Chapter 22: Hidden Agendas

Carpentaria Base, Oceania, 30 April, C.E. 71

The submarine carrier Cousteau slid to a stop at its assigned dock. Quite a reception awaited the crew; the Zala team had become quite famous for their exploits. Few knew of the false battles outside Orb, nor of the defection of the Archangel to Orb, but enough had filtered down to start some wild rumors.

Commander Rau Le Creuset stood at the dock with Representatives Ezalia Joule and Yuri Amalfi. The two Supreme Council members had arrived from the PLANTs the day before. Officially, they were there for a visit with Prime Minister Cadwallader, but Le Creuset knew otherwise.

Let Chairman Zala keep thinking he has their loyalty, the masked man thought, carefully hiding a smile. It will not matter in the end.

The Cousteau’s main hatch opened, and three young men in elite red debarked. On seeing who was waiting, they saluted in unison. “Athrun Zala, reporting,” the blue-haired youth in front said.

Le Creuset returned the salutes. “Welcome back, all of you. You have done well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He gestured for them to follow. “Come with me. We have much to discuss.”

“So, it went as planned, then?” Le Creuset asked.

Athrun nodded. “It was a narrow escape for Nicol; the explosion was stronger than expected. In the second fight, Kira and I were both briefly knocked out, but we came through all right.”

“Good.” Le Creuset’s expression was unreadable behind his mask, but the tone was approving. “What of the Earth Forces task force that attacked after the second false engagement?”

The younger man grimaced. “None of us were in a position to intervene, so the Strassmeier team, temporarily lead by the commander’s sister, intercepted them. With the aid of Commander La Flaga and Lady Cagalli, they were able to wipe out the enemy force.”

“Fortunate. If any of them had escaped, the Archangel’s mission would have been over before it had truly begun.” Le Creuset rubbed his chin. “We are all familiar with the skills of La Flaga and Strassmeier’s unit, so it’s not a surprise. Still…” He looked at Athrun. “What is your assessment of the Princess’s skill?”

“Phenomenal,” Athrun said bluntly. “She’s short on experience, but if anything proves that she’s related to Kira, it’s this. Her mobile suit’s capabilities played a part -the only machine we have that can match the Akatsuki is my Justice- but most of it was raw skill.”

Le Creuset nodded slowly. “It would seem that Lord Uzumi’s daughter is not simply a pampered aristocrat.”

Yzak laughed. “Sir, one thing that girl is not is pampered. Like Athrun said, she is good, and I do not think she is afraid of anything. If she is, she won’t admit it.”

“Rather a headstrong individual.” The masked man raised an eyebrow. “Is there any truth to the reports of her being romantically linked with your cousin?”

Yzak snorted. “You bet there is. Alex doesn’t show it much -I’m one of the few people who can read him- but Cagalli isn’t exactly good at hiding her feelings, and she’s not even trying to.”

“I see.” Le Creuset activated a wall screen. “On to other matters. As you know, we are amid preparations for Operation Spit Break. However, what you do not know, because it has been kept a closely guarded secret, is the true target.”

The three youngsters stared at the screen in disbelief. The image that appeared was not Panama, as they had expected, but JOSH-A Base, Alaska, Earth Alliance Headquarters.

“Alaska?” Athrun finally whispered.

“Alaska,” Le Creuset confirmed. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to get word to the Archangel; by the time, our forces are in range, it will undoubtedly be inside the base, and thus out of reach of our comm systems. It is, however, an allied vessel, so it will not be targeted when the attack begins.”

Yzak swallowed hard. “What about the Valkyrie?”

Le Creuset smiled. “Have no fear, Yzak. As you know, your cousin’s ship is in ZAFT service now, and since it has Commander Waltfeld, Aisha, Nicol, Kira Yamato, and Cagalli Yula Athha onboard, not to mention Andrea Strassmeier, who I understand is wanted for desertion, they will not be entering the base. I will personally board the ship and brief them on the new situation.”

The white-haired pilot sighed in relief. After finally reuniting with his long-lost cousin, he did not want to see her caught in the crossfire when ZAFT launched its next assault.

Not that she would be in much trouble, not after her first real battle.

“That will be all,” Le Creuset said. “Dismissed.”

JOSH-A Base, Alaska, 2 May, C.E. 71

Six men in the white uniform of the Atlantic Federation sat around a long table. Aside from a fluorescent light over the table itself, the room was dark. That suited the assembled officers simply fine, for their current agenda was one that they had no intention of bringing to light, at least not yet.

“The Archangel,” one said. “I never thought it would make it here.”

Another snorted. “You think Halberton’s force of will protected it?”

“That traitor?” The ranking officer shook his head. “This young Coordinator is the one who really protected it, along with the black ship.”

“Captain Sutherland, don’t be so sure of that,” the man to the captain’s left said. “Luckily, the destruction of the Strike and the declaration of its pilot as MIA can be considered a… fortunate accident for us. As for the black ship, Strassmeier has his own objectives and has never made a secret of the fact.”

Sutherland smiled humorlessly. “The GAT series will be our main weapon. We’re going to be getting a lot of use out of them in the future, so we don’t want it said that it was operated by a Coordinator child.”

“You’re right about that,” the other conceded.

“It just seems like glaring evidence of our own inferiority!” another officer complained.

Sutherland tapped some commands into his terminal. “All of its technology has already been transferred and further developed, and this time it’s we who will benefit from it.”

The man at the table’s foot gave him a narrow glance. “What have you told Azrael?”

Sutherland shrugged. “I told him that we’d take the necessary steps to address all these problems. We cannot do anything about the black ship just now, given that its captain is Lieutenant Commander Ramius’s niece, but it is merely an inconvenience. It will be caught in the same trap.” He smiled grimly. “All this is for the preservation of our blue and pure world.”

Archangel, Bridge

Just when I finally join ZAFT, I must ditch the uniform so we can fool the Earth Forces, Alex thought. Truth be told, though, it was not his outfit that bothered him. The black suit he wore was amazingly comfortable; what bothered him was being separated from Andrea and Cagalli. He chuckled humorlessly at the thought: Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT Elite, cold-blooded warrior, upset because he was away from his sister and his girlfriend.

“Hey, cheer up,” Lia Ramius said from beside him. “It’s only for a few days.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Alex muttered back. “You know bureaucracies; they’ll delay things any way they can. And how can you tell what’s bugging me?”

She laughed. “I don’t think the Earth Forces will notice if that’s what you’re worried about. No, I just know you too well.”

Too true. Lia Ramius was like a sister to him and was one of the few people who could read him like a book. His standard mask did not fool her in the least.

“It would be best if you do not reveal your relationship with Lady Cagalli,” Natarle Badgiruel said; she had overheard them. “They’ll be suspicious enough as it is.”

“Believe me, I am painfully aware of that.”

The next few minutes passed without incident, as Arnold Neumann guided the Archangel to its assigned dock with his usual skill. Alex, watching from his position next to Murrue’s command chair, frowned. The level of activity outside was odd; too little for the Alliance’s main base, yet what there was of it bordered on frenetic.

His eyes narrowed to blue slits. Are there usually these many submarines at Headquarters?

“Captain, we have an incoming transmission,” Flay said.

A young man wearing lieutenant’s insignia appeared on the screen. “Welcome to Alaska, Archangel,” he said. His expression turned faintly disapproving when he saw Alex, but none of it showed in his voice. “I’m afraid you’ll have to stand by for the time being. The base commander, Captain Sutherland, is currently unavailable. We’ll contact you when the situation changes.”

Murrue raised an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea how long it will take?”

The man shook his head. “I’m afraid not.” His image vanished.

Alex rubbed his chin. “Well, well, what do we have here? It would seem more is going on than even Lord Uzumi thought.”

Neumann turned in his chair. “What do you mean?”

“That officer seemed very anxious to say whatever he had to say as quickly as possible,” Alex said. He nodded toward the forward viewport. “For that matter, look outside. You would know better than I, but it seems to me that there are an unusual number of submarines.”

The helmsman followed his gaze. He was right, Neumann decided. There were at least five subs docked nearby, with more visible beyond them. It was as if they were preparing for disaster.

“Commander Strassmeier is right, Captain,” Natarle said. “I’ve only been here once, just after I graduated from the Academy, but I don’t remember these many submarines.”

“Agreed,” Neumann put in. “It looks like they’re preparing for an evacuation, but why would they want to evacuate Headquarters?”

“Or perhaps they’re preparing to reinforce Panama,” Murrue said. She looked at the ZAFT officers. “Do you think they could have gotten wind of Spit Break?”

Lia merely shrugged, but Alex’s gaze suddenly sharpened. “It’s possible, but if they are sending troops to Panama, they’re in for a nasty surprise. You see, Commander Le Creuset told me that Panama isn’t Spit Break’s target at all.”

Everyone stared at him for a moment. “Then what is?” Mu La Flaga finally asked.

Alex waved his prosthetic hand. “He didn’t say, but it’s obvious enough: JOSH-A, where we now stand.”

Murrue took a deep breath. “Then it’s a good thing ZAFT knows we’re allies now,” she said softly. She turned her gaze to the main gate. “I just hope Kira and the others are all right.”

Valkyrie, cafeteria

As it happened, Kira and the others had no inkling of the impending attack. Oh, they knew Spit Break was imminent, but they had no idea that the blow would fall on Alaska. Kira himself had spent most of the time since the Marshall Islands fight teaching his friend Tolle the art of Gundam combat. Fortunately, the basic controls of the MBF-M1 Astray were modeled after the original five prototypes, so transitioning to the Aegis was not particularly difficult.

Now, Tolle stood by the cafeteria’s huge viewport, his eyes focused on the hidden gate to JOSH-A.

“You, okay?”

He jumped, but it was only Cagalli. “Yeah. I am just worried about Mir. She is in there, right at the center of the Alliance. If they’re found out…”

The princess squeezed his shoulder. “I know how you feel. There is someone important to me in there, too, and he is in a lot more danger. He is a Coordinator, after all.”

“And related to a Supreme Council member on top of that,” Tolle agreed. “Kind of funny. I knew right away he was a Coordinator -he admitted it up front- but I never thought he had relatives that highly placed.” He gave her a curious look. “You met him before Heliopolis, didn’t you?”

She nodded. “It was at a diplomatic reception in Orb four years ago. He did not say much -you know how he is- but the way Andrea stuck close to him made me think there was more to him than met the eye. I was right.”

Tolle looked back out the window, feeling at least a little reassured. He had seen Alex’s skill in a mobile suit, and he knew his friend had killed barehanded before, so Mir at least was well cared for, should anything go wrong. He did not expect it to, though; everyone from the Heliopolis group knew from experience that Alex Strassmeier was a superb actor. The Earth Forces would see only what he wanted them to see.

Behind them, the cafeteria hatch slid open, admitting Andrea Strassmeier. She could not help smiling a little when she saw Tolle and Cagalli standing together. No one had the slightest thought that there might be something romantic, of course; Cagalli’s attachment to Alex was impossible to miss, and if it were not for the unusual circumstances Tolle would not have been on the Valkyrie at all.

What a weird bunch we are, Andrea thought cheerfully, sitting next to another person with the same worries. “I guess it’s up to Alex and the others for now, huh?”

Kira Yamato nodded, then looked at her quizzically. “Aren’t you worried about your brother?”

She rolled her eyes. “If it were anyone else, I would be, but not Alex. If he could singlehandedly pull something like this off,” she waved at the compartment around them, “then he can manage some Earth Forces desk jockeys.”

“She’s right,” the Desert Tiger said, setting his inevitable cup of coffee on the table. “That guy’s got cold-space lubricants for blood; even when he’s mad, he doesn’t stop thinking.” He grinned at the young pilot. “But I’ll bet you’re worried about a certain redhead.”

Kira blushed but did not deny it; neither he nor Flay were good at hiding their feelings. “Yeah. If they hurt her, I’ll…” He did not have to finish the sentence. His grim expression, completely out of place on his face, spoke volumes.

Waltfeld studied him in silence. Even though they had started out on opposite sides, he liked the youngster. Uncertain though he was about his place, Kira had not wavered for an instant, even when facing Athrun Zala in battle.

So young, yet already a veteran, the Tiger thought. It will be tough on him, but he is not alone. There was Flay Allster, Athrun Zala, and of course the blonde girl standing by the window. In retrospect, Waltfeld was surprised he had not noticed the resemblance from the first.

“Anyway, don’t sweat it,” he said. “I’ve seen Alex on the ground; if anyone can keep Flay safe, it’s him.”

Kira nodded. “Thanks.”

JOSH-A Base, conference room, 5 May, C.E. 71

Mu had never liked boards of inquiry at the best of times, and judging by how the room was set up, this was going to be even worse than usual. The long table with five chairs at the front of the room, just below a large view screen, was all too reminiscent of a court martial.

He had faced a board of this sort exactly twice before, the first after Endymion Crater, the second following his encounter with Miguel Aiman during the Nova battle. Neither had been much of a problem; it was hardly his fault that the Cyclops had gone off, and the Magic Bullet of Dusk was dangerous enough to give even a Zero trouble.

That was then, this is now, Mu thought sourly.

The far door opened, and five officers stepped through, led by a craggy-faced captain Mu presumed to be William Sutherland.

“The inquiry will now commence,” Sutherland said without preamble. “The procedure will be that of a court martial. Please, bear that in mind.” He shot a cold glance at Alex Strassmeier, who for his part appeared unaffected.

He noticed, Mu thought, watching his young friend in the corner of his eye. This could get ugly.

It took hours, the five officers probing every detail of the Archangel’s activities. Kira taking control of the Strike in a desperate attempt to save his friends, the intervention of the mysterious Valkyrie, the collapse of Heliopolis, Artemis, the Eighth Fleet…

Murrue fielded most of the questions. She carefully avoided any mention of Cagalli, which would have been rather difficult to explain, even if she was on Alex’s ship, but otherwise gave complete responses.

Sutherland looked more than a little irritated when they got to the events surrounding the rescue of Lacus Clyne, but he did not dare criticize the decision to bring her aboard; even if, as Mu was beginning to think, Sutherland was a member of Blue Cosmos, which would have been a bit much.

They moved on to the events in the desert…

Cousteau, briefing room

“The Alaska base is the most heavily defended installation on this planet, exceedingly even our bases at Carpentaria and Gibraltar,” Rau Le Creuset said, tapping a map with his pointer. “Indeed, even in space it is only matched by Boaz and Jachin Due.”

Aside from Yzak, Dearka, and Athrun, the assembled pilots wore standard green. Le Creuset had hoped that Shiho Hahnenfuss would be available, but unfortunately the project she was working on had not yet been completed.

So be it. “What I am about to tell you is strictly confidential.” He paused a beat. “Approximately a month and a half ago, the mobile assault ship Archangel defected to the Orb Union, which has since secretly joined our cause.”

The effect was electric. While few had known of Athrun’s connection to the Strike pilot, everyone knew of the “legged ship’s” raw power. Having that on their side was a major boost indeed.

Le Creuset waited for the babble to subside, then continued. “At the request of Chief Representative Athha, the Archangel is engaged in a covert operation, pretending to still be aligned with the Earth Forces to infiltrate Alaska. In support of that goal, they engaged in two mock battles with our G-weapons; therefore, neither Nicol nor the Blitz and Aegis are with us at this point.”

A pilot in the front row raised his hand. “Sir, what about the black ship?”

Le Creuset smiled. “It is now a ZAFT vessel. Alex Strassmeier and his comrades officially joined ZAFT at the request of Commander Waltfeld. He and the Valkyrie’s captain, Lia Ramius, are inside the base at present, explaining their role in the legged ship’s operations.”

He raised his pointer. “Back to Alaska itself. It is not the sort of place you can attack without extensive preparation. Even with our feint at Panama, the nature of the area means it will be exceedingly difficult to force any substantial breach in their defenses.” He tapped the main gate area. “The Archangel will be helpful in that regard, and Commander Strassmeier will be getting some intelligence out to us if he can.”

“Sir, is there any word on the Strike?” a man in the back asked.

“It was badly damaged in the second false engagement,” Le Creuset said. “Once repairs are complete, it will be transferred to Mu La Flaga. As for its pilot…” He nodded at Athrun. “The Strike’s original pilot is an old friend of Athrun’s, a first-generation Coordinator named Kira Yamato. He will be piloting a new machine given to him by Representative Clyne, the ZGMF-X10A Freedom. As the model number suggests, it is built on similar lines to Athrun’s Justice.”

There was another uproar at that. The performance of the Alliance’s GAT-X105 Strike was already the stuff of legend in ZAFT. Having it in the Hawk of Endymion’s hands, and its original pilot in an even better machine…

“I will be boarding the Valkyrie tomorrow, so as to brief the Strassmeier team on Spit Break.” Le Creuset shut down the viewer. “Dismissed.”

JOSH-A Base, conference room

It seemed like it was over, but as far as Alex was concerned it was merely the calm before the storm. Sutherland’s questions had made his attitude toward Coordinators brutally clear. Add to that Admiral Halberton’s defection, and you had a recipe for trouble.

“So, Captain, can you think of anything you should have done differently?” Sutherland asked.

Alex felt mental antennae twitch at the man’s tone. Something is about to blow.

Murrue felt the same, but she could not avoid answering. “If I were faced with the same choices, based on the same information I had from Heliopolis onward, I believe I would have made the same decisions.”

“I would hope not,” Sutherland said icily. “There were some mistakes you could have avoided from the start.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Such as?”

“Such as placing the Strike in the hands of a Coordinator,” Sutherland said even more icily. “Need I remind you that Coordinators are our enemies?”

If you only knew. “Sir, I had little choice. We were in a crisis, and Kira was the only person capable of operating the Strike.”

“You should have realized that we would ultimately overcome the OS problem,” Sutherland said.

“Sir, we didn’t have time,” Murrue said. “The Le Creuset team had already captured four of the G-weapons, and the Strike was our only means of defense.”

The captain smiled thinly. “Perhaps. Trusting a Coordinator who happened to be an Orb national was one thing; Orb’s policy toward Coordinators is well known.” Sutherland’s tone made clear what he thought of such a policy. “But trusting certain other Coordinators was very foolish indeed.”

Murrue bristled. “Are you suggesting, Captain, that I should have treated my own niece as a ZAFT spy?”

“Not at all.” Sutherland looked at Alex. “You are Ezalia Joule’s nephew, I believe?”

Alex nodded. He had a feeling about where this was going. “Yes, and my cousin Yzak is a member of the Le Creuset team, the pilot of GAT-X102 Duel, to be exact.”

The Earth Forces officer turned back to Murrue. “I believe, Captain, that trusting a close relative of a Supreme Council member is questionable at best. Especially one whose sister is wanted for desertion.”

Alex kept a firm hold on his temper. “Andrea was never a loyal Earth Forces soldier to begin with, Captain. She was a victim of Alliance barbarism.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised,” Sutherland went on. “One of the men we sent to recruit her died in the process.”

“I know one of them died, because I killed him!” Alex snapped, temper fraying at last. His artificial hand clenched into a fist. “The Atlantic Federation murdered my parents, and then my sister was abducted! For your barbaric Combat Coordinator program, no less!”

The look Sutherland gave him positively dripped condescension. “Come now. The PLANTs are and always have been subject to the sponsor nations. We were well within our rights to impose that blockade when they forgot their place.”

Mu La Flaga felt a twinge of alarm, seeing his friend turn bright red. Never seen him like that before. This could get ugly.

The explosion he feared never came. With a visible effort, Alex regained his composure. “You coward,” he said coldly. “The reason we armed ourselves, the reason the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty was reorganized into a militia is because without an armed force we were at the mercy of Blue Cosmos.”

“As for our being subject to the sponsor nations…” Alex shook his head in disgust. “There are limits in all things, Captain, and the sponsor nations exceeded their authority when they prohibited us from growing our own food.”

Sutherland snorted. “And the Copernicus bombing? Are you going to defend that?”

“If it was ZAFT that, did it, I just might have; Patrick Zala didn’t lose his mind until after Junius Seven was nuked. Another profoundly evil act.” Alex’s lip curled. “For the record, I have nothing against nuclear weapons per se; it would have been just as immoral if conventional explosives had been used. Junius Seven was not in any sense of the term a legitimate military target.” He shook his head again. “In any case, the Alliance’s official statement regarding Copernicus is in every important way a lie.”

The Earth Forces officer narrowed his eyes. “Really. Then who was responsible?”

Alex fixed him with an icy stare. “An Atlantic Federation special forces unit, possibly the same one that kidnapped Andrea.”

“Preposterous!” Sutherland stared at him as if he had gone mad. “What probable reason could we have for wiping out the UN leadership?”

“Simple: you wanted an excuse to declare war on the PLANTs.” Alex’s voice chilled everyone in the room, excluding only Mu and the two ship captains.

Natarle Badgiruel was remembering the last time that voice was directed at her. He almost killed me then.

Sutherland, having tired of his verbal battle with Alex, turned back to Murrue. “Another thing regarding Ensign Yamato. You explicitly gave him permission to avoid lethal force on one of the stolen G-weapons, the Aegis. Yes, recapturing one of them would have been to our advantage, but the fact that you specified the Aegis indicates that there was more to your decision than military considerations.”

Murrue took a deep breath. She had been afraid this would come up. “Sir, Kira knew the pilot personally. They attended a prep school in Copernicus together. They were close enough to be brothers. I judged that it would be both unrealistic and unfair to Kira to put him in the position of having to take his best friend’s life.”

Sutherland raised an eyebrow. “Did Ensign Yamato ever identify this… friend by name?”

She covered a wince, suddenly extremely glad she was no longer with the Earth Forces, whatever Sutherland thought. “The pilot of the stolen GAT-X303 Aegis was Athrun Zala, the son of then-Defense Committee Chairman Patrick Zala.”

“So.” Sutherland’s voice was even colder than Alex’s had been. “He knew the son of Patrick Zala. Patrick Zala, quite possibly our worst enemy in the PLANTs; Clyne at least has been conciliatory. Do you realize what this means, Captain?”

Natarle rose. “Captain Sutherland, with all due respect, Ensign Yamato’s friendship with Athrun Zala in no way indicates that his loyalties were divided.” Murrue looked at her in surprise; she did not normally talk like that. “Indeed, it was friendship that induced him to join our forces in the first place,” the lieutenant continued. “It was a deeply painful experience for him; leaving aside the issue of Athrun Zala, he had to fight against people he would otherwise have called friends, most notably the pilot of the Blitz, one Nicol Amalfi, and Andrew Waltfeld.”

The look she gave Sutherland then was just short of a glare. “Ensign Kira Yamato gave his life protecting the Archangel and his friends. Sir, he should be commended, not condemned.”

Sutherland shook his head. “All this, in defense of one Coordinator.” He sighed. “It was inevitable, the exigencies of battle and all that. In any case, it is the determination of this board that the officers and crew of the Archangel functioned as best they could and were in no way tainted by the treason of Rear Admiral Lewis C. Halberton. The alliance with the renegade mobile assault ship Valkyrie will be overlooked, in light of the blood relationship between the two captains.” He gave Lia an almost courteous nod.

“The crew of the Archangel will remain as it is. Except,” he made a great show of consulting his board, “for Lieutenant Commander Mu La Flaga, Lieutenant Junior Grade Natarle Badgiruel, and Crewman Second Class Flay Allster.”

Murrue straightened in surprise. She should have expected it, but… “Sir?”

“Commander La Flaga and Lieutenant Badgiruel have talents that can be utilized elsewhere,” Sutherland said. “As for Crewman Allster, her name still commands profound respect within the Alliance. She need not be on the front lines.”

Propaganda, in other words, Murrue thought in disgust. You have no idea how things stand, Captain. It was unlikely that Flay would go along with such a thing, due in no small part to her relationship with Kira. The girl had gone from being a Blue Cosmos sympathizer (her father’s influence) to an almost obsessive supporter of Orb and the PLANTs.

We will have to get them to the Valkyrie somehow. Especially Flay; she is good at her job, but she would be effectively helpless anywhere else.

“This board is adjourned,” Sutherland said.

Archangel, cafeteria

Murrue finished the briefing and waited.

Flay, predictably, looked outraged; slighting Kira was guaranteed to make her angry. Sai clearly felt the same, while Mir’s expression bordered on murderous.

“Just who do they think they are?” Sai demanded. “Sure, maybe you could blame Kira for what happened to Heliopolis, after the way he blasted Le Creuset’s CGUE. But the rest of that and saying that he couldn’t be trusted because of Athrun!” The blonde youth clenched his fists.

Natarle smiled thinly. “I know how you feel, Sai,” she said, using his given name for the first time. “The accusation defied all logic; how was Kira supposed to know that he and his friend would someday find themselves on opposite sides in a full-scale war?”

“And saying that they were trying to recruit Andrea!” Flay could have blistered battle steel with just her tone, Murrue noted. “Since when do you kidnap people, you’re trying to recruit?”

“That’s the way they operate,” Mir said bitterly, then took a deep breath, visibly calming herself. “What about the transfers?” she asked in a more normal tone.

Alex took that one. “Mu, Natarle, and Flay, will be spirited off to the Valkyrie; Athrun’s people were kind enough to supply us with a small submarine. It should be able to sneak in.” He shrugged. “Given the level of activity here, getting three people out shouldn’t be very difficult.”

“In the meantime, I will be making use of a ULF transmitter, which I highly doubt the brass here will even know to look for, to relay some hard data on JOSH-A to the Valkyrie.” Alex’s lip twisted slightly. “They will in turn relay it to Commander Le Creuset; I understand he’s the overall commander of Spit Break.”

The three youngsters nodded; Flay knew how useful a ULF -ultralow frequency- transmitter was for covert communications. They were difficult to detect at the best of times; with the combination of the N-jammers and Earth’s own magnetic fields, Alex’s idea was certainly safe.

And I will get to see Kira again, the redhead thought cheerfully.

“If, as I expect, JOSH-A is indeed Spit Break’s target,” Alex said, “the Earth Forces will be in for a very unpleasant surprise. Once the defense forces launch, the Archangel will attack in concert with the Valkyrie.”

None of them liked the tactic their friend was describing, but they also understood that it was necessary. Judging by some of Sutherland’s comments, as well as his apparent desire to get Mu, Natarle, and Flay away from the ship, the brass had no further use for the Archangel.

“I don’t know what Sutherland’s up to,” Alex said softly, “but I can guarantee he won’t like what happens.”

Valkyrie, briefing room, 6 May, C.E. 71

Kira nervously straightened his uniform. They had received a communication from the Cousteau an hour earlier, telling them to expect Commander Rau Le Creuset, who was coming to brief them on the details of Operation Spit Break.

Why couldn’t they send someone else? he wondered. Why not Athrun or Yzak?

He knew the answer, of course. Le Creuset was the best ZAFT had, and he had the favor of Chairman Zala himself.

Waltfeld caught his eye. “Nervous?” He smiled when Kira blushed. “Don’t worry about it. I have never liked him either; how your friend Athrun can stand him, I have not a clue. Anyway, remember that you are an officer yourself, an experienced pilot, and a member of one of the Five Noble Families.”

Kira swallowed. “I will. It is just that, I am not really used to it. I only found out in March.”

The Tiger nodded, then turned as the hatch opened, admitting Rau Le Creuset. His featureless gaze swept over them, leaving no hints as to what might be going on behind the mask.

“In two days, Operation Spit Break will commence,” he said without preamble. “As some of you have probably realized, the target is not Panama at all, but rather Alaska.” He switched on the main viewer. “Even though most of their defense forces have been sent to Panama in response to our feint, breaking through will be difficult. Your comrades on the Archangel will be extremely helpful in that regard.”

Le Creuset then explained their own ship’s role. They would soon be picking up Mu, Natarle, and Flay, who were being transferred at Sutherland’s order. Once Alex gave the word, the Strassmeier team would launch, along with Mu, Kira, Cagalli, and Nicol. The surprise alone would be enough to throw the defenders off balance; if not, nine extra Gundams (Alex had brought the Stormbird with him to the Archangel) would make a major difference.

The rest of the plan was simple: breach as many gates as possible, then rip the interior apart.

Kira was not sure what to think. On the one hand, he did not like to kill; on the other, they now had ample confirmation of Blue Cosmos’s influence within the Earth Forces command structure.

He felt something, and suddenly realized Le Creuset was studying him. He returned the gaze, wondering what on Earth was going on.

“So,” the masked man said softly. “These are Hibiki’s progeny.”

Cagalli glared at him. “What’s it to you?”

Le Creuset shrugged. “I have long known of the man’s work, though I had no idea either of the twins had survived. It does, however, explain how your brother did so well so quickly.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I have often wondered how things would have turned out if Hibiki and his wife had survived and raised you themselves.”

“Why should it matter?” Cagalli shot back; she was starting to see why Mu disliked this guy.

“It’s an academic consideration,” Le Creuset conceded. “And it is certainly true that things turned out well enough for you.” He turned to leave. “How well remains to be seen.”

Cagalli shook her head. “Now I see why Mu can’t stand that guy. He gives me the creeps.”

“He has that effect on a lot of people,” Waltfeld agreed. “Outside his own team, there aren’t many who can stand the guy. Chairman Zala, a couple others on the Council, that’s all.”

Kira said nothing. He was sure there was more to Rau Le Creuset than anyone realized. He could not put his finger on it, but something did not seem quite right about him. It was if the mask he wore concealed more than just his face. Kira shook himself. All he could say right now was that he did not like it.

No time to worry about it, he told himself. I will be back in combat in a couple of days. Think about this later. He only hoped his suspicions were unfounded.

Chapter 21: Aegis

Archangel, cafeteria, 16 April, C.E. 71

“Yeah, flying that Skygrasper was fun, but I’m looking forward to taking over the Aegis,” Tolle said, sipping from a glass of milk. “Even though it’s not as maneuverable, the Aegis has better defense and firepower than any fighter.” He made sure to mention defense to soothe his girlfriend; Mir was looking worried enough as it was.

“Agility in atmosphere is the one thing fighters have over mobile suits,” Alex agreed; he and Cagalli were visiting from the Valkyrie. “Most mobile suits, which is the Freedom, and the Justice can fly rings around any fighter I know of.”

Mir still looked worried. “Tolle, please be careful out there. If something happens…”

Tolle squeezed her hand. “It’ll be all right, Mir. Athrun and his buddies aren’t going to be shooting to kill, and nothing the Earth Forces have right now can take the Aegis.”

“Don’t put too much stock in that,” Alex cautioned. “You’re correct that the Zala team won’t be shooting to kill, but accidents do happen. As for your second point, it’s only a matter of time before the Earth Forces conquer the OS problem and deploy mobile suits of their own.”

“I know, I know.”

Even with the Archangel having deserted, the Alliance still had data from the prototypes, if only because of the ship’s now-deceased captain making regular reports. The basic designs were sound, as Kira and the Zala team had proved repeatedly since Heliopolis; all that remained was the OS problem Alex had just mentioned. Once the OS problem that the Alliance was dealt with, there was no telling what Orb and its ZAFT allies would face.

“You know, it’s lucky for us that Kira is good with computers,” Sai commented. “Kuzzey’s departure isn’t the only thing he has to cover up, after all.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”

Sai nodded at his uniform. “You’re a ZAFT Commander now; I don’t think the Earth Forces high command would be happy to see a red uniform on this ship.”

“He’s got a point,” Cagalli said. “That’s why I’m not coming in when we get to Alaska; the Earth Forces aren’t happy with Orb, either.”

“Because your father won’t give them Andrea,” Alex growled. “Believe me, I am painfully aware of that situation. It is something I intend to discuss with whoever is in charge in Alaska. And since I am not with the Alliance military, they cannot exactly court-martial me, either.”

Tolle chuckled. Having seen Alex in a bad mood before, his only regret was that he would not be present when Alex gave the Alaska base commander a talking-to. Oh, well, the hearing is bound to be recorded. I will get Alex to copy the tapes for me.

“Say, Alex,” Mir said suddenly. “Athrun mentioned a ZAFT Elite being involved in remote weapon project, kind of like what Commander La Flaga was doing back in Orb. The guy’s name was Cadwallader or something like that. Sound familiar?”

Alex nodded. “Troy Cadwallader. He is the son of the Prime Minister of Oceania, and one of the very few Naturals in ZAFT service. He has the same level of spatial awareness as Mu and me, and as such is the only Natural to wear the red uniform. Yzak told me that before he was tapped for the project you refer to, he piloted a captured Moebius Zero mobile armor.”

“Have you ever met him?” Sai asked.

Alex shook his head. “He didn’t join ZAFT until after I left the PLANTs, and I’ve never been to Oceania, so no, I’ve never met him.”

“Excuse me for interrupting,” a new voice said. Natarle had arrived while they chatted. “No, no one is in trouble,” she said, smiling at the nervous looks she got. “There’s something on the news you might be interested in.”

Frowning, Alex clicked on the monitor, and blinked in surprise. At least two major news channels were carrying a speech by George Allster’s replacement live, and his words were anything but encouraging. None of it made sense, but what really startled the group was the accusation that Rear Admiral Lewis C. Halberton was a ZAFT agent.

“Are these guys crazy, or what?” Tolle demanded. “It sounds like they’re saying Admiral Halberton is a traitor just because he treated Kira like a normal human being instead of some freak!”

“That was more or less my reaction, Crewman,” Natarle agreed. “And in case you’re wondering, the most common anti-Coordinator pejorative in the Alliance military right now is ‘space monster,’ probably because they’re so well suited for life in space.”

“I’ve heard it,” Alex said sourly. “I guess whoever it was that performed the treatments on George Glenn is thought of as a latter-day Doctor Frankenstein.” He stood. “Well, I’d best get back to my own ship. Coming, Cagalli?”

She took his hand. “Right behind you.”

Tolle waved, then returned his gaze to the screen. The more he heard from the dimwit speaker (who made Flay’s late father look benign by comparison), the more his hands itched to be grasping the Aegis’s control bars. Everything the man had said thus far was completely wrong; as far as Tolle could tell, only the “big lie” propaganda technique was letting the bastard get away with it.

The Earth Forces will get what they deserve, Tolle thought. We will see to that.

Cousteau, pilots’ locker room

“Man, this is getting weirder all the time,” Dearka said to no one in particular. “We capture some new mobile suits, fight two new warships, chase those warships halfway across the planet, and now we’re helping them, instead.” He leaned back against his locker; hands clasped behind his head.

Athrun looked up from squaring away Nicol’s gear. “Not to mention faking the destruction of one of our own machines,” he said. “Speaking of which, I wonder how Nicol’s doing.”

“Alex told me he’s helping the Valkyrie’s mechanics get the Blitz back up and running,” Yzak said. “It’ll be a while yet before it’s operational again, but it’s not like we’re going to be taking on the main Earth Forces fleet. He’ll be fine.”

Dearka shook his head. “Assuming those mechanics don’t drive him nuts first. Remember that Murdoch guy from the Archangel?”

His friends rolled their eyes in unison. Kojiro Murdoch was friendly enough, and Kira had assured them that he had nothing against Coordinators, but he was also a very strange man. Typical for a mechanic, he had more interest in machines than people, but at the same time he kept an eye on the pilots of those machines.

The Valkyrie’s people were another matter entirely. Coordinators to a man, they seemed to delight in driving the pilots (and Lia Ramius) completely insane. Alex had told them of one particularly spectacular incident just after he had wiped out the Coast team at Junius Seven. It seemed that the crew chief had rigged a waste receptacle to explode and douse whoever was unfortunate enough to open it in red paint. The others were just as bad if not worse.

“I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” Athrun said. “Nicol’s a lot like Kira; I don’t see mechanics going out of their way to bug him.”

“So, when’s the next ‘fight’?” Yzak asked, changing the subject.

“Tomorrow. We’ll be heading for the Marshall Islands.” Athrun closed Nicol’s locker. “Alex’s people will plant some more explosives, and Kira and I will fake the destruction of the Strike and the Aegis.”

Yzak and Dearka both nodded. It would be rough on the machines, albeit not as bad (hopefully) as what had done to the Blitz. Still, while no one on any of the ships liked it, it was the only way to convince the Alaska brass that the Archangel was still an ally. All would depend on that.

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira pressed one final key and leaned back with a groan. Purging the ship’s computers of all records of Kuzzey had taken longer than he had expected, and he was exhausted. It had taken the better part of a day just to deal with footage from the surveillance cameras, let alone such minutia as Kuzzey’s Bridge duties; as comm operator, his friend had had a large workload.

“Aren’t you finished yet?”

A smile spread across Kira’s face. “Hi, Flay. Yeah, I just finished.” He stood and crossed to her, wrapping her in a hug. “There was a lot more than I’d expected.”

She laid her head on his chest. “Okay, if that’s what the problem was, I’ll forgive you… this time.” A bright smile took the sting out of her words.

“It wasn’t just about Kuzzey, either,” Kira said, drawing her down next to him on his bunk. “Alex and Cagalli visited a little while ago, and that uniform of his would be a pretty big red flag.”

Flay chuckled at that. She agreed with Cagalli that Alex cut a dashing figure in his red ZAFT uniform, but that was not the way to convince the Earth Forces high command that Murrue and her crew were still allies. Alex’s involvement would be hard enough to justify without telling Alaska that he had just joined ZAFT.

“So how does it feel?”

Flay looked up at him, confused. “How does what feel?”

“Being allied with people who used to be enemies.”

She exhaled slowly. “It’s not as hard as I thought it would be. With my father gone, I do not have any real ties to the Atlantic Federation anymore; everyone I really care about is with either Orb or ZAFT. Even though that Le Creuset guy gives me the creeps.”

Kira understood that perfectly. Le Creuset had contacted them directly about an hour before the Archangel had left Orb. Kira had been on the Bridge at the time, and the man’s featureless mask had sent a shiver down his spine.

Mu’s reaction had been stronger. He had gazed at Le Creuset with thinly veiled loathing, though the ZAFT officer did not appear to have noticed.

“But they have people like Athrun and Nicol, too,” Flay went on. “And Commander Waltfeld is a nice guy.” Indeed, she had grown fond of the Desert Tiger.

“Remember what Alex told you,” Kira said. “Most people in the PLANTs really aren’t like Zala.”

Flay nodded. She had gotten to know the Zala team well, and the only member of the Valkyrie’s crew who was not from the PLANTs was Lia Ramius. In fact, she had spent time with their chief engineer, a native of Junius Four, without realizing the other girl was a Coordinator.

“Still, I’m worried,” she said in a deep voice. “Not about what Athrun’s team will do, but what you have to do tomorrow. Even though it was staged, the last battle was a narrow escape for Nicol, and you’re going to have to do the same thing…”

Kira stroked her hair. “It’ll be all right. This one will not be a split-second thing the way the Blitz was. I’ll be out of the cockpit before the bombs go off.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry.”

Flay just tightened her grip on him. As she had said, everyone she cared about was with either Orb or ZAFT, and there were not very many of them. Kira, of course, Cagalli, Miriallia, Sai, Murrue, even Athrun Zala (as far as Flay was concerned, any friend of Kira’s was a friend of hers).

“Everything will be just fine,” Kira whispered.

Valkyrie, hangar, 17 April, C.E. 71

Alex snapped his pocket computer shut. He had been over the plans for the next day’s battle and the subsequent trip to JOSH-A, and everything checked out. He just wished he could be as confident as his electronic minion was. Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong; it is best if we take that into account now.

“All right,” he said at last. “Tomorrow we have our second and last battle with the Zala team. We will be planting more explosives to simulate the destruction of X105 Strike and X303 Aegis. Once the battle is done, those two machines, along with Strike pilot Kira Yamato and his friend Tolle Koenig, will join us here. At the same time, the Justice will transferred to the Cousteau. Questions, comments, anyone?”

Hiro nodded at Nicol’s machine. “Will the Blitz be ready in time for the next major operation?”

“I think Nicol is in the best position to answer that,” Alex replied, nodding at the younger pilot.

“No problem,” Nicol said. “Your mechanics are better than some back in the homeland, and they’re getting the Blitz back up in record time.”

“They’d better,” Chris Madsen muttered. “I’m looking forward to getting the Inferno flight-capable; there’s no way it’ll happen by the time we hit Alaska. Speaking of that…” He looked at Alex. “What’s the plan when we get there?”

Alex’s lip twisted. “Lia and I will temporarily transfer to the Archangel; our involvement is such that their high command will almost certainly want to speak to us. I’m anticipating some unpleasantness, that’s for sure.”

Brian raised his eyebrows. “How come?”

His friend snorted. “The current base commander in Alaska is one Captain William Sutherland. He is, among other things, a member of Blue Cosmos, so highly placed that he reports directly to Muruta Azrael.”

More than one person inhaled sharply at that. Hearing that a high-ranking Earth Forces officer was with Blue Cosmos was not too much of a surprise, but it still was not a pleasant thought. Not to mention the fact that Andrea was put on the wanted list by the Alliance for desertion; there was no way the top brass would not connect Alex’s last name.

“There’s no way someone like that wouldn’t recognize your name,” Cagalli said. “Are you sure he wouldn’t realize something’s, not, right?”

Alex shook his head. “My hatred for Patrick Zala is no secret,” he pointed out, “and it’s a matter of public record that numerous ZAFT soldiers have died by my hand. Sutherland probably won’t think I’m a spy if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Lia’s voice cut off further conversation. “We’re approaching the battle zone,” she said. “Demolition team, prepare to debark and plant charges. Mobile suit pilots, to your machines.”

Alex moved to the intercom. Technically, since he was the team commander, the last order was his responsibility, but it was a minor thing. “Acknowledged, Lia. We’re ready.” He turned and strode to his machine.

Cagalli caught up with him. “Be careful, Alex.”

He gave her a quick kiss, then grasped his zip line. “I will.”

Archangel, hangar

Kira hurriedly strapped into the Strike’s pilot seat. This is it. One last battle with Athrun, and then we can stop hiding. Oddly, he found himself looking forward to it; he hated to fight, but this was not a real battle. Even though they would be shooting at each other, he and Athrun would be working toward the same goal. Kira thought of it like a sparring match, which he had found he honestly enjoyed.

“You ready, kid?” Mu asked from his Skygrasper.

Kira nodded. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Good.” Even though Mu’s helmet hid all but his eyes, Kira could tell he was grinning. “The Aegis is all yours. I’ve got the Buster, and I think Alex will manage the Duel.”

Kira nodded again. Even when they were on opposing sides, Alex had insisted on dealing with his cousin himself.

“Stay alert, kid; this may be a staged engagement, but accidents happen.” The Hawk gripped his stick firmly. “Mu La Flaga, launching!”

“Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!”

Open sky

The fight was shaping up to be a three-on-three; Brian’s Scorpion was the only other flight-capable machine the Valkyrie had, and it was down due to an OS malfunction. With Kyle, Hiro, and Chris playing gun turret on the forward deck, which left Alex to assist Kira.

“We have them,” Cagalli said over the comm. “Duel, Buster, and Aegis, coming this way.”

“Roger that.” Alex switched frequencies. “Here we go, Yzak. You ready?”

The Duel’s right hand reached up and drew a saber. “Let’s do it!”

Alex drew a saber of his own just as Yzak reached him. Two blades of red fire clashed, locking the mobile suits together. Then they pulled apart, the Stormbird’s superior mobility allowing it to dodge a missile barrage. The winged mobile suit returned fire with its rifle, a CIWS burst shredding the missiles as an afterthought.

Yzak, seeing that his cousin was pushing the pace, switched to his own rifle. Emerald darts of energy crisscrossed the sky, none even coming close to their mark. The Stormbird was far too maneuverable to hit, and while the Duel was restricted to its Guul subflight unit, Yzak was still good enough to make it dance.

A little way away, the scene was far different. Dearka Elsman’s Buster might have had the edge in firepower, but Mu’s Skygrasper, even hampered by the Launcher Striker pack, was flying rings around the ZAFT unit. So far, Dearka had not as much as scratched the paint on the nimble fighter.

I knew he was good, Dearka thought, but this is amazing! I guess Coordinators do not have as big an edge as we thought.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Mu said, having read Dearka’s mind. “You’re good; your machine just isn’t meant for this kind of high-mobility combat.” The friendly tone seemed incongruous with the red Agni blasts.

He has a point. Dearka shifted his attention to the Archangel, a bigger target. Snapping his main weapons together, he fired in shotgun mode, blowing one of the Valiant linear cannons clean off. A secondary explosion vaporized an Igelstellung, and then he got distracted by another pass from Mu.

The Hawk shook his head, glad that the pilot he was fighting was really an ally. Slow though the Buster might have been, it was also heavily armed, and Dearka had proved to be an expert expert shooter. Unless the target was particularly agile, like the Strike or Mu’s fighter, he hit what he aimed at.

Five hundred meters distance from the other combatants, X105 Strike and X303 Aegis closed at high speed. Neither had opened fire yet; Kira and Athrun had agreed beforehand that melee combat was the best way to make it look real without killing each other by accident.

They would not, however, completely refrain from shooting, and Kira mentioned his shield just in time to intercept a green blast. He returned fire, grazing Athrun’s Guul but doing no real damage. Some shots sizzled between them, and then they were in melee range, the yellow saber in the Aegis’s right arm clashing with the Strike’s red one.

Then the Aegis jumped off its Guul, and Kira’s eyes widened as the machine transformed. Knowing what would happen next, he threw his machine back and to the side, just in time to avoid a blast from the Scylla. When he saw the Aegis land back on the subflight unit, Kira charged again, beam saber flashing.

“Almost there, Kira,” Athrun grunted.

“Roger that,” Kira said, then swept his saber low, cutting off the Guul’s port wing and engine.

Athrun forcefully stifled a yelp; it was all part of the plan, but that did not mean dropping out of the sky was fun. Especially not when a mobile suit that could fly was diving after him. A precisely aimed shot destroyed the Strike’s beam rifle, and then a saber slash destroyed his in turn.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity. A red blade cut off the Aegis’s right arm. A yellow blade took the Strike’s left. The Aegis’s head pierced through the eye, just as the Strike’s torso was gashed. By now both combatants were running low on power.

“It’s time!” Athrun yelled. He transformed his machine again and pinned the Strike in its claws. “Kira, now!” He opened his hatch and leapt out; behind him, Kira did the same.

And then the bombs went off.

High above, Alex and Yzak paused in their pseudo-dueling. The explosives Alex’s people had planted were by necessity of a much higher yield than the ones used to conceal the Blitz; they had to fake the destruction of two mobile suits instead of one.

Yzak stared worriedly into the smoke. The last vestiges of his rivalry with Athrun had burned away when his cousin reappeared. Now all he felt was concern for his comrade. “Athrun, Kira, you guys, okay?”

There was a long silence. “I think so,” Kira said, coughing on the smoke. “The explosion cracked my helmet visor, and I think I blacked out for a minute, but I’m okay now.”

“What about Athrun?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know.”

More coughing, from another source. “I’m here,” Athrun managed. “Tolle launched about when Kira took out my Guul; I think he deliberately crashed near the Valkyrie.”

“He did,” Cagalli confirmed. “We just brought him onboard.” She chuckled. “I don’t think Mir’s happy with him, though.”

There was a general round of laughter at that. No one doubted Mir’s love for Tolle, but she could be counted on to hand him his head whenever he did something crazy.

“All right, then,” Alex said. “Let us get things moving. Kira, the Valkyrie is on its way; you can come aboard with the Strike and the Aegis. Athrun, you’d best stick around too, so you can pick up the Justice.” Both pilots acknowledged.

Alex switched frequencies. “Murrue, we’re done except for the cleanup. What about you?”

“The Buster is badly damaged; Mu shot him down,” Murrue said. “Though not before he was able to damage our levitators. That should be enough to convince the Alaska brass.”

“I’d have to agree,” Alex said with a snort. “They’re well aware of what the stolen machines are capable of.” He clicked off.

The smoke cleared within a few minutes, and it was soon obvious why Kira and Athrun were so banged up. X105 Strike looked like someone had gone berserk on it with a giant sword (not too far from the truth), and Athrun’s X303 Aegis was barely recognizable as a mobile suit.

Alex sighed. It is gonna take a while to pick up the pieces. No help for it, I guess.

With the Buster irreparably damaged and Alex’s other machines on sentry duty, only the Duel was available to help in recovery. Yzak came along willingly enough; he did not much like it, but he understood the necessity.

Then, with no warning at all, “We’ve got an Earth Forces fleet incoming!”

Alex whirled, cursing. Of all the times… He stared hard at his visual and radar displays; his cold blue eyes narrow.

And swore again. The enemy fleet consisted of two aircraft carriers, four battleships, and at least a dozen destroyers. He knew that even with him and Yzak tied down, they had more than enough firepower to take them; that was not what worried him. If even one gets away, this mission is over.

He keyed his comm. “Yzak and I are still tied down her. Andrea, with the Archangel in the shape it is in right now, this one is up to you. Don’t let any of them get away!”

“Roger that, Alex,” Andrea said. “Andrea Strassmeier, Specter launching!”

To her right, Devastator, Shinobi, and Inferno rode on Guuls borrowed from the Cousteau. Coming up behind them were the hastily repaired Scorpion and the ORB-01 Akatsuki; with both her brother and her boyfriend pinned down on the island, Cagalli had no intention of sitting this one out.

Andrea smiled to herself. She and Cagalli had become close over the past month. Lia’s right, those two are a perfect match. “Like Alex said, don’t let them get away. We can’t afford having our cover blown.” Matching action to words, she brought up her Trikeros, locked on to an F-7D, and fired. The Earth Forces fighter exploded in a rain of debris.

Kyle Perry ignored the fighters completely; his machine was unsuited for attacking such targets. Instead, he snapped his guns together in sniper mode, took careful aim at one of the destroyers, and fired.


“Burn, baby, burn!” Slipping back into his pyromaniac persona, Chris Madsen unleashed his flamer on a quartet of fighters maneuvering for a strafing run on the Duel and the Stormbird. Polymers and metal alloys melted, and then the flames reached the fuel tanks.

Hiro shook his head, seeing the sleek fighters turn into fireballs. Even though he now knew much of what he had seen was a facade, he still considered Chris a lunatic. Pushing those thoughts aside, he dropped several mines on the flight deck of one of the carriers. Two even fell down an elevator shaft, with spectacular results.

“Die, space monster!” A trio of beam-equipped fighters closed on the Shinobi. They had him bracketed…

And then they vanished in a flash of green light. “Take that, you bastards!” Cagalli snarled.

The machine Nicol had dubbed the Golden Gundam spun in midair, rifle and back-mounted cannons spitting emerald death. One fighter tried to ram; Cagalli responded by snatching out a saber and slicing down its long axis.

In the few minutes since battle had begun, things had gone badly for the Earth Forces, and now it was about to get worse. The Alliance pilots stared in disbelief as an FX-550 Skygrasper, one of their own designs, joined the fray. Mu La Flaga, once a hero of the Earth Forces (though he never thought of himself as such), slashed through the enemy formation like a thunderbolt. Six fighters blew apart in the first pass.

Andrea grinned at the carnage. She did not enjoy killing, but her ordeals had left her with a deep hatred for the Earth Forces. Time to teach them a lesson. Energizing the Specter’s beam saber, Andrea cut a long gash in the hull of one of the destroyers, just above the waterline.

Judging by the sudden explosion, she hit the ship’s magazine.

“Nice trick, Andrea.” Brian’s Scorpion appeared next to her in mobile armor mode. The Stinger flashed, and another destroyer sank beneath the waves.

“I try,” she said wryly. “How are we doing?”

“Still got a few destroyers left, plus one carrier and all four battleships… or not,” he added as a blast from the Valkyrie’s Gottfrieds reduced the capital ship to scrap.

“I’ve got the carrier,” Chris said. He grinned nastily. “Jet fuel burns really hot, remember.”

Andrea shook her head. Hiro’s right, that guy is a lunatic. There was no denying his skill, though; two fighters were being spotted for launch were suddenly engulfed in flames as the aptly named Inferno Gundam torched the fuel lines. The fire quickly spread to the superstructure.

That one is a write-off.

Then she caught sight of something else. The still-disabled Buster had surrounded by several attack helicopters, and it looked like they were not interested in giving Dearka a chance to surrender.

Not that he would anyway, Andrea thought furiously. So, you bastards think you are going to kill him, do you? Over my dead body!

It was entirely possible that the Alliance pilots never knew what hit them. The weather had turned dark and rainy, so there was no real sunlight to gleam on the Specter’s white form. Not that it would have mattered if she had spotted the pilots; none of the choppers had beam weapons, which meant they had no way to defeat the Specter’s Phase-shift.

In any case, it took Andrea thirty seconds to annihilate them.

“You okay, Dearka?” she asked anxiously.

Dearka stared at the white mobile suit that had just saved his life. “Yeah, thanks. I owe you one.”

“No problem!”

“I think the others have dealt with the rest of the fleet,” Alex cut in. “As far as we can tell, no survivors.” To those who knew him, he sounded regretful.

Which he was. Willing though he was to fight, Alex did not like killing, and he would have preferred to take prisoners. He had known from the start that it was impossible, though; if even a fraction of the enemy crews had survived, the Valkyrie and the Cousteau would have been unable to manage them, and they did not dare put any on the Archangel.

“I know how you feel, Alex,” Andrea said gently. “We had no choice.”

Her brother shook himself. “I know. Let us get this finished and get out of here.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

It was a somber group that gathered in the small cabin. Alex and Cagalli sat together on his bunk, Andrea sprawled in a chair with her feet on Alex’s desk, while Kira stood at the window, gazing out at the sea.

“Do you think… we did the right thing?” Kira asked softly.

Andrea slid her booted feet off the desk. “You mean about that Earth Forces fleet that turned up?” Kira nodded. “I know you don’t like what happened, Kira, but it’s like I told Alex. We had no choice. If any of them got away, it would have blown the whole operation wide open.”

Kira clenched his fists. “I know, but so many deaths…” He shook his head.

Flay may not have been there, but that did not mean Kira was alone. “Don’t beat yourself up,” Cagalli said, coming forward to embrace her brother. “It’s not your fault. All we can do is end it as quickly as possible.”

“It’ll be bloody,” Alex agreed, “but I don’t see any way to avoid it. In any case, you personally had nothing to do with this one.” He glanced at his friend sidelong. “And even if you did, you’d have no reason to feel guilty. Not with that bunch.”

Kira blinked in surprise. The last sentence dripped vitriol, and while that was not unusual coming from Alex, it sounded strong even for him. “What do you mean?”

“I had Hiro check up on that task force,” Alex explained. “It was chock full of hardliners, people who see us as inhuman monsters. I have nothing against Naturals, as you well know, but I’m not shedding any tears for the people we just wiped out, either.”

Kira was of two minds about his friend’s words. On the one hand, he appalled by Alex’s apparent callousness; on the other, he understood why Alex felt that way. He would have to more than human not to, after what he and his sister went through.

He looked at Andrea. Not difficult to do; Sai’s jaw had dropped when he first saw Andrea Strassmeier. At 170 centimeters, she was taller than most of the Heliopolis gang, including Kira himself. Slender, with a disposition that made her seem like a perky, black-haired version of Cagalli. Outside of battle, at least; in the cockpit, she acted disturbingly like Natarle Badgiruel.

“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” Kira said at last. “I just don’t like it.”

“Kira,” Alex said gently, “if you did like it, you’d be a danger to yourself and others. You have done nothing in this war that you need to be ashamed of. Yes, you have killed, but only in defense of the people who meant the most to you.” He laid a hand on Kira’s shoulder. “A soldier and a murderer are two different things.”

Kira nodded. When put in those terms, it made perfect sense. Kira Yamato was a protector, someone who would give his life for those he loved.

Of course, I hope it does not come to that, he thought wryly. Not that he was afraid for his own life; now, the only machine that could match the Freedom was his friend Athrun’s Justice. For that matter, even if he had still limit the Strike, there were few pilots who really approached his level, and most of them were on his side.

He moved to the hatch. “I’d better get down to the hangar. The mechanics will need help getting the Strike squared away.”

“I’ll go with you,” Cagalli said, joining him. She smiled at Alex and Andrea. “I think those two need to talk anyway.”

She is right, Andrea thought. It has been a month since we reunited, but we have not really had a chance to talk. Now, looking at her brother, she saw a hardness to his features that had not been there before. The past three years had been difficult for him, she knew, more than even Lia realized.

She turned to look at the photo over Alex’s bunk, smiling a little at the reminder of happier times. Alex, then just shy of his fifteenth birthday, had one arm around her. Their parents, Klaus, and Elena stood behind them. Yzak Joule stood on Alex’s other side, and behind him was Representative Ezalia Joule, his mother and Elena’s sister, holding her adopted daughter, two-year-old Cassandra.

“A lot has changed,” Alex said, as if he had read his sister’s mind. “Mom and Dad are gone, you were put through a living hell, and I-“

“Don’t you start feeling guilty on me, Alex,” Andrea interrupted. “You did the only thing you could do. It is not your fault that you could not find me, or that you had to fight Yzak. Blaming yourself for that is just as stupid as Kira getting all worked up over being a soldier. Things like this happen, brother.”

He started to reply, paused, then shook his head. “You’re right,” he said, smiling in the way she knew so well. He poured himself some coffee, then sat at his desk. “It turned out all right in the end. I don’t have to fight Yzak anymore, and I’m a ZAFT soldier at last.”

“And you’ve got yourself a girlfriend, too… finally.” Andrea laughed at his expression. “Oh, come on, Alex. Even Yzak and Lia do not know you like I do, and I have talked to the others. Yes, you were upset because I was missing, but it wasn’t just that.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “What else was there?”

“You were lonely,” his sister said simply. “Cagalli fit you in a way not even Lia could manage. Oh,” she waved a hand, “I am not criticizing Lia at all; you know as well as I do that, she has never had that kind of interest in you. You need…” Andrea fumbled for a moment. You needed a partner, and Cagalli was perfect for it.”

Alex frowned. Now that he thought of it, his sister had a point. He had been feeling increasingly lonely, and after Cagalli had stopped thinking he was a ZAFT spy, they had grown close very quickly. For that matter, the princess had learned to read him more quickly than anyone else, including Lia Ramius.

“You’re right,” he said slowly. “It was Cagalli who kept me going while we were fighting ZAFT. She promised to help in my quest to find Hibiki’s offspring.” They both laughed at that; Cagalli had never expected that she had promised to help find herself. “After that one confrontation -among other unpleasantness, I called her a pampered aristocrat- I don’t think I ever once made her mad. That’s not easy.”

Andrea smiled. “Exactly. It is not one-sided, Alex. She needed someone like you, too. Everyone else, except her father and Colonel Kisaka, drove her nuts. Half the time you don’t even remember she’s a princess.”

“That’s because she seldom, if ever, acts like one.” Alex sipped his coffee. “But enough about my love life, or recent lack thereof. What about you?”

She blinked. “What about me?”

He smirked. “I’ve seen how Dearka Elsman looks at you, and one way in which you differ from me is that you’re almost incapable of hiding your feelings. Are you going to tell me the interest isn’t reciprocated?”

Andrea blushed. “Wha… what are you talking about?”

“Oh, come on.” Alex nodded at the window. The Cousteau was visible outside. “I haven’t had much chance to talk to you, but Lia tells me you’ve been chattering about him like mad for at least two weeks. I know perfectly well what that means.”

She glared at him. “Alex, you’re reading too much into things here.”

“Then there’s what you did when those choppers attacked the Buster,” he continued, ignoring the retort. “Something like a dozen helicopters in thirty seconds flat. And I heard you over the comm, too. Sis, you were mad.”

“Alex, I’ve only known him for a month,” Andrea said, trying another tack.

He raised his eyebrows. “And that matters how? What about Cagalli and me, or Flay and Kira? Especially Flay and Kira; it took them all of three weeks.”

“Oh, you’re terrible!” They laughed together. Alex was feeling better and better about the current mission. He was looking forward to having it out with the Earth Forces brass. Assuming he could keep from punching the base commander in the face, at least.

Chapter 20: Illusory Combat

Valkyrie, gym, 13 April, C.E. 71

The black-haired young man grunted as the training mat rushed up and smacked him in the face. He lay there for a moment, gathering his strength, then rolled over and got to his feet. She’s gotten better, he thought. And I thought our first session was bruising.

The blonde girl who’d just tossed him halfway across the room laughed. “What’s the matter, Alex? Slowing down?”

“More like you’re speeding up,” Commander Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT forces, retorted. He felt his jaw and winced. “I’ll feel that one in the morning.”

Cagalli laughed again. “Don’t act so surprised. If I could nail you back in the desert, why wouldn’t I be even better after you and Kira spent weeks working with me?”

“Point.” Alex came over and gave her a quick hug. “And while I may be surprised, I’m not complaining. Anything that makes you harder to kill, I’m in favor of.”

“You’d better be.” She returned the embrace… and then flipped him over on his back.

Alex grunted again as he hit the floor, though at least this time it wasn’t as hard. The impact was enough to knock the wind out of him, but not enough to do any real damage. He wasn’t out of tricks, though, and Cagalli yelped in surprise as he swept her legs out from under her.

She landed on top of him.

“You know,” Alex said conversationally, “if Mu or Tolle could see us, they’d probably get the wrong idea.”

Cagalli blushed. “It’s your fault, Alex,” she said in a mock-severe tone. “If you hadn’t knocked me over-“

“Don’t tell me you thought I was down for the count,” Alex cut her off with a grin.

She grinned back. “Not really.” She kissed him quickly and helped him stand. “Think that’s enough?”

“Yeah.” Alex reached for his crimson jacket. “I wonder if I’ll ever get used to this.”

It had been barely twenty-four hours since he’d accepted Siegel Clyne’s offer, delivered by the Desert Tiger, to join ZAFT. His friends (and, inevitably, his sister) had followed suit, and the newly formed Strassmeier team had become the first ZAFT unit to be assigned to Orb.

Of course, they can’t admit they’re an ally until we’ve taken care of Zala.

“Come on, Alex, you only joined up yesterday,” Cagalli said. “Of course, you’ll get used to it. Besides,” she added with a sly smile, “you look good in red.”

“Thanks.” Alex smiled, then turned, hearing the intercom buzz. “Strassmeier here,” he said, accepting audio only.

“Alex, it’s Lia,” the other said. “We’ve got a priority signal from Colonel Kisaka.”

Alex blinked. Kisaka had been spending a lot of time on the Archangel of late. “Put him through.” He offered a salute when the Colonel appeared. “To what do we owe this, Colonel?”

“Greetings, Commander,” Kisaka said. “How is your team shaping up?”

The Coordinator shrugged. “The only practical change is that we’re wearing ZAFT uniforms now.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Somehow, though, I don’t think you called just for that.”

Kisaka chuckled. “Sharp as ever. Yes, I did have a more pressing reason. Lord Uzumi has a job for your team and the Archangel.”

Alex’s other eyebrow went up. “What sort of job?”

“A covert one.” Kisaka’s face was replaced by a map. “It is not yet known outside of Orb that the Archangel has defected, aside from a select few in ZAFT at least. What we intend to do is make use of that, and send Captain Ramius and her crew to Alaska, and there infiltrate the Earth Forces high command.”

Cagalli whistled. “That’s big. What if Alaska doesn’t believe them? They have been here for almost a month.”

Kisaka smiled grimly. “Simple. Kira and Alex will have to discuss it with the Zala team, but the general idea is to have the Archangel fight one or two mock battles with them. It will probably be necessary to fake the destruction of at least once of the G-weapons, possibly two. For that matter, Kira will likely have to fake his own death and the destruction of the Strike; he probably wouldn’t get a warm welcome at Alaska, after all.”

“Too true,” Alex murmured. “All right. The Akatsuki and the Specter have already been loaded. We’ll temporarily transfer the Freedom here; Kira can reclaim it once his part is done. As for the Zala team, I think they’ll be willing to help. I can’t order them to -Athrun Zala is senior to me- but it shouldn’t take much persuasion.”

Kisaka nodded. “Very well. Commander Waltfeld and Aisha will be joining you with a modified LaGOWE. Please hurry with your preparations; this is a rather spur-of-the-moment operation, and we hope to launch sometime in the next two days.”

“I understand. The Cousteau is still near Orb, so I’ll be able to get in touch with them easily enough.” Alex cut the circuit. “So it begins.” He looked at Cagalli. “You ready?”

She nodded. “It’s time we got moving again.”

“Very well.” He touched the intercom. “Communications, this is Commander Strassmeier. Signal the Cousteau and tell Commander Zala that I’d like to meet with him. Kira Yamato and my sister Andrea will also be along.” He paused, then smiled mischievously. “And don’t tell them that I’ve joined ZAFT. I’d like to give Yzak a little surprise.”

“Yes, sir.” Even with visual switched off, Alex could tell the comm officer was grinning.

As was Cagalli. “Anyone ever tell you have a sadistic streak?”

He laughed. “Hey, Yzak and I do this all the time.”

“Yeah, sure.” She punched his shoulder. “Get going, Alex.”

He grinned, saluted, and went on his way.

Cousteau, upper deck

Kira was right, Athrun Zala thought. Earth really is beautiful. From his position on the submarine’s top deck, he could see for several kilometers over the ocean. If he turned to the side, the coastline of Orb’s Onogoro Island came into view, the rocky terrain hiding the massive dock he knew was there.

Athrun leaned back, clasping his hands behind his head. Though he was devoutly grateful for the chance to relax, and even more grateful that he would no longer have to fight Kira, he found himself hungering for some action. According to Commander Le Creuset, it would still be some time before Spit Break was launched, and Athrun was almost at the point of wishing for an Earth Forces attack just to relieve the tedium.

“Hey, Athrun.” Nicol poked his head through the main hatch. “Wait till you hear what the Alliance is saying now.”

Athrun sat up, grateful for anything new. “Judging by your tone, it’s even crazier than usual.”

“Is it ever.” Nicol shook his head. “They’ve found out where Andrea Strassmeier is.” Athrun’s eyes narrowed, and his friend grimaced. “They’re demanding that Orb extradite her to stand trial for desertion.”

The Aegis’s pilot snorted derisively. “I’ll bet Lord Uzumi wasn’t happy.”

“You got that right,” Nicol agreed. “He told them that in light of Alliance policy toward Coordinators, he granted Andrea asylum in the Orb Union, and under no circumstances will she be given to the Earth Forces.”

“Glad to hear it.” Athrun had been impressed by Lord Uzumi at their first meeting, and it looked like he’d been right. “I’ll bet Yzak’s mad, though.”

“Yzak threw a screaming fit,” Nicol said, grimacing again. “Can’t say I blame him, either.”

“Neither do I,” Athrun agreed.

Nicol nodded, then looked out to sea. Like his companion, he was awed by what he’d seen on Earth. Oh, he still thought the PLANTs were beautiful, but nothing in the giant space colonies compared to Earth. The best description he could come up with was to say that the PLANTs were like a mirror of Earth. Odd thoughts for a soldier, perhaps, but Nicol Amalfi had always had a poetic streak.

The beep of Athrun’s comm broke the silence. “Athrun Zala here.”

“Commander, we have a signal from the Valkyrie,” the comm officer said. “Alex Strassmeier is requesting a meeting with you. He say he will be accompanied by his sister and Kira Yamato.”

Athrun’s eyebrows went up. Alex and Kira want to talk to me? “Of course. They’ll be coming in their mobile suits?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then give them permission to land. We’ll talk in the main briefing room.” Athrun clicked off his comm. “I wonder what this is about. If it was just Kira, I’d think this was just a social call, but with the Strassmeier’s involved, there must be more to it.”

Nicol got to his feet. “I guess we’ll find out when they get here.”

“Yeah.” Athrun rose and led the way down the hatch.

Briefing room

I wonder what this is about, Yzak thought. Not that I mind getting a chance to see Alex and Andrea, but it’s kind of weird. He snorted. Schemer that Alex was, there was no doubt something big was up. Yzak knew him well enough to realize that.

“Any idea what’s going on?” Dearka asked.

Athrun shrugged. “All I know is that Kira and Alex want to talk to us.”

“You can bet it’ll be something big,” Yzak said. “Alex wouldn’t be coming way out here for the fun of it.”

They turned as the hatch opened, and more than one jaw dropped in sheer astonishment. Kira Yamato wore the silver-white of the Orb Union with lieutenant’s insignia. That was to be expected; all four of them were aware of Kira’s enlistment in the Orb military. What none of them had expected was the sight of Alex and Andrea Strassmeier in the same red uniform they themselves wore.

“A-Alex?” Yzak whispered.

His cousin grinned. “Surprised, Yzak?”

“Kira, just what is going on?” Athrun demanded.

“Commander Waltfeld turned up in Orb yesterday,” Kira said. He proceeded to explain what the Tiger had said at their meeting.

When he had finished, the atmosphere in the briefing room was very somber indeed. “I never thought my father would go this far,” Athrun said quietly. “I didn’t want to believe it, but I don’t have a choice anymore. If Siegel Clyne, who was once his closest ally, has resorted to this, then something is very wrong.” He looked at his teammates, got nods from them, and met Kira’s gaze. “We’re with you.”

Kira seemed to sag in relief. “Thanks, Athrun.” He gestured to Alex. “Alex will explain the plan.”

“What we’re up to right now will require some subterfuge,” Alex said. He activated the wall screen, bringing up a map. “In two days, the Archangel and the Valkyrie will be leaving Orb on a covert mission to Alaska.”

“What kind of covert mission?” Nicol asked.

“In essence, Murrue and her crew will pretend that they are still with the Earth Forces,” Alex said. He highlighted a point just outside Orb territory. “We need your assistance on this, but it will mean that you guys will get somewhat banged up.”

Athrun raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“We need you to stage two mock battles with the Archangel,” Alex explained. “Unfortunately, it will mean inflicting real damage on your machines; that’s what I meant by banged up. Kira will temporarily resume control of the Strike. In each battle, we will simulate the destruction of one of your G-weapons, probably with judicious use of explosives.”

“Makes sense so far,” Athrun agreed.

“In the second battle, Kira will fake his own death, and will remain onboard the Valkyrie until the Archangel is finished at Alaska. The Natural OS will be reinstalled in the Strike, and Kira will launch in the Freedom.” Alex nodded at his sister. “Since Lia and I will be accompanying Murrue into the JOSH-A base, Andrea will be in acting command of my team.”

Athrun thought for a moment, then nodded. “All right. We’ll do it.”

“We can take the Blitz out first,” Nicol offered. “It’s easy to hide.”

Athrun nodded. “I’ll be switching to the Justice anyway, so we’ll fake the Aegis’s destruction in the second battle.” He cocked his head at the visitors. “Who will pilot it after that?”

“Tolle Koenig,” Alex said promptly. “He’s a natural pilot, pardon the pun, and it’ll make Miriallia a little less nervous about him being in combat.”

There was a general round of chuckles at that. Athrun and his teammates had only met Tolle and Mir once, but Tolle’s carefree attitude and Mir’s constant worry for him had been impossible to miss. Athrun himself had taken a liking to the young Natural, probably because of Tolle’s close friendship with Kira.

“All right,” Athrun said. “Anything else?”

“We’ll be escorted out by an Orb fleet,” Kira said. “It’ll make it hard to tell where the Archangel is until the other ships break off.”

Athrun nodded. If they wanted to make this look real, they had to make sure his team didn’t find the “legged ship” too easily.

“The Valkyrie will hang back,” Alex said. “As Admiral Halberton proved when I first met him, my family connections to ZAFT are well known. The Earth Forces’ high command will have no trouble believing that I was reluctant to engage you.”

“All right,” Athrun said again. “Two days. We’ll be ready.” He caught Kira’s eye as the others filed out. “Kira, could you stay for a few minutes?”

He’s changed, Athrun thought, regarding his old friend. The energetic, sometimes forgetful student he’d known in Copernicus was gone. No, not gone exactly, but almost hidden beneath the confident young warrior who stood before him. Kira still had the old gleam in his eye, but at the same time he had visibly matured.

It was, Athrun decided, a good thing.

“Athrun, I…” Kira hesitated. “I’m sorry.”

Athrun shook his head. “It’s not your fault, Kira. I… I’d already decided that my father had to be opposed. It’s hard, and it hurts, but I have no choice.”

“Athrun.” Kira laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “If there’s anything I can do…”

“You’re already doing it.” Athrun managed a smile at Kira’s confused look. “My father, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have family.” He gripped Kira’s arm. “You’re the closest I’ve ever had to a sibling, and I have Lacus and Nicol, too.”

Kira smiled back. Even though they were in the middle of a war, it suddenly felt like old times. “And now we’re on the same side. We don’t have to fight each other anymore.”

That was a great relief to them both. Even though their respective commanders had granted them permission to use disabling attacks, having to fight each other had hurt on a very deep level. Now that Orb was allied with the PLANTs, albeit unofficially, that was behind them.

“I’d better get going,” Kira said. “We have a lot to do, and not much time to do it.”

Athrun watched him go, again struck by the changes in his friend. The Kira Yamato of three years past hadn’t had such confidence, but it seemed he’d grown a lot since Heliopolis. It wasn’t surprising that he’d been changed by the war, but it was clear he’d come through. Thanks to people like Cagalli and Flay.


Alex leaned against a bulkhead; arms crossed. “To be honest, I was hesitant about accepting Clyne’s offer. You know as well as anyone what I’ve done to ZAFT since Heliopolis.”

“Yeah, well, you’re wearing a ZAFT uniform, so somebody must have gotten to you,” Yzak observed.

“Yeah, like Cagalli,” Andrea said.

Alex gave his sister a sour look. “Yes, Cagalli insisted that I pursue my dream, and her father pointed out that I’m a son of the PLANTs regardless of whether I joined ZAFT, so here I am.”

Yzak laughed. “Figures it’d take someone like her to get through that thick skull of yours. No offense, Alex, but you’ve always been hardheaded.”

“Look who’s talking,” Alex shot back, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a grin. “This from a guy who went nuts over a facial scar.”

The white-haired pilot looked away briefly. “I was an idiot,” he said, and admission he wouldn’t have made to anyone else save his mother.

“No, you were just your usual hotheaded self,” Alex said, shaking his head ruefully. He pushed away from the bulkhead. “Well, gotta go. Places to be and people to see and all that.”

Yzak grinned and punched his shoulder. “Say hi to your princess for me.”

Alex just snorted.

Carpentaria Base, 4 April, C.E. 71

Well. This is very interesting indeed. Alex Strassmeier has joined ZAFT but remains in opposition to Chairman Zala. No surprise.

Rau Le Creuset glanced out his office window. He had quickly approved Athrun’s decision to assist the Archangel in their little mission. It could only make things that much easier when Spit Break struck its true target. And Alex Strassmeier’s almost fanatical patriotism would play its part as well.

And then the next stage will begin.

Archangel, Bridge, 15 April, C.E. 71

It was finally time. After nearly a month of rest, the Archangel was ready to move again. This time, though, it was in the service of the Orb Union, and the midnight-black warship trailing it was now attached to ZAFT, though it remained privately owned.

Since the mission required them to pretend, they were still with the Earth Forces, Murrue and her crew had redonned Atlantic Federation uniform. Several of them, most notably Mu La Flaga, found the necessity distasteful, but none questioned it.

Kuzzey Buskirk’s departure had posed a problem at first, but Kira’s programming skills had provided a solution. He’d found it almost trivially simple to purge all trace of his friend’s presence from the Archangel’s computers, and since Admiral Halberton had never reported the enlistment of Kira and his friends, no one at Alaska would have any reason to question it.

“Signal from the flagship, Captain,” Flay said; she’d replaced Kuzzey at communications. ” ‘This is where we leave you. Good luck on your mission and come back safe.’ “

Murrue nodded. “Send our thanks.” She investigated CIC. “Mister Tonomura, any sign of the Zala team yet?”

Tonomura shook his head. “Not yet ma’am. I’m not picking up any submarines or mobile suits.”

“Athrun probably hasn’t launched yet,” Kira put in from the Strike’s cockpit. “His ship will be running silent, almost certainly close by.”

“Any idea when he’ll make his move?”

Kira shrugged. “An hour from now at most. He won’t be able to wait any longer than that, not if he wants to make it believable.”

“Kira’s right,” Mu said from his Skygrasper. “Remember, Athrun’s been with the Le Creuset team since the day he graduated from the ZAFT academy. That means he learned most of his strategies from Rau Le Creuset, and I know from experience how that guy operates.”

“Understood,” Murrue said. She looked at Kira. “Which of his machines is to be ‘destroyed’?”

“The Blitz,” Kira responded. “Nicol mentioned that his machine would be the easiest to hide.”

“I agree,” Natarle said. “It’s Mirage Colloid system will work to our advantage.”

“Very well.”

As it turned out, Athrun had no intention of waiting if Kira suggested he might. Less than fifteen minutes later, four unpleasantly familiar blips appeared on Jackie Tonomura’s radar scope. At the same time, their sonar rig picked up the distinctive acoustical signature of a Vosgulov-class submarine.

“We have incoming,” Tonomura said. “One Vosgulov-class submarine, and four mobile suits. Checking profiles…” He looked over his shoulder. “Aegis, Buster, Blitz, and Duel. It’s the Zala team, Captain, right on schedule.”

“We’re being hailed, Captain,” Flay said. “It’s Athrun.”

Murrue nodded. “Put him on.”

Athrun’s helmeted visage appeared on the main screen. “Captain Ramius,” he greeted. “Are you ready?”

“As ready as we can be,” Murrue said. “What about your end?”

“We’ve planted some explosives on an island northwest of here,” Athrun said. “Guide the battle that way.” He smiled wryly. “Our machines are going to get banged up, but it’s all for a good cause.” He tossed her a salute. “Whenever you’re ready, let’s go.”

Natarle straightened in her chair. “Activate Igelstellungs, prepare Gottfrieds and Valiants. Deploy smoke dischargers.”

Battle was about to be joined once again, a battle that any neutral observer would assume to be a fight to the death. But, of course, nothing was further from the truth.

Open sky

As they had in their previous battle, the four ZAFT Gundams rode Guul subflight platforms to increase mobility. They wouldn’t be as nimble as the Stormbird or Aile Strike, but it was still a major leg up, especially for the notoriously slow-moving Buster.

Dearka raised his eyebrows at the sudden haze. “A smokescreen. Wonder whose idea that was.”

“Probably Commander Badgiruel’s,” Yzak said. He had a lively respect for the black-haired XO’s deviousness. “It’s just the sort of thing she’d try.”

It was soon apparent that smoke wasn’t the only trick their new allies had. An argent beam of red light stabbed out of the smoke, narrowly missing the Blitz’s Guul.

“Everyone scatter!” Athrun snapped. Nice trick, Kira.

Two Skygraspers dove out of the clouds, beam turrets spitting green death. Mu’s carried the Aile pack, while Tolle had the Sword; the latter might have seemed useless on a fighter, but Cagalli had proved otherwise during the Talbadiya battle.

Then the Strike itself joined the fray, hyper-impulse cannon blazing. One shot missed, but the second scored a direct hit on the Buster’s Guul. Dearka grunted in surprise, firing his gun launcher in a futile attempt at retaliation. Seconds later, he was in the drink.

Man, I’m glad that guy’s on our side.

“Where’s the Stormbird?” Yzak wondered, dodging a missile attack from Tolle.

A chuckle sounded over the comm. “You called, Yzak?” Alex swooped in from the side, a beam saber already drawn.

Yzak grinned, clashing his saber against his cousin’s. “This is more like it!”

“Yeah,” Alex agreed. His sister hadn’t launched; it had been agreed beforehand that having Andrea involved in the false combat was a bad idea.

Kira, meanwhile, had landed back on the Archangel’s forward deck. The Launcher pack fell from the Strike, and the Phase-shift faded from its body.

“Strike, stand by to convert to Aile mode,” Mir said.

Mu came to a near hover. “Don’t drop my presents.”

Kira hit his boosters just as Mu released the Aile pack. In a perfect display of coordination, he caught the rifle and shield, while the subflight unit with its sabers and extra thrusters clamped onto the Strike’s back. Color flowed over the Strike once again as the PSA reactivated.

Nicol whistled in admiration. “He changed his equipment in midair.” He snapped the Trikeros up. “Here we go!”

Kira took a deep breath and drew a saber. Seeing that his beam rifle wasn’t doing much good, Nicol launched the Gleipnir, then yelped in surprise as Kira slashed a saber clean through it. The Blitz’s saber ignited in turn, and the two machines fell into a deadlock.

A deadlock that broke abruptly when Tolle dive-bombed the Blitz, scoring several hits with a missile salvo. Kira took advantage of the sudden opening, slicing the Blitz’s right arm off and kicking it off its Guul. He then appropriated the unit for his own use.

Valkyrie, Bridge

“Can you project the Blitz’s landing point?” Lia Ramius asked, looking anxiously at her radar operator.

“Easily, ma’am.” He tapped a few keys. “He should land fairly close to where this fight is supposed to end.”

“Very well.” She touched an intercom control. “Kyle, your turn.”

Kyle didn’t respond verbally, but then he didn’t need to. The Devastator’s beam rifle and gun launcher erupted simultaneously, nearly blowing the Aegis’s head off.

So far, so good, Lia thought. Even though the current battle was staged, she couldn’t help worrying. Accidents could still happen, and Alex Strassmeier had been her best friend for a very long time. If something were to go wrong… No, don’t think about that.

At her old station on the port side, Cagalli bit her lip. Like her friend Lia, she was worried about the possibility of an accident. True, it was unlikely, but even a slight mistake with the kind of firepower a Gundam had could be catastrophic.

“Captain, the Blitz has gone under Mirage Colloid,” the radar operator said.

“Signal from the Cousteau,” the comm officer added. “Dearka splashed down about half a kilometer away. He’s going to try to get to land.”

Lia nodded. “Let’s make things a little more interesting. Fire Gottfrieds; try for a near miss on the Aegis.”

The Archangel fired at the same time, forcing Athrun to dodge wildly. Lia found herself grinning; even though he knew perfectly well that the miss was intentional, Athrun had to have been more than a little rattled by the sudden beam attack.

Open sky

Only two of the ZAFT Gundams were in the air now, and Yzak was exchanging saber blows with Alex. That left Athrun’s Aegis to face the Strike, and it was clear that he was at a disadvantage. Even hampered by the “borrowed” Guul, Kira’s Strike was far more maneuverable, and he was making the most of it.

Here goes nothing, Athrun thought. The two mobile suits closed at high speed, firing all the way. Soon they were forced into a turning battle, exchanging laser blasts at point-blank range. It couldn’t last, as both knew; within moments, one of Kira’s shots damaged Athrun’s Guul. Athrun leapt off, and the unit slammed into Kira’s, forcing the Strike off as well.

Athrun landed hard, raising his shield in time to ward off a barrage from the Archangel’s Igelstellungs. He was also running low on power.


He looked up, and his eyes widened. The Strike, now equipped with the Sword pack, dropped out of the sky, Schwerht Gewehr held high. Athrun jumped back at the last instant, though he wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid having his rifle sliced in half.

“Athrun, you think that’s enough?”

Athrun checked his readouts. “Not quite. Nicol needs a little more time.”

“Roger that.” Kira swung his sword again, impacting on the Aegis’s shield. When Athrun jumped again, he lowered the giant weapon and slammed the Strike’s fist into the Aegis’s head. Pieces of red armor flew everywhere, the Aegis landed on its back, and the PSA faded.

“Here I come!”

Kira and Athrun both jumped, startled, as GAT-X207 Blitz charged from the side, a lancer dart gripped in its remaining arm. Everything seemed to slow; Kira sidestepped and swung his sword, Nicol thrust the dart forward, and then the Blitz disappeared in a titanic explosion.

The Stormbird and the Duel alighted nearby, joined by the Buster. The three pilots strained their eyes, trying to see through the smoke.

“Nicol?” Dearka whispered.

The smoke cleared, revealing the Blitz sprawled on the ground. Nicol was just pulling himself out of the cockpit, looking dazed but otherwise unhurt.

“I’m okay.” The young pilot’s voice came through the comm clearly. “I’ll probably have a few bruises, but nothing worse than that.”

Athrun sighed with relief. “All right. Alex, you’d better pick up the Blitz.”

“Got it.” Alex moved to the fallen mobile suit, accompanied by Kyle’s Devastator. “Ah, where’d the right arm land?”

Nicol pointed off to the north. “About half a klick that way.”

Kyle went off to collect the part, while Alex carefully lifted what was left of the Blitz’s main body. There was no question that it would need extensive repairs, but it wouldn’t be outside the Valkyrie’s resources. Hiro Nakamura’s MBF-X208 Shinobi was a modification of the same design, after all.

That left the question of what it looked like from the Archangel. They didn’t want to do any more hacking than they had to; Kira’s subterfuge regarding his friend Kuzzey was one thing, battle records were something else entirely.

Archangel, Bridge

Jackie Tonomura studied his readouts. “I think that was convincing enough, ma’am. Kira nearly caught the Blitz’s cockpit with that last attack, and the explosives did the rest.”

“Good,” Murrue said. “How’s Nicol?”

“He’s fine, Captain,” Mir said, listening intently to her earpiece. “Nothing worse than a few bruises; apparently he had a hard landing.”

“As expected,” Natarle pointed out.

“Alex is taking the Blitz to the Valkyrie,” Mir continued. “Nicol’s going with him.”

Murrue nodded. “Very well. Send our thanks to Commander Zala and resume our original course.”

Valkyrie, hangar

Alex released the zip line and almost collapsed on the deck. Even though the entire fight had been staged, it had still taken a lot out of him. In some respects, acting was a whole lot harder than genuine combat; at least in a real battle, you didn’t have to worry about convincing someone that an “enemy” had been destroyed when he hadn’t been.

Give me a straight-up fight any day, he thought sourly.

Nicol was guiding several mechanics as they swarmed over the Blitz; the explosives had done so much damage that the cockpit was the only component recognizable as part of a mobile suit.

“Are you okay?”

Alex looked up. It was, predictably, Cagalli. “Just tired. You may find this hard to believe, but what happened out there today was a lot more difficult than an actual engagement.”

She helped him to his feet. “Of course, it was. You had to make it look real without injuring anyone. That can’t be easy.”

“The toughest part was faking the Blitz’s destruction.” He let her guide him out of the hangar. “However, carful we were, it was still a near thing for Nicol. He’s lucky to be just bruised.”

Cagalli nodded. She’d seen the explosion on the Bridge monitor.

“In any case,” Alex said as they stopped at his quarters, “the first step is complete. One more of these fake battles, and then we move on to Alaska.”

He dropped onto his bunk. “That will probably be the trickiest part of all. Lia and I will have to go in, assuming the brass will let is we did play a major role in this mess, after all.”

Cagalli sat on the edge of the bunk. “Do you think they’ll accept the cover story?”

“They should. What worries me is my own part.” Alex grimaced. “They want Andrea extradited, and they’ll know she and I are related. Odds are, whoever’s in charge will accuse me of aiding and abetting desertion. Not that they can do much.”

She squeezed his hand, not speaking.

“Once Spit Break is launched, the Earth Forces will have more important things than one Coordinator to worry about,” Alex said softly.

Maius Military Industries R&D facility, Maius City, PLANTs, 16 April, C.E. 71

Just about ready, the blonde pilot thought, tweaking the program one last time. There!

Troy Cadwallader pulled a disc from the terminal. With that, the operating system for the new weapon he’d been working on was at last finished. The official designation for it struck him as a little odd, though. Detached Rapid Armament Group Overlook Observation Network was quite the mouthful, though the acronym, DRAGOON, sounded menacing enough.

Makes more sense than the G-weapons, he thought wryly. General Unilateral Neuro-link Dispersive Autonomic Maneuver Synthesis System, what is that supposed to mean?

Troy shrugged it off. He was mildly curious as to how this new DRAGOON system was going to be powered; given the number of individual beam emitters, it would drain a mobile suit’s energy battery in short order. Of course, there were persistent rumors of a new device called a Neutron-jammer Canceler, but they’d never been confirmed.

The door opened, and Patrick Zala himself stepped through. “Ah, Mister Cadwallader. How is the new system coming?”

Troy saluted, not missing the hint of distaste in the Chairman’s voice and expression. “I’ve just finished the OS for it, Your Excellency. The hardware, of course, is another matter.”

Zala waved that away. “The actual units were the easy part. What we needed was an operating system to control them properly, and I have no doubt that you succeeded.” His tone indicated that Troy had better have, or else.

“Of course, Your Excellency.” Troy inserted the disc. “As you can see…”

Zala listened carefully as the young Natural walked him through the system. Even as he explained his work, Troy made a mental note to get in touch with Shiho. Something about the Chairman was bothering him; even though his record was spotless, Zala seemed to hold him in disfavor.

If the reason was what Troy was beginning to think it was, then things were going very wrong indeed.

Chapter 19: The Lady and the Tiger

Morgenroete testing facility, 4 April, C.E. 71

It was always noisy at Morgenroete’s main testing facility. Vehicles of one kind or another were always being maintained or worked up, which meant quiet was very hard to find. However, while there was a pair of mobile suits in the huge expanse, neither was being worked up.

MBF-X108 Stormbird clashed its saber against an anti-beam shield. The machine bearing it, a main-line MBF-M1 Astray, pushed back, drawing a saber of its own. Neither pilot gave ground, at least not willingly. Eventually, though, the Stormbird pushed its mass-produced opponent back.

“You’re getting better,” Alex Strassmeier said approvingly. “You almost had me that time.”

“Almost doesn’t count,” Cagalli Yula Athha shot back. “You still won. Again.”

Alex sighed. He wouldn’t give Cagalli up for anything, but she could be tiresome at times. “Cagalli, it’s been less than a month since you learned you were a Coordinator, and maybe a week since Kira and I started training you in mobile suit combat. You’re progressing at a remarkably rapid pace.”

“I know, I know,” she grumbled irritably.

“Why don’t we call it a day,” Alex suggested. He marched his machine to its place and powered down.

The only reason it had taken so long to start her training in the first place was the need to get her accustomed to her Coordinator abilities. Alex had taken care of that himself; his martial arts training had made him a natural choice for the role. As with mobile suit operations, Cagalli had progressed at an astounding rate.

They found Kira and Flay in the lounge, side by side on a couch. “So, how’d it go?” Flay asked.

“Don’t ask,” Cagalli grumbled, pouring herself a cup of coffee. “Alex took me apart, as usual.”

Alex snorted. “Don’t listen to her, Flay. When you bear in mind the fact that she’s been training for approximately one week, her progress is nothing short of incredible.” He smiled. “The only person I know of who took to this faster is Kira, and he has an edge.”

The princess shook her head, then smiled wryly and kissed him on the cheek. “If I’m getting better, it’s because I have a couple of good teachers,” she said, nodding at her brother.

Alex collapsed into a chair. “In any case, it’s a good thing. I give it two months at the most before Orb is drawn into this war, whether your father likes it or not.”

“Do you think we’ll have to fight ZAFT?” Kira asked anxiously, thinking of Athrun.

“We’ll probably have to fight some of it,” Alex replied. “Athrun has already reported Lord Uzumi’s assurance that Orb will never join the Earth Forces, so if Zala does order an attack on us,” he looked grim for a moment; they’d heard of Patrick Zala’s election two days before, “it will prove that I was right all along about his goal. That, in turn, will swing a good-sized chunk of ZAFT over to us.”

Flay took Kira’s arm. “What about Athrun and his team?”

Alex pursed his lips. “I spoke with Aunt Ezalia when I heard about the election results,” he said. “She didn’t say much, probably because it wasn’t a secure channel, but I got the impression that she, along with Tad Elsman and Yuri Amalfi, the fathers of Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi, respectively,” he added for Flay’s benefit, “are with Clyne.”

Kira swallowed. “What about Athrun?”

“I think he’d side with us,” the other said slowly. “It wouldn’t be easy -this is his father we’re talking about, after all- but I think he’d do it.” Alex shrugged. “You know him better than I do.”

Kira considered that. “I think you’re right. If it comes to that, it won’t be easy for him, but he’ll do it. And he won’t be alone, either. I’ll help him if I can, and there’s Lacus and Nicol.”

“Which is very fortunate,” Alex said. “If it hadn’t been for Lia and Yzak, I would likely have gone mad after the Mandelbrot Incident.”

Flay nodded. “I know what you mean.” She briefly looked glum. “I’ve had nightmares about what might have happened if Kira hadn’t been there when my father was killed. What I could have done…” She trailed off, shuddering.

Kira wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. “What’s important is that it didn’t happen.”

“Still, you gotta wonder,” Cagalli said softly. “Will we be ready, if we’re drawn into the war?”

“We’ll be ready,” Alex said, standing. He nodded at the silent mobile suits visible through the window. “We’ll be ready,” he repeated. “We have no choice.”

There was a long silence. Natarle had informed them that very morning of increased activity at Carpentaria Base. From what she’d heard, they were gearing up for a new operation, codenamed Spit Break; the target was rumored to be Panama. It was logical enough; with the loss of Kaohsiung and Victoria, Porta Panama was the only mass driver the Earth Forces had left. If it was destroyed, the door to space was closed.

And that would make Orb, with its mass driver at Kaguya, a prime target for the Earth Forces.

“We shouldn’t be worrying about that right now,” Cagalli said. “Alex is right, we will be ready. For now, though…” She shrugged. “After everything that’s happened since Heliopolis, we all need a break. Which reminds me…” She smiled at her boyfriend. “Happy birthday, Alex.”

He blinked. “Thanks, but how did you know? I know I’ve never mentioned it.”

“I told her,” Andrea said from the doorway.

Alex rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised. Are you here for a reason, Sis?”

Andrea exchanged cheerful greetings with Flay, then looked back at her brother. “Lord Sahaku asked for my input on modifications to his mobile suit.”

“He has one of the Astray prototypes, doesn’t he?” Kira asked.

She nodded. “MBF-P01 Astray Gold Frame. While the Zala team was here, he was talking to Nicol about the Blitz; apparently he wants to use data from that machine.”

From what Alex had seen, the Gold Frame needed repairs more than it needed upgrades. If he remembered right, it had taken damage during the Le Creuset team’s attack on Heliopolis, lost an arm or some such. Alex did know it had plugs that allowed it to use both Orb and Earth Forces weapons, which could be quite an advantage.

He looked at Kira. “You said prototypes, plural?” Kira nodded. “How many are there?”

“Three, I think,” Kira said slowly. “The MBF-P02 Red Frame belongs to that Junker your cousin mentioned, Lowe Guele. It has a Natural-compatible OS, and sword with an anti-beam coating.”

“That would be the Gerbera Straight,” Alex said. “And the third?”

Cagalli took that one. “I heard the P03 Blue Frame was taken by Gai Murakumo. I’ll bet it was the machine Waltfeld ran into when we landed on Earth.”

“Sounds logical,” Alex agreed. He chuckled ruefully. “Speaking of Murakumo, it seems I’m not the only person around here who has a facade. My friend Chris Madsen is ex-Serpent Tail.”

Flay’s jaw dropped. “So, he knows Murakumo?”

“He does indeed, and the battle-frenzy/pyromaniac part of his personality is every bit as much of a mask as my poker face,” Alex confirmed.

“You shouldn’t be surprised, Flay,” Andrea advised. “Alex and I know Lowe Guele, thanks to Lia. Anyway, back to the original topic, Lord Sahaku is interested in the Specter’s energy-draining claw.”

That made sense. Such a weapon had obvious applications in the capture of new enemy machines. If you drained the target’s battery, you could capture or destroy it at your leisure.

Alex stood. “I have to talk to Sahaku myself,” he said. “I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he cares about Orb in the least, but at least he has a grip on reality. Which is more than can be said for certain other individuals here.” There was a soft chuckle at his thinly veiled reference to the Seirans.

Cagalli gave him a quick kiss. “I don’t trust him either, but you shouldn’t have much trouble. You are nobility, after all, even if you’re not from Orb.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Cousteau, crew lounge

“So how long do you think we’ll be here?” Dearka wondered idly.

Yzak looked up from a magazine. “Who knows? It’s not like they’re ready to launch Spit Break yet, and if there’s nothing to do anyway, making sure the Earth Forces don’t try anything with Orb is fine by me.”

“You’re just saying that because your cousins are there,” Nicol said with a grin.

The Duel’s pilot shot him a dirty look but didn’t deny it. “Of course, I am. Andrea was already kidnapped once; there’s no way I’m letting it happen again.”

“For once, Yzak, I’m with you all the way,” Athrun said. “Kira’s there, too, remember. I’m not losing anyone else.”

Yzak snorted, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Now that he’d met Kira Yamato, he understood why Athrun was so loyal to him. There’s something about that guy. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. There was no denying his skill, either.

“I wonder if Orb will be pulled into the war,” Nicol said. “Uzumi said they’ll never join the Earth Alliance, but will that be enough?”

“That’s why we’re here, Nicol,” Athrun reminded him. “Once Panama is taken out, the only mass driver not in ZAFT hands will be Kaguya; I don’t think the Equatorial Union has one.”

Nicol winced. “So, the Earth Forces will demand that Orb join their cause.”

“And Uzumi will tell them to go take a flying leap, so they’ll try to take it by force,” Dearka said, his voice dripping contempt. “The question is, can they, do it?”

Yzak laughed. “Dearka, Orb has Alex, Kira Yamato, and the Hawk of Endymion. Those three could wipe out a bunch of our forces all by themselves, let alone the stuff the Earth Forces have.”

Athrun shook his head. “Don’t be so sure, Yzak. Sure, Alex, Kira, and Commander La Flaga are some of the best pilots around; we know that from experience. That doesn’t mean the Alliance doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve. Remember Andrea’s machine.”

Yzak grimaced. Delighted though he was by the appearance of GAT-X210 Specter, once he found out who the pilot was, its existence was still a bad sign. Unless the war ended soon, something none of them were optimistic about, the Earth Forces would inevitably overcome the OS problem that had hamstrung their mobile suit program. When that happened, things would get a whole lot bloodier.

That was why Operation Spit Break was so important. If ZAFT could at least take out the last Earth Forces mass driver, it would at least buy them some time; the loss of Panama wouldn’t completely trap the Alliance on Earth, but they wouldn’t be able to send any significant force into space.

“My father’s election as Chairman of the Supreme Council may make things more difficult,” Athrun said softly.

His teammates looked at him. “You, okay?” Nicol asked.

Athrun sighed. “I… don’t think he’s himself anymore. He hasn’t been since the Bloody Valentine, really.” He hesitated. “I’m starting to think Alex might be right, that… my father really does want the Naturals extinct.”

“What are you going to do?” Yzak asked gently; he knew from painful experience what a family split was like.

Athrun swallowed. “If it comes down to it, I can’t support him.” The admission came hard, but it was firm all the same. “Saying that all Naturals are the enemy is just as wrong as the Earth Forces’ claim that we’re all monsters. I know Kira’s parents, and I certainly don’t want them dead.”

Nicol laid a hand on his shoulder. “You can count on me, Athrun.”

“I’m with you, too,” Dearka said.

“Count me in,” Yzak added. He smiled at his nominal commander’s look of surprise. “Hey, maybe we’ve never liked each other, but teammates stick together no matter what. Besides, I know what it’s like to have that kind of breach in your family.”

Athrun smiled gratefully. “Thanks, guys.”

Streets of Orb capital, 5 April, C.E. 71

After more than an hour of coaxing, Kira finally agreed to get out of the Morgenroete facility for a while. Flay had pointed out that the Natural OS was ready, the M1s were moving along nicely, and Alex was handling the rest of Cagalli’s training, so he could afford to take a break.

“Hey, Kira, you awake there?” Flay nudged him.

He jumped. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

She laughed. “I thought you were sleepwalking for a minute.”

Kira shrugged. “I guess you were right that I needed a break. That work for Morgenroete isn’t as hard as piloting in combat, but it’s not easy, either.”

Inevitably, Flay dragged him to a clothing store. Kira, feeling out of his depth, waited while his girlfriend chatted with a couple of her friends from Heliopolis, who had somehow made it to Orb. He knew one of them slightly, having met her a couple of times at the college.

He suddenly realized the girl was talking to him. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

She smiled. “Thanks for taking care of Flay.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, you’re welcome.”

The girl laughed. “No need to be embarrassed.”

After a few more minutes, Kira and Flay said their goodbyes and left. They had no destination in mind; Flay just insisted that they not return to Morgenroete before sundown. That was fine with Kira; as he’d said, he needed the break.

Eventually, the two teens found themselves on the waterfront. Taking a seat on a nearby bench, Kira gazed out over the ocean. It’s been so long. I can’t even remember what it was like to live in the homeland. After the better part of a decade in Copernicus, followed by a couple of years on Heliopolis, staying in Orb itself was disorienting.

Flay sat down beside him. “What a beautiful view.”

He smiled. “Yeah. Things have been so hectic since we landed, we haven’t had a chance to just look around. Now though…” He trailed off as something in the distance caught his eye. Pulling a set of electronic binoculars from a belt pouch, he found himself grinning.

“What is it?”

Kira handed her the binoculars. “Take a look.”

Flay did as she was told. “A Vosgulov?”

“Not just any Vosgulov,” Kira said. “That’s the Cousteau. Athrun’s ship.”

She blinked. “What’s he doing out there?”

Kira shrugged. “He told me that his team would be stationed near Orb for a while, to make sure the Earth Forces don’t try anything. Sure, they don’t know we’ve deserted, but they know about Admiral Halberton, not to mention Andrea’s escape.”

Flay nodded her understanding. Even with Patrick Zala now Chairman of the Supreme Council, it made sense that ZAFT would want to ensure the Alliance kept its hands off Orb. Combining the Earth Forces’ manpower with Orb’s technology would be a recipe for disaster.

She rested her head on Kira’s shoulder. “Then we’re safe.” Even she knew there was no way the Earth Forces could have built something that could take on all four stolen Gundams at once.

Kira leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, then leaned back. Thanks, Athrun.


Alex gazed thoughtfully at the black-and-gold mobile suit. Originally, the MBF-P01 Astray Gold Frame had borne a pronounced resemblance to Kira’s GAT-X105 Strike. Now, though, it had been severely modified. It had an entirely new head, one with three eyes: two Gundam-style, and a monoeye above them. The right arm had been replaced and equipped with a modified version of the Trikeros shield system used by the Blitz and the Specter.

There were other, nastier features…

“Evil-looking,” he commented.

The dark-haired, crimson-eyed man next to him laughed. “By design, Commander,” Rondo Ghina Sahaku said. “A menacing image can be just as deadly as a beam rifle, as I am sure you know.”

“Psychological warfare,” Alex agreed. “No doubt its looks do not deceive.”

Rondo laughed again. “Not at all. Your sister was very helpful. Thanks to her, the Gold Frame can now drain a target’s energy battery, though by means of colloid gas instead of a claw. The Trikeros is quite functional, and it also carries three spears tipped with Phase-shift armor.”

“Thus, allowing it to penetrate PSA with a physical weapon,” Alex said, nodding. He glanced at his companion sidelong. “I wanted to thank you, by the way. For taking my part with the Seirans.”

Rondo’s lip curled. “Those fools. I admit I don’t exactly like you, and I know perfectly well you don’t like me, but you are nobility of a sort, and you have long since demonstrated your courage and ability. Unlike the Seirans.”

Rondo Ghina Sahaku may have been arrogant, convinced of the superiority of his own birth, and other cliches to that effect, but no one would dream of questioning either his courage or his skill on the battlefield. More importantly for someone like Alex, his contempt for the Seirans was legendary; he had once been heard to say he wouldn’t wish either Unato Ema Seiran or his worthless son Yuna Roma on a cockroach.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Alex said in a dust-dry voice. He looked back up at the silent mobile suit. “The AMATU. I look forward to seeing it in action.”

Rondo smiled thinly. “That may happen much sooner than you think.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Alex said. “ZAFT is going to attack Panama, and if that attack succeeds, I guarantee you the Earth Forces will come here.”

The thin smile grew thinner. “They are welcome to try.”

Alex nodded, then stiffened imperceptibly. He’d just felt something, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was subliminal, almost as though something was calling him. That, of course, was absurd, but it was the only description he could think of.

“Whew! Had me nervous there for a second.”

The two Coordinators turned. “Mu? Something up?” Alex asked.

Mu waved a hand. “Erica Simmons asked me to come, something about a new AI program. Don’t know why she wants me; Kira’s the master programmer.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I came in here and got the same feeling that hits me when Rau Le Creuset’s in the neighborhood.”

“Rau Le Creuset…” Alex trailed off. “Of course!”

Rondo raised an eyebrow. “Le Creuset?”

“What do Mu, Le Creuset, and I all have in common?” Alex answered his own question. “We all have enhanced spatial awareness. I remember reading somewhere that people with our abilities can sense each other.”

Mu blinked in surprise. “How come we haven’t been able to sense each other before now?”

“Abilities like ours don’t usually surface until late adolescence,” Alex explained. “As you may or may not know, I turned eighteen yesterday. The time frame is about right.”

The Hawk nodded slowly. “Makes sense.”

“So, Commander, what sort of AI does the chief desire?” Rondo asked.

Mu shrugged. “Something about remote weapons; I saw a bunch of Morgenroete techs crawling over the Zero. She’ll probably want Kira’s help, too; like I said, he’s the master programmer.”

Alex nodded, then looked back up at the AMATU. Even in the Land of Peace, people were preparing for war. The military with the Strike and their M1s, nobles like Rondo Ghina Sahaku, and independents like Alex himself, all of them were preparing for the coming fight.

I just hope it’s enough. Enough to stop Zala, and the Earth Forces.

Siegel Clyne’s office, Aprilius One, 9 April, C.E. 71

Siegel Clyne rubbed his temples, groaning softly. Patrick Zala’s election as Chairman had galvanized the radicals, as he had unfortunately expected. He still had Canaver, Joule, Elsman, and Amalfi, but the other five representatives had all lined up behind Zala.

There is no longer any alternative. We have no choice if Patrick’s madness is to be stopped. Siegel sighed, then activated a secure comm. “This is Clyne.”

A brown-haired man appeared on the screen. “Waltfeld here.” The Tiger had lost an eye, and his left arm had been replaced by a prosthesis much like Alex Strassmeier’s, but he was in good shape otherwise.

“It’s time, Commander,” Siegel said. “We no longer have a choice. Proceed as we discussed.”

“Understood. What about the Songstress?”

Siegel gave a half-amused grunt. “I had intended to keep Lacus out of this entirely, but she insisted on helping.” He shrugged. “Perhaps her presence will help persuade Lord Uzumi of our sincerity.”

“Maybe it will,” Waltfeld agreed. “I know she likes that Yamato kid. Then again, so do I.” He chuckled. “How do I handle Strassmeier? Sure, he’s wanted to be a ZAFT soldier ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, but the fact that he’s killed our people might make him hesitate.”

“I’m sure you can persuade him,” Siegel said. “Tell him that the deaths of ZAFT soldiers at his hand will not be held against him, in light of the situations he found himself in. If that fails, talk to his cousin; the Cousteau should still be near Orb.”

Waltfeld saluted. “Understood. I’ll have them load the Justice and the Freedom. We should be ready by the time the Songstress gets here.” He cut the circuit.

Siegel sat back in his chair. With that short conversation, there was no turning back. He and his allies were now committed to their course. He only hoped that it wouldn’t end in disaster.

Archangel, cafeteria, 10 April, C.E. 71

Tolle Koenig took a long gulp of his drink. “Man, I needed that,” he said, setting the glass of milk aside.

Alex cocked an eyebrow. “Been busy?”

“Yeah. Since I’m a pilot, the Captain figured I should get some mobile suit training.” Tolle smiled at a very nervous Mir. “Lucky those M1s are better than anything short of a Gundam, or Mir would kill me.”

Alex snorted. “She might kill you anyway.”

“Nah. I talked it over with her, and she thinks it’s better than sticking me in a Skygrasper, which was the original plan.”

“Only after Kira and Commander La Flaga talked to her about it,” Sai put in, setting his tray next to Tolle’s. “She’s still scared, Tolle, you know that.”

Tolle sighed. “I know,” he said quietly. “But… it’s something I have to do. Lieutenant Neumann is better at the Archangel’s helm than I’ll ever be, so it’s not like I’m indispensable there.”

Sai nodded. The recently promoted helmsman was quiet and professional, and he knew the Archangel’s flight systems backwards and forwards.

“There are some things you should keep in mind, Tolle,” Alex said. “First of all, and I’m sure you already know this one, piloting a mobile suit is nothing like handling a battleship’s helm. It’s a lot more maneuverable, so you’ll be a much harder target.”

“I’m following you,” Tolle said.

Alex leaned forward. “The second one is more important. Remember, up till now you’ve only been responsible for the ship’s course. It’ll be a lot different in a mobile suit. Once you’re out there, there will be enough firepower to take out a capital ship at your fingertips. That is not something to take lightly.”

Tolle nodded slowly. “Kira’s told me about that before.”

“He’s told you, but that’s all.” Alex nodded out the viewport, where the Strike was visible. “Nothing can truly prepare you for the moment you first take someone’s life.”

“Your first was Miguel Aiman, wasn’t it?”

Alex shook his head. “No. It was well before that.” He closed his eyes. “It was when Andrea was kidnapped by the Earth Forces. I was able to take out the first guy who broke into our house. He tried to grab me, but I caught him in the temple with my right hand. It shattered his skull.” He met Tolle’s gaze. “I wasn’t affected at first, and I’m sure you know why. Once things had settled down, though, I had a major panic attack.”

He stood. “I’m not saying that I don’t think you can handle it, far from it. I think you’ll make an excellent mobile suit pilot. I’m just warning you that it’s not all about your skill in the cockpit.”

Tolle watched him go. Knowing Alex as he did, the talk hadn’t surprised him in the least, and he had to admit it made a lot of sense. He resolved to remember what his cold-blooded friend had said.

The next couple of days were uneventful. Kira divided his time between assisting the new mobile suit corps and helping Murdoch’s people with the Strike, catching some time with Flay when he could. Alex and Cagalli were almost always found together, save for when one or the other had some pressing business to attend to.

Murrue and Natarle concentrated on getting their new Orb crewmates up to speed on the Archangel. Command hadn’t bothered to assign extra pilots; Kira, Mu, and Tolle were more than sufficient for their current needs. They were, however, badly in need of other crew, particularly mechanics, so a mixture of Morgenroete techs and Orb military personnel were brought on board.

Unbeknownst to any of them, a new group of allies was nearing Orb. Soon enough, Kira would find himself face to face with the Tiger once again, this time as a friend.

Morgenroete lounge, 12 April, C.E. 71

Alex looked up as the black-haired officer stepped in. “Commander Badgiruel? What brings you here?”

“I have some news I felt should be brought to your attention,” Natarle said, sitting near the window. “Apparently, the Earth Alliance has finally learned where your sister found refuge.” The Coordinator’s eyes narrowed, and she nodded. “They’re demanding that she be extradited to stand trial for ‘desertion’.”

Alex clenched his fists. “Even for them, this takes some nerve. They kidnap her, try to brainwash her, and now they have the gall to demand that she be extradited after she escaped?”

“Lord Uzumi refused,” Natarle said. “He told them that, in light of Earth Alliance policy toward Coordinators, he granted Andrea political asylum, and she will not be turned over to them under any circumstances.” She grimaced. “They threatened military action.”

Alex snorted. “It’s a bluff. They’re too focused on the impending ZAFT attack on Panama to bother with Orb now. They’ll swallow their pride, at least for now.”

“That was my assessment,” Natarle agreed. She looked out the window, watching Kira and Cagalli spar. “Commander, I owe you an apology. You were right about the Earth Forces, but I was blinded by my own loyalty, and couldn’t see it.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I never blamed you for being loyal to your people.”

Natarle started to reply, but a comm unit beeped before she could speak. She touched a control. “Commander Badgiruel here.”

Murrue’s face appeared on the screen. “Something just came up that none of us were expecting,” she said without preamble. “Is Alex with you?”

“Right here, Murrue,” Alex said, stepping to the visual pickup. “What’s going on?”

“An unmarked transport just arrived from the PLANTs,” Murrue said in the tone of someone who isn’t sure she isn’t hallucinating. “The… passengers requested a meeting with Lord Uzumi, and asked that all of the Archangel’s officers, as well as you and Cagalli, be present.”

Alex frowned and glanced at Natarle, who shrugged; she knew as little as he. “All right, we’ll be there.” He cut the circuit and looked at the ex-Earth Forces officer again. “I wonder what has Murrue so frazzled. I don’t know about you, but the only other time I’ve seen her like this was when she learned Admiral Halberton was in Orb service.”

“I suppose we’ll find out,” Natarle said.

Conference room, Athha residence

Murrue, Mu, and Neumann were already there when the quartet arrived. Uzumi sat at the table, as usual, with Kisaka flanking him. Also, present were Admiral Halberton, Rondo Ghina Sahaku, Andrea, and both Seirans, Unato and his son Yuna.

And their PLANT guests were… Andrew Waltfeld, Aisha, and Lacus Clyne? Alex sat at Cagalli’s left, wondering what on Earth was going on.

“You are undoubtedly wondering what someone like Commander Waltfeld would be doing here,” Uzumi said. “He arrived one hour ago, with a rather interesting proposal.” He nodded at the Tiger. “Commander?”

Waltfeld stood. “Basically, what I was sent here for is to offer an alliance, both against the Earth Forces and Chairman Zala.”

Murrue’s jaw dropped. “I can understand wanting to fight the Earth Forces, but Zala?”

“I think I know what’s going on,” Alex said quietly. “Siegel Clyne has become suspicious of Chairman Zala.” He cocked an eyebrow at the ZAFT officer. “Am I right?”

Waltfeld nodded. “That’s it exactly. The truth about what happened to Heliopolis was the last straw. It proved that Le Creuset lied to the Council with Zala’s approval, and that was enough to bring your aunt on board.”

“Who else is supporting Clyne?” Murrue asked. “Surely it’s not just him and Joule.”

“He’s got Eileen Canaver, Tad Elsman, and Yuri Amalfi in his camp,” Waltfeld said. “Unfortunately, that means Zala commands a majority of the Council, so we have to be careful.”

Uzumi stood. “In light of what have learned over the past month, both regarding Zala and the Earth Alliance, I feel we have no alternative. Cooperation with the PLANTs’ Clyne Faction is in my opinion our only hope.”

“Cooperate with them?” Yuna burst out. “We’d bring the Earth Forces down on our heads.” He glared at Alex; he’d been furious when he heard of the young Coordinator’s relationship with Cagalli. “And with him involved-“

“Strassmeier has already proved his courage and skill on the battlefield,” Rondo cut him off, gazing at the younger Seiran as if he was a particularly disgusting bacterium. “Unlike you.”

“Enough.” Uzumi shot Yuna a cold look. “Such bickering is pointless. Commander Waltfeld, we will assist in any way we can.”

Waltfeld saluted. “Thanks. We have a couple things to… sweeten the deal, you might say. One is a new mobile suit for the kid.” He nodded at Kira, who looked, to put it mildly, shocked. “Based on data from the machines Le Creuset stole, only a whole lot better. You’ll see it in a few minutes.”

Kira forced his mouth to close. “Uh…”

“Save it till you’ve tried out your new machine,” Waltfeld advised. “Anyway, the Songstress here has our other gift.”

Lacus walked over to Alex. “Please take this, Alex.” She held out a narrow box.

Alex accepted it with a puzzled frown. There was something about Waltfeld’s expression; the man seemed to by trying not to grin. Lacus herself was visibly restraining a giggle, as if she knew something he didn’t. Which was true enough, Alex reminded himself. Pushing those thoughts aside, he opened the box… and his jaw dropped.

A red uniform. The red uniform of a ZAFT Elite.

He looked at Waltfeld in disbelief, unable for one of the few times in his life to maintain his poker face. “Commander?”

“From Siegel Clyne,” the Tiger explained. “He’s offering you a position in ZAFT, assuming we can get Zala out of the way.”

Alex took a moment to slow his heart. “But I killed so many…”

“He also says the deaths of ZAFT soldiers at the hands of you and your people won’t be held against you,” Waltfeld said. “Like I told DaCosta the first time we fought you guys, there are such things as mitigating circumstances.”

“But I-“

Cagalli took his hand. “Go for it, Alex.”

He looked at her. “Cagalli?”

“You told me you’ve wanted to join ZAFT since the Mandelbrot Incident, but you couldn’t because of Zala,” she said. “Now you have a chance. Take it.”

Eager, yet still indecisive, Alex turned to Uzumi. “Sir? Do you have any problem with this? If I accept the offer…”

“You’re wondering if I would have a problem with Cagalli seeing a ZAFT soldier,” Uzumi said. “I don’t blame you for being nervous, but I assure you your fears are groundless. Whether you join ZAFT or not, you are still a son of the PLANTs.”

Alex nodded slowly. “Thank you.” He turned back to Waltfeld. “In that case, I accept.”

Waltfeld tossed him a salute. “Congratulations, Commander Strassmeier of the ZAFT forces. Naturally, you and your friends will retain possession of your ship and mobile suits.”

“Speaking of mobile suits,” Mu put in, “we should probably get Kira’s new machine secured.”

“Agreed,” Uzumi said. “We will adjourn to Morgenroete’s Onogoro facility.”

Morgenroete facility, Onogoro Island

Kira stared at his new mobile suit, feeling a sense of awe. He could see its resemblance to the original Gundams, but it looked cleaner, somehow, more streamlined. I thought the Strike was impressive, but this machine blows it away.

“ZGMF-X10A Freedom,” Waltfeld said. “One of ZAFT’s two newest machines; the other, X09A Justice, is for your friend Athrun Zala.”

“Heavily armed,” Natarle commented, her trained eye noting the beam rifle, sabers, railguns, and plasma cannons. “You must have had to develop a whole new generation of energy batteries to pull it off.”

“We did,” Waltfeld acknowledged, “but the Freedom and the Justice don’t have them.”

The black-haired commander frowned at him. “Then how are they powered?”

Waltfeld smiled. “The Freedom and the Justice are equipped with Neutron-jammer Cancelers.”

There was a collective gasp from the Orb contingent. A Neutron-jammer Canceler, if such a device truly existed, would nullify the effects of the N-jammers, thus allowing the use of nuclear power. (Or, more than one person thought, nuclear weapons.)

Mu La Flaga found his voice first. “You mean, that thing is nuclear powered?”

“Yep,” Waltfeld said simply. He cocked an eyebrow at Kira. “Think you can handle it, youngster?”

Kira nodded mutely, still in shock. N-jammer Canceler… four times the power of the Strike… amazing.

“Lord Uzumi.” Erica Simmons walked up to them. “It’s ready.”

He nodded approvingly. “Good.”

Alex, now dressed in ZAFT red, raised an eyebrow. “It?”

Uzumi smiled. “Just after the collapse of Heliopolis, Rondo Sahaku turned over the data he had acquired on the Earth Forces’ new weapons, probably to buy his way out of trouble. In any case, Morgenroete combined that with data from the Strike when you and your friends arrived.” He gestured toward the main gate. “And that was the result.

Another mobile suit was rolled in, and more than one of the groups inhaled sharply in surprise. Gold in color, the machine looked like it was glowing. It was clearly based at least in part on the Strike’s design; hardpoints were visible on the back and shoulders. The right hand held a rifle, a double-ended beam saber was clipped to the left hip, and a shield was mounted on the left arm.

“I am very glad the modifications to my genotype give me high tolerance for bright lights,” Alex said dryly. Several people chuckled.

“This is the ORB-01 Akatsuki,” Simmons said. “At first glance, it seems like just another G-type mobile suit, but it has some features no other machine possesses.”

“Like that weird glow?” Mu said.

Simmons nodded. “That is a special coating we recently came up with. Instead of dissipating beam attacks, it actually reflects them.”

Alex’s head whipped around. “A beam reflector?” he repeated in disbelief.

“That’s right,” Simmons said. “Combine that with PSA, and it’s very hard to damage. It’s far from invulnerable; a close-range attack like a beam saber will damage it, but it’s still very tough.” She nodded at Cagalli. “The Akatsuki was intended to be the princess’s personal machine.”

Cagalli’s eyes widened. “My machine?”

“I felt that if you are to be in combat, you should be piloting something more powerful than an M1,” her father explained.

“We’re working on a mobile turret system for it,” Simmons said. “That’s why we needed Commander La Flaga’s input, so that someone without his special abilities could handle it. Unfortunately, it’s not ready, so you’ll have to make do with conventional weapons.” She smiled. “Care to take it for a spin?”

Cagalli was practically rubbing her hands. “Just try and stop me.” She was itching to get into the cockpit and see what her new machine could do.

“That still leaves the question of what to do with the Strike,” Natarle said. “I suggest the new Natural OS be installed, and the machine be turned over to Commander La Flaga.”

“I agree,” Murrue said. She looked at the Hawk. “Can you handle it?”

He snorted. “I’m the guy who makes the impossible possible,” he said. “With the right OS, you bet.”

Alex stared at the gold mobile suit across from his Stormbird, watching the Strike and the Freedom in the corner of his eye. Now, he was the only one who was completely confident; Kira, Cagalli, and Mu were all getting used to new machines.

“You ready for this?” he asked carefully.

“I’ve been ready!” Cagalli shot back, and the Akatsuki charged. Beam sabers clashed, and the two Gundams stood in a deadlock.

The Strike and the Freedom were in a similar position; if they’d been outside, any observers would have assumed a pair of death-duels. Then both pairs sprang apart, clashing again and again.

“Quite a sight, eh, Aisha?” Waltfeld commented; he and Aisha were watching from a control booth.

She nodded. “Kira’s only gotten better, and the other three aren’t that far behind him.”

Which was fortunate. They’d need every pilot they could get in the coming battles. Spit Break was slated to begin in less than a month, and there was no telling what would happen then, regardless of whether it succeeded or failed. All they knew for sure was that the war was far from over.

Chapter 18: The Land of Peace

Ezalia Joule’s residence, PLANTs, 23 March, C.E. 71

“Representative Joule? There’s a call coming in for you, ma’am.” The receptionist frowned. “It’s from Orb.”

Ezalia raised her eyebrows. “From Orb?” She thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Put it through.”

Her screen displayed only a pause symbol for a few seconds, then cleared, and Ezalia felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight. Her son Yzak looked out at her, and beside him were Alex Strassmeier, and his sister Andrea.

“Hi, Aunt Ezalia,” Andrea said cheerfully. “Sorry I took so long.”

“Andrea,” Ezalia whispered. “You’re… you’re really alive?”

Her niece smiled. “Yep, it’s me. Kind of a long story, but I am back. I managed to escape the Earth Forces while the Archangel was in the desert, and Lord Uzumi was kind enough to take me in. Alex was headed here anyway, so it all worked out.”

“She was kidnapped for some sort of top-secret Alliance program,” Yzak said darkly.

Andrea elbowed him. “But no one on the Archangel had anything to do with it. In fact, they defected to Orb after they heard my story. Well, mine and Admiral Halberton’s; apparently the Earth Forces were going to purge him, so he deserted, and took his flagship with him.”

“Fools,” Ezalia said. “Lewis Halberton is -or was- the best space commander they had; even among our forces, his only equal is Rau Le Creuset.” She looked at her nephew. “And where do you fit into all this?”

Alex shrugged. “As you know, we were helping the ‘legged ship’ on its journey, since one of my closest friends is the niece of its CO. Anyway, Yzak and I were about to go at it yet again when Andrea’s machine appeared out of nowhere. Things went a little crazy from there.”

“I’ll say it’s crazy!” his sister said, beaming. “He gave Mom’s necklace to the Chief Representative’s daughter!”

“You just had to blurt that out, didn’t you?” Alex grumbled, giving her a sour look.

Ezalia laughed delightedly. “You and the Princess of Orb. Well, from what I’ve heard about her, you two are a good match.”

“That’s what Lia said,” Alex agreed. “Much to my surprise, Uzumi didn’t voice any objections.” He smiled wryly. “On the contrary, he was delighted to see us together.”

“I wonder if Lord Uzumi has considered all the implications,” Ezalia murmured. Her nephew looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “I don’t mean to embarrass you, but you and Miss Athha will almost certainly get married eventually. With your background, that would effectively bind Orb to the PLANTs.”

All three of the youngsters suddenly looked thoughtful. “She has a point, Alex,” Yzak said. “Since Cagalli is a member of one of the Five Noble Families, if you marry her, that will bring Orb into our camp.”

“I’ll grant your point, though I think this talk of marriage is a bit premature,” Alex said, ignoring Yzak’s mocking smile. He turned back to his aunt. “It’s not as big a surprise as you might think, Aunt Ezalia. Lord Uzumi told me that his personal sympathies lie with the PLANTs; the main reason he can’t support them openly is because he shares some of my suspicions regarding Patrick Zala.”

Ezalia sighed. “Much as I would like to, I can’t really blame him, given the tone of Committee Chairman Zala’s recent speeches.”

Alex nodded. “In light of that, he secretly aided my own efforts, since I oppose Zala but at the same time have no intention of harming the PLANTs.” He shook his head as though trying to clear it. “He also knew my father and promised to look out for me if anything happened.”

Ezalia blinked in surprise. “Your father knew Lord Uzumi? He never mentioned that, though I suppose he would not have. He was always a quiet sort.”

“He was at that,” Alex agreed. “Anyway, Athrun will be officially informing the Council of this shortly, but I might as well tell you in advance. Lord Uzumi has given his personal assurance that Orb will never align itself with the Earth Forces. As has already been explained, he cannot go beyond that right now, but every little bit helps.”

“It does indeed,” Ezalia said. She cocked her head. “And how has your search been going?”

Alex grinned sheepishly. “It’s finished. Kira Yamato, pilot of GAT-X105 Strike, is the Ultimate Coordinator. That much I have suspected since before we reached Earth. What I had not expected, and which took everyone by surprise, is that his sister, who underwent the ‘standard’ Coordinator treatments, is none other than Cagalli Yula Athha.”

Ezalia’s eyes widened. “The princess? Well, I suppose it makes sense; if Lord Uzumi knew your father, then he had to have known about Hibiki’s work.”

“Exactly. Haruna and Caridad Yamato adopted Kira, and Lord Uzumi took Cagalli in himself.” Alex grimaced. “Caridad was, shall we say, less than pleased when it all came out, though I’m confident she’ll get over it soon enough.”

“I see.” Ezalia nodded. “What are your plans now?”

“For now, Lord Uzumi has asked me to assist in the development of Orb’s new mobile suits,” Alex said. “Before that, though, we’re all just going to go out and relax for a while. The Zala team has been given permission to stay for a few days if they keep a low profile. Can’t have four ZAFT Elites wandering around in uniform, after all.”

“That would be counterproductive right now,” Ezalia agreed. “One more thing, Alex. I know you can’t come home yet, but I want you to introduce me to this princess sometime.”

Alex grinned. “You got it. Give Cassandra our love.”

“See you!” Andrea said with a smile.

Ezalia sat back when the image vanished. Nothing could bring her sister or brother-in-law back from the dead but seeing Andrea alive had lifted a great weight from her mind. Even the knowledge that her niece and nephew would not be returning to the PLANTs anytime soon could not dim that.

And Alex has finally found someone to love. That princess must be something special if she was able to penetrate that shell of his.

Outdoor restaurant, Orb capital

Anyone who did not know exactly whom they were looking at would have assumed it was just a group of teenagers. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Kira Yamato, Flay Allster, Tolle Koenig, Miriallia Haw, and Sai Argyle were newly minted Orb soldiers. Their friend Kuzzey Buskirk had decided not to join the Orb military, realizing that he was not cut out to be a soldier. None of them held it against him.

Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Athrun Zala normally wore the red uniform of ZAFT elites, but that was a bad idea in Orb, which still had a tenuous relationship with both sides.

Lia Ramius, Alex, and Andrea Strassmeier, and Cagalli Yula Athha (who did not look anything like a princess in street clothes) completed the group.

“So, Uncle Klaus went to school with Lord Uzumi, huh?” Yzak said, shaking his head in wonder. “Man, talk about weird.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Alex told him, spearing his inevitable seafood lunch with a fork. “He actually suggested arranging a match between Cagalli and me after that business with the Seirans flopped. Dad, however, warned him that it would be a bad idea.”

Flay laughed. “I sure hope so!” She remembered Alex forcefully expressing his opinion of arranged marriages just before the Eighth Fleet battle. “But it happened anyway,” she added with a sly grin.

Alex shot her a dirty look. “Sheesh, you’re starting to sound like Yzak. For your information, talk of marriage is premature, to put it mildly. We’ve only really known each other for about two months.”

“Yeah, and it’s felt like two years,” Mir put in. “Wars have that effect.”

The hawk-faced Coordinator quirked an eyebrow. “Are you saying that the fact that it’s only been two months since Heliopolis means nothing?”

Mir nodded. “Look at Kira. I know he doesn’t like being a soldier, but he’s gotten used to it.”

“If he hadn’t, he’d already be dead,” Athrun agreed. He looked at his friend. “Why’d you move there, anyway? When I left, you seemed happy in Copernicus.”

Kira sighed. “With the increasing tensions between the PLANTs and the sponsor nations, Mom and Dad decided that the Moon wasn’t safe anymore.”

“They were right about that,” Dearka said. “Commander Le Creuset told us a little about the battles on the Grimaldi Front. Sure, they were nowhere near Copernicus, but that bombing was something else.”

“Something barbaric,” Alex said darkly. He took a sip of coffee. “It was what convinced me that the Earth Forces were controlled by Blue Cosmos.”

Yzak, seeming to sense the darkening mood, turned to Kira. “By the way, Kira, I thought you’d like to know Commander Waltfeld and Aisha survived.”

Kira seemed to sag with relief. “Thank goodness for that. How did they get out?”

“DaCosta and a Junker named Lowe Guele pulled them out of the wreckage,” Yzak said. “Last I heard they were in pretty bad shape; I think they were put into some kind of suspended animation.”

“But they’ll make it, right?” Kira pressed. Yzak nodded. “Thanks.”

Alex chuckled softly, causing his cousin to glare at him. “What’s so funny?”

“You. You were so hot to make Kira pay for giving you that scar, and now you’re chatting with him like you don’t have a care in the world.”

Yzak glared a moment longer, then shook his head in resignation. “If you weren’t my cousin… Fine. I figured that if he’s your friend, he can’t be all bad.”

And is not that a mouthful of nothing, Alex thought, knowing that Yzak had taken a liking to Kira, but did not want to admit it. “So, Kira, Cagalli. How are you two holding up?”

Kira shrugged. “It came as a big shock, but it really doesn’t affect much. I mean, it is nice that I have a sister,” here he and Cagalli smiled at each other, “but when you think about it, it does not change our lives much. We are who we are, and that’s it.” He tucked an arm possessively around Flay’s shoulders. “And the people we care about still accept us.”

“You’d better believe it!” Flay said.

Athrun clapped him on the shoulder. “She’s right. You’ve always been like a brother to me; learning how you were created doesn’t change that.”

Kira smiled. “Thanks, Athrun.”

Alex looked at his girlfriend (and it still felt weird thinking of her like that). “How about you?”

“I agree with Kira. I mean, sure, I’ve had problems with my father.” She grimaced, remembering Heliopolis. “But I’ve never doubted that he loved me.”

The conversation soon turned to lighter matters. Kira and Athrun reminisced about their time in Copernicus, with Nicol listening intently. Tolle and Mir found themselves swapping stories with Yzak; the white-haired pilot had gotten curious about his cousin’s classmates.

Sai and Flay, still good friends despite their explosive breakup a month earlier, chatted with Lia Ramius. Dearka, fascinated by the younger Strassmeier, paid more attention to her than to anything else. Alex was unsure whether to wish him luck; he had nothing against the ZAFT pilot, but after the events of three years past he was wary of anyone paying such close attention to his sister.

It is her decision to make, he reminded himself firmly.

“Say, Alex,” Sai said. “How long were you working on your project? You don’t get a warship and five mobile suits overnight.”

Alex took a bite of fish as he formulated his response. “We started just after arriving at Heliopolis, so I’d say a little less than a year.” He snorted. “I actually wasn’t ready when we left, but Le Creuset forced my hand.”

“I remember you only had one mobile suit ready, and not many of the ship’s weapons,” Cagalli said.

“The ship’s weapons didn’t matter right then,” Alex reminded her. “I wasn’t inclined to use laser cannons -or worse yet, positron cannons- inside the colony.” He looked at Athrun. “I’m sorry about Miguel, Athrun. I understand he was a friend of yours.”

Athrun sighed. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I disagree with what you’re doing, but it’s not like you had a choice right then.” A courteous nod at Cagalli. “Especially since you had her along.”

“Since I intended from the beginning to make for Orb, letting her die would have caused problems,” Alex agreed. He waved a hand. “But there’s no point in rehashing the Heliopolis raid. It happened, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”

“He’s right,” Yzak said, and grinned.

Alex felt his stomach sink. I know that look.

“So, Alex, you two have any plans?” Yzak said, confirming his suspicions.

Cagalli blushed, and Alex gave his cousin an almost-glare. “Will you give it a rest already? I have said everything there is to say on that subject, all right? Of course, we’ll be seeing each other a lot; that’s a given.”

Yzak laughed, feeling better than he had in years. “I know, I know. I’m just yanking your chain.”

“He’s one of the few who can get away with it, too,” Andrea put in.

No one was surprised by that. Everyone save Dearka, Nicol, and Athrun knew Alex well by now, and even they could tell that taking liberties with him was a bad idea.

Mir raised her eyebrows. “And how many people are there who can say that?”

“Yzak, Aunt Ezalia, Lia, Cagalli, and me,” Andrea said. “Anybody else is playing with fire.”

“No kidding,” Tolle said. “I’ve seen how he reacts to that.”

Alex buried his face in his hands. “Are you guys done needling me?”

“For now,” Andrea said slyly.

“Whatever.” Alex sighed, then turned to Yzak. “So how long are you going to be here?”

Yzak shrugged. “A couple of days, at least. Athrun?”

“When I gave my report, I got a message direct from Chairman Clyne,” Athrun said. “We’re to provide Morgenroete with battle data from our mobile suits. Reading between the lines, I think the Chairman is trying to get Orb to see the PLANTs in a favorable light.”

“It won’t take much to do that,” Cagalli said. “Even though he’s insisted that Orb remain neutral, my father has personally favored the PLANTs ever since the Supreme Council was bombed.”

Alex snorted. “Ah, yes, the eternal divide between personal opinions and public policy. I understand he does not like the Seirans very much, either. Which reminds me, do either Unato or his son know of our…relationship?”

Cagalli grimaced. “My father told them. They were not happy, but there was not much they could do. Especially since Rondo Ghina Sahaku supported him.”

Alex frowned. “Ghina did? Mina I could understand; she’s ambitious, but she doesn’t have her brother’s oversized ego.”

“Hey, your family is the closest thing the PLANTs have to nobility,” the princess pointed out. “Besides, he doesn’t like the Seirans either.”

“So, we actually agree on something. Amazing.” Alex finished his lunch and stood. “Much as I hate to break this off, the next couple of days are going to be busy, and I need to prepare.”

“That goes for all of us, I think,” Athrun agreed. “We’re going to bring the Cousteau into the Morgenroete dock, that way no one will see us bringing our mobile suits in.”

With that, the gathering broke up, leaving in pairs and singletons. Flay and Kira went off shopping, accompanied by Andrea Strassmeier; as Alex had predicted, the two got along to an almost disturbing degree. Sai left by himself, saying something about getting his watch fixed.

Minutes later, they were gone.

Onogoro Island, 25 March, C.E. 71

A brown-haired woman in the orange and white of Morgenroete Inc. sat at a computer terminal. Recorded images of five different mobile suits flashed across it, one blue, one green and tan, one blue and white, one black and red, and one red overall.

Duel, Buster, Strike, Blitz, and Aegis, the woman thought. Who would have thought they would turn out so well? Now if only we could get that kind of performance with Natural pilots. That, of course, was the object of her current assignment.

An aide stepped in. “Chief, I have Athrun Zala of the Le Creuset team, Alex Strassmeier, and Lieutenant Kira Yamato of the Archangel here.”

The woman nodded. “Send them in.”

It was a curious trio that arrived, one in the silver-white of Orb’s forces, one in the red of a ZAFT elite, and one in a black suit of military styling.

She rose, smiling. “Welcome, all of you. I’m Erica Simmons, Chief Engineer of the M1 Astray project.” Simmons nodded at Kira. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, thanks.”

“I understand you need data from the G-weapons,” Athrun said.

Simmons nodded. “That, and a Coordinator with both a technical education and combat experience in one of those machines, which is where the Lieutenant comes in.”

“Colonel Kisaka said something about needing a new OS,” Kira said,

Another nod. “We have one pilot who doesn’t need such an OS, but that doesn’t help us much.”

Alex’s gaze sharpened. “A Coordinator?”

Simmons shook her head. “No, he’s a Natural.” She punched up an image of the youngster in question. He was on the short side, with reddish-blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion. “This is Max Labatt, younger brother of one of our test pilots. A bit of an oddball, he can pilot a mobile suit without much in the way of computer support, though we don’t have the slightest idea how he manages it.”

“It’s inevitable that there would be at least a handful of Naturals who could pilot mobile suits,” Alex said with a shrug. “Lucky for us none appear to have joined the Earth Forces.”

“Lucky indeed,” Simmons agreed. “Commander Zala, how long until your machines are brought in?”

“They should be here in an hour or so,” Athrun said. “In the meantime, could we see these new mobile suits of yours?”

“Certainly.” Simmons stood and gestured for them to follow her. “This way.”

She led them to a control room overlooking a cavernous facility. Three mobile suits were visible through the large window. Mostly white, with black torsos and red trim, they bore an unmistakable resemblance to Kira’s X105 Strike. More streamlined than anything ZAFT had, save for the four stolen Gundams, they had a certain malevolent look to them.

“These are the first three units of our mobile suit line, the MBF-M1 Astray.” Simmons lifted a comm unit. “Asagi, Juri, Mayura, power up. Show them what you can do.”

It was soon apparent why Kira’s programming talents were needed. The girls did their best, but they were barely able to get their machines to move. Athrun winced more than once, seeing how slow and clumsy they were. Still, the M1’s design was basically sound; all it needed was an OS that Naturals could use.

“I see why you need my help,” Kira said. “This reminds me of when the Captain and I were facing Miguel Aiman at Heliopolis.”

Athrun glanced at him. “I saw some of that. You had to rewrite the OS mid-battle, right?”

“That’s what happened,” Kira confirmed. “I had to hurry, too; Miguel knocked us over at least once, and Sai, Tolle, Kuzzey, and Mir were there, so I was afraid the Strike would crush them.”

Alex grimaced. “I was injured there myself; when Miguel’s GINN exploded, a piece of shrapnel caught me in the shoulder.”

“I remember that” Cagalli said, walking in.

Kira smiled. “Hi, Cagalli.”

She gave her brother a quick hug. “Sorry I’m late.” She looked out at the Astrays. “What do you think?”

“I should be able to come up with an OS the pilots can use,” Kira said. “It’ll probably take a while, but like Kisaka pointed out when we arrived, it’s not like Orb is at war with anyone right now. There’s plenty of time to work it out.”

“That’s great.” Cagalli quirked an eyebrow at Alex. “And what about you?”

He shrugged. “I’m more likely to be involved in the training side of things. While I am no slouch at programming, obviously, this is more Kira’s area than mine.”

“A new OS is pretty much all these things need,” Athrun said. “According to the specs I’ve seen, an M1 could give even a G-weapon a nasty fight.”

“That reminds me,” Simmons said. “How did your father respond to the notion of giving Orb even this much aid?”

Athrun sighed. “He didn’t like it, but Chairman Clyne pointed out that anything bad for the Earth Forces is good for the PLANTs.” He nodded at the Astrays. “These are definitely bad for the Earth Forces.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Simmons moved closer to the window. “I apologize if I offended you, Commander.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It is natural for you to want to be certain of something like that. I don’t blame you.”

The quartet then proceeded to an elevator and went down a level, joining Murrue, Mu, Kojiro Murdoch, and Athrun’s teammates. Asagi Caldwell, Juri Wu Nien, and Mayura Labatt arrived moments later, still in-flight gear. Max Labatt promptly appeared seemingly out of nowhere, moving to stand with his sister.

Alex studied the pilots with carefully hidden interest. Except for the younger Labatt, none of them really looked like soldiers. Then again, neither did Kira Yamato and Nicol Amalfi, and they had more than proven their skill on the battlefield.

“All right,” Simmons said. “These three Coordinators will be assisting us in the M1 project. Athrun Zala, of ZAFT’s Le Creuset team, will only be here for a short while, long enough to give us some data from the Duel, Buster, Blitz, and Aegis. Lieutenant Kira Yamato, pilot of X105 Strike, will oversee programming a Natural-compatible operating system.”

She nodded at Alex. “Alex Strassmeier, the Valkyrie’s lead pilot, will be helping to train our mobile suit corps once the new OS is ready.”

“Nice to meet you,” Asagi said, speaking for all of them.

A series of impacts briefly cut off conversation. They turned to see X102 Duel, X103 Buster, and X207 Blitz marching into the hangar. Though all three were a dull gray, indicating that the PSA was off, they still radiated an air of menace.

“The Strike and the Aegis are already here, along with our machines,” Alex said, then stepped forward to greet his cousin. “Any trouble?”

Yzak shook his head. “Nothing. I heard a couple of Laurasia-class ships blew away some Earth Forces spy satellites, but that is nothing new. I don’t think the Alliance will be suspicious.”

“Good to hear.” Alex waved at Kira. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

An hour later, Athrun found himself back in the control room. His team’s role was limited (fortunately, given the delicate political situation), so he did not have to be involved much. He had helped Kira with data extraction from the Aegis, then watched the others until he was sure things were well underway.

Athrun sighed. What he had not told anyone, even Kira, was that his father was growing increasingly extreme. He did not think his father was at the point of genocide, but at the same time it would not have surprised him if the elder Zala did cross that line.

What is going on? he thought almost despairingly. What if Alex is right, and Father does want to wipe out the Naturals? What am I supposed to do?

“I hope I’m not intruding.”

Athrun turned, eyes widening in surprise. “Captain Ramius? No, not at all.” He offered a salute, wondering just what was going on.

Murrue returned the salute, smiling. “I was curious,” she said, answering the unasked question. “About the young soldier who nearly stabbed me to death.”

He winced. “Sorry about that.”

She waved that away. “There’s nothing to apologize for. You are ZAFT, I was Earth Forces. We both had our duty.” She looked past him at the five Gundams. “After Heliopolis, I never thought I’d see all five of those in the same place again.”

“Yeah,” Athrun agreed. “I… wanted to thank you. For how you’ve treated Kira.”

“Well, I couldn’t mistreat him and expect him to pilot the Strike for us, now, could I?” Murrue moved to stand next to him. “He means a lot to you, doesn’t he?” It was not a question.

Athrun nodded. “We’ve been close, ever since we were little. He’s like a brother to me and learning the truth about his origins doesn’t change that.” He sighed. “You know, there aren’t many people I’m close to anymore. Kira, Lacus, and Nicol, really.”

“Not even your father?” Murrue said, then blushed a little. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Athrun shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s true, after all.” He sighed again. “After my mom was killed, my father became obsessed with defeating the Earth Alliance. I guess I did, too; it’s why I joined ZAFT, and why I was so shocked when I realized Kira was piloting the Strike.”

“I don’t blame you,” Murrue said, chuckling ruefully. “Alex, if anything, is even worse. If my niece was not his best friend, he might well have attacked us at Heliopolis.” She smiled, seeing the black-haired youth talking animatedly with Mu La Flaga. “He’s changed since we got here.”

Athrun shrugged. “I don’t know him very well. You’d have to ask Yzak.”

“I did. He said the same thing.” Murrue laughed softly. “I think Natarle is glad of the change; it means he’s less likely to shoot her. He almost did once.”

“Cagalli told me about that,” Athrun said.

Murrue glanced at her watch. “I’d best get going. There’s a lot that I need to get straightened out.” She departed, leaving Athrun alone again with his thoughts.

“Well, that was interesting,” Alex muttered. He glanced at the nondescript youth next to him. “What do you make of it, Kyle?”

The other shrugged. “Not my area. Far as I know, Orb is not building artillery support machines. Makes sense, really.”

“You’re a big help.” Alex’s tone did not match his words, though. As it happened, he agreed with Kyle. What Orb needed was a good general purpose mobile suit, and the M1 Astray fit that bill nicely.

“Chris is having more success than I am,” Kyle went on.

Alex grunted, but did not reply. He had always doubted Chris Madsen’s sanity.

“Hey, Alex,” Brian said, walking up. “Lord Uzumi has a little request for you.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “And that is?”

“Since it turns out your girlfriend,” Brian grinned at the other’s pained expression, “is a Coordinator, she doesn’t need a Natural-compatible OS. Bearing that in mind, Uzumi wants you to teach her to pilot a mobile suit.”

Alex nodded. “I was thinking of making the offer anyway. If Lord Uzumi did not mind Cagalli flying a fighter in combat, I figured he’d be fine with her learning to pilot something more lethal and better defended.”

“That’s about right,” Brian agreed.

Alex gazed up at the Stormbird, mulling over the events that had brought him to Orb. It had all started with the abduction of his sister by Atlantic Federation soldiers. Three years later had come the Bloody Valentine, which had sparked him into almost joining ZAFT, only to be stopped by Kyle.

The news of Zala’s evil plans had sent Alex, along with Kyle, Brian, Chris, Hiro, and Lia, to the neutral resource satellite Heliopolis, where they had secretly built five mobile suits and a special warship to carry them. Originally, their purpose was as much against the Earth Forces as against Patrick Zala, but the Le Creuset team’s attack had changed that.

During the events that followed, Alex and his friends had fought alongside the Earth Forces warship Archangel, commanded by Lia’s aunt, and briefly with the Eighth Fleet. On a personal level, Alex had forged friendships with Murrue Ramius and Mu La Flaga, and near the end of their journey, had managed to fall in love with a princess.

Of course, she hates it when anyone calls her a princess, let alone me.


He started. “Huh? Oh, sorry. I guess I drifted off for a minute there.”

Brian waved that away. “Don’t worry about it. I need to go anyway; the Scorpion needs some tweaking.” He looked past Alex’s shoulder. “And I think you have other matters to attend to yourself.”

Kyle rose. “He’s right. See you.”

Alex frowned, wondering what they were talking about, then turned, hearing someone approaching. After his friends’ abrupt departure, he was not surprised to see who it was. “Hi, Cagalli. What brings you here?”

She gave him a quick hug-and-kiss greeting. “I was thinking you’d be pushing yourself too hard, and it looks like I was right.”

“This has to get done-“

Cagalli snorted. “But not all at once. Come on, Alex, there’s plenty of time, and it won’t get done at all if you burn out.” She nodded at the main entrance. Kira was leaving, Flay on his arm. “Look, even Kira’s calling it a day, and you know how he is when he gets into a good bit of programming.”

Alex sighed, then managed a smile. “Okay, you win. Where to?”

“Anywhere but here,” she said firmly. “Someplace you can relax.”

“All right, all right.” He shook his head. You knew what you were getting yourself into. “Would the lounge here at Morgenroete be good enough? The Valkyrie is being overhauled, and I really do need to be available if something goes wrong.”

“Fine, as long as you promise not to do anything with mobile suits unless it’s an emergency.” Not waiting for a response, Cagalli tugged him toward the door.

Workers’ lounge, Morgenroete

Kira was not having any trouble putting work out of his mind. He was done for the day, and besides, he had promised Flay that he would introduce her to his parents. Since, like his friend Alex, he could not actually leave the facility just then, they had come to see him there.

Caridad came forward to hug her son. “Kira, we came as soon as we could.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Kira hugged her back, then drew Flay over. “I wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend. Mom, Dad, this is Flay Allster.”

Haruna smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Flay. We’re both grateful for how you’ve stood by Kira through everything that’s happened.”

Flay smiled back, though she was a little nervous. “I was afraid of him at first,” she said, looking away briefly. “I didn’t know much about Coordinators, and I thought they were monsters. It wasn’t until I really got to know him that I realized how wrong I was.”

“However, it happened, I’m glad,” Caridad said. “Even though he no longer must fight Athrun, this is still hard on him. He hasn’t said much, but it’s clear that he would have given in to despair without you.” She laid a hand on Flay’s shoulder. “And I’m glad learning the truth about his origins hasn’t pushed you away.”

“I don’t care how he was created,” Flay said firmly. “Kira is Kira, and I love him. The fact that he’s the product of an experiment doesn’t change that.” She jerked her head at the other end of the lounge, where Alex sat with Kira’s sister. “Besides, Alex was a byproduct of that, too, and I don’t hate him. He scares me sometimes,” she admitted, “but I’ve never hated him.”

“That’s good to hear,” Haruna said. “Please stay close to Kira.”

Flay smiled. “You got it.”

Across the lounge, Alex smiled slightly. “I was wondering when they’d meet. Mrs. Yamato is right, too. Kira would likely have lost it without Flay.”

Cagalli nodded. She had noticed that, too. “She fits right in.” She chuckled softly. “How do you think it’ll be before Kira proposes?”

“I give it two to three months,” Alex said. “You know, this could shake things up in Orb.”

“What do you mean?”

He waved at Kira. “Regardless of his upbringing, the fact that he’s your brother makes Kira a de facto member of one of the Five Noble Families, and I don’t think the secret can be kept forever.”

“You’ve got a point there,” Cagalli admitted. It had somehow never occurred to her that such a match would make Flay her sister-in-law. She put it down to not being used to having a sibling.

“Aunt Ezalia made a similar point about us that I hadn’t considered,” Alex went on. “I still say talk of marriage is premature, but if it were to happen, it would bind Orb to the PLANTs. You are, after all, a princess, even if you do not like to think about it. And I, of course, am the nephew of a Supreme Council member.”

She froze. That had not occurred to her either. “I wonder if this could be partly politics,” she murmured. Alex looked at her questioningly. “I know the main reason my father is encouraging our relationship is because he wants me to be happy, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he saw an opportunity as well.”

Alex lifted an eyebrow. “An opportunity?”

“The only reason I was ever engaged to Yuna Seiran in the first place was politics,” Cagalli explained. “I’m thinking that he sees our being together as a way to bring Orb closer to the PLANTs that even Unato Ema Seiran couldn’t object to.”

He nodded. “You have a point.” He looked at the other group again and sighed.

Cagalli looked up at him, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

Alex sighed again. “Look at them. Kira, Flay, and Kira’s parents. All chatting together, not a care in the world. I… I wish I could take you to meet my parents, but it will never be possible. I guess I envy them. Maybe it is stupid, but…”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s not stupid, Alex. You miss your parents, that’s only natural.” She chuckled briefly at the notion of applying the word “natural” to a Coordinator in any context. “And remember you still have family. There’s Andrea, and that lunatic Yzak.”

Alex smiled, not taking offense at the way she referred to his cousin as a lunatic. “Thanks,” he said, tucking an arm around her waist.

She is right, he thought. Life goes on. Mom and Dad are gone, but there’s still Andrea, Yzak, Cassandra, Aunt Ezalia; my family is still there. And there are others. Cagalli, Lia, Kira, Flay, Mu, plenty of others. It is not like I am all alone.

Flay, who had been talking with Kira’s mother, paused, and looked back. She could not help smiling at what she saw. Cagalli sat next to Alex, her head resting against his shoulder. Alex looked more at peace than Flay had ever seen him.

It is like a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, he has not been able to relax, even when he slept.

“You were right, Flay,” Kira murmured. “Those two belong together.”

Flay nodded. “Alex needs someone to keep him going, and Cagalli needs someone who’ll treat her like a normal person.” She smiled at her boyfriend. “Well, there’s you; you are her brother, after all.”

“Yeah.” Kira shook his head ruefully. “We started to feel like siblings, and then we found out we are siblings. I can’t be with her all the time, though.”

“You should still spend some time with her, to make up for the years you spent apart,” Flay said.

Kira blinked. “You won’t complain that I’m not spending time with you?”

She punched his shoulder. “Kira, you just found out you had a sister and didn’t know it. Why should I complain about that? Besides, sometimes I will be there, too.”

He smiled. “You’re right.”

After another few minutes of conversation, the Yamatos departed, leaving just the four youngsters. Sitting next to Flay, Kira found himself reflecting on how, even deep in a facility meant for the development and testing of weapons, it was easy to tell why Orb was known as the Land of Peace. He sat with someone he had loved since the day they first met, while his sister was with a young man whose cold exterior belied the fiery soul within.

None of them had any illusions that their peace would last, but they enjoyed it while they had it.

Chairman Clyne’s office, Aprilius One, 28, March, C.E. 71

Ezalia Joule stepped into the office. “You wanted to see me, Chairman?”

Siegel Clyne grunted softly. “I likely won’t be Chairman much longer, but yes.” He waved her to a chair. “You recall Commander Le Creuset’s report on the Heliopolis attack?”

“Of course, I do,” Ezalia said, wondering where he was going with this. “It is true that Committee Chairman Zala was less than forthcoming about the identity of the Earth Forces mobile suit pilot, but with the Archangel’s defection to Orb, that situation is resolved.”

Siegel shook his head. “Not entirely. I am in receipt of a report Commander Waltfeld made shortly before his defeat at Talbadiya. According to that report, he received a version of the Heliopolis event -from your nephew, I might add- that is quite different from Commander Le Creuset’s report.”

Ezalia frowned. “Different how? I spoke with Alex earlier this week, but the subject never came up.”

“Different in what caused the colony’s collapse,” Siegel said. “It was not the Earth Forces; the Strike was equipped with the Sword pack. Rather, it was Commander Le Creuset’s use of D-package weaponry.”

Her jaw dropped. “D-equipment?”

“Two of the GINNs carried heavy missile launchers, the third had an ion cannon,” Siegel confirmed. “It was those missiles, none of which actually struck their target, and Miguel Aiman’s reckless firing at the Strike, that caused the collapse.” He met her astounded gaze. “In other words, Rau Le Creuset lied to the Council with Patrick’s full knowledge. What does that tell you?”

Ezalia swallowed hard. “That even if Alex is wrong about Committee Chairman Zala’s ultimate goal, he is correct in saying Zala cannot be trusted.” She clenched a fist. “What do you want of me?”

“Your support, if and when the time comes.” Siegel sighed. “I dislike having to take this road, but if any of what your nephew has said is true, then I have no choice.”

“You have it,” Ezalia said firmly. “What of Commander Waltfeld?”

“He and Aisha have almost recovered,” Siegel said. “You know of the new mobile suits Patrick has had built?” Ezalia nodded. “Commander Waltfeld is assigned to that project. Once those new machines are completed, I will send him to the Orb Union, with instructions to, if possible, conclude an alliance with Orb, and to present the new ZGMF-X10A Freedom to the Strike pilot, Kira Yamato.”

She nodded again. “From what Alex has said, Lord Uzumi will likely be amenable to such an alliance, so long as we make our goals clear, and make sure he knows we are not working with Zala.”

“I agree. As for the other machine, ZGMF-X09A Justice, it will be given to Athrun Zala, if he agrees to support us.” Siegel grimaced. “I deeply hate the notion of turning a son against his father, but Patrick has been growing increasingly unstable. If Athrun refuses, I will not blame him at all, but I hope it won’t come to that.”

“He is engaged to your daughter,” Ezalia pointed out. “And the Strike pilot also happens to be his closest friend. If Zala does go as far as you suggest, his son will probably turn against him. It won’t be easy -from what I know of him, Athrun has a strong sense of loyalty- but he will probably do it.”

Siegel nodded. “Your son will undoubtedly support us, and Tad and Yuri have been in my camp, so to speak, for quite some time, so Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi will be with us as well.”

“That still leaves their commander,” Ezalia murmured. “Rau Le Creuset will almost certainly throw in his lot with Zala, and he is the best space commander we have.”

“That’s true,” Siegel said,” but Orb does have Halberton now.” He lifted a box. “And Commander Waltfeld will also bring this.” He pulled the lid up. Inside was the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite. “If your nephew is willing, he has more than earned the right to this uniform.”

Ezalia closed her eyes for a moment, seeing in her mind’s eye the image of Alex Strassmeier in ZAFT red. “It’s been his dream since the Mandelbrot Incident. I think he’ll go along.” She got up to leave, then paused. “Oh, and Clyne, Alex may in fact help get Orb on our side, assuming we can pull this off.”

Siegel raised his eyebrows. “How so?”

She smiled. “He’s romantically involved with Lord Uzumi’s daughter, hard though that may be to believe. I think it likely that they will eventually marry, and that will bind Orb to the PLANTs.”

“It would indeed.”

Ezalia departed, leaving Siegel to his thoughts. I pray that it will not come to such lengths. If Patrick were to learn of it, he might well brand us as traitors. Unfortunately, he was more certain with every day that such measures would be necessary, and soon.

And may God be with us all.