white fighter settled in beside him. “When I told him I’d had pilot training, he figured I could be helpful.” She gave him a thumbs-up. “I’m your backup.”

Alex nodded. “Got it. Take them from a distance; you know as well as I do that taking a fighter in close against BuCUEs is a bad idea.”

“Roger that.”

“I see the Desert Dawn jeeps,” Kira put in. “They’re closing in on the BuCUEs.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “I see them. Let us see if we can save them from themselves.”

All in all, it had been a good day for the Waltfeld team. Sure, they had been stymied by the two warships, but they had dealt a severe blow to the local resistance fighters. From what they would hear, there was no way the guerrillas could have much in the way of weapons left.

“Couldn’t we go any faster?” DaCosta said plaintively.

Waltfeld gave him an amused glance. “What, are you afraid that those guerrillas will chase us?” He did not wait for an answer. “It would be suicide. Sure, there are those who say they’d rather be dead, but not many follow through on it.”

“Commander,” one of the BuCUE pilots said suddenly. “We have several small vehicles incoming. They appear to belong to the resistance.”

The Tiger sat upright. “Maybe they really would rather be dead.”

“They’ve spotted your friends, Cagalli,” Alex said tightly. “Kira?”

“I see it,” the other responded. “I don’t think they’ve noticed us, though.”

Alex shook his head. “That won’t last. Cagalli, get some altitude. Try to nail them with missiles. And don’t worry about hitting us; our Phase-shift will take care of that.”

“Roger.” Cagalli’s Skygrasper stood on its tail and screamed skyward.

“All right, guys,” Alex said. “Let’s go!”

The Strike and the Stormbird flew side by side, thus far unnoticed by the ZAFT pilots. Unfortunately, as Alex said, it was not going to last. What they had to do was get into firing range as quickly as possible, lest the Desert Dawn be wiped out.

For some, it was already too late. One jeep was run over by a BuCUE; two more narrowly avoided the same fate. Sahib was visible in another jeep, two rocket launchers in hand. They went off simultaneously, striking a BuCUE in a foreleg’s joint. Another ZAFT machine turned toward them; a leg came up…

And then the two Gundams were in range. A pinpoint shot from the Stormbird blew off the offending leg. The Strike followed suit, narrowly missing another BuCUE.

“I missed?” Kira said, startled.

“Adjust your targeting computer to compensate for the heat convection,” Alex advised him, dodging a missile barrage. Phase-shift would allow him to survive, but it could be worn down.

“Got it.”

A double salvo of missiles struck from above; Mu had reformed with Cagalli, and now both Skygraspers were blasting away with everything they had. It was not enough to hurt the BuCUEs -yet- but it certainly gave them something else to think about.

“The new Earth Forces machine?” DaCosta said in surprise. “And the black ship’s lead unit?”

Waltfeld smiled thinly. “That kid’s good. He’s already compensated for the heat convection, and his current equipment gives him the advantage in mobility.”

“What now, sir?” the younger man asked.

“I test this guy myself.” Waltfeld brought up a radio handset. “Kirkwood!”

“Yes, sir!”

“Let me get in there and pilot that BuCUE.” Waltfeld looked down at DaCosta. “Some things you can’t understand without exchanging fire with one another.”

When the lead BuCUE abruptly changed its tactics, Kira, and Alex both knew something was up. It had been performing well before, but now it was going all out. Whoever was piloting it know, he was no ordinary ZAFT soldier.

Kira got it first. “Alex, I think Waltfeld himself is in that thing.”

Alex bit back a savage curse. “The two of us together might not be a match for that guy. The Skygraspers don’t count; no offence to Cagalli and Mu, but their machines are no match for BuCUEs.”

His friend sighed. “You’re right. It’s up to us.” He suddenly remembered another machine. “What about Brian?”

“He’s a wild card,” Alex said. “It’s best if he operates as he sees fit; he knows more about this kind of warfare than I do.”

Then there was no more time for talk. The BuCUEs came at them in unison, missiles tracing their path. Kira and Alex dodged to either side, downing some of the missiles with their CIWS. Alex even went to far as to destroy one with a beam saber. He was making a point to the ZAFT people: BuCUEs are good, but Gundams are better.

Waltfeld apparently did not get the point. He and his two cohorts assumed a three-pronged formation, focused entirely on the Strike, and Alex felt his lip twist as he realized why he was being largely ignored. Not many ZAFT commanders would be willing to risk angering Ezalia Joule by killing her nephew.

“Even if you only use regular missiles, the Phase-shift loses its effect after seventy-six hits,” Waltfeld said, grinning. “When that happens, the rifle simultaneously runs out of power.”

Give me a break! Two of the missiles impacted on the Strike’s face, temporarily blinding Kira. He hit his thrusters and jumped back, trying to get some breathing space.

“Now, you weird and wonderful pilot,” Waltfeld said, his grin widening, “how you gonna get out of this jam?”

Alex lined up his beam rifle, hoping he was in time to help. He squeezed the trigger…and something impacted hard on the Stormbird, causing the shot to go wide. “What the-!”

“Alex!” Cagalli called frantically. “More BuCUEs, five of them! Watch out!”

Alex swore savagely, turning to face the new threat. To make matters worse, the new arrivals were equipped with railguns, which were more dangerous because of their high-density projectiles. Combined with their high mobility, that made them a serious problem for a single mobile suit, Gundam or not.

And then it went from bad to worse, and Alex swore again as the BuCUEs sprouted beam sabers from their heads. Dodging a railgun shot, he managed to snap off a laser blast, striking a BuCUEs battery. The resultant explosion seemed to disorient the other pilots, but only briefly.

Kira, meanwhile, was once again proving that he was no ordinary pilot. The SEED had burst, and he was driving his enemies nuts. One missile salvo exploded against a wall of sand the Strike threw up, and a BuCUE took a laser blast dead center, destroying it.

Beset by four BuCUEs, Alex blocked another railgun shot, then dodged a saber slash. This is getting very annoying.

Behind his eyes, an ice-blue seed exploded.

His mind suddenly as cold and clear as the vacuum of space, Alex lunged up and forward, stabbing a saber into one BuCUEs head and dragging it along, slicing the ZAFT machine in half lengthwise. Another BuCUE tried to avenge his partner, only to receive a laser beam in the side.

Two to go. A plasma shot incinerated a third BuCUE, and Alex turned to the last one…which was no longer there. Brian Kilgore’s Scorpion Gundam has erupted from the sand, Stinger flashing, and the last BuCUE broke in half and exploded.

Alex sighed with relief. “Thanks, Brian. I owe you one.”

“What are friends for?” Still in mobile armor mode, the Scorpion waggled its wings and departed.

The other battle was going well. One of the BuCUEs had been incapacitated when Kira threw the Strike’s shield at it. Waltfeld himself was still in the game, but in a one-on-one fight, Kira Yamato had the advantage. He adroitly tossed the Strike around, dodging more than half of the Tiger’s attacks.

“Now you’ve taken this way too far!” Waltfeld snarled. Another missile salvo flashed out.

Kira was having none of it. His CIWS took out the missiles, and a saber slash neatly cut off the BuCUEs right foreleg.

Knowing he had lost, the Tiger turned away. “Hurry, DaCosta, we’re retreating!”

“Right, sir!”

Waltfeld smiled to himself. ‘”Now that is my kind of guy. Been a while since I had this much fun.” He found himself hoping that he would have a chance to meet young Kira Yamato face to face.

Kira and Alex watched him go, both breathing heavily. “Come on, Kira,” Alex said. “Let’s get back to base.”

“Right.”

The two mobile suits spun in midair, flanked by a pair of Skygraspers. They had just won a battle, but the war was far from over.

Desert Dawn base camp

Kira released the zip line as his feet touched the desert floor and was immediately tackled by Flay. He returned the fierce embrace, more grateful than ever for her support.

“Kira, I was so scared,” Flay whispered into his shoulder. “When I heard Waltfeld was out there in person.”

He gently stroked her hair. “It was hard, but I managed it.” He frowned. “It was strange, though. Near the end of the battle, I suddenly felt almost serene. I don’t know how to describe it, except that my mind was incredibly clear.”

“It’s called the SEED,” Alex explained, walking over with Cagalli. “Superior Evolutionary Element Destined Factor. Those who possess it are capable of incredible feats when it activates.”

Flay looked from one Coordinator to the other. “Has it happened before?”

“Twice,” Kira said. “The first time was when the Blitz was attacking the Archangel’s Bridge, the second was the other night, when those missiles came in.” He looked at Alex. “How do you know about it?”

Alex shrugged. “My father was a geneticist, remember.”

Cagalli looked at him sharply. “Alex, when you faced those extra BuCUEs, you seemed to change. Was it…?”

“The SEED? Yes. I never thought I would have that ability, but…” Alex looked rueful for a moment. “Dad must have known, though. I can’t think of any other reason he would have spoken to me about it, since it’s only a theory…technically.”

Kira raised his eyebrows. “Technically?”

“Well, I think you and I have proved that it’s more than just a theory.” Alex flexed his prosthetic arm. “It saved both our lives today.” He took a water bottle a guerrilla offered him. “Me more than you; even without the SEED, your abilities are beyond belief.”

The other Coordinator looked at him incredulously. “Come on, I’m not that good.”

“Yes, you are,” Alex disagreed. “Kira, even though you had no combat experience whatsoever prior to Heliopolis, you have yet to lose a single engagement. I’ve had training, yet you are better than I could ever hope to be.”

Kira decided not to pursue the matter further. He stood, Flay’s arm tucked through his. “I’d better get some rest. We won today, but you can bet Waltfeld will be back.”

“Right.”

Flay watched over her shoulder as Alex and Cagalli made their way back to the Valkyrie. The hawk-faced Coordinator had been a textbook lesson in not judging by appearance. His cold exterior hid a great deal. There was pain at what had happened to his family, and an implacable hatred of the Earth Forces, but at the same time there was almost painfully intense compassion. Flay was one of the few outside his family who had seen it; as far as she knew, the only others were Kira, Lia, and Captain Ramius.

And Cagalli, of course. She nudged her boyfriend. “You think Cagalli needs her head examined?”

Kira blinked, not sure what she was talking about, then grinned. “Yeah, I think so. She’s almost like a shadow.”

He was not the only one to have noticed that. Mu La Flaga and Lia Ramius had both seen how close the two youngsters had become since the escape from Heliopolis. Cagalli’s short-lived belief that Alex was a ZAFT spy had meant little in the end.

“I think those two are perfect for each other,” Flay said, managing to sound both light and almost profoundly serious.

Kira glanced at her. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve seen how Alex has been hurting,” Flay began. Kira nodded; he had learned to read their cold-blooded friend to a limited extent. “His parents are dead, his sister’s missing, he has to fight his own cousin, and he can’t go home. He needs someone who can help him through it.”

The Strike pilot nodded again. “That makes sense. What about Cagalli?”

“She’s never had a chance to really be herself.” Flay shook her head, her long red hair swinging with the motion. “Alex is one of the few people who sees her just as another person, not a princess. It has to be a relief for her.” She shuddered. “She used to be engaged to Yuuna Seiran.”

Kira’s lip twisted. As an Orb national, he knew a little about the Five Noble Families, and the Seirans were not among his favorite people. “You think Alex is a better match for her?”

“I think Rau Le Creuset would be better than Yuuna Seiran, but yeah.” Flay grimaced, then shook herself. “But we shouldn’t be thinking about that right now.” Before Kira could react, she kissed him long and hard.

Bismarck, Daniel Bartlett’s quarters

Bartlett read the message from the homeland for the fourth time. He doubted that he had missed anything, but it always paid to be certain, especially with a mission of such importance. Success could mean glory and -more importantly, from Bartlett’s perspective- advancement. Failure could well mean a dishonorable discharge, or worse.

Not that I am going to fail. He keyed the intercom. “Michael, I’ll be temporarily leaving the ship.”

Harriman nodded. “So, the communique contained new orders?”

“Orders of the highest importance,” Bartlett confirmed. “Orders from Committee Chairman Zala himself.” He smiled at the captain’s expression. “I’ll be heading for Carpentaria to take part in the preliminaries for Operation Spit Break.”

Harriman frowned. “Spit Break? But that’s months away, and it hasn’t even been approved by the Council yet.”

“Yet.” Bartlett smiled thinly. “It will be, sooner or later. In any case, I will be assuming command of the submarine carrier Ballard. If the legged ship gets past Waltfeld, they’ll also get past Morassim; the man is an incompetent of the lowest order.” He snorted. “If they make it, I will be waiting.” The intercom clicked off.

Do get past Waltfeld and the submariner, Strassmeier. I so want to have a rematch.

Chapter 11: Duel Over the Desert

Sahara Desert, African Community, 15 February, C.E. 71

If someone with no knowledge of the present war had happened upon the Archangel and the Valkyrie, all they would have seen were a pair of odd-looking ships, quiescent for the moment. Such an impression was deceptive; as they were in enemy territory, both ships were at a constant state of alert. They knew that they would soon come up against the best ZAFT’s ground forces had to offer.

Not that they would be alone.

As it happened, a third party had stumbled across the two warships. The Desert Dawn, the most active of the local resistance groups, had spotted them coming in. While they had no love for the Earth Forces, they had even less for ZAFT, and were now trying to decide on their next move.

“What do you make of it, Kisaka?” Sahib Ashman, the leader of the group asked.

Ledonir Kisaka, who only Ashman knew was a Colonel in the Orb Ground Forces, squinted at the ships through his binoculars. “The white one is definitely the new Earth Forces ship, the Archangel,” he said. “I don’t recognize the black ship.”

“I heard rumors about it,” a young fighter named Ahmed offered. “They say it’s an independent ship that gave the Le Creuset team fits. I hear they’ve got at least a couple of prototype mobile suits.”

Sahib turned to look at him. Ahmed was somewhat naive, but he had a knack for picking up trivia. “Did you hear anything else?”

Ahmed shrugged. “Their lead pilot is supposed to be related to someone on the Supreme Council; a renegade, I guess.”

“Probably Strassmeier,” Kisaka murmured, so quietly that only Sahib could hear. “Ezalia Joule’s nephew. He disappeared last year, just after the Bloody Valentine.”

The resistance leader frowned. “Why would he be fighting ZAFT? Joule’s a hardliner; I can’t see one of her relations turning against the PLANTs.”

“I don’t know.” The bigger man -Ledonir Kisaka was an imposing figure- shrugged. “It doesn’t matter right now. We have more immediate things to worry about.”

And you want to find your runaway princess, Sahib added mentally. Cagalli Yula Athha had vanished when Heliopolis collapsed, and there had been no news of her since. Her father was worried sick, and Kisaka, her longtime bodyguard, was not much better off.

They were interrupted by a buzz from a radio in their jeep. Ahmed picked up a handset. “Yes, what is it?”

“The Tiger has left the Lesseps,” the other said. “He’s heading toward those ships with an undetermined number of BuCUEs.”

There were muttered curses all around. None of them had any illusions of the coming fight; Andrew Waltfeld was a dangerous man. If he was planning to attack the newly arrived warships, then he clearly believed he could win.

“What do we do, Sahib?” Kisaka asked.

Sahib sighed. “It goes against the grain to help the Earth Forces, but I don’t think we have a choice. Enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.”

“So, we’re going to help the Archangel?” Ahmed asked.

Sahib nodded. “We don’t have enough firepower to fight BuCUEs directly, so we’ll lay a trap.” He waved another resistance fighter over. “Find a good spot and plant some mines. We’ll make a pit for the Tiger to fall into.”

Archangel, bridge

Natarle Badgiruel stretched out in the command chair, stifling a yawn. The night watch had only a skeleton crew due to the loss of the replacements when the advance fleet was destroyed. Now, there were only four people on the bridge: Natarle herself, Arnold Neumann, Romero Pal, and Sai Argyle. All in all, it had been very boring thus far.

Neumann abruptly provided some welcome amusement. He sipped from a cup of water, then, forgetting that they were now on Earth, absently released the cup in midair. Gravity then had its way, with predictable -and messy- results.

Natarle could not help chuckling. “Ensign Neumann, please remember that we’re under gravity now. I’d hate to have to explain to the Captain why we needed a mop on the bridge.”

The newly commissioned officer smiled sheepishly. “I’ll try, ma’am.”

“Good.” Natarle sat back, throwing a surreptitious glance around the bridge. Despite the late hour, the bridge watch performed flawlessly. That included Sai, to the surprise of some. Natarle was not among them; if nothing else, the sort of school Sai and his friends had attended before Rau Le Creuset had brought them into the war had probably prepared them for all-nighters.

Truth be told, she had taken a liking to the students, though she would never admit it. Even though, except for Flay, they had no previous connection to the Earth Forces, they had cheerfully lent their abilities to the Archangel, with remarkable results.

Especially Kira Yamato. His was a particularly difficult situation. Not only did he not have any prior connection to the Earth Forces, but volunteering had also meant he had to face his best friend in combat. Her desire to keep Kira with them aside, Natarle had nothing but sympathy for the youngster, which was why she supported the dispensation allowing him to avoid using lethal force against the Aegis.

Captain Ramius was right about one thing, she admitted to herself. I cannot imagine what Ensign Yamato must be going through.

“Lieutenant, I’m picking up several heat sources,” Pal said abruptly. “Definitely mobile suits,”

“Confirmed,” Sai said; in addition to his EW duties, he was filling in for Tonomura. “Checking profiles…TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, at least five, possibly more.”

Natarle cursed. “It must be Waltfeld; just what we need.” She punched an intercom button. “All hands, Level One Battlestations! Captain Ramius, to the bridge, on the double!” She looked up at Pal. “Get me the Valkyrie,”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Alex Strassmeier and Lia Ramius appeared on the screen side-by-side, the former already in-flight gear. “I take it you’ve picked up on our uninvited guests?” he said bluntly.

Natarle nodded. “At least five BuCUEs, possibly more. What’s your status?”

“Only two of our mobile suits are ready, Brian’s Scorpion and my Stormbird,” Alex said. “The other three aren’t ready for desert combat.” His lip twisted. “To be honest, I don’t think the others will ever really be ready; we’ll have to use them as fire support.”

“Understood. What about your ship?”

Lia consulted her board, then nodded. “We’re good to go. Like you, we cannot make high altitudes -three hundred meters, max- but everything else is fine.”

“Good,” Murrue said, stepping onto the bridge with the rest of the regulars in tow. Natarle quickly vacated the command chair. “Kira’s already in the Strike, but I don’t think we can send him out; he hasn’t fully recovered yet.”

Alex shrugged. “His recuperative powers might surprise you, but I see your point. What about Mu?”

“Chief Murdoch’s people are getting Commander La Flaga’s Skygrasper prepped now,” Mir said. “It might take some time, though; apparently they’ve run into a few bugs.”

The Coordinator nodded grimly. “I understand. We’ll do what we can.”

Skies over the desert

“No rest for the weary,” Alex muttered, fastening his restraints.

A quiet laugh sounded over the comm. “I think that’s no rest for the wicked,” Cagalli said with a smile.

“You do so much for my ego,” Alex said, shaking his head. “Anything more on the situation?”

She nodded. “We’ve got eight BuCUEs, about a dozen Agile helicopters, and six of another mobile suit type.” The princess frowned. “The catalogue is calling them TAF-2 ZuOOTs.”

Alex snorted derisively. “Ignore them; ZuOOTs are little more than heavily armed targets. The BuCUEs are the real threat.” He pressed his head firmly against the seat back. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

“Brian Kilgore, Scorpion launching!” the younger pilot echoed. Once clear, he immediately shifted to mobile armor mode and dove beneath the sand.

Alex spared him a glance, then boosted sideways, cursing as a BuCUE lunged at him. He triggered a beam shot, cursing again when he missed to the side. What is going on here? Two more shots missed, then he finally connected, blowing off a missile pod.

Okay, a partial victory. Electing to try something a little less subtle, Alex unlimbered his plasma cannon and fired directly at the ground, blasting sand everywhere and clogging up an Agile’s air intakes. The ZAFT chopper spun out of control and slammed into the ground, exploding with a roar.

A BuCUE tried to retaliate, but soon had another problem. “You think BuCUEs rule the desert? Think again!” Brian shouted, bursting out of the sand. His Stinger beam cannon flashed twice, blowing the BuCUE cleanly in half.

Alex smiled grimly. One down. Almost casually, his Igelstellungs reduced another Agile to scrap. Ignoring the remaining choppers, he took careful aim at a ZuOOT. The ZAFT pilot unloaded his entire arsenal, and then Alex pulled the trigger.

Boom. Apparently, he had hit the machine’s energy battery.

His ESM (electronic surveillance measures) unit beeped. Alex looked down at the board, frowning. Encrypted radio chatter? What is the point? We already know the BuCUEs are here. It was possible that this was a diversion, but Alex thought that unlikely. They were fighting the Desert Tiger and using meaningless radio signals -especially encrypted radio signals- was not Waltfeld’s style.

He keyed his comm. “Archangel, Valkyrie, watch out. I’m picking up encrypted radio signals, and they’re not directed at the BuCUEs.”

“Commander La Flaga launched about five minutes ago,” Mir responded. “He says there’s a land battleship somewhere over the horizon.”

“Probably the Lesseps, Waltfeld’s flagship,” Alex said, grimacing. “But I don’t think that’s the source.”

He was right. The real source was close at hand.

“Well, this is interesting,” Andrew Waltfeld said, sipping his coffee. “No sign of the Strike, but that black ship’s machines are putting up quite a fight.”

Martin DaCosta, his aide-de-camp and protégé, looked up at him. “Is it true that their lead pilot is Representative Joule’s nephew?”

Waltfeld nodded. “Yep. I met the kid once, after a certain martial arts tournament. Cold on the outside, but do not let that fool you. He’s a PLANT patriot to the core, never mind that he’s helping an Earth Forces ship.”

“So, we’re not shooting to kill?”

The Commander gave his aide a sardonic look. “I don’t know about you, DaCosta, but I don’t want to have to explain to Ezalia Joule why we blew up her nephew. He and his people are killing our people, but there are such things as mitigating circumstances.”

DaCosta nodded thoughtfully. “And Commander Bartlett?”

Waltfeld laughed. “Don’t fool yourself, DaCosta, Dan Bartlett is no match for Strassmeier.” He winced slightly as another Agile fell to the Stormbird’s guns. “Bartlett’s problem is that he can’t see past his own grudges. Strassmeier has a computer in his head; sure, he has his own grudges, mainly against the Atlantic Federation, but they do not affect his thinking. They just make him more determined.”

“What do we do?”

The Tiger studied the two ships closely. “The Lesseps will be in firing range in about ten minutes. If we can keep those two mobile suits occupied, the legged ship will be in for a world of hurt.”

DaCosta followed his commander’s gaze. “And if they launch the Strike?”

“That depends on which equipment module they use.” Waltfeld took another sip of coffee. “If they’re smart, they’ll use the Aile pack; from what I remember of that Zala kid’s report, that’s the best one for combat within a gravity well.”

“I see.” The younger man nodded thoughtfully. “And if they use one of the other packs…”

“Then we show them why BuCUEs rule the desert.” Waltfeld smiled grimly.

Unfortunately, like the Le Creuset team before them, they were underestimating Kira Yamato. By the time they realized their mistake, it would be far too late.

This is getting annoying, Alex thought, dodging a persistent BuCUE. A shot from his rifle disposed of the problem, allowing him to take stock of the battle.

It was not encouraging. There were still Agiles flitting around, not to mention several more BuCUEs. The ZuOOTs were inconsequential; as Alex had said, they were little more than heavily armed targets. However, the land battleship Lesseps had finally gotten into firing range and was busy lobbing missiles at the Archangel.

Alex watched a ZuOOT detonate under his fire. “Murrue, you need to launch the Strike. This is our first fight under gravity; even with the Stormbird and the Scorpion, there’s a limit to what we can do.”

Murrue shook her head. “I’d love to, but it’s not possible. Kira’s not ready to fight.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Alex countered, his CIWS downing a missile barrage. “His recuperative powers exceed even Coordinator norm. Even if he has not recovered fully, if you do not send him out now, it’ll be too late.”

The captain started to reply but was interrupted by her intercom. “This is crazy!” Kira Yamato said. “Alex is right, I have to launch! If this is really Waltfeld…”

Murrue sighed. “Very well.”

Archangel, hangar/ Libyan desert

Kira was almost shaking with impatience as the deck crew guided his Strike to the catapult. He had dashed to the hangar almost before the alarms went off, knowing that he would be needed soon. Murrue’s initial refusal to authorize a launch had frustrated him; with the Desert Tiger out there, they needed every machine that could be launched.

Come on, come on, hurry up

“Connected to catapult,” Mir said. “Attach Launcher Striker.” As she spoke, the hangar’s robotic arms attached the shoulder unit and hyper-impulse cannon. “System all green.”

Kira set himself. “Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!”

He encountered his first problem the instant he left the ship. The Strike landed on the desert sand…and promptly sank. Stifling an incredulous curse, Kira hit his thrusters, getting about two hundred meters from the ship before sinking again.

He knew he could resolve the problem if given enough time, but ZAFT had no intention of letting that happen. A BuCUE came seemingly out of nowhere, knocking the Strike on its back. Kira was able to fight it off, but he knew it would be but a momentary reprieve.

“Well, well, well. I guess they didn’t want to be smart.”

DaCosta looked up at his CO’s comment. “Sir?”

Waltfeld smirked. “They launched the Strike with its heavy weapons package. Sure, that hyper-impulse cannon could be nasty, but that assumes the pilot can aim it, and I do not think our BuCUEs are going to let him. If he had launched with the Aile, maybe he would have a chance, but as it is…”

DaCosta nodded. A hyper-impulse cannon was of little use if the machine it was mounted on could not maneuver to aim it.

The enemy apparently realized that as well; as they watched, the yellow X300 frame moved to assist the Strike, scattering the BuCUEs with a hail of laser fire.

“There’s only so much that guy can do,” Waltfeld said, as if he had read DaCosta’s thoughts. “Unless they get their act together, it’s only a matter of time.”

“Kira, you need to adjust your OS!” Brian called. “Adjust the weight distribution to account for the granularity of the sand!”

Of course. “Roger that. Thanks, Brian.” Cursing his own idiocy, Kira halted his machine, trusting the phase-shift to keep him safe, and began rapidly typing.

Less than a minute later, the Strike was moving smoothly on the desert sand. “That’s better,” Kira murmured. “I hate feeling helpless.”

A BuCUE pilot, not realizing that the Strike had adapted to the new conditions, lunged at him from behind. Kira, not impressed in the slightest, slammed the Agni’s stock into the ZAFT machine, knocking it back. The BuCUE landed on its back and tried to rise, only to be pinned by the Strike’s foot.

Kira glared at his opponent, leveling the Agni. “Here, have some of this!”

A blast from a hyper-impulse cannon at point-blank range produced spectacular results.

Seconds later, the remaining ZuOOTs fell to the Stormbird’s beam rifle. Another BuCUE detonated when Brian hammered it with his Stinger, followed by the last of the Agiles, courtesy of Mu La Flaga.

They were not safe yet. There were still four BuCUEs, and the Lesseps was still sending missiles at the Archangel. Even worse for the Earth Forces, the mobile suits were running low on power. Alex’s shield was useless, as the enemy did not have any beam weapons, and Kira had fired the Agni more than he should have.

Then Kira saw two missile salvos heading for the Archangel. No! An amethyst seed burst behind his eyes and, his mind suddenly noticeably clear, he snapped off a shot from the Agni, vaporizing the first salvo. Knowing that he did not have enough energy for another shot, he took care of the rest by grabbing the nearest BuCUE and throwing it into the path of the swarm.

BOOM.

Alex watched approvingly, then cursed. “I’m out of power. Nothing else I can do here.”

“Roger that,” Cagalli said. “Brian’s returning, too. Can Kira handle the BuCUEs on his own?”

Alex started to reply, then caught himself. “He won’t have to,” he said, eyes narrowed at the new data on his display. “I think that resistance group you mentioned just arrived.”

He was right. After receiving a message telling him to lure the BuCUEs into a trap, Kira took off, conserving his power as much as possible. As soon as the BuCUEs caught up with him, he jumped away, leaving the enemy machines to their doom.

One very messy explosion later, it was all over.

Andrew Waltfeld took his defeat philosophically. “I guess they were better than I thought,” he said, shrugging. “That X300 frame was obviously meant to counter our BuCUEs, and the Strike’s pilot compensated for the sand faster than I expected.” He drained his coffee mug. “Of course, he’s a Coordinator, so it’s really no surprise.”

DaCosta blinked. “Why would a Coordinator fight us?” It made no sense. Everyone knew that the Earth Forces high command detested Coordinators.

Waltfeld shrugged. “Seems the kid’s got some Natural friends on that ship; that’s why he stayed on.”

That did make sense, DaCosta conceded. He himself had no use for the hatred of Naturals some in ZAFT indulged in. “Sir, how do you know about this? According to the official report, the Strike’s pilot is a Natural.”

Waltfeld snorted. “I’ve got some sources, and it just so happens that not only is the Strike pilot a Coordinator, but he also happens to be Athrun Zala’s best friend.”

DaCosta went rigid. “Sir?”

“You heard right. Committee Chairman Zala tried to keep it quiet, but the kid told the rest of his team. Yzak Joule told his mother, and she saw to it that I found out.” Waltfeld shrugged again. “I don’t know why she did it, unless it’s because the kid -his name’s Kira Yamato, or something like that- is friends with her nephew.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter right now. We’re pulling back.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sahara Desert, African Community, 16 February, C.E. 71

Murrue gazed thoughtfully at the screen. The intervention by resistance fighters had come as a welcome surprise, but now that the battle was over, they had to decide what to do next. Though the locals had been helpful, it remained to be seen how they would react to the Earth Forces.

“We should be safe,” Cagalli said over the comm.

Natarle looked up. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve spotted at least two people I know personally,” the princess explained. “The leader is Sahib Ashman, which means this is the Desert Dawn group. He’s a friend of my family.”

The lieutenant nodded. That made sense. “And the other one?”

“The big guy next to Sahib is Colonel Ledonir Kisaka, Orb Ground Forces,” Cagalli said. “He often acts as my bodyguard.”

That one caught everyone by surprise. “What would an Orb officer, a Colonel, no less, be doing out here?” Tolle wondered.

Cagalli shrugged. “He was born in Tassil, a town not far from here. He probably wanted to help his people.”

“What matters is that we can trust them,” Murrue said. “Will you be joining us outside?”

“I should,” Cagalli said. “Kisaka will probably try to drag me home, but when he finds out the Valkyrie is heading for Orb anyway, I think he’ll just insist on coming along when we leave.”

Murrue stood. “All right, then. Commander La Flaga will join us outside. I would like Lia and Alex to come along, as well; Brian and Kira can stand by in case ZAFT returns.” She nodded at Natarle. “Hold the fort while we’re gone.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This should be interesting. Alex had recognized Ledonir Kisaka instantly; anyone who had seen a picture of him would remember his face and build. There were quite a few people around him, but the only one who concerned their own group was the man standing next to Kisaka, Desert Dawn leader Sahib Ashman.

“I’ll have to talk to Kisaka privately,” Cagalli murmured. “He’s not going to be pleased that you guys know who I am.”

Lia rolled her eyes. “What, was Alex supposed to pretend he didn’t recognize you?”

The other girl shrugged. “He’s still not going to be happy.”

Murrue nodded a greeting as the three youngsters joined her and Mu. Cagalli stayed close to Alex, eying Kisaka nervously, while Lia moved to flank her aunt.

“Well,” the Archangel’s captain said at last. “I suppose we should thank you. You’re the Desert Dawn resistance group, correct?”

Sahib shot a glance at Cagalli. How much did she tell them? Kisaka’s reaction at the princess’s sudden appearance was not lost on him. “Correct. I go by the name of Sahib Ashman. You are the crew of the Earth Forces’ new warship, the Archangel, yes?”

Murrue nodded. “Some of us are. I am Murrue Ramius, Captain of the Archangel. I’m with the Eighth Fleet.”

“How’s that?” a younger guerrilla said skeptically. “Wasn’t the Eighth Fleet completely wiped out?”

“Admiral Halberton’s flagship survived, but the others were destroyed,” Murrue conceded. She gestured at Mu. “Lieutenant Commander Mu La Flaga, formerly of the Seventh Fleet.”

Sahib looked at Mu through narrowed eyes. “Ah, the Hawk of Endymion. It is an honor. Now, I believe you said only some of you were with the Earth Forces?”

“Correct.” Murrue laid a hand on her niece’s shoulder. “My niece Lia, Captain of the independent ship Valkyrie. Next to her is her friend Alex Strassmeier, their lead mobile suit pilot.”

“I see.” So Kisaka was right. “And the other girl?”

Murrue’s face twitched, just noticeably. “Cagalli Yula, a civilian Alex rescued at Heliopolis. She initially thought he was a ZAFT spy -he’s related to a Supreme Council member and has a cousin with the Le Creuset team- but that was smoothed over fairly quickly.”

“Indeed,” Kisaka said, speaking for the first time. These people clearly know who she is, but at least they have the good sense not to blurt out her identity.

Sahib grunted. “In any case, it is good that you know who we are, and we know who you are. You need not thank us; we fought against ZAFT because they are our enemy as well.”

“Perhaps we can discuss this further,” Murrue suggested.

The resistance leader considered that. “If you’re serious about talking, you should lower your guns first.” A nod at the quiescent mobile suits. ‘They should disarm, as well.”

Murrue nodded. “Very well.” She turned to the Strike. “Ensign Yamato, come down here!” She looked back at Sahib as Kira descended. “Ensign Kira Yamato, pilot of the Strike.” Her eyes narrowed. “He’s a first-generation Coordinator; if you really want to talk, please treat him with respect. He has gone through a lot for us.”

Sahib waved a hand. “You need not worry. We have Coordinators in our own group; the boy has nothing to fear.” He glanced at Cagalli. “I think some of us will have more to talk about than others.”

The princess winced as Kisaka gave her a stern look.

Desert Dawn base

It had taken lees than an hour to reach the Desert Dawn’s main camp. While Sahib conferred with the Archangel’s officers, Kira and Alex covered the ships with camo netting. The other mobile suits stayed in the hangars; they would have drawn too much attention.

Meanwhile, as the two groups mingled, Kisaka cornered his wayward charge.

“There was no way I could keep my identity secret,” Cagalli said testily. “Alex and I had met before; what was he supposed to do, pretend he didn’t recognize me?”

Kisaka shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. You’re a princess of Orb-“

“That’s why they let me onboard,” Cagalli shot back. “I had nowhere else to go; all the escape pods were full. They couldn’t afford to antagonize my father.”

The big man growled low in his throat. “So, you boarded a ship controlled by the nephew of a Supreme Council member.”

Cagalli bristled angrily. “Alex is my friend,” she half-snarled. “Besides, they’re heading for Orb anyway, and their ship is much better defended than anything you’d have access to here.”

Kisaka conceded the point. “All right,” he said at last. “However, I shall be joining you on the Valkyrie when it leaves the desert.”

The princess knew better than to argue. “Alex won’t mind. Just do not complain about how he treats me,” she added.

“Don’t worry.” Kisaka smiled. “It’s his ship; he makes the rules.”

“Actually, it’s Lia’s ship,” Alex corrected, joining them. “She’s the captain; I’m just the lead pilot.”

Kisaka snorted. “You’re more than that; Cagalli has made that abundantly clear. I must ask, though: why are you fighting against ZAFT? It seems an odd thing for someone with your connections.”

The Coordinator wearily massaged his temples. “Do you have any idea how tired I am of that question?” He did not wait for an answer. “Patrick Zala is a homicidal madman whose goal is nothing more and nothing less than the extinction of the Naturals. Is that a good enough reason?”

Kisaka nodded. “Again, I am sorry to ask you, but I had to be sure. I take my responsibilities seriously,” here he gave Cagalli an almost humorous look, “and given how headstrong our princess can be, I needed to be certain she was safe with you.”

Alex waved a hand. “I accept the apology, but it isn’t necessary. However, annoying it might be, you had no choice but to make sure of my own actions and -perhaps more importantly- my motives.” He saluted in the ZAFT manner. “Colonel Kisaka, you’re more than welcome to join us on the Valkyrie.”

Kisaka smiled and returned the salute. “Thank you for allowing me aboard, and for taking care of Cagalli.”

“No problem. Leaving aside the fact that getting on her father’s bad side is an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, I consider Cagalli a friend.” Alex’s expression hardened. “I never desert my friends.”

“This is getting weirder every day,” Kira said, shaking his head in wonder. “Less than a month ago, we were all going to school, not a care in the world. Now though…” He trailed off.

Flay squeezed his arm. “Now we’re all soldiers in a war we thought couldn’t touch us.”

“Yeah.” Kira glanced around their new ally’s base. “None of us wanted anything to do with the war, but after Le Creuset attacked our home, we didn’t have a choice. I just wish…” He swallowed hard. “I just wish Athrun could see that.”

Flay moved a little closer. The pain in Kira’s voice struck her to the heart.

“But that doesn’t matter right now,” he went on. “The Valkyrie intercepted some communications from Gibraltar; apparently the Vesalius was recalled to the PLANTs, so I won’t have to fight Athrun, at least not for a while.” He smiled humorlessly. “Instead, we get to fight the Desert Tiger.”

Tolle and Mir came up. “Lieutenant Badgiruel showed us some of the after-action reports on the Battle of Suez just after we landed; she said it would be better if we knew what we were up against. This guy is good,” Tolle said.

Kira nodded. “I saw those reports, too. He’s got a custom BuCUE that’s even more dangerous than the standard model.”

“It’s even worse than that,” Mu La Flaga put in.

The youngsters saluted him, surprised. “Commander?” Kira said.

Never big on formality, Mu waved away the salutes. “The resistance fighters spotted a new mobile suit just before we landed, and that Ahmed kid snapped a picture.” He held it up. “Take a look.”

They complied, joined by Sai and Kuzzey. The evil-looking machine bore a definite resemblance to the BuCUE, but anyone who saw it could tell that it was more dangerous in every way imaginable. It was bright orange, with a beam saber in the “mouth” and a double-barreled beam cannon where a BuCUE would have a railgun or missile pod.

“What is it?” Kira whispered.

“Waltfeld’s new machine, a TMF/A-803 LaGOWE,” Mu said grimly. “It’s based on his custom BuCUE, which tells you something.”

“Yeah, something really bad,” Tolle agreed sourly. “How’d the Desert Dawn get this photo?”

Mu shrugged. “Apparently, he had a run-in with an unidentified mobile suit; we think the pilot was a mercenary named Gai Murakumo.” He grimaced. “Anyway, we figured you guys should know. Especially you, Kira, since you might have to fight the thing somewhere down the line.”

It was Kira’s turn to grimace. BuCUEs were bad enough; this LaGOWE model was the stuff of nightmares. “How many are there?”

“As far as we know, just the one, at least here,” Mu said. “We think ZAFT’s been having trouble developing them, so Waltfeld just got one of the preproduction units.”

Small comfort, since Andrew Waltfeld’s skill in a BuCUE rivaled Rau Le Creuset’s in a GINN or CGUE. The thought of having to face the Desert Tiger in a brand-new mobile suit was not one Kira cared to contemplate. “I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

Mu grinned. “Hey, cheer up. You might not have to face it; we know it took some hits in that last fight.” He turned away. “Just relax for now.”

Surprisingly, none of them had any real trouble relaxing. Kira and Flay as well as Tolle and Mir slipped off as couples, while Sai regaled Kuzzey, who had spent his entire life in the ill-fated Heliopolis colony, with tales of life planet side.

Alex turned up about an hour later, Cagalli and Colonel Kisaka in tow. Lia Ramius met them, and the four chatted away, occasionally greeting one or another of their comrades. Kyle, who in addition to being completely nondescript had a fiendishly effective poker face, had engaged three of the resistance fighters in a card game.

Afterward, Kira and Alex both felt it was too good to last.

A piercing yell from one of the Desert Dawn sentries split the air. “The sky is burning!” he shouted. “It’s in the direction of Tassil!”

Instantly, the hideout was buzzing with activity. People ran every which way, loading jeeps and artillery trucks. Not that they expected to be able to do much; they knew perfectly well that the Desert Tiger had plenty of BuCUEs left.

Kira leapt to his feet. “I’d better get to the Strike.”

Flay gave him a quick kiss. “Be careful, Kira.”

“I will.”

The men and women of the Archangel were going to earn their pay with a vengeance.

Near-Earth orbit, Lagrange point 1

Another Moebius exploded under fire from the GINN’s assault rifle. Cursing under her breath, the pilot took a moment to survey the battlefield. It was not pretty; their one warship, the Laurasia-class Galvani, had been set upon by no fewer than four Earth Forces ships.

In short, their small team had been neatly mousetrapped.

This is insane, Shiho Hahnenfuss thought. No ZAFT team should have fallen prey to this kind of ambush. Yet it had happened, and Shiho suddenly found herself facing a trio of beam-equipped mobile armors. She raised her rifle, hoping desperately that she could get off the first shot…

And then an orange blur flashed past, spitting laser fire, and twisting around in a truly insane evasive maneuver. The Moebius units, caught flat-footed, vanished into flaming dust.

“You okay, mate?” Troy called, reeling in his newly upgraded gun barrels.

Shiho sighed with relief. “Thanks, Troy. I owe you one.”

“Don’t mention it- what the?”

A sinister-looking black mobile suit had appeared, seemingly out of the ether, in front of the bridge section of one of the Earth Forces ships. There was a flash of green light, a massive explosion, and then nothing but a debris field. An instant later, a brilliant red beam cored through the remaining three ships, one after the other.

Shiho new instantly who their rescuers had to be. “Those are two of the Earth Forces machines we captured,” she breathed. “The Blitz and the Aegis.” Deep inside, she wished the Duel had been there, too, but she knew it was impossible.

“I see them, mate,” Troy said.

“This is Commander Rau Le Creuset,” a new voice cut in. “We were passing through the area when we saw you in trouble. I trust the rescue was well-timed?”

Shiho heard Galvani’s captain expressing his thanks. After a moment, she keyed her own comm. “This is Shiho Hahnenfuss. Please allow me to express my gratitude for your support.”

“Ah, yes.” A masked face appeared on her screen. “As it happens, we’ve received orders regarding you. If you and your friend in the Zero would be so kind as to board the Vesalius, I will explain in person.”

Shiho felt her pulse quicken. Orders about her? “Yes, sir,” she said aloud.

“Good. Athrun and Nicol will escort you in.”

Vesalius, Le Creuset’s office

Athrun stood with Nicol as the two redcoats were ushered into the Commander’s office. The male, Troy Cadwallader, stood with confidence, as would be expected from the son of Oceania’s Prime Minister. Despite having just gotten out of a combat zone, his blond hair was perfectly combed, his blue eyes clear.

His female companion was another matter. Shiho Hahnenfuss was a striking young woman, with amethyst eyes and chocolate-brown hair that fell to midback, presumably tied when she wore a helmet. Like her Natural friend, she was extremely self-possessed, showing extraordinarily little sign of the excitement she had to be feeling.

“I suppose you’re wondering what’s going on,” Le Creuset said. He did not wait for an answer. “Put simply, your achievements have brought both of you to the attention of the Defense Committee itself.”

Both pilots straightened. “The Defense Committee?” Troy repeated.

“Correct.” Le Creuset handed each of them a sealed folder. “You two will be returning to the PLANTs with us; I want you to read those documents very carefully on the way.”

Shiho finally found her voice. “Sir, what is it the Committee wants us for?”

The masked man smiled. “You will be assigned to assist MMI in designing two new weapons systems. Troy, your rare sense of spatial awareness has earned you a spot on the team developing a variation of the Zero’s wired gun barrels.”

He looked at Shiho again. “You, on the other hand, are to assist in the development of a new variety of CGUE, based on data from the captured Earth Forces mobile suits. The details are in those folders.”

“Sir!” The two youngsters saluted in unison. They did not know precisely what was in store for them, but they did know it would not be boring.

Chapter 10: Endless Sands

Skies over the Libyan desert, 14 February, C.E. 71

Time to see if these reentry cocoons work as advertised, Alex thought grimly.

While it had the same purpose as the ablative gel that some warships had, the reentry cocoon worked differently. Instead of a fluid that burned off, it covered the mobile suit in a semisolid sheath which was shed upon landing. The cocoon left the optics uncovered, allowing the machine’s pilot to see what he was doing. So far, it was working.

The Strike, lacking such a cocoon, was not so fortunate. Alex had tried to contact Kira several times in the past few minutes, but he had not gotten a response.

This is not good. Alex keyed his comm. “Archangel, I can’t reach Kira. Have you had any luck?”

Mir’s face appeared on his screen. “No good, Alex. He’s not answering.” She looked away briefly. “Since the Strike can’t get to us, we’re going to get him.”

“That means you’ll miss your descent point.”

“We know,” Murrue put in, “but we have no choice. We cannot afford to lose the Strike.”

Alex wanted to disagree, but he knew they were right. “Understood. There’s nothing more I can do at this point, so I’ll head back to my ship.”

“Understood. Be careful.”

Even as he guided his machine back to the Valkyrie, Alex kept an eye on the Strike. Though he was not responding to his friends’ attempts to communicate, Kira was clearly conscious enough to maneuver his mobile suit. As the Archangel moved to catch him, Kira flipped the Strike end-for-end, bringing his shield into position, and landed on the ship’s forward deck.

He will be all right. Knowing that his people could not open the catapults, Alex mirrored Kira’s maneuvers, landing on his own ship’s deck.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

“This is Alaska,” Mu La Flaga said, pointing at a blue area on the wall map. “And this is where we are: right smack in the middle of ZAFT-controlled territory. We couldn’t have picked a worse place to land.”

Murrue sighed. “We didn’t have much choice. If had not done it, we would have lost the Strike, and that was something we couldn’t afford.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Do we know who the local ZAFT commander is?”

Mu grimaced. “Alex tells me that Andrew Waltfeld is in charge.”

The captain winced. “From what I’ve heard, Waltfeld is to land combat what Le Creuset is to space.”

“That’s about right,” Mu agreed. “Alex met him once, about a year ago. Apparently, he is a decent guy, unlike Le Creuset.” He grimaced again. “Not that it’ll help us much; we are a warship, after all.” Sighing, he sat across from Murre. “So, is everything all right?”

She nodded. “Kira’s in the Infirmary; the heat got to him, apparently.”

“Good to hear, but I was talking about the deputy commander.”

Murrue knew exactly what he was talking about: her exchange with Natarle Badgiruel just before the Strike and Zero launched. “Everything’s all right.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Mu stood and headed for the door. “I’m going to go check on Kira, then get some sleep.” He turned back and wagged his finger. “You should get some shuteye, too; a commanding officer mustn’t let herself get burned out, not good.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex leaned back in his chair, stifling a groan. He and his friends had made it down safely, and reports from the Archangel suggested that Kira would be fine. Plus, Mu La Flaga would be back in action once Murdoch’s people got the pair of FX-550 Skygraspers they had received from Eighth Fleet up and running.

All that was fine, but there was some bad to go with the good. They had landed in a desert, which only Brian Kilgore was happy about. Only two of their machines, Brian’s desert-adapted Scorpion and Alex’s flight-capable Stormbird, were ready for action. And, to top it off, the desert they had landed in was at the center of Andrew Waltfeld’s sphere of operation.

Besides which, Alex was plain tired.

“All right,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t see what else we can do tonight. Kira almost died of heatstroke, so the Strike is out of action for the time being. As for us, until we can rework the other machines’ OS’s, all we have are the Stormbird and the Scorpion.”

“You’re right,” Lia agreed, decidedly unhappy. “It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days to get the other three machines operable again.”

“We may not have a couple of days,” Alex said sourly. “We’re up against the Desert Tiger, people. You think Rau Le Creuset was bad, Waltfeld’s worse. Trust me; I have met him, and I can tell you that he is every bit as ruthless as old metal mask. The only difference is that he tries to minimize collateral damage.”

Cagalli grimaced. “That’s not going to help us much. One of Orb’s top ground forces officers, Colonel Ledonir Kisaka -he often acts as my bodyguard- was born not too far from here. His hometown of Tassil and the city of Banadiya are the only settlements within a hundred kilometers.”

Kyle Perry snorted. “You have a gift for understatement, Cagalli. We are not going to pull the sort of stunt Ensign -excuse me, Lieutenant- Badgiruel did with Lacus Clyne and use civilians as a shield. I don’t see what-” He paused suddenly with an arrested expression, then turned to Cagalli. “Aren’t there a couple of resistance groups out here?”

She straightened, seeing immediately where he was going and chagrined that she had not thought of it. “There’s at least one, the Desert Dawn. The leader, Sahib Ashman, is an old friend of my family.”

“That could be helpful.” Alex rubbed his eyes again. “Anything else?” General headshakes. “Then I guess we’re finished for now.”

Lia and Kyle got up to leave, exchanging knowing smiles when the princess remained where she was. Cagalli noticed but ignored them; she did not care what they thought. She had had few enough friends, given her upbringing, and Alex’s attitude was a breath of fresh air. He and Kira always treated her like a normal person instead of some stuck-up princess.

Alex seldom remembered that she was a princess. Not that he ever forgot, exactly, it simply was not at the forefront of his attention. When he looked at her, he saw a friend, not an Orb noble or an officer (despite her youth, Cagalli held the rank of commodore in the Orb forces).

“How are you feeling?” Cagalli asked suddenly, breaking into his thoughts.

He tried to give her a sardonic look, but somehow could not manage it. “Aside from being more exhausted than I’ve been in three years, fine.” He stood and retrieved a large thermos from his cabinet. “That battle was a far cry from our previous engagements,” Alex went on, pouring two cups of coffee and handing one to her. “I knew Le Creuset would be out for blood, so I wasn’t surprised.”

Cagalli sipped appreciatively. While not much of a coffee drinker, she had not been able to completely avoid it, as most military forces, Orb’s included, seemed to run almost exclusively on caffeine. “Your cousin’s injuries must not have been too bad, since the Duel was right in the thick of it.”

Alex snorted. “Never underestimate Yzak’s stubbornness,” he advised her. “I established visual communications with him twice during the battle, and I got a good look at him. He had bandages over a good chunk of his face; if I had to guess, I would say Kira’s attack made something in the Duel’s cockpit explode, probably an instrument panel. Whatever it was, it shattered Yzak’s faceplate, gashing his face pretty bad.”

She winced. “No wonder he was yelling.”

“It also means he’s going to be going all out on the Strike from now on,” Alex said darkly. “Yzak’s nowhere near as vindictive as Bartlett, but Kira humiliated him in that fight. That is something he can’t live with.” He shook his head. “I pray that doesn’t get him killed.”

Cagalli stared at him. “Are you saying-“

“I’m not suggesting Kira would kill him,” Alex said, waving his hand. “No, what worries me is his temper. Yzak’s good at what he does -he does not wear the red uniform for nothing- but he tends to let his emotions run wild. That could all too easily make him do something very stupid.”

She saw his point. Strong emotion of any kind was a weakness in combat.

“In any case, it’s not going to matter for a while yet,” Alex said. “Judging by the trajectories, he and Dearka Elsman landed at or near Gibraltar, and I don’t see them letting him out until his wounds have healed.”

“Unless he does the same thing he did before the last battle,” Cagalli said.

Alex shook his head. “Unlikely. Rau Le Creuset tends to be permissive with his subordinates; recall that he gave Athrun permission to try to get Kira to defect. The command staff at Gibraltar won’t be so easy to deal with, and they’ve got better medical facilities than a warship could possibly have.”

There was no denying that. Cagalli did not know all that much about ZAFT, but she had a hard time believing that there were very many doctors in their forces who would permit a repeat of Yzak’s last action. Even Coordinators, with their greater resiliency, had their limits, and Yzak Joule had very nearly exceeded them.

Of course, talk of medical facilities reminded Cagalli of her other favorite Coordinator. “How’s Kira doing?”

Alex shrugged. “Not too bad, considering what he just went through. He is unconscious with a high fever, courtesy of reentry conditions. Our ship’s doctor is over there right now, and he assures me that Kira is in no danger.” His lip twisted wryly. “Frankly, I’m amazed he was allowed in. Flay’s watching Kira like a hawk.”

Cagalli chuckled. “You think they’re together?”

Her friend snorted gently. “She had a fairly explosive breakup with Sai a couple of days ago, she’s changed her mind about Coordinators, and Kira’s been interested in her for the past year. I can’t think of any other reason for her to be watching him that closely.” He stood and moved to the window, gazing out at the Valkyrie’s almost-sister ship. “He needs someone like that.”

The princess agreed. She herself had no interest in Kira beyond friendship and Flay had always struck her as a nice girl, so it fit. “I’m gonna go check on him. If Flay will let me,” she added slyly.

Alex laughed softly. “Oh, she’ll let you. She knows perfectly well that you’re not interested in Kira in that way.” He returned to his desk and punched up a file on the terminal. “Go see Kira; I can hold the fort here.”

Seeing the look of intense concentration on his face, Cagalli did not bother saying goodbye. She stood and headed for the door, glancing at the picture of Alex’s family on the way out. Fourteen-year-old Alex stood near the center, one arm around his sister, Andrea. Yzak Joule stood on Alex’s other side, his broad grin a marked contrast to the attitude he had displayed since Heliopolis.

Cagalli shook her head. Now they are on opposite sides in a war. Suppressing a sigh, she stepped into the corridor, sealing the hatch behind her.

Archangel, infirmary

Even though there was only one patient, the infirmary was more crowded than usual. Kira’s classmates, worried after the events of reentry, had all come to check on him. Flay and Mir stood at his bedside, while Sai, Kuzzey, and Tolle gathered around the ship’s doctor.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he was saying. “Your friend is in no danger at this point.”

“So, he’ll be okay?” Tolle pressed.

The doctor shrugged. “If he survived reentry, then I don’t see this fever getting him. Did you hear what sort of temperature extremes he was exposed to in that cockpit?”

“We hadn’t,” Sai said, puzzled.

“Well, I can assure you none of us would have survived it,” the doctor responded. “This fever is nothing compared to that.”

Vincent Lockwood, the doctor from Valkyrie, agreed. “We Coordinators are extremely resilient,” he said, checking the IV tube in Kira’s right arm. “For example, we don’t catch fatal infections; our immune systems are too powerful. We have greater physical strength and can absorb more punishment in a fight.” His lip twisted. “Some say that we can acquire more knowledge, as well. I’ve never believed it, personally; since we humans, Natural or Coordinator, use so little of our mental capacity, I don’t believe that there’s any way to tell.”

“I heard you’ve been trying to find a way to give Naturals Coordinator abilities,” Kuzzey commented.

Lockwood nodded. “Some people -notably Patrick Zala- claim that it’s impossible. Obviously, I do not buy that. Genetic engineering continues to advance.”

“But why are you doing it?” Mir asked. “And what about the Torino Protocol?”

Lockwood shrugged. “You might say I’m trying to level the playing field. Aside from psychopaths like Blue Cosmos, the Natural side of the genetics issue is based on a combination of jealousy and fear. Remove that, and you’ve just got the lunatics who wouldn’t be taken seriously at all were it not for their violent antics.”

“As for the Torino Protocol…” He snorted. “That was a dead letter from its inception. With something like genetic engineering technology, there is no way to keep it contained. It will spread and grow more sophisticated. The only thing you can do is make whatever use of it you can.”

Flay barely even heard. She was focused on the unconscious Coordinator on the bed before her. Kira’s temperature was still far higher than it should have been, though it was coming down, albeit too slowly for Flay’s comfort.

Of course, there might well have been more to the fever than just reentry heat. Judging by the way he was tossing and turning on the bed, Kira was in the grip of some nightmare.

Flay gently wiped the sweat from his forehead. If someone had told her just a month ago that she would fall in love with a Coordinator, she would have laughed (or slapped the speaker). Yet it had happened, and there was nothing Flay could do about it, even if she wanted to, which she did not.

Kira, hang in there, okay? I will be here, no matter what.

“How is he?”

Flay glanced up. It was the Orb princess, Cagalli. “His fever is coming down,” she said, suppressing a twinge of jealousy. She knew it was stupid; Kira and Cagalli were close, but everyone on both ships knew that it was more of a brother-sister relationship.

Besides, anyone with a brain can tell she is interested in Alex, even if neither of them realizes it.

Cagalli sat on a nearby stool. “You really care for him, don’t you.”? It was not a question.

Flay nodded. “Yeah.” She sighed. “I was engaged to Sai, but that was because of my father…”

Cagalli smiled wryly. “I know what you mean.” When the redhead gave her a surprised look, she chuckled. “I was briefly engaged to Yuuna Roma Seiran. My father broke it off when it became obvious that I hated the guy.”

“Oh. Him.” Flay shuddered.

Cagalli raised her eyebrows. “You’ve met him?”

“No, but I heard my father talk about his family. He said they’re all lowlifes.”

“That’s about right,” Cagalli agreed. “I remember the party where I first met Alex and his sister. Yuuna was there, and Alex didn’t enjoy the experience.”

Flay chuckled appreciatively. “I’ll bet Yuuna didn’t either.”

The princess shrugged. “As far as I could tell, Alex didn’t say a word; you know what he’s like. Andrea actually tried talking to Yuuna; when I asked her about it, she said the conversation made her feel like she was scuba diving in a septic tank.”

The image was disgusting, but appropriate. She did not dwell on it for long, though. “I never thought I’d fall for a Coordinator,” Flay said softly, gently stroking the pilot’s face. “My father told me they were monsters, that their existence went against what nature intended.”

“Did your father know any Coordinators?”

Flay shrugged. “I don’t know. Kira’s the first one I’ve really gotten to know; yeah, I knew about Alex first, but he’s kind of hard to figure out.” She touched Kira’s face again. “I realize now that not all Coordinators are evil. Sure, there’s Rau Le Creuset and Patrick Zala, but there’s also people like Kira and Alex, and the Captain’s niece.”

“Yeah.” Cagalli nodded. “I’ve never cared what someone’s genes look like.” She stood. “I’d better get back to the Valkyrie. Let me know when he wakes up, okay?”

Flay waved, not taking her eyes off Kira. “You got it.”

Vesalius, pilots’ ready room

The view of the hangar had changed. Vesalius had started the battle with the Aegis and four GINNs; now only the Aegis remained, the GINNs having fallen to the Valkyrie’s Gundams. With the destruction of the Gamow, Nicol had been forced to land his Blitz on the Vesalius.

Athrun sighed. There should have been one more, Kira Yamato’s Strike Gundam. Kira was a Coordinator; he should not have been fighting for the Earth Forces. And he had clearly joined the enemy for real now; there was no other reason for him to have been flying in the last fight.

He clenched his fists. Kira, why? Don’t you realize this means I have to kill you?

The hatch slid open. “Ah, so there you are,” Nicol said, coming to a stop next to Athrun. “I’ve got some good news,” he went on, smiling. “Yzak and Dearka landed on Earth safely.”

Athrun blew out a breath. “Good. At least something went right.”

“Yeah,” Nicol agreed. “No ETA on their return, though. From what I have been told, they’re going to be staying at Gibraltar for a while.”

“At least they’re safe.” Athrun raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Yzak’s wounded; it’s not still a problem for him, is it?”

Nicol shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry too much. Remember, even in the last round he was able to put up a good fight.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Athrun fell silent.

Nicol looked at his friend in concern. “You okay?” No response. “Athrun?”

The blue-haired pilot shook himself. “Huh? Yeah, I guess so.” He sighed. “I was thinking about Kira.”

Nicol nodded in understanding. Of all the surprises to come out of the Heliopolis operation, the biggest was that Athrun and Yzak both had close connections to the enemy. Alex Strassmeier was by far the more surprising of the two, since he was Yzak’s cousin and a well-known PLANT loyalist.

Kira, an Orb citizen, was more understandable. His only connection to the PLANTs was his friendship with Athrun, and the people he was trying to protect were also from Orb (aside from Flay Allster, who was unknown to ZAFT). After speaking briefly with him during the Artemis battle, Nicol was inclined to agree that Kira was an innocent dupe.

Not that I am going to kill him if I can help it. Any friend of Athrun’s is a friend of mine. “It must be hard,” Nicol said.

“Kira’s a Coordinator; why would he be fighting for the Earth Forces?” Athrun said, half to himself. “He must have officially joined up; he wouldn’t have been out there otherwise.”

“Maybe his friends decided to stay on, too,” Nicol suggested. He laid a hand on Athrun’s shoulder. “Hey, nobody’s saying you have to kill him. He’ll come around sooner or later.” A shrug. “Maybe his friends will, too.”

Athrun did not answer right away. “Maybe you’re right,” he said at last. “I’ve met Kira’s parents, you know. They don’t care what someone’s genes look like.”

“Why’d they make Kira a Coordinator?”

Athrun shrugged. “He’s never said. Actually, I don’t think he knows.” He closed his eyes briefly. “The only way I can see him or his friends coming over to us is if Orb declares for the PLANTs, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Nicol looked at him curiously. “Who’s that?”

Athrun grimaced. “Much as I hate to admit it, Strassmeier has a point. I do not think that my father wants to exterminate the Naturals, but that does not mean he likes them. And” he went on reluctantly, “he does not care if a Natural is connected to the Earth Forces or not. He hates them all.”

All too true, unfortunately. Zala might not have openly called for genocide, but that did not mean he pretended to like Naturals.

“Any idea what the recall order is for?” Nicol asked, changing the subject.

Athrun frowned. “I think it has something to do with some new operation. And since Commander Le Creuset is the best, we have right now…”

Nicol brightened. “That makes sense. I’ll go see how they’re doing with the Blitz; got to be ready.” He pushed off, “swimming” toward the hatch.

The Aegis’ pilot remained behind, once again absorbed in his own thoughts.

Valkyrie, exercise area

Some people, knowing that a warship did not have mass to waste, wondered why such a vessel would have a well-equipped gymnasium. The answer was simple: even though they were not expected to engage in close combat, naval officers and crew still needed to stay in shape. Besides, there was always the possibility that they would have to repel boarders.

I will bet Alex designed this part of the ship personally, Cagalli thought. You can see his obsession with efficiency all over it. It was not the largest gym she had ever been in, but it was better arranged than most. An exercise mat dominated the center of the floor. Weightlifting equipment was visible in one corner, with a couple of treadmills opposite them. All of it was, of course, useless in null-grav environments.

Naturally, the place was in use. Alex made a point of exercising regularly, and today was no exception. He had removed his boots and jacket, leaving him in black pants and a t-shirt. He was not particularly bulky (Alex despised the bodybuilder look) rather, he had more of a wiry look; still muscular but kept in check.

Catching sight of Cagalli, Alex stopped in the center of the mat. “What brings you here?”

“I was looking for you,” she said. “Thought you’d like to know that Kira’s doing okay.”

His expression did not change much -it seldom did- but Cagalli knew him well enough to spot his relief. “That’s good. I didn’t think he was likely to suffer any permanent harm, but you never know.”

Cagalli abruptly noticed that Alex was sweating. He must have been at this for a while. “You’re obsessed, you know that?” she said, gesturing to the room at large.

He shrugged. “I had to make sure I hadn’t lost anything in the past three weeks; it’s hard to practice martial arts in a null-grav environment.” He looked at her speculatively. “If you’ve had military training, I’ll bet it included hand-to-hand work.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yeah, why?”

Alex flexed his prosthetic arm. “Up for a bout? A kata is not the same as taking on a live opponent. Besides, I want to see just how good you are.”

Cagalli stepped onto the mat and slid into a half-crouch. “You’re on.” Without another word, she lunged at him, aiming a low sweep kick at his legs. (Dramatic though a kick to the head might have been, Cagalli knew as well as anyone that it would be a foolish move. It would be far too easy to grab her leg, thus turning the tables.)

Alex jumped over her leg, then slid forward, chopping his left hand at her right elbow. Cagalli, displaying incredibly fast reflexes for a Natural, dodged to her left, grabbed his arm at his wrist, and swept with her left foot, slamming his ankles together and dropping him to the mat.

He picked himself up. “You’re good,” he said, breathing heavily. “Better than anyone I’ve faced since Bartlett.”

Cagalli felt her eyes widen at the look on his face: he was grinning. Not the thin smile she had grown used to in the past three weeks, but a huge, genuine grin. It was as if all the trials he had gone through since 68 had not happened. She was seeing him the way Lia Ramius and Yzak Joule had before the Mandelbrot Incident.

“It’s been a while since I had this much fun,” Alex went on. “But it’s not over yet!” He spun around, aiming a kick at her stomach.

The princess, however, had not run out of tricks. She let the blow connect, then grabbed his ankle as she fell. He went down with a startled sounding yelp, landing flat on his back.

He slowly sat up. “I think that’s enough.” He pushed himself to his feet, then held out a hand. “Thanks. I needed that.”

Normally Cagalli would have ignored such a gesture, but not now. “You needed someone to try to beat you up?” she said dryly.

“I needed a release for my frustration that didn’t involve killing people,” he replied. “I hope you didn’t mind providing it.”

She grinned. “Don’t worry about it; it was fun.”

Alex toweled off his sweat-damp hair. “I guess you don’t often have a chance to just let go back home.”

“Not really,” Cagalli agreed with a grimace. “I’m actually glad I wound up here instead of in an escape pod. It’s been a while since a could just be myself.”

He snorted. “I can imagine; we don’t have nobility per se in the PLANTs, but the Supreme Council is the next best thing.”

“Hey, guys,” a new voice said.

The two looked at the hatch. Mu La Flaga stood watching them, an odd look on his face.

I am not sure I want to know what he is thinking. “Hello, Mu,” Alex said. “Something up?”

Mu nodded. “Captain Ramius wanted me to come fetches you; something about picking your brain.”

The Coordinator shook his head in resignation. “Sure, though I’m not sure how much use it’ll be. I have not been on-planet in four years, and all my previous trips have been to Orb. I don’t know squat about deserts,” he added with an air of distaste. “Sure, I met Andrew Waltfeld. Once.”

Mu did not reply. He liked Alex; the kid was just the sort of fan he wanted: someone who appreciated his skills, but without the sycophantic hero worship he encountered all too often in Earth Forces rookies. It helped that Alex was a skilled pilot in his own right; from what Mu had seen, there were not many pilots in ZAFT who could take him.

Alex sighed. “Lead on, Mu.”

Archangel, infirmary

“Kira?”

Kira Yamato groaned softly, stirring on the bed. Where am I? He groaned again, forcing his eyes open. His first sight was a welcome one, a red-haired figure in a pink uniform. Flay. “Flay…where am I?”

She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re in the infirmary, Kira. We’ve landed on Earth safely.”

He sighed in relief. “That’s good to hear. Where did we land? And what about the Valkyrie?”

“We’re in the African Community, in the desert. And the Valkyrie is fine, too.” Flay giggled suddenly. “Alex and Cagalli tried to beat each other senseless a few minutes ago.”

Kira managed a weak chuckle. “Yeah, I can see that.” He tried to sit up and winced. Not a good idea. “Flay, what happened? The last thing I remember is the Duel aiming at the refugees’ shuttle…”

She caressed his cheek. “The refugees are safe; I heard Alex destroyed the Duel’s rifle before his cousin could fire.”

He sighed with relief. “Thanks. I… don’t think I could bear it if they were killed.” Flay handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down gratefully. “What about the ZAFT forces? Did any of them catch up?”

Mir appeared behind Flay. “The Duel and the Buster were forced into reentry, but they’re nowhere near us. The Valkyrie’s people projected their landing point as at or near the Gibraltar base.”

In other words, they were not in range to attack the Archangel, but they were still too close for comfort. Gibraltar was second only to Carpentaria as the most heavily defended ZAFT base on Earth. It had massive, fixed defenses, augmented with mobile suits. It was confirmed that Gibraltar Base had the airborne AMF-101 DINN, the underwater UMF-4A GhOON, and the land-based TMF/A-802 BuCUE.

That was bad enough, but there were rumors of more powerful units, the new UMF-5 ZnO, and the even newer TMF/A-803 LaGOWE. The LaGOWE was cause for concern, both because it was optimized for desert warfare, and because it was thought to be based on Andrew Waltfeld’s custom BuCUE.

“That’s enough for now,” Flay said, gently pushing Kira down onto the bed. “You need to rest.”

He did not resist. The Archangel and the Valkyrie had landed safely, albeit far from their original destination, the refugees were safe, and he was with the girl he had loved since the day they met. As far as Kira was concerned, for now, everything was fine.

Flay smiled. “You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

Gibraltar Base

This just gets better and better. First, I am humiliated by some rookie from Orb, then my own cousin stops me from taking out a bunch of Earth Forces troops.

Yzak snorted bitterly. The pain in his face was gone, but not the pain in his heart. He had been defeated by someone not even trained in warfare, and then his own cousin had stopped him from getting his revenge. He was not sure which was worse.

Alex, why in blazes did you stop me from taking out that troop transport? They had nothing to do with the legged ship, so why did you care?

He shook his head. Trying to puzzle out his cousin’s motives was pointless right now. He could do that later once they had taken out the legged ship. For now, much as Yzak hated to admit it, he had to rest and recover. He was no good to anyone injured.

Suddenly, he could not take it anymore. Standing, he reached up and tore the bandages off his face, then faced the mirror. The reflection had not changed much since he had last looked, back on the now-destroyed Gamow. There was only one difference: a wicked scar, running from his forehead down the right side of his face, ending under the corner of his eye.

Yzak felt his cheeks burn. Losing to a rookie was humiliating enough; the scar merely compounded it. “You’re going down, Yamato,” he snarled. “On my honor, I swear I’ll bring you down.”

Archangel, Murrue’s office

Alex followed Mu into the office, wishing vaguely that he were elsewhere. “You wanted to see me?”

Murrue nodded. “With your connections, you know more about ZAFT than we do. I thought I’d pick your brain.”

He snorted. “I’ll do what I can, but that won’t be much. Like I told Mu, I don’t know squat about deserts.”

“But you do know Andrew Waltfeld,” the newly promoted Lieutenant Badgiruel put in.

Alex gave her a cool look. “I met him once, just after that martial arts tournament,” he reminded her, then turned to Murrue. “What is it you want to know?”

“What can we expect from here on?” Badgiruel asked bluntly.

He regarded the XO through narrowed eyes. Now I see. You think I am intelligence gold mine. “How should I know?”

“You’re Ezalia Joule’s nephew,” she said. “You moved in the highest circles in the PLANTs.”

“Which means exactly nothing,” Alex shot back. “You’re assuming that nepotism is rampant in the homeland. Well, let me tell you: nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, all four of Le Creuset’s Gundam pilots are the offspring of Supreme Council members, but they do not owe their positions to that. He accepts only the best, and Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Athrun Zala all wear the red uniform. I think even you know what that means.”

Murrue decided that it was time to intervene before someone (most likely Badgiruel) exploded. “What can you tell us, then?”

With a not-quite-visible effort, Alex reigned in his temper. “For the most part, things you almost certainly already know. We are faced with a man who is very nearly Le Creuset’s equal, even if he isn’t quite as ruthless.” He traced a line on the map. “We dare not go north, lest we come within range of Gibraltar…”

For the next hour, the three officers discussed their strategy, Alex tossing in an occasional comment. More and more, he was wishing he were back on his own ship, or at least with Kira and company, people who understood him.

“One more thing,” Badgiruel said, breaking into his thoughts. “Why are you still with us? I understood that you would be heading directly for Orb.”

Alex did not even look at her. “That was the plan, but our schedule was altered when we learned you would be shorthanded. Since we have friends on this ship, we decided to accompany you as long as our courses coincided.” He tapped the map. “Your best course to Alaska would take you past Orb.”

“Convenient,” was all the XO said.

Alex gave one of his minimalist shrugs. “It was also a favor for Admiral Halberton. He’s the one noble wolf in that pack of hyenas.”

Badgiruel bristled. “And what about your Supreme Council?” she demanded. “The same people who scattered the Neutron-jammers all over the planet, causing an energy crisis and widespread famine. The same people who attacked Heliopolis, resulting in its collapse.”

Slowly, Alex turned to face her. “Patrick Zala is an anomaly,” he said icily. “My aunt is deluded. As for the N-jammers, they were needed to prevent a repeat of the Bloody Valentine.”

He took a step forward. “And when it comes to relative morals, let me straighten you out, Lieutenant. Chairman Clyne only wants freedom and security for the PLANTs. The Earth Forces’ high command, by contrast, is made up almost exclusively of murderous thugs the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of Adolf Hitler.”

Alex stalked to the door, then paused, turning slightly. “You should be grateful for Zala’s antics. Otherwise, I would be one of those trying to destroy you.” Then he was gone.

Badgiruel sat heavily in her chair. “What is wrong with him?”

Mu snorted. “He’s from the PLANTs, Lieutenant; did you really expect him to say nice things about the Earth Forces?”

“No, but I didn’t expect him to compare the high command to Nazis, either!”

“Then you haven’t been paying very close attention.” The Hawk of Endymion sipped from a coffee mug. “Everybody knows that Coordinators aren’t exactly welcome in our forces; we’ve been over that. Add stuff like the blockade and the Mandelbrot Incident, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.”

The lieutenant looked skeptical. “Are you saying he’ll attack us?”

“Of course not.” Mu shook his head emphatically. “His best friend is the Captain’s niece, remember. Besides, like he said, he has friends on this ship, people like Kira and Flay. He’s not going to turn against them.”

Murrue sighed. “Commander La Flaga is right. Alex won’t attack us.” She closed her eyes. “We just have to hope that extends to other Earth Forces units, as well.”

That gave the others pause. Alex Strassmeier was a man of his word; no one present doubted that. However, with his passionate hatred for the Earth Forces, there was no guarantee that other units would be safe once the two ships separated.

Even Badgiruel did not believe for an instant that Alex had anything against Naturals. He got along well with Kira’s friends, and he made no secret of his personal admiration for Mu. And, of course, everyone noticed how he got along with the Orb princess.

“We can only hope,” Murrue said at last.

No one argued with that.

Kira’s quarters

Kira set the photo on the table next to his bunk. Some nights have thought it odd, as the photo was of four young men in the red uniform of a ZAFT elite. No one on this ship so much as twitched, though, because of the connection Kira had to one of those young men.

“Which one is your friend?” Flay asked.

Kira pointed at the blue-haired figure on the far right. “That’s Athrun. He hasn’t changed much since I last saw him.”

The redhead nodded. “And the others are his teammates?”

“Right. The guy with green hair is Nicol Amalfi, pilot of the Blitz.” Kira sighed. “I actually spoke to him at Artemis. He asked me why I was fighting them; I said that I was just protecting my friends. I still am,” he added.

Flay nodded again. “That must be Alex’s cousin,” she said, looking closely at Yzak. “They look a lot alike.”

“Alex told me that both of their parents commented on that,” Kira agreed. “Their personalities aren’t the same though. You know how Alex is, cold and methodical.” Flay nodded. “Well, I can tell Yzak isn’t that way just by how he fights. The last couple of times I faced the Duel, he just went nuts. Nothing like Alex, or Athrun…” He trailed off.

Flay wrapped her arms around him. “This is hard for you, isn’t it?”

He sighed again. “We’ve been friends for so long, and now we have to fight each other. I hate it!”

She tightened her grip. “It’ll be all right,” she whispered. “You’ll see him again.”

Kira felt his tension slowly drain away. “I know. Thanks.”

“Any time.” Flay smiled and kissed him.

The Archangel and the Valkyrie had landed safely on Earth, and their people had nearly recovered from the battles in space. Even with the rough edges, they felt ready to take anything ZAFT’s ground forces could throw at them.

Hopefully, they were right, for not far away was Andrew Waltfeld, the famed Desert Tiger. Universally acknowledged as ZAFT’s best ground soldier (and famous for his obsession with coffee), he could easily be an even greater threat than Rau Le Creuset.

It remained to be seen if the two ships could tame the Tiger…