Chapter 26: The Battle of Orb

Morgenroete testing facility, Onogoro Island, 1 June, C.E. 71

Alex grunted, fending off the double saber attack. He sidestepped, his own saber clashing with his opponent’s shield. The other machine pressed its attack, the dual beam saber spinning so fast its blades were a blur. It stopped abruptly, one end and then the other stabbing at Alex’s borrowed machine.

“Gotcha!” the other pilot said triumphantly as her saber came within a meter of the M1’s head.

Alex slumped in the cockpit. “No kidding,” he said tiredly. “You’re getting faster, Cagalli.”

“Maybe,” Cagalli conceded. “Or maybe it’s because you’re still injured,” she added sharply. “You really should be resting, Alex.”

The young ZAFT pilot sighed and unstrapped, then opened his hatch. “Cagalli, it’s been-“

“Less than a week,” the princess interrupted. “You have no business in the cockpit right now.”

Alex stifled a groan, grabbed his zip line, and lowered himself to the floor. For all that Cagalli had grown accustomed to her own abilities, there were some things about Coordinators that still had not really sunk in.

“Cagalli,” he said, seeing her approach, “have you forgotten how fast our kind heal? For all that the wound was messy, it was not very deep, as you well know.”

She glared at him for a moment, then relented and embraced him. “I know,” she whispered. “It’s just that, I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

Alex smiled, returning the embrace. “Hey, at least this was just a training match. Remember that stunt Yzak pulled at the Eighth Fleet.”

Cagalli tightened her grip for a moment, then reluctantly pulled away. “Yeah. Still, you should not be pushing yourself too hard yet. It’ll take a while for the Earth Forces to recover after Panama, so you should relax while you can.”


The two youngsters moved to the lounge overlooking the testing grounds. As usual, there were some other pilots there. Kyle Perry, Andrew Waltfeld, Mu La Flaga, and Miguel Aiman were engaged in what looked like a poker game. Alex’s sister Andrea stood by a water cooler, chatting with Dearka Elsman.

“Are they together?” Cagalli asked in a whisper.

Alex nodded fractionally. “Dearka asked her out just after Miguel showed up. I don’t think either of them has actually said anything, but neither is particularly good at hiding their feelings.”

Cagalli chuckled softly. “You got that right.”

They chose a table near the facility’s huge window. Alex dug into his inevitable seafood lunch (lobster in this case), while Cagalli wolfed down an endless supply of chili kebabs. For a while they ate in silence, though Alex found himself wondering how his girlfriend could eat that much spice without bursting into flame.

He looked up abruptly. “Where’s Kira? I thought he’d be here.”

“He invited Flay to his house,” Yzak said, setting his tray opposite Alex. Shiho Hahnenfuss sat beside him.

Alex sipped from a glass of milk. “Makes sense. You can bet the Alliance will hit us here eventually, so he might as well do it while he has a chance.”

Yzak nodded. “Besides, Flay hasn’t really been out much since we got to Earth. She probably needs the break.” He looked at Shiho. “I don’t think either of you have met Shiho.”

Alex extended his hand. “Commander Alex Strassmeier, at your service.”

Shiho shook his hand, then Cagalli’s. “An honor to meet you, Commander. I have heard much about your exploits.”

He glanced briefly at his cousin. “My exploits? I have fought exactly three battles since joining ZAFT, not counting a couple of false engagements. Before that, I was fighting against ZAFT, and quite a few soldiers died by my hand.”

“Some in the Homeland resent what you’ve done, but not very many, especially since Zala showed his true colors,” Shiho said. “A lot of my classmates are looking forward to your return to the PLANTs, Commander.”

Alex smiled wryly. “It’s nice to be famous, I guess, and it’s good to know I’m still welcome back home.” He looked at Cagalli. “Why don’t you come with me, next chance we get? I’d love to show you, my home.”

She grinned. “You got it.”

“Ever been to the PLANTs before, Cagalli?” Yzak asked.

The princess shook her head. “Heliopolis was my first time in space at all. My father has been there a couple of times, but it was quite a while ago.”

“You’ll like it,” Alex assured her. “In the main population centers it’s hard to tell you’re in space at all. Sure, it is all artificial, but that does not matter to us. We have abundant vegetation, open water, animal life, the works.”

“Only a few of the PLANTs have changed much since the war began,” Yzak said. “ZAFT HQ is in December City, and Martius and Maius build mostly military equipment right now, but that’s about it.”

Alex nodded. “My family is fairly well off, financially speaking. We have a sizable home,” Yzak snorted at that, “in Martius Four. Right on an artificial lake, as it happens.”

“It’s not ‘relatively sizable’, it’s freakin’ huge,” Yzak said with another snort. “My mom had the place sealed off after the Mandelbrot Incident. Only Alex and Andrea can get in right now.”

“The purpose being to make sure everything is well preserved,” Alex said. Something flickered in his eyes, but it was gone in an instant. “I guess, as the elder offspring, that house belongs to me, now.”

Cagalli exchanged a glance with Yzak. Neither of them had missed the flash of pain in Alex’s eyes when he spoke of his old home. Both knew him well enough to see that there was more than he was letting on.

Shiho, who of course did not know him, missed it. “Have you talked with your sister about it?”

“Yes, we have,” Andrea said, coming up to them with Dearka at her elbow. “Alex holds title to the house, but Mom and Dad wanted us to continue sharing it, at least until one or both of us got married.”

“Possibly even after that,” Alex said with a shrug. “As Yzak just pointed out, the place is huge, easily big enough for two families.” He sipped his drink. “But that’s for the future.”

“Yeah,” Yzak agreed.

Yamato residence, Izanagi Island

Looking at the nondescript building, no one would have thought it was the home of a young man who was already being hailed as a hero by both the Orb Union and their ZAFT allies. Medium sized, a plain white in color, few would give it a second glance.

Flay Allster thought it was a wonderful place to be.

“Kira, this is wonderful,” she said, collapsing on a couch.

He smiled, a little taken aback by her enthusiasm. “I actually haven’t spent much time here,” he said. “Seven years with Athrun in Copernicus –we were roommates- and then a year in Heliopolis. I was five years old when we left for space.”

Flay reached up, grabbed his hand, and pulled him down beside her. “So, you don’t have any memories of Orb?”

Kira wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “A few. I remember watching the sunrise a couple times.” He nodded at a window, which faced east. “I’m still not used to being on Earth.”

“It must be harder for Athrun and Alex,” Flay said softly. “They grew up in the PLANTs.”

“Mainly Athrun,” Kira said. “Alex had been to Earth –Orb, in fact- before; this is Athrun’s first time on-planet. It’s not that hard, anyway; Athrun told me that gravity in the PLANTs is pretty close to Earth’s.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “I like it here,” she said softly. “It’s a lot nicer than the Atlantic Federation.”

Kira smiled. “There’s a reason Orb is called the Land of Peace, you know. Lord Uzumi only got involved in the war after he heard the truth about the Earth Forces and Chairman Zala, and only because he felt he had no choice.”

“Yeah.” Flay nestled against his side. “It’s sad, though. Orb has to go to war because of a few lunatics on each side.”

“You’re starting to sound like Lacus,” Kira commented.

She shrugged. “She’s right.”

As if their words had been a signal, Kira glimpsed a familiar head of pink hair in the window. A moment later, there was a knock at the door.

“It’s open,” Kira called.

Athrun Zala and Lacus Clyne stepped in. Athrun, unusually for him, was in civilian clothes, black jacket, pants, and boots, white shirt, and sunglasses. Lacus, by contrast, wore a simple white dress, devoid of the ornamentation she frequently wore on stage.

Kira and Flay rose to greet the visitors. “Athrun, Lacus, what brings you here?” Kira asked, waving them to chairs.

“Visiting friends,” Athrun said with a shrug. “This is the first chance we’ve had to really look around.” He threw a casual glance around the room. “Nice place, Kira.”

Kira resumed his seat, Flay beside him. “Like I told Flay, I haven’t spent much time here. You’re right, though, it is nice.”

Lacus sighed, gazing out the window. “Earth is so beautiful,” she said softly. “It’s so sad to have it tarnished by war.”

Athrun, used to his fiancée’s poetic nature, gently squeezed her hand. “Yeah, it is,” he agreed. “And it’s only going to get worse.”

Kira tilted his head. “Athrun?”

“I just got out of a meeting with Lord Uzumi,” Athrun said grimly. “The government just received a message from the Atlantic Federation.”

“Why would they bother sending a message?” Flay asked incredulously. “Orb is an official ally of the PLANTs; what makes them think the Cabinet will even talk to them, especially after Panama?”

Athrun snorted. “Commander Badgiruel believes, and I concur, that the Earth Forces are desperate to get their hands on a mass driver, and an all-out attack here would risk destroying Orb’s. Anyway, it was another ultimatum. They made the same demands as last time, plus a few more.”

“What kind of demands?” Kira asked, sounding uncharacteristically harsh.

Athrun’s lip twisted. “First, that Orb turn over both the Morgenroete facilities and the Kaguya mass driver to the Earth Alliance. Second, the return of the Archangel, both Skygraspers, the Moebius Zero, and the Strike to the Atlantic Federation. Third, the extradition of Admiral Halberton and the Archangel’s crew to stand trial for treason. Except for you, Flay,” he added. “Kira is to be charged with kidnapping you; I guess the fact that your father was an Atlantic Federation official means they have to tread carefully.”

Flay looked murderous, and even Lacus was visibly outraged. “Those bastards,” the redhead hissed.

“Finally, they’re demanding that Orb change its official policy towards Coordinators to mirror that of the Atlantic Federation,” Athrun finished.

“Meaning that people like you and Kira are supposed to be treated like animals,” Flay said bitterly. She clenched a fist; whatever she had started out as, there were several Coordinators who meant a great deal to her personally now. Kira, Athrun, Cagalli, Lacus, Alex, Lia, Andrea, she had even taken a liking to the Desert Tiger. All of them would be in even more danger.

“An attack here is expected by the end of the month,” Athrun said. “Fortunately, Orb has a small enough population that a mass evacuation is practical. Coordinators and their families have priority; no offense, Flay,” he added, nodding at the only Natural in the room, “but our kind would fare much worse under an Earth Forces occupation.”

Flay shook her head. “Don’t worry about it, Athrun. I understand.”

“In any case, with the combined transport capacity of Orb, Oceania, and the PLANTs, we shouldn’t have any trouble evacuating everyone who wants to leave,” Athrun said.

Kira leaned forward. “This is pretty well thought out,” he said quietly. “How long have they been planning this?”

“Since Uzumi agreed to the alliance,” Athrun said equally quietly. “After Alaska, we simply don’t have the forces to hold Orb, and I have no illusions that we destroyed all of the Alliance’s mobile suits at Panama.”

Flay abruptly got up, heading for the kitchen. She returned a moment later with a tray, which she set on a nearby table.

Kira looked at it appreciatively. A pitcher of juice, four glasses, and some cheese and crackers. “How’d you know we had that stuff?”

“Your mom told me,” Flay said, pouring the juice and handing each of them a glass. “She said it would be good to know.”

Athrun and Lacus grinned at each other. “Looks like Mrs. Yamato is taking the long view,” Athrun said.

“Yeah,” his fiancée agreed.

“Anyway,” Athrun said, returning to the subject at hand, “the civilians, except for the government and some Morgenroete employees, will be taken to Ame-no-Mihashira, and probably to the PLANTs from there; Lord Uzumi doesn’t trust Rondo Sahaku.”

“What about the rest?” Flay asked.

Athrun sipped his juice. “The Seirans and the Sahakus have already said they’ll be staying behind; I don’t want to know why. In the meantime, a combined Orb/ZAFT force will meet whatever force the Alliance sends. Our job will be to make them pay in blood for Orb.”

Kira winced, but he understood the necessity. “And after that?”

“The remaining Morgenroete personnel will set demolition charges in their facilities, then escape in a pair of Vosgulov-class submarines.” Athrun said. “The bulk of the Cabinet will board the Archangel, while Lord Uzumi joins Cagalli on the Valkyrie. Both ships and their mobile suits will then open fire on the mass driver, destroying it. After that, the combined force will retire to Carpentaria, and from there to the PLANTs.”

Flay sighed. “I’d love to see the PLANTs, but I wish it didn’t have to be like this.”

“Me, too,” Kira said. He wrapped an arm around her.

Athrun nodded sadly. He knew how his friends felt; he had always wanted to visit Earth, but not in the middle of a war. “When we get to the PLANTs, why don’t you stay at my place? It’s a little too big for me.”

“I’d like that,” Kira said. “It’ll be kind of like Copernicus.” He looked at his girlfriend. “What about you?”

“Works for me,” Flay said.

Kira tightened his grip, smiling. He knew what Athrun had left unsaid; with his father leading an enemy faction, Athrun was feeling more than a little lonely. Having a familiar face around would do a lot of good. He has always been a loyal friend. This is the least I can do.

Atlantic Federation Council Chamber, Washington, D.C., 10 June, C.E. 71

“I don’t believe this!” The president of the Atlantic Federation slammed his fist into the table. “This,” he gestured angrily at the screen, which displayed the wreckage at Panama, “makes our success at Alaska meaningless!”

“I agree,” an older council member said.

“You know, instead of whining about what happened, maybe we should do something about it,” the only non-government official in the room said. Muruta Azrael, Director of the Defense Industries Association, had made his fortune as an arms manufacturer. Now thirty years old, with blonde hair and a decidedly oily manner, he was highly experienced at dealing with politicians.

And the politicians knew it. “What do you propose, Director?” the president asked. “We’ve already sent Orb our ultimatum, but there’s no way they’ll agree. Not with that bastard Athha in charge.”

Azrael shrugged. “So, take him out. Oh, come on,” he admonished them, seeing their incredulous expressions, “what good is an ultimatum if you’re not willing to back it up?” He smiled thinly. “I’m no soldier, but even I know that even with the traitorous Archangel and their alliance with ZAFT they can’t possibly have the forces to hold us off. Quantity has a quality all its own, after all.” The smile widened. “We have plenty of skilled pilots of our own, plus the three new machines.”

The president nodded slowly at the reference to the new GAT-X models, Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider. “You’re saying that we could overwhelm Orb.”

“Exactly. They’re far more advanced than the originals from Heliopolis, and the pilots have some…special abilities of their own.” Azrael’s grin turned nasty. “We can manage Orb.”

“And what if this Neo ZAFT faction intervenes?” another council member asked.

The president shook his head. “This isn’t like Panama. Zala will not care who wins; what matters to him is that Naturals will die. I will say this much for Clyne: he is not crazy. Zala is.” He looked at Azrael. “All right. We will be preparing for an operation to recapture Victoria. In the meantime, a fleet will be dispatched to Orb; by the fifteenth of this month at the latest. I presume you’ll want to go along?”

Azrael nodded. “Of course. It’ll be nice to get firsthand combat data on the new machines.” The leader of Blue Cosmos stood. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Those Coordinator-lovers are in for a nasty surprise, he thought viciously. And if our intelligence is correct, we can nail ZAFT’s best pilots in the bargain.

Archangel, Bridge, 14 June, C.E. 71

Murrue Ramius stood at the front of the bridge, staring at nothing. Her mind was turned inward, remembering comrades living and dead. Of those still living, most were with her on the Archangel. A few remained with the Earth Forces, thankfully in noncombat positions.

The most important of them had taken Orb service. Admiral Halberton, of course, commanded a sizable portion of Orb’s space fleet. Natarle Badgiruel continued to serve ably as Archangel’s XO, though Murrue intended to recommend her for a command of her own. Mu La Flaga had proved just as brilliant with the Strike as with his old Moebius Zero mobile armor.

And then there was Kira Yamato. Murrue had come to see the young Coordinator as a little brother, and he clearly reciprocated the sentiment; she vividly recalled Kira’s tearful confession that her recent attacker was his best friend. She was deeply grateful that Kira and Athrun were now fighting side by side.

“You know, a Captain shouldn’t look so depressed.”

Murrue turned, smiling at the newcomer. “I’m just thinking, Mu,” she said.

“A likely story,” Mu said with a grin. “What about?”

“Old comrades, mainly,” she said. “And how glad I am that I’m not likely to know anyone in the fleet the Earth Forces are sending.”

“I know what you mean,” Mu said, moving to stand beside her. “None of my squad mates survived Endymion.” He shook his head. “I never thought I’d be flying off a ship where most of the pilots are ZAFT Elites.”

Murrue glanced at him sidelong. “So, what do you think of our ZAFT friends?”

Mu leaned sideways against the viewport. “If it wasn’t for his last name, you’d never know Athrun was Patrick Zala’s son; they’re nothing alike.”

“I can’t see someone like Lacus Clyne falling for a homicidal lunatic,” Murrue said, “and Kira considers him a brother.”

Mu nodded. “Nicol’s so much like Kira it’s almost scary. He’s not as good as Kira, but that’s not saying much; ZAFT doesn’t give the red uniform to mediocrities.” He folded his arms. “Dearka acts the tough guy, but he has a heart behind all that. He’s a good guy to have at your back.”

That fit with what Murrue had heard. Of course, it was always possible that some of that was Andrea’s influence. “And Alex’s cousin?”

Mu laughed. “Sometimes I think Yzak’s a nutcase, but he’s a good guy. And the way he throws the Duel around, even with that assault shroud…”

That was Mu, all right. The quickest way to earn his approval was to excel in the cockpit. “It’s a good thing we have Alex, then, even if he’s on another ship,” Murrue said. “I’ve noticed he has a calming influence on Yzak.”

“Yeah.” Mu raised an eyebrow. “How’s Lia?”

“Doing well, actually.” Murrue looked at the Archangel’s black twin, visible in the adjacent dock. “I never thought I’d see her in the uniform of a ZAFT ship captain, but I have to say, she wears it well.”

“There’s nothing wrong with her competency, either,” Mu agreed. “Any truth to the story that she’s got a thing for Alex?”

Murrue shook her head firmly. “None whatsoever. Their relationship has always been that of a brother and sister. Neither is the other’s type, and Lia has little interest in romance in any case.”

“Lucky for her,” Mu said dryly. “You know how possessive Cagalli is about Alex; they’d have killed each other.”

“And since they’re both Coordinators, it would have been spectacular,” Murrue agreed with a laugh. “Instead, they’re the best of friends.”

“Who’d have thought?” Mu murmured.

Murrue looked at him curiously. “Mu?”

He shook himself. “I just remembered something I’ve been meaning to do.” And then, to her astonishment, he pulled her close and kissed her. She froze for a moment, convinced she was hallucinating, then slowly closed her eyes.

They pulled apart. “You know, I can’t stand mobile armor pilots,” Murrue said, more than a little breathless.

Mu merely grinned. “Then it’s a good thing I’m a mobile suit pilot,” he said, leaning in again.

The bridge hatch opened. “Is anyone here?” Arnold Neumann asked, then froze. Jackie Tonomura and Romero Pal, coming up behind him, were likewise shocked.

“I was wondering when this would happen,” Natarle Badgiruel said, appearing behind her stunned subordinates. She smiled at Murrue’s expression. “Come now, Murrue,” she said, using her CO’s given name for the first time. “This has been blindingly obvious for months; you didn’t dare act on it while we were with the Earth Forces, but our situation has changed.”

“Just be glad Dearka didn’t see,” Neumann commented, moving to his station at the helm. “He has an endless supply of one-liners.”

“Point taken,” Murrue said, shaking her head fondly. “Well,” she said more briskly, reluctantly pulling away from the Hawk, “we’d better make sure everything’s ready. The Earth Forces are only a day away from Orb.”

Even as she spoke, Murrue wished that they would be doing more than merely delaying the enemy. Sadly, she agreed with Athrun; even with their ZAFT allies, they just did not have the forces to hold Orb. If they tried to do more, they would be throwing their lives away for nothing.

No one got much sleep that night. After Orb had openly participated in the attack on Panama, everyone knew that the Earth Forces would be out for blood. Given the tone of the most recent ultimatum, it was clear that they would be facing the Alliance’s full remaining strength.

All they could do was stall, time to escape, to fight another day…

Orb Central Command, Onogoro Island, 15 June, C.E. 71

So it begins, Uzumi thought, watching the blips on the tactical display come inexorably closer. Once they crossed the line into Orb territorial waters, the battle would begin; he had agreed with Colonel Kisaka and the ZAFT commanders that waiting for the Earth Forces to open fire was pointless, so Orb was going to strike the first blow.

“Earth Forces fleet approaching the border,” a radar operator said crisply. “ETA, five minutes.”

Kisaka nodded. “Instruct our ships to open fire the instant the enemy crosses.” He looked at the Chief Representative. “My Lord?”

Uzumi sighed. “Yes, of course.” He rubbed his temples. “At least the evacuation succeeded,” he said softly, then met Kisaka’s gaze. “You may begin.”

The Allied fleet crossed the border. Instantly, the combined Orb/ZAFT fleet opened fire, showering the enemy with beams and projectiles. Orb’s Archangel and ZAFT’s Valkyrie led the way; behind and beside them were a flotilla of Orb Aegis-class cruisers and several teams of ZAFT Vosgulov-class submarines.

Uzumi gazed at the blip representing the Valkyrie, the ship which carried both his daughter and the young man who was almost certain to eventually become his son-in-law. “Be careful.”

Archangel, Bridge

“Aim Gottfrieds,” Natarle snapped. A beat. “Fire!”

So far, of their mobile suits only the shore based M1s had engaged the enemy. None of the Earth Forces machines had yet launched, so Orb and ZAFT were holding back their Gundams. In the meantime, the combined naval fleet was more than enough to keep the attackers busy.

Natarle turned to look over Mir’s shoulder. “Commander Zala, what’s your status?”

“We’re ready to move at any time,” Athrun said promptly. He showed no sign of impatience; hardly a surprise, as the decision to withhold the Gundams until the Earth Forces deployed their mobile suits had come from him. He knew more about mobile suit tactics than any Orb officer save Kira, and Natarle had found the young ZAFT team leader to be something of a kindred spirit.

“Understood,” Natarle said. “No sign of Alliance mobile suits yet-“

“Status change!” Tonomura snapped. “Enemy mobile suits detected! Checking thermal patterns…Strike Daggers, and several machines like the machine Jean Carrey piloted at Panama.” He stopped, studying his readouts. “Additional units incoming. Judging by the pattern, several are equipped with Striker packs, mostly Aile but also at least one with an unfamiliar package.”

“Unfamiliar to you, maybe,” Mu said from the Strike; he had seen the data. “Not to me; that’s a Gunbarrel pack, based off my old Moebius Zero.”

Natarle swore. “All right. Mobile suits, launch at once!”

Skies over Orb

It was the first large-scale mobile suit battle of the war. The Earth Forces, despite the delay imposed by Rau Le Creuset’s attack on Heliopolis, had finally produced mobile suits in significant numbers, and not just the cannon-fodder Strike Daggers they had fielded at Panama. In addition to an improved mass-produced version of the Strike (nicknamed the 105 Dagger), production models of the Duel and the Buster were also present.

Three new GAT-X models, X131 Calamity, X252 Forbidden, and X370 Raider Gundams, added to the chaos. Piloted by three unstable individuals known as “Biological CPUs”, they were in some ways superior to the Heliopolis line. On top of that, two different variations of the Forbidden, a single GAT-X255 Forbidden Blue piloted by ace Jane Houston, and a few production model GAT-706S Deep Forbiddens, both intended to combat ZAFT GOOhNs and ZnOs.

Cagalli glared at the oncoming mobile suits. She had never liked the Earth Forces to begin with; the fact that they were attacking her home infuriated her. The knowledge that they had no choice but to give ground made it worse.

She glanced worriedly at the silver M1 pacing her. Despite the loss of the Stormbird and his own injuries in that battle, Alex refused to sit on the sidelines. He had chosen an M1 because it was the closest mass-produced unit to his old Gundam.

Alex, please be careful. I cannot bear to lose you.

She was jolted out of her reverie by a laser blast against her shield. Snarling, she fired back, and had the satisfaction of seeing the offending Dagger explode. Alex followed suit, and Cagalli felt her worries vanish as he blew three, four, five Daggers into smoking pieces.

“Glad to see you keeping up,” she told him, blasting another Dagger. “I was afraid you’d have trouble without the Stormbird.”

Alex drew a saber. “In the words of Manfred von Richtofen, the famous Red Baron, ‘It is not the crate, it’s the man who flies it.’ There’s a reason I wear the red uniform.” On the heels of that remark, he bisected a Dagger foolish enough to try close combat. “I’m gonna be busy for a while.”

“Roger that.” Cagalli moved to face a group of 105 Daggers equipped with what looked like modified Aile packs. You are going to pay…

This is crazy, Nicol Amalfi thought. His Blitz stood on the shoreline with a group of M1s (including the Astray trio), an unusual position for him. The Blitz was intended for stealth operations, but in this battle raw firepower was more important than sneakiness, and Nicol’s machine was still good in a stand-up fight.

Better than these Daggers, anyway, he thought, sending a lancer dart into a Duel Dagger that had tried to sneak up on him. “You girls holding up?”

“We’re fine, Nicol,” Asagi said.

“Heads up,” Mayura snapped. “Armored transports incoming; they’re dropping Strike Daggers.”

Nicol swore under his breath, leveling the Trikeros at one of the transports. “Call it three suits per plane, like ours,” he said, firing. “One down.”

Juri opened an instant later. “Make that two.”

“There goes another one!” Asagi said.

Unfortunately, there were more than the Blitz and a handful of Astrays could bring down. Soon enough, they had a swarm of Daggers on their hands, mostly the basic models, but with a few 105s and Duels mixed in. On the plus side, both the Blitz and the Astrays were well-equipped for melee combat.

A Dagger suddenly exploded; judging by the angle of the shot, it had been hit from the air. Several pilots on both sides looked up to see GAT-X105 Strike and ZGMF-X09A Justice descending on them. Mu moved like a fencer, stabbing in and out with a saber, while Athrun twirled his combined weapon like a quarterstaff, occasionally taking out two suits at once.

Nicol felt relieved as the Justice impaled a Dagger right in front of him. “Thanks, Athrun.”

“Don’t mention it.”

The Blitz’s Gleipnir lanced out, impaled a 105 Dagger, and retracted. “This area’s clear for now,” Nicol said.

“Roger that,” Mu responded. “Come on, guys.”

Dearka frowned at the machine facing him. It looked remarkably like his Buster, except that it had a pair of sabers in the hips, giving it some close combat ability. “What is that thing, anyway?” He lifted his beam rifle. “It looks like my machine…”

“Take this, space monster!”

The Buster jumped away, its pilot cursing as the Alliance machine snapped its weapons together and sent a sniper blast at him. “Who is this guy?”

“I’m no guy,” his opponent said coldly, firing again. “My name is Lieutenant Rena Imelia, and you killed my students!”

“Huh?” Dearka fired a scatter blast from his gun launcher to cover himself while he punched up the Archangel’s frequency. “Captain, I’ve got some nutcase after me, saying I killed her students. Name’s Imelia or something like that.”

“Oh, no, Rena…” Murrue’s voice trembled slightly. “I’m afraid she’s right, Dearka. Rena Imelia trained the young officers who were assigned to pilot the G-weapons. They were killed when you bombed the harbor at Heliopolis.”

Dearka swallowed a curse. Great. Simply great. “Figures.”

“Need some help, Dearka?” Kyle Perry’s Devastator Gundam dropped next to him, weapons raised.

“Yeah, thanks.”

“Both of you, be careful,” Murrue said.

Rena Imelia was a tougher nut to crack than the lemmings they had faced so far. She was an excellent shot, and though the Buster design was not the most mobile around, she knew exactly how to make it do what she wanted.

That, however, was balanced by the caliber of her opponents. Kyle and Dearka were both Coordinators who wore the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite. In addition to that, they had far more combat experience than Rena, who had spent most of the war as an instructor.

Of course, Rena was hardly alone. Two more Buster Daggers appeared, escorted by four 105 Daggers.

Dearka swore. “This is bad, Kyle.”

“Tell me about it –or not,” Kyle amended.

ZGMF-X10A Freedom swooped in, wings spread. Twenty-four surgically precise shots lanced out, reducing all but one of the Daggers to basket cases; Rena herself was able to evade at the last instant.

“Thanks for the assist, Kira,” Dearka said. “We can handle the last one.”

“Roger that.” Kira gave him a thumbs-up.

ZAFT pilots turned back to Rena’s Dagger, which was anything but down for the count. “Don’t count me out yet,” she snarled.

A team of Daggers, six basic Strike models led by a single 105, had somehow gotten within sight of the Orb command center. It had taken a great deal of effort, and more than a little sneaking, but they had made it. Or so they thought.

“We’ve made it,” the 105-pilot said. “Let’s finish this.” He started to raise his rifle, but then a green beam lanced out, striking the 105’s energy battery. The resultant explosion knocked his comrades several meters back.

“Where’d that come from?” one pilot shouted desperately, and then he too exploded. Five more shots struck from nowhere.

Andrea’s GAT-X210 Specter Gundam faded out of Mirage Colloid. She smiled grimly, surveying the wreckage. “No one tries that on Lord Uzumi and gets away with it,” she said. “Believe it.” She touched a control, and the Specter vanished.

The majestic shape of the Freedom cruised high overhead, shooting down Earth Forces mobile suits whenever they wondered into its sights. Kira was not easy to anger, but he had come to hate the Earth Forces. His best friend Athrun had suffered personally because of them, as had the Strassmeier’s, and now they were invading his home.

Nevertheless, he avoided deadly force when possible; he had no quarrel with the grunts who had enlisted to fight for their country. His problem was with the leadership, the people who had oppressed the PLANTs, the people who lied about Coordinators, the people who destroyed Junius Seven.

A Duel Dagger lunged for him; the pilot thought his assault shroud knockoff would give him an edge against the Freedom. He was wrong, of course; Kira effortlessly swatted it from the sky. Another appeared, but a red blade stabbed through its cockpit.

“You okay, Kira?” Alex asked, blasting yet another Dagger.

Kira smiled. Alex’s ruthlessness chilled his blood at times, but he was still an all-right guy. “I’m fine, Alex,” he said, seeing the Akatsuki and the Justice. “In fact-” He broke off, throwing the Freedom to the side to avoid a double blast of green energy.

In the blue X131 Calamity, successor to the Buster, Orga Sabnak grimaced. “Missed.”

“What’d you expect moron?” Clotho Buer demanded. His transformable machine, the black X370 Raider, was serving as a platform for the flightless Calamity. “That thing was made to fly; what makes you think you can hit it?” He tipped over, dumping the artillery machine, and switched to mobile suit mode. “Get lost!”

Shani Andras, with his green-and-gray X252 Forbidden, ignored them completely. Crashing down on the deck of an Orb ship, he raised the Forbidden’s melee weapon, a gigantic scythe, and sliced through the superstructure.

While Kira chased after the Forbidden, Alex’s blue eyes narrowed. “Watch out, guys. Those have to be new GAT-X models, and the pilots are definitely out of the ordinary.”

“He’s right,” Athrun added, snapping his sabers together. “And the pilots don’t care about each other, either.”

Alex took aim at the Raider and fired, missing. “Blast it.” He keyed in his team’s frequency. “Chris, Hiro, Brian, watch yourselves. We’ve got three new Gundams here.”

“Roger that,” Hiro responded.

“There’s another one underwater,” Brian said. “It’s tearing up the GOOhNs and ZnOs.”

Alex muttered a curse. “All right, Brian, see what you can do; you have our only Gundam capable of operating effectively underwater.”

“Got it.”

Chris, predictably, was letting his pyromaniac persona run free. “Burn, baby, burn!” he shouted, laughing maniacally. His flamer incinerated several Allied fighters.

Alex shook his head, then grinned as a certain blue Gundam joined him. “Ready to wreak havoc, Yzak?”

His cousin grinned back. “Let’s do it, Alex.”

They focused their attacks on the least mobile of the enemy machines, the Calamity. Orga, seeing his danger (the storm of energy fire got his attention), hurriedly boosted away. He tried to return fire, but both the Duel and Alex’s M1 were far too maneuverable for him to draw a bead on.

Alex laughed. “Is there anything funnier than a mobile suit jumping around like a flea on a hot griddle?”

“Man, this guy’s nuts,” Yzak agreed.

Orga, frustrated by his enemies’ elusiveness, turned his attention to the Akatsuki. Snarling incoherently, he fired his dual Schlag beam cannon. When the blast struck home, he grinned. “Ha! Didn’t even try to dodge- what the?” He boosted away, narrowly avoiding being destroyed by his own attack.

Cagalli smirked. “Didn’t expect that one, did you?” She started to turn, dismissing the Alliance machine.

Which was when X370 Raider came straight at her. “Reflect this, Orb scum!” Clotho shouted. “You’re terminated!” With that, he swung his Mjollnir spherical breaker, hitting the Akatsuki squarely in the torso. The princess, who had confidently expected the attack to bounce harmlessly off her PSA, cried out in shock as she was slammed backward.


Alex Strassmeier stared in mingled horror and disbelief. “CAGALLI!”

Chapter 25: Odin’s Lance

Archangel, cafeteria, 24 May, C.E. 71

It has been said that war is ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent sheer, howling terror. That may be true, but to the people gathered in the Archangel’s cafeteria, the time between battles was not so much boring as it was relaxing. All of them had their own interests; Kira Yamato, for example, spent half his free time with a computer. (The other half was spent with his girlfriend Flay.) Athrun Zala was always tinkering with machinery, while his friend Nicol Amalfi practiced on a keyboard. Yzak Joule was fascinated with folklore; Tolle Koenig, the least experienced pilot, spent a lot of time honing his skills in the simulator. Dearka Elsman, Mu La Flaga, Andrew Waltfeld, and Andrea Strassmeier swapped battle tactics.

Alex, who had come over shortly after his sister (accompanied, inevitably, by a certain blond-haired princess), sat by himself, buried in a magazine.

“Hey, Cagalli,” Nicol said suddenly. “How did your father respond to that ultimatum from the Atlantic Federation?”

She shrugged. “He didn’t. We’re committed to this alliance, after all, and since Blue Cosmos controls the Earth Forces, Father had nothing to say to them.”

“Orb has an ironclad ‘no negotiating with terrorists’ policy,” Mu said, “and Blue Cosmos is the worst since those religious nutcases back in the early twenty-first century.”

“It’s sad, though,” Lacus Clyne said; she had come along to provide a morale boost. Since the Archangel was better defended than virtually anything else in the fleet, she was not in much danger. “So many people are willing to give their lives for an illusion.”

Alex snorted. “Sad, perhaps, but practically speaking it doesn’t make much difference. If such vermin are willing to die for such a warped belief, I will oblige them. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like it, but I also recognize that there is frequently no alternative.” He sipped from a coffee cup. “In any case, Orb’s participation in this attack should be a clear enough answer.”

“You got that right,” Dearka said.

They were one day away from Panama. In twenty-four hours, the allied Orb and ZAFT forces would attack, aiming to destroy both the base and its attached mass driver. Even with Orb participation, it was a tall order; Panama had heavy conventional defenses, and there were persistent rumors that the Earth Forces had finally overcome the OS problem that limited their mobile suits to a few Coordinator volunteers, like Jean Carrey.

“You think we’ll have to fight Alliance mobile suits?” Kira wondered.

“Who knows.” Yzak snorted. “My mom took over the Defense Committee,” here he glanced apologetically at Athrun, “but they haven’t heard anything.”

“Never underestimate Earth Forces security,” Waltfeld said. “Le Creuset basically stumbled on the G-weapons at Heliopolis; if he’d gotten there just a day later, it would’ve been too late.”

Alex shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Even if the Alliance has any new mobile suits, they can’t possibly match the Freedom and the Justice.”

Since those two machines, along with Cagalli’s Akatsuki, were equipped with Neutron-jammer Cancellers, no one disputed his point.

“I think the Earth Forces aren’t the real problem here,” Tolle said, sounding uncharacteristically serious. “We know Neo ZAFT has at least one Gundam, that Providence.”

Mention of the Providence provoked a chill. The machine’s raw power, matched only by Freedom and Justice, was terrifying. On top of that, there was only one man in the Neo ZAFT organization who could use it to its full potential. If Rau Le Creuset were to intervene, things could get very ugly very quickly.

Submarine carrier Ballard, briefing room

Daniel Bartlett shook his head at the message, wondering just what Chairman Zala expected them to accomplish. The Gundam unit he had been promised was not ready, so they were forced to rely on the GuAIZs, as well as Rau Le Creuset’s Providence. Bartlett was not sure which was worse, being limited to a GuAIZ, or the fact the Le Creuset was almost certain to show him up.

One rivalry is bad enough. “Just what does Chairman Zala expect us to do?” he demanded of his companion.

Rau Le Creuset shrugged. “I would have thought it simple.”

Bartlett felt his temper heat a notch. “Maybe you think it’s simple, Commander, but I do not.” He stood and began to pace. “We have eight GuAIZs and one G-weapon. Our enemies have Strassmeier’s machines, plus the Freedom, the Justice, the princess’s Akatsuki, and the original five G-weapons. Then there is the mass-produced models, their own GuAIZs, GINNs, GOOhNs, ZnOs, CGUEs, DINNs, and M1s, not to mention any surprises the Earth Forces may have.”

Le Creuset merely looked at him, unreadable behind his mask. “Your point?”

“My point is that we simply don’t have the necessary forces, even with your precious Providence,” Bartlett said. “This is insane.”

The masked man turned to study a map. “You’re too used to being part of the regular military, Bartlett, however informal ZAFT may be. As things stand now, we are a guerrilla movement, which means the balance of forces matters little if we play our cards right.” He sipped his drink. “In any case, you underestimate the Providence.”

“I know all about the DRAGOON system,” Bartlett said, exasperated. “And I know you are one of the few people alive who can use the thing, though I’ve heard Orb is developing an AI for that purpose. Even with that, however, you can still be taken by enough skilled opponents, and Orb and ZAFT have more than enough such people.”

Le Creuset smiled thinly. “You’re really concerned that I’ll deprive you of your next match with Strassmeier, aren’t you?”

Bartlett slammed his fist into the table. “Mind your own business, Le Creuset,” he snarled. “Even if that was my main concern, I doubt you’ll be able to kill Strassmeier.”

“Perhaps. Not. The question is, will you be able to take him?” Le Creuset turned to leave. “Don’t underestimate him,” he added over his shoulder.

Bartlett clenched his fists. “I know him better than you do,” he growled.

Archangel, Bridge, 25 May, C.E. 71

It was time. The combined Orb/ZAFT fleet had arrived off the coast of Panama, and the dawn attack was about to begin. Missiles lanced out from the Vosgulov-class submarines and Orb’s Aegis ships. There was no return fire yet, but everyone knew that it could not last; the Earth Forces were far from stupid.

“All forces have begun their attack, ma’am,” Natarle said.

Murrue nodded. “Very well.” She looked at Mir. “Launch mobile suits at once.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the girl said crisply. She looked down at her monitor, feeling a sense of unreality; only one of the mobile suits had ever launched from the Archangel before. “X102 Duel, connected to catapult.”

The scarred pilot on the screen nodded sharply. “Yzak Joule, Duel Launching!”

Miriallia turned to the next machine up. “X103 Buster, go ahead.”

“Dearka Elsman, Buster taking off!”

Then came a more familiar machine. “X105 Strike, ready.”

The Hawk of Endymion flipped a salute. “Mu La Flaga, launching in Strike!”

A menacing dark mobile suit was next in the queue. “X207 Blitz, cleared for launch.”

Green-haired Nicol Amalfi grinned. “Nicol Amalfi, Blitz taking off!”

Mir swallowed at the next one. “X303 Aegis, ready for launch.” Then, in a softer voice, “Be careful, Tolle.”

He smiled reassuringly. “I’ll be fine.” Tolle pressed his head against the seat back. “Tolle Koenig, Aegis heading out!”

Two remained. “X09A Justice, your turn.”

“Athrun Zala, Justice launching!”

Last, but not least, was the mighty Freedom Gundam. “X10A Freedom, go for launch,” Mir said. “Don’t push yourself too hard, Kira.”

The brown-haired Coordinator nodded. “Kira Yamato, Freedom, let’s do it!”

Miriallia turned to look over her shoulder. “All mobile suits have launched, ma’am.”

“Excellent,” Natarle said. “Prepare for shore bombardment. Aim Gottfrieds and Valiants at the weapon emplacements on the north side; target missiles on the central command and control facilities.”

She sat back, taking a moment to study the tactical monitor. Thus far, the enemy’s response had come from tanks and gun emplacements, though a few aircraft were taking off. Most of them were vestals, with some F7-Ds mixed in. Though they were more maneuverable in atmosphere than most mobile suits, they were not much of a threat.

Of course, there was always a chance of a surprise…

Skies over Panama

Alex wheeled the Stormbird through the air, beam rifle flashing in a precise pattern. Several Alliance tanks exploded, followed by four-gun emplacements. Two fighters tried to intercept him; Alex dodged to the side and blew them away with a single contemptuous shot. Three vestals followed them into oblivion.

His was not the only Gundam causing mass destruction. Kyle and Dearka hung back, their heavily armed mobile suits raining destruction from afar. A couple of GINNs with D-package weapons accompanied them, heavy missiles and ion blasts pummeling the Allied positions. The Inferno and the Scorpion flew escort.

To Alex’s right was, inevitably, ORB-01 Akatsuki. Cagalli was having a field day blasting fighters, vestals, tanks, and anything else unfortunate enough to wander into her sights. “Take that!”

“Yeah? I will take you on! Eat this, you space monsters!”

Alex flicked a switch, tracking the transmission. That turret… One messy explosion later, he shook his head. ” ‘Space monsters,’ is it? For your information, Earth slime, there are plenty of Naturals in the PLANTs.”

“You’re wasting your time, Alex,” Mu said as the Strike flashed past. “I served with some of these idiots. They think any Natural who likes Coordinators is a traitor to his race or something like that.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Alex rolled his eyes.

Not far away, Kira and Athrun worked in tandem, reading each other’s mind. The Justice, its sabers combined in a beam staff, moved in close, covered by the Freedom’s multibeam attack.

Nicol, meanwhile, was getting nervous. “Something’s not right here, guys. Shouldn’t there be heavier defenses?”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “You’re right. There is something very fishy here.”

Panama Headquarters

“ZAFT forces have established a beachhead,” a radar operator reported. “A group of Orb mobile suits have occupied part of the southeast quadrant.”

The base CO cursed. “Those accursed space monsters and their Orb allies have penetrated much too far.” He turned to an aide. “Deploy the Thirteenth Autonomous Corps.”

His aide frowned. “Are you sure about that, sir?” he asked carefully. “They’re still green…”

“They have to have a first battle sometime, and this is precisely why we formed our own mobile suit corps,” the commander said. “Now we’ll show those space monsters what we’re really made of…”

Open sky

It happened without warning. Two GINNs were busy shelling a platoon of tanks.

“Heh, heh, this is too easy,” one pilot said, then let out a chopped-off scream as a bright green beam drilled through his machine.

A trio of mobile suits, machines that looked like unfinished versions of the Strike, stood behind some nearby trees. “It won’t be so easy from now on,” an Alliance pilot taunted.

“All of you Coordinators are a little too cocky,” another said.

Surprise was total. None of the more advanced Orb mobile suits were in range, and there were too few GuAIZs to make much difference, even with Miguel Aiman. For a few horrifying minutes, the Strike Daggers had a field day with the ZAFT GINNs, destroying five in rapid succession.

The first units to try to help were a few DINNs. One Dagger went down at a cost of six ZAFT units.

It could not last, as the commander’s aide had known. First of the Gundams to intervene was Yzak Joule’s Duel. Yelling a war cry, Yzak dropped out of the sky right on top of the Daggers, blowing two away before they knew he was there. Three more tried to bring their rifles to bear, but Yzak was too fast for them, and the Duel was far superior. They lasted no more than five seconds.

Things soon got even worse for the Earth Forces. The sight of so many comrades falling to the Daggers caused the SEED to burst in Kira’s mind, increasing his already astronomical power. ZGMF-X10A Freedom swooped in, all its weapons blazing. Pieces of Strike Daggers flew in all directions, though even in his Berserker state Kira was avoiding lethal force. To the Earth Forces, the Freedom was like a demon; to ZAFT and Orb, it was a guardian angel.

Athrun Zala was not far behind. More suited to melee than ranged attacks, though its rifle and beam cannons were effective, the Justice cut a huge swathe through the Daggers, and unlike his friend, Athrun was not disabling. A bright red saber stabbed through a Dagger’s core; Athrun tore it out and slashed through two more.

Then a new mobile suit appeared, a white one. It differed from the others in more than just color…

Kira got it first. “Hey, Yzak, is it just me, or does that look like your machine?”

Yzak glared at it. “You’re right, Kira. Except for the color, it’s almost exactly like my machine.” He swung the Duel around. “Leave this one to me.”

The pilot saw him coming, of course. He raised his rifle an unleashed a barrage of laser fire. Yzak dodged, opting for close combat. A beam saber flared to life, impacting on the other machine’s shield. The Earth Forces unit pulled back, trying to cover itself with a missile salvo, which the Duel swatted down with its Igelstellungs.

“The GAT-X102 Duel,” Jean Carrey murmured. “This could be tricky.” He keyed his comm. “Look, just get out of the way. I don’t want to kill you.”

“Quit whining, Natural!” Yzak snapped, firing his rifle again.

Carrey sighed. “I am afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. You see, I too am a Coordinator.”

“What? You traitor!” Yzak snarled, redoubling his attack.

“Calm down, Yzak,” Alex said. “Just being a Coordinator doesn’t mean you have to fight for the cause of ZAFT and the PLANTs. Remember where Kira’s from.”

Yzak had to concede his cousin’s point. In retrospect, he agreed that Kira had been right to take control of the Strike during the Heliopolis attack; Yzak would have done the same thing in his position.

Not that it mattered now, as Carrey pointedly reminded him with another laser blast. Cursing, Yzak launched his rifle grenade, fired his railgun twice, and jumped. Carrey’s machine, a Long Dagger, tried to follow, but Yzak promptly body-checked him, slamming him to the ground.

He is good, the young ZAFT pilot conceded. Better than these cannon-fodder Naturals. Of course, some Naturals could put up quite a fight, indeed, two of them were fighting alongside him at that very moment; Troy Cadwallader’s Dreadnought and Mu La Flaga’s Strike were visible not far away.

The Long Dagger lunged for him again…

Far beyond the battle, nine mobile suits, eight of them GuAIZs (and one of them blood-red in color) and a single Gundam watched the proceedings. The pilots, all of them members of Patrick Zala’s Neo ZAFT faction, were spoiling for a fight.

“Just how long are we going to sit here?” one demanded. “The Earth Forces and ZAFT are pounding each other to scrap; we could smash a lot of them before they knew what hit them.”

“Be patient,” Rau Le Creuset cautioned. “There are many G-weapons in the area, and Orb’s new M1 Astray is at the very least equal to the GuAIZ and is in fact superior in atmosphere. We must proceed very carefully.”

“For once, I’m with Commander Le Creuset,” Bartlett said. “All four of his old G-pilots are here, plus Kira Yamato –by far Orb’s best pilot- and the Hawk of Endymion himself. Then there’s Strassmeier; except for me, everyone who has underestimated him is dead.”

More than one pilot swallowed audibly at that. Kira Yamato was a better pilot, there was no doubt of that, but Alex Strassmeier was far more ruthless. In the fleeting time he had been with ZAFT, he had earned a fearsome reputation as an enemy who seldom gave quarter and was almost impossible to stop.

“Concentrate your attacks on the Earth Forces for now,” Le Creuset said. “I will engage Strassmeier personally; with all due respect to Commander Bartlett, a GuAIZ is no match for the Stormbird.” The Providence’s head glared at each GuAIZ in turn. “Do not attack Orb or ZAFT units until then.”

“Yes sir!”

Asagi, Juri, and Mayura may have been green, but together they made an extremely dangerous team. Asagi had proved to be a born leader; her friends followed her instinctively. The trio had not faced many Daggers yet; one had tried to draw a bead on them, but Juri (the best sharpshooter of the three) had taken it out with a single well-placed shot.

“So far, so good,” Mayura commented. She then spotted a Dagger headed their way. “I’ll take care of this one.”

Unfortunately, this Alliance pilot proved to be made of sterner stuff than most of his cannon-fodder cohorts. He took Mayura’s first shot on his shield, dodged another, and parried a saber strike with his own weapon. A retaliatory stab sent Mayura’s rifle and saber flying. The Dagger raised its weapon for the killing blow; Mayura heard her friends calling her name…

And a flash of green light struck the Dagger in the top of its head, blowing it in half. GAT-X207 Blitz settled to the ground, Trikeros still in firing position. “Are you all right, Mayura?” Nicol asked.

She took a deep breath, steadying her heart. “Yeah. Thanks, Nicol.”

“No problem.” The Blitz stooped and retrieved Mayura’s weapons. “That was close.”

“Closer than I liked,” Mayura agreed. She snapped the rifle up and fired, destroying a Dagger that tried to sneak up on Nicol. “Returning the favor.”

Nicol smiled sheepishly. “Thanks.”

“Heads up, Dearka, you’ve got a couple of Daggers after you.”

Dearka glared at his pursuers. “Roger that, Athrun.” His main weapons snapped together, and a shotgun blast took out both Daggers before they knew what was happening.

Yzak, meanwhile, was still dueling with Jean Carrey. “Just give it up already!” he snarled, firing repeatedly.

“Why keep this up?” Carrey asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. “What will it gain you?”

“The freedom and safety of the PLANTs, you idiot!” Yzak snapped. “They exploited us, they tried to starve us, and they blew up Junius Seven!”

Alex spotted the confrontation. Normally he would not have thought of intervening, given Yzak’s reaction, but it was taking too long. The Gungnirs would be dropped at any moment; Carrey’s Long Dagger, a more powerful unit than the Strike Daggers they had been fighting, had to be neutralized before the drop. With a resigned sigh, he turned the Stormbird.

He never made it. A strange sensation filled his mind, but before he could act on it, a huge gray mobile suit, clearly a Gundam, loomed before him. The enemy’s rifle came up, and a beam far more powerful than anything such a weapon should have been able to produce struck the Stormbird’s shield, overloading the energy-absorbing system and blowing it clean in two.

The Providence, Alex though, numb. He tried to evade, but Le Creuset was ready for him. DRAGOON units separated, and the Stormbird was suddenly caught in a spiderweb of laser fire. Alex’s rifle was blown away, followed by his sabers and plasma cannon. Stormbird’s head simply vanished, and the Providence’s saber cut it off at the knees.

Rau Le Creuset laughed. “Bartlett is truly pathetic, if he couldn’t do in an hour what I just did in mere seconds,” he said. “So much for your ZAFT career, Strassmeier.”

Alex tried to reply, but something in his cockpit shorted out, causing his monitor to explode in his face. His faceplate shattered, he fell unconscious, blood streaming from a huge gash.

Le Creuset laughed again, raising his saber…

Cagalli stared in horror. In a matter of seconds, Alex’s MBF-X108 Stormbird had been reduced from a fighting machine to a pile of junk barely recognizable as a mobile suit. There was no doubt who was responsible; the huge gray Gundam could only have been piloted by one man, and she felt a surge of fury as she realized who.

“ALEX!” she screamed, and behind her eyes, a gold seed burst.

The Akatsuki’s mobile turret system shot out, enveloping the Stormbird in a protective shield just in time to stop the Providence’s beam saber. Le Creuset pulled back, startled, then jumped away to avoid a storm of laser fire from Cagalli’s beam rifle. Akatsuki landed directly between the Providence and the crippled Stormbird, rifle aimed directly at the Neo ZAFT machine.

“Stay away from him,” Cagalli said coldly.

Rau Le Creuset threw back his head and laughed. “So Yzak was right, the Princess is in love with a freak!”

He did not get a chance to continue; X102 Duel slammed into the Providence from the side. “BASTARD!” Yzak Joule screamed. “DON’T YOU DARE CALL MY COUSIN A FREAK!”

X210 Specter faded out of Mirage Colloid. “If you so much as touch my brother,” Andrea Strassmeier snarled, “I’ll tear you limb from limb.”

She was soon joined by the Buster and the Blitz. “Lay off, ‘Commander,’ ” Dearka growled.

“You can’t take all of us,” Nicol said.

A green blast announced the Strike’s arrival. “It ends here, Rau Le Creuset,” Mu snarled.

The remaining Strassmeier team Gundams, recognizing that their comrades could manage the Strike Daggers, moved to flank what was left of Alex’s mobile suit. “You won’t have our commander,” Kyle Perry said icily, leveling the Devastator’s combined weapons at the Providence.

Athrun Zala landed the Justice and spun his saber staff so fast that all anyone could see was a red blur. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you through.”

ZGMF-X10A Freedom dropped next to the Akatsuki. “I won’t let you!” Kira yelled; all his weapons ready.

Strangely, Le Creuset seemed to find the situation amusing. “Well, I don’t believe there have ever been this many G-weapons in one spot before,” he said conversationally. “This could be interesting.”

“I’ll give you interesting, you bastard,” Cagalli snarled. Drawing her own melee weapon, a double-ended saber like the Justice’s combined weapon, she charged. Le Creuset, startled, was only barely able to bring his shield up in time.

Nor was she his only problem. Athrun lunged forward a split second later; Kira opened fire at the same moment. The others soon followed, and Le Creuset found himself forced to evade a hurricane of energy fire. He returned fire enough to keep them from getting too close, aside from Cagalli and Athrun’s initial attack, but he was clearly in a weak position.

No help from his fellows was forthcoming, either. Bartlett had tried to move in while the allied Gundams were distracted, but he and his cohorts had been driven off by a team of GuAIZs and Astrays led by Miguel Aiman.

Le Creuset noticed. “Hmm, it seems the tide has turned.” He swung his machine around and boosted away. “Till we meet again!”

“Let him go,” Cagalli said reluctantly, lowering her weapons. “We have to finish off the Earth Forces here. Kyle, you get Alex back to the ship.” The princess tried to stay calm, but she could not conceal her worry.

The Devastator stooped and lifted the Stormbird. “No problem.”

Cagalli resolutely turned back to the battle at hand. I cannot focus on Alex; he would not want me to, not now. Nevertheless, she could not help worrying.

“He’ll be all right,” Yzak said as if he had read her thoughts. “He’s tough.”

She swallowed. “Still, he was hit pretty bad…”

“Cagalli, I was there when Alex’s arm was bitten off.” Yzak smiled reassuringly. “If that didn’t take him down, a nutcase like Le Creuset won’t, either.”

Cagalli managed to smile back. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Valkyrie, Bridge

“Commander Strassmeier has been moved to the infirmary, ma’am,” the comm officer said. “He has a pretty nasty head wound, but Doctor Lockwood says he should recover.”

Lia sighed. “Thank goodness for that.” She turned to the helmsman. “Ahead half speed. Bring us into firing range of the mass driver.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

As the mighty warship surged forward, Lia considered their options. With Alex incapacitated, his sister Andrea was acting commander of the Strassmeier team, but it was Lia’s job to manage the ship. In this case, though, there was not much to consider. The Strike Daggers were being steadily driven back or destroyed; mobile suit losses had been confined to a few GINNs, most of them destroyed by Daggers, two DINNs, and a single ZnO that had the misfortune to step on a land mine. Jean Carrey’s Long Dagger was no longer a factor; on seeing the Providence’s attack on his cousin, Yzak had cut Carrey’s machine off at the knees and left. Two GuAIZs were bringing it in.

All we must do now is wait for the Gungnirs, Lia thought.

Her aunt’s image appeared on the screen. “What’s your status, Lia?”

“Aside from the fact that Alex is in the infirmary, and his mobile suit is scrap, we’re fine,” Lia said. “We were never in range of the fixed gun emplacements in the first place, and the Daggers never got anywhere near us.”

Murrue nodded. “Good. The Gungnirs will be dropped any moment now, so watch yourselves.”

“I understand.” Murrue’s image vanished, and Lia sat back. It is up to them now.

Open sky

The four nuclear-powered machines, Freedom, Justice, Dreadnought, and Akatsuki, patrolled the skies above Panama. There were few targets left; most of the Strike Daggers were gone, but the few that were left were putting up quite a fight, making up in ferocity what they lacked in skill and experience.

“You know,” Troy remarked, demolishing a Dagger with his DRAGOON system, “you’d think these Earth Forces nuts would retreat when they’ve got this many Gundams after them.”

Athrun snorted. “They fought hard in the Eighth Fleet battle, even though the only mobile suit they had was the Strike,” he pointed out, blasting a gun tower with his Fortis cannons.

Five Daggers were crippled by the Freedom’s multibeam attack. “There’s something I can’t figure out about Carrey’s machine,” Kira said. “I mean, I can see how it could look like the Duel, but how could it have something like an assault shroud?”

“We –the Earth Forces, I mean- captured a few GINNs with assault shrouds at Nova,” Mu explained, absently blowing another Dagger apart.

Miguel Aiman snorted. “I remember that one. You were covering them.”

“So, sue me,” Mu said genially.

Miguel just laughed. He and Mu had come to an understanding when they had sparred back in Orb. “Nah, somebody like you shouldn’t be broke.”

“Enough chatter,” Andrea Strassmeier said, sounding so much like Natarle that everyone in earshot chuckled. “Oh, for…” Giving up, she changed frequencies. “This is Andrea Strassmeier, in temporary command of the Strassmeier team. Target point is secure.”

“Acknowledged,” a voice said from orbit. “Releasing Gungnirs!”

Soon a few shapes were visible high above. Glowing red from reentry heat, the powerful EMP weapons known as Gungnirs dropped to Earth with almost pinpoint accuracy; a small amount of scatter was inevitable, but it was kept to a minimum. Once down, a handful of GINNs, covered by Astrays, began setting them up.

“Heads up,” Hiro snapped. “More Daggers incoming.”

Cagalli snarled wordlessly and attacked. Dagger after Dagger was sliced to bits by the double-ended staff, a few disabled, but most destroyed. Her brother covered her, his weapons crippling even more of the cannon-fodder mobile suits. Troy’s DRAGOON units added to the chaos.

“You guys are pathetic!” Yzak snapped, shooting down yet more Daggers. “I’ve fought mobile armors that were tougher than you!”

Andrea shook her head. “Crazy as usual,” she muttered. For the rest of the battle, she supported Cagalli with flicker-in-shoot-fade-out tactics, making extensive use of the Specter’s Mirage Colloid.

Their other stealth machine, the Blitz, stayed close to the Astray trio; Mayura’s near-death experience had rattled them, so a more experienced comrade was reassuring.

Kyle, having returned from dropping off his injured commander, kept up a steady barrage of artillery fire, while pyromaniac Chris Madsen torched any Daggers that got too close. Brian Kilgore danced around in the air, concentrating his efforts on leftover fighters.

Tolle had been forced to return to the Archangel for resupply twice; he had not been reckless with his fire, but simply had more targets than most.

“Yzak, look out!” Mu yelled suddenly.

Yzak turned, saw at least five Daggers headed his way. He raised his rifle; no one was in range to assist…

Or so he thought. Yzak got one, and then the others exploded before he could fire again. Behind where they had stood was a blue machine with the unmistakable monoeye design of a ZAFT mobile suit. It had two beam cannons mounted on the shoulders, and its right hand held an anti-ship sword like the Strike’s Schwert Gewehr.

“This is Shiho Hahnenfuss,” the pilot called. “I was sent down with the Gungnirs.”

Yzak could not help grinning. “Glad you could make it, Housenka. Plenty of targets to go around.”

“Yzak Joule!” Shiho sounded momentarily flustered. “I…roger that!”

Troy Cadwallader chuckled. “Don’t strain yourself trying to impress him, mate.”

“Troy, I’ll get you for that!” Shiho yelled, before turning and slicing her sword through what looked like a guard tower.

The Australian pilot laughed, absently blasting a few tanks to debris.

“Gungnirs primed and ready!” a GINN pilot called.

It was doubtful that the Alliance even knew what they were until it was too late. They knew about EMP tricks, of course, but they had believed that a nuclear explosion was the only way to do it; with the N-jammers in place, it should not have been possible. ZAFT, however, had been working on the technique ever since the war began, and had made the necessary breakthrough. All the ZAFT and Orb units had more than sufficient EMP shielding to be unaffected. The Earth Forces were not so fortunate.

A huge wave of energy swept the area, disabling mobile suits, aircraft, ground vehicles, and command and control facilities. Somewhere in the maelstrom a power coupling blew, causing a chain reaction that destroyed the mass driver. With no choice if they wanted to live, the remaining soldiers surrendered.

The Earth Alliance was now trapped on Earth.

Valkyrie, infirmary

With a groan, Alex forced his one working eye to open. What…what happened? His last memory was of the Providence aiming its beam rifle at him. Now he was in the infirmary, with no idea how he had gotten there. There were people around him, that much he knew, but his eye was not focusing properly.

“It’s true that the wound was rather bloody, but head wounds are usually like that,” Doctor Vincent Lockwood was saying. “However, I have no doubt he will make a full recovery. It will probably leave a scar, but nothing worse than that.”

There was a collective sigh of relief. Andrea Strassmeier, Lia Ramius, Cagalli Yula Athha, Kira Yamato, Flay Allster, and Yzak Joule had rushed in as soon as the battle had ended.

His eye focusing at least, Alex managed a smile. “He’s right, you know. I’ve had worse.”

Cagalli was immediately at his side. “Are you all right, Alex?”

He squeezed her hand. “Head hurts, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it looks.”

She squeezed back. “When I get my hands on Le Creuset…”

“You’ll have to take a number,” Kira said dryly. “I’ve never seen Mu that mad.”

Alex snorted. “Le Creuset does have that effect on people,” he said, then looked at his cousin. “I guess we’ll have matching scars, Yzak.”

“Yeah.” Yzak grimaced. “That bastard got away clean, sorry.”

Alex shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. There’s always tomorrow.”

“Well, you’d better be more careful, so you can see tomorrow,” his sister told him in a severe tone. “I don’t want you dying on me.”

He smiled tiredly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

They chatted for a while, filling him in on things. Jean Carrey, it appeared, had long been doubtful of his own position, and had jumped at an offer of asylum in Orb. A few others had made the same choice, though some for less than noble reasons. So long as such individuals did not betray them, Alex was fine with that.

After a while, the others started to drift away, Kira, Flay, and Yzak to the Archangel, Lia to the bridge, and Andrea to the hangar to work on her mobile suit. Even the doctor left, saying something about a research paper that he could afford to work on now that Alex was out of danger.

“Are you sure you’re all, right?” Cagalli asked quietly.

Alex smiled. “Cagalli, however tough you may be, you’re also quite the worrier.” He reached up and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “This is nowhere near as bad as the time that shark bit my arm off.”

She sighed. “Yzak said the same thing,” she admitted. “Still, you could have been killed.”

“Cagalli, I could have been killed a dozen times over since the war began.” Alex sat up, then moved over a little so she could sit beside him. “The point is, that didn’t happen,” he went on, wrapping an arm around her. “We all made it out alive, that’s what’s important.”

Cagalli rested her head on his shoulder. “Yeah, you’re right. It won’t make me stop worrying, but you’re right.” She looked up at him. “What are you going to do now? They might be able to repair the Stormbird, but it’ll take quite a while.”

“I’ll probably be in an M1,” Alex said. “They’re better than anything short of the GuAIZ, and with all due respect to the people at MMI, GuAIZs are ugly.”

She agreed with that, certainly. ZAFT seemed to have a glut of ugly mass-produced mobile suits, especially machines like the ZnO. “Maybe you can get a custom one, like Max Labatt’s.”

“Maybe.” Alex would have shrugged, but he did not want to move her. “It doesn’t matter right now, though. It will take the Alliance a while to decide what to do considering our victory here. For now, I think we’ll be returning to Orb.”

“You think you’ll be healed by the time we head out again?”

He waved his free hand. “Even if I am not, I’ll be out there anyway. And do not give me that look,” he added when she glared at him. “Yzak did the same thing, and he came out just fine.”

Cagalli shook her head fondly. “Yeah, sure.” She gave him a mischievous look. “But I don’t want you thinking about that right now.” Before he could ask what, she meant, Cagalli reached up, being extra careful of the bandages, pulled his face close to hers, and kissed him.

Chapter 24: Flight of the Magic Bullet

Valkyrie, Bridge, 15 May, C.E. 71

A week after the spectacular failure of Operation Spit Break, the weary survivors neared Orb’s Onogoro Island. Of all the ships involved, only the Valkyrie itself had come out unscathed; even the Archangel had taken some bad hits. None of the Gundams had taken any real damage, fortunately, but all the pilots were exhausted.

The biggest cause for concern was the disappearance of Rau Le Creuset. He was widely acknowledged (even, reluctantly, by Alex) as ZAFT’s best space commander. Not only would there be a dangerous hole in ZAFT’s command structure, but few liked the idea of facing him in battle. Of Orb’s pilots, only Kira Yamato and Mu La Flaga stood a chance against him, and even they would be hard pressed.

Out of ZAFT, Alex alone was looking forward to it.

“Approaching the Onogoro dock,” the ship’s helmsman said. “ETA, fifteen minutes.”

“Understood,” Lia said. She looked at Alex. “Any special orders?”

He snorted. “In a docking maneuver? No, there’s nothing.”

Lia hid a smile at the way a certain blond-haired princess moved to stand by Alex’s chair. Those two, she thought fondly, then returned her attention to the main viewer. Valkyrie’s sister-ship cruised to starboard, while several ex-Eurasian vessels followed in their wake. Bringing up the rear were several ZAFT’s Vosgulov-class submarine carriers.

Overall, it was a motley group, but Lia would not have had it any other way. It may have lacked the spit-and-polish of an Atlantic Federation fleet, but it also lacked their almost insufferable arrogance, an arrogance which was the biggest factor in their strained relations with their nominal allies, the Eurasians.

“Well, that was something different,” a deep voice said.

Lia snorted. “You have a gift for understatement, Commander,” she said wryly.

“It’s not every day we get mass Earth Forces defections,” Andrew Waltfeld said.


Alex, though he gave no sign he even heard, agreed. His first real battle as a ZAFT commander had been one step short of a complete disaster; only the discovery of the Cyclops had minimized the death toll. And it also gave a clue about Rau Le Creuset’s true intentions. I have the distinct impression that he would have been perfectly happy if we had been caught in the Earth Forces’ trap.

Defense Headquarters, Onogoro Island

Athrun Zala slumped on the bunk in the quarters Orb had assigned to him following the announcement of the Orb/ZAFT alliance. Like Alex, he felt the disappearance of Rau Le Creuset provided a clue as to the masked man’s goals. Unlike Alex, though, Athrun felt no sense of vindication.

Commander, why? What are you up to? Why are you doing this? Athrun felt betrayed. First his father turned out to be, as Alex put it, a homicidal madman, then an officer whom he admired, who held the Order of the Nebula, ZAFT’s highest award for valor, had turned traitor.

The door slid open, and Lacus Clyne, the Pink Princess of the PLANTs, stepped through. “Hello, Athrun,” she said brightly. “It’s good to see you safe.”

Athrun stood and enfolded his fiancée in an embrace. “It’s good to be back. After everything…”

Lacus stroked his face. “I heard about Commander Le Creuset. It must be hard, knowing that your commander is a traitor.”

He shook his head. “I just don’t get it. My father I can understand, even if it hurts. The Commander, though, I just cannot figure it out. What does he want?”

“I don’t know, but I have some news about your father.” Lacus looked glum. “He has announced the formation of what he calls the ‘Neo ZAFT’ organization, and openly proclaimed his goal of exterminating the Naturals.”

Athrun sighed. “It’s not a surprise, and it doesn’t change anything. I had made up my mind to oppose him even before Spit Break. Now…he’s only confirmed that I made the right choice.”


“If he’s capable of something like this, then he is no longer the man who raised me,” Athrun said softly. “That man died with my mother at Junius Seven. What family I have left is right here in Orb: you, Kira, and Nicol.”

Lacus just tightened her grip, not speaking.

“I’ll fight for as long as it takes, to stop my father, and to bring freedom to our homeland,” Athrun said.

She nodded. “I know. I wish you didn’t have to do it, but I understand.” She smiled and gently tugged him toward the door. “But right now, you need to relax. You shouldn’t be all alone in your room like this.”

Athrun smiled. Despite her apparent naiveté, Lacus was extremely perceptive. “Lead on, Lacus.”

HQ lounge

The lounge was fairly crowded by the time Athrun and Lacus arrived. Most of those present were off one of the two mobile assault ships, but there were a few people from the ZAFT submarines scattered about, as well as some crew members from the ex-Eurasian vessels. The latter kept to themselves not yet accustomed to Orb.

Athrun quickly spotted several people he knew. Kira Yamato and Flay Allster sat together on a couch, the latter half asleep. Dearka Elsman chatted with Andrea Strassmeier; Athrun had to hide a smile at that. Sai Argyle and an extremely nervous Miriallia Haw listened as Tolle Koenig described his first battle in the Aegis.

Nicol was off in a corner, an electronic keyboard in front of him. The notes from the small instrument provided a soothing background.

Alex Strassmeier and Cagalli Yula Athha stood near Kira and Flay. Neither was in uniform; Alex wore jeans and a t-shirt, the only martial touch being the Luger holstered at his thigh, while the princess was dressed in her favorite civilian garb, khaki pants, and a red t-shirt. Cagalli was not visibly armed, but Athrun would not have put it past her to have something lethal in her pocket, especially after spending so much time with Alex.

To Athrun’s surprise, Natarle Badgiruel was present, engaged in what looked like a chess match with Arnold Neumann. It was hard to tell who was winning, though the Archangel’s helmsman appeared to be holding his own.

“Hey! Over here!”

Athrun could not help smiling. “Hey yourself,” he said, as he and Lacus took a seat across from the speaker.

Mu La Flaga grinned. “Nice to see you’re not getting all formal on me.”

Athrun shrugged. “Any friend of Kira’s is a friend of mine,” he said. “Kira might be naïve at times, but he’s always been a good judge of character.”

“You got that right.” Mu leaned back in his chair, glancing at Kira. “Flay’s the best thing that ever happened to him,” he said more quietly.

The ZAFT pilot nodded agreement. “I didn’t think so at first, since her father was a top-ranking member of Blue Cosmos, but Cagalli straightened me out.”

Mu raised his eyebrows. “How’d she do that?”

Athrun grinned a little sheepishly. “She slapped me.”

The Hawk laughed uproariously. “That I can believe. She’s not exactly known for being gentle.”

“I heard that!” Cagalli glared at them, but there was a definite glint of humor in her eyes.

Athrun laughed, then turned, looking into his fiancée’s clear blue eyes. Even though his father had become his enemy, Athrun felt better in some ways than he had since the Bloody Valentine. Lacus was with him, he and Kira were finally on the same side, and with the recent changes in Orb and the PLANTs, he was fighting for something he believed in.

The far door slid open, and a young man in Orb uniform stepped through. Tall, with brown hair and eyes, he looked about twenty-three, but his eyes bore a haunted look, as if he were carrying some horrible secret. The way he moved proclaimed him to be a pilot; Athrun found himself wondering just what the man flew. An M1 was logical, except that they were just coming online, and the newcomer was clearly experienced.

He then spotted Athrun and froze, his eyes going wide.

Athrun frowned. He looks spooked. Is something wrong? He stood and crossed over to him. “Athrun Zala of ZAFT,” he said.

The young man, a lieutenant commander, hesitated. “Harris, sir. Lieutenant Commander Jacob Harris.” He looked away. “Formerly of the Atlantic Federation Navy,” he added softly.

Athrun looked at him curiously. “Why would I hold that against you? Aside from Kira and his friends, everyone on the Archangel used to be with the Atlantic Federation, and I have a good relationship with them simply fine.”

Harris shook his head. “It’s not that simple. You see…” He took a deep breath. “I was piloting a TS-MA2 Moebius mobile armor at Junius seven.”

Athrun nodded slowly, understanding flooding him. Jacob Harris was the pilot who had launched the nuke into Junius Seven, and at that moment Athrun wanted more than anything else to hate him for that. But he could not; the pain in Harris’s eyes and voice was genuine. The fact that Orb accepted him despite that was another mark in his favor.

“All I can say in my defense is that I had no idea the missile had a nuclear warhead,” Harris said softly. “I know that’s not enough, and that it can never excuse what I did that day, but you should know the whole truth in any case.” He closed his eyes. “I can’t ask you to forgive me. What I did is beyond that.”

Athrun gazed at him for a long moment, aware of Lacus and Kira nearby. He believed every word the ex-mobile armor pilot had said, most Alliance pilots would have balked at a nuclear attack on a civilian target. Still, Athrun was conflicted; he still wanted to avenge his mother’s death, along with all the other people who had died there, but much as he wanted to, this was not the way to do it.

“Killing you won’t bring my mom back,” he said at last. “I won’t say this is easy for me because it isn’t. Still, if it is true, you did not know what it was you were doing, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then you’re just as much a victim as the people who died there.” He held out his hand again. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be friends, but at least we won’t be enemies.”

Harris gripped Athrun’s hand, then saluted. “Thank you. I don’t deserve it but thank you.”

Athrun returned the salute. “I can’t say I was pleased to meet you, but it’s not your fault.”

The other nodded, then drifted off to a table.

“Well, looks like you’ve moved up in the world, Athrun.”

Athrun spun around, vaguely aware of his teammates doing the same. Two ZAFT soldiers stood by the door, one in standard green, one in elite red. Troy Cadwallader was not a surprise; they had heard on arrival that the young Special Forces agent would be joining them. The other man, however, had all four of them wondering if they were seeing ghosts.

Nicol found his voice first. “Miguel?” he whispered.

Miguel Aiman grinned. “Been a while, Nicol,” he said, then looked back at Athrun. “A Commander, huh?”

“Ah…” Athrun swallowed. “Miguel, how did you survive? I saw your GINN explode.”

Miguel shrugged. “Nah. Strassmeier’s shot managed to get bent by the cockpit armor. I was still pretty banged up, but it didn’t kill me.” He raised his eyebrows. “He here?”

Alex stepped forward. “An honor to meet you, and I’m glad we’re off the battlefield.” He hesitated. “I guess I owe you an apology.”

Miguel shook his head. “Representative Joule explained what you were up to. Don’t worry about it.”

“I know you have a lot of catching up to do,” Troy interrupted, “so I’ll see you later.”

“Hang on,” Dearka said. “What brings you to Orb in the first place?”

The Aussie grinned. “Reinforcements -I pilot a G-unit, after all- and to brief you on the next operation, as well as the so-called ‘Neo ZAFT’ group Zala produced. It’ll be a few days, though, so you can relax.”

Athrun watched him go, wondering just what was going on. He knew that the next operation was almost certain to involve Panama; with JOSH-A gone, the Porta Panama mass driver was the most logical target. After the tremendous losses at Alaska, they had to close the door to space and trap the Alliance on Earth.

Morgenroete Hangar, 16 May, C.E. 71

“Sorry I took so long,” Miguel said. “It took almost four months to get me back to normal.”

He and Athrun stood on a catwalk in Morgenroete’s main hangar. In front of them were a pair of mobile suits, Athrun’s ZGMF-X09A Justice, and Miguel’s new machine, one of the first production ZGMF-600 GuAIZ units. GuAIZs were normally green, but Miguel’s was orange, matching the color scheme of his old GINN.

“Don’t worry about it,” Athrun said. “I’m glad to see you anyway.”

Miguel smiled, then looked over to another part of the hangar. The twins stood talking with Alex, about their mobile suits. Yzak’s cousin had an unusually animated look on his angular face. “Nice to see your buddy made it.”

“Yeah.” Athrun grinned and waved at his friend. “Same for Alex; I know Yzak was hurting, fighting him like that.”

Miguel chuckled. “I saw his last tournament, just before the Bloody Valentine. You don’t want to pick a fight with that guy.” He shook his head. “Who’d have thought Mister Emotionless would fall for a princess?”

“Don’t let her hear you say that” Athrun said, then sobered. “So, what’s this I hear about a new operation?”

Miguel shrugged. “Troy’s got the details on it; all I know is we’re attacking Panama.”

Athrun nodded. He had expected as much.

“Athrun.” Miguel laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry about your father. I don’t know what happened…”

“I do,” Athrun said softly. “He lost his mind after Mom died. He… he can’t tell a bad Natural from a good one; he just wants them all dead.” He sighed. “He’s not really my father anymore, Miguel.”

Miguel nodded, not speaking.

“So, you have any plans?” the redcoat asked, changing the subject.

The older man returned his gaze to the GuAIZ. “I’ll be sparring with Commander La Flaga later today,” he said. “He was good in a mobile armor -he actually gave me a good fight at Nova- and I want to see how he does in a mobile suit.”

Athrun grunted. “You won’t be disappointed, Miguel. I saw him in action in Alaska, and believe me, there aren’t many who could take him.”

Miguel grinned. “I expected no less from the Hawk of Endymion.”

Alex gazed up at the three mobile suits, his fearsome Stormbird, Cagalli’s golden Akatsuki, and Kira’s majestic Freedom. Amazing how machines originally intended for heavy industrial work proved so devastating in combat. Though few were aware of it, the original GINN design had been used for orbital mining operations.

“Chief Simmons says they’ve almost finished the mobile turret system for the Akatsuki,” Kira said. “A few Eurasian engineers are helping with some last-minute modifications.”

Cagalli nodded. “I heard it’s based on the light-wave barrier the Eurasians have at Artemis. Sounds good.”

“And thanks to the AI Kira and Mu produced, you’ll be able to use it properly. Not as well as Kira or I could, but it will still be a major advantage,” Alex put in. He checked his watch. “If you will excuse me, I need to get back to the Valkyrie. Lia needs me for something or other.”

The princess gave him a quick kiss. “See you later.”

Kira hid a smile. And to think she thought he was a spy.

“So how are you doing?”

Kira blinked. “Huh?”

Cagalli shook her head. “Kira, we both saw what happened at Alaska, and I know you well enough to know how you must have felt about it.”

He closed his eyes, seeing again the horrific devastation at Alaska, hearing again the chopped-off screams of people caught in the blast. The thought of what must have happened to those people made him shudder; he knew as well as anyone the effect a microwave bombardment had on the human body. And unlike Endymion Crater, there was no doubt that Alaska was deliberate.

“I… seeing what happened there, it made me so angry.” Kira shook his head. “I hate having to fight, but what the Earth Forces did there, it just makes me sick. The way they used a Cyclops on their own people.” He sighed. “I was never in any real danger, not with the Freedom, but still. So many people died there. I can’t help thinking, if I’d done something different, maybe they’d still be alive.”

“And maybe you’d be dead,” Cagalli countered. “Kira, it’s not your fault that those people didn’t make it. It was the Earth Forces, and they’re the ones we’re fighting against.”

Kira nodded reluctantly. He still seemed troubled, though.

There is always something, Cagalli thought. “What is it?” she asked gently.

He looked away. “I’m…I’m not sure what I am anymore,” he whispered. “I thought I was just an average Coordinator, that there was nothing different about me. It’s been two months since I learned the truth…”

She squeezed his arm. “Kira, there’s nothing to worry about. What happened to you before you were born wasn’t your fault.” Cagalli nodded toward another catwalk, where Athrun and Miguel stood. “Athrun doesn’t care about it,” her voice firmed, “and neither does Flay.”

That last remark did the trick. Kira smiled and hugged her. “Thanks, Cagalli,” he said softly. “You’ve been a tremendous help, ever since Heliopolis.”

She returned the embrace. “Kira, you’re my brother; I always knew that subconsciously. I love you, and I do not want to see you hurt. You can always count on me.”

“I know.”

They turned to lighter matters then, life since they were separated, anything but their origins or the state of the war. For a few minutes, at least, they were not a princess and an ace pilot, but just siblings, unconcerned by the outside world.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Yzak Joule unceremoniously plunked down on his cousin’s bunk. “Man, what a disaster.”

“You can say that again,” Lia Ramius agreed. “This is even worse than your old CO’s decision to use D-package weaponry at Heliopolis; at least that didn’t kill anyone.”

Alex nodded agreement, recalling the sight of a town going up in flames. “I never thought even the Atlantic Federation would have gone so far as to incinerate their own allies like that.”

“Incinerate is right,” Lia said, grimacing. “According to the reports I have seen, Eurasia has been pretty well shattered. They no longer have an effective military force at this point.”

“The Atlantic Federation has always been the major power player in the Earth Alliance,” Yzak observed. “Aside from their mass drivers –both of which are now in our hands- the South African Union and the Republic of East Asia haven’t really been factors.”

Alex sighed. “I had a message direct from the Council when we got back to Orb. It seems that the Kingdom of Scandinavia and the Equatorial Union have been ‘persuaded,'” the word dripped sarcasm, “to join the Alliance. On top of that, Uzumi’s official announcement of Orb’s support for the PLANTs was received with outrage by the Atlantic Federation.”

Yzak laughed harshly. “Tough. Orb understood something clearly at last, thanks to Lacus and Commander Waltfeld. I hear the attack on Panama is going to stage from Onogoro.”

Alex reached into a desk drawer and withdrew a hardcopy document. “Here’s the Atlantic Federation’s official response; I was present when Lord Uzumi received it.” He cleared his throat and began to read aloud. ” ‘By giving political and military support to the criminals on the so-called PLANT Supreme Council and its terror organization, the so-called Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty, the Orb Union has abandoned its inherent responsibilities as a nation of Earth. Considering this, the Earth Alliance demands the following concessions from the Orb Union. First, an immediate renunciation of its alliance with ZAFT and the PLANTs. Second, the resignation of the Orb Union’s current government. Third, the disarmament and subsequent demobilization of its armed forces.'”

Yzak rolled his eyes. “I’ll bet Uzumi blew his stack when he got that one.”

“That, Yzak, is an understatement of breathtaking proportions,” Alex said. “He turned bright red, crumpled his copy in his hand, and hurled it into a trash bin. When he had calmed sufficiently to speak coherently, he started out by cursing the Atlantic Federation in particularly vile terms.” He chuckled at the memory. “Cagalli told me afterward that she’d never seen him that mad.”

Lia snorted, running a hand through her brown hair. “I can believe it. Lord Uzumi’s always struck me as an urbane sort; it probably takes a lot to make him lose his temper.”

Yzak nodded, then looked at the photo above Alex’s bunk. It brought back a lot of memories, most of them happy, but at the same time it was bittersweet. Klaus and Elena Strassmeier would never walk the streets of the Homeland again, and no matter how many Earth Forces soldiers were killed, it would not bring them back. Yzak understood that whatever his hotheaded exterior might suggest; he fought to ensure that no one else suffered his aunt and uncle’s fate.

He looked at his cousin. There were still shadows of grief in Alex’s blue eyes, and Yzak believed there always would be. Such a wound never completely healed, even when the perpetrators were brought to justice. Like Yzak, Alex had devoted himself to ZAFT both for revenge and to make sure no one else suffered the way he had.

Still, he was looking better than he had when he had left the PLANTs. Since he had gotten involved in the war, Alex had fulfilled his dream of becoming a ZAFT Elite, he had found his sister (or rather, his sister had found him), and he had managed to win the heart of a certain tomboy princess. Yzak could not help grinning at that.

“So how are things back home?” Alex asked suddenly.

Yzak shrugged. “Cassandra’s doing fine, even if she can’t talk. Mom’s been busy; she dropped by Carpentaria just before Operation Spit Break was launched, fact-finding mission. The Earth Forces haven’t gotten anywhere near the Homeland since they hit Jachin last year.”

Alex waved a hand dismissively. “Their only significant space presence these days is Ptolemaeus Base on the Moon; Artemis isn’t worth anything, and all they have besides that are a couple of space stations at L1.”

“Yeah.” Yzak sat up. “Athrun said there was a bit of an uproar after Heliopolis, Orb building mobile suits for the Earth Forces and all that.”

Alex snorted. “I’ll bet that’s died down now that Orb’s an ally.”

“No kidding. Mom says Mu La Flaga’s defection had people dancing in the streets.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised. If any Natural is genuinely famous in the PLANTs, it’s Mu.” Alex sipped from a coffee mug. “You gonna watch Mu duke it out with Miguel?”

Yzak grinned. “No way I’m gonna miss that one.”

“Then let us get moving. We can make it if we hurry.”

Morgenroete testing grounds

Mu grunted as the GuAIZ’s beam claws slammed into his shield. He forced it back, then drew back to lash out with his saber. His opponent jumped back out of range. The two machines stood motionless for a moment, then charged, claws locking with saber. After another moment of straining, they sprang apart once more.

He sure has not lost his touch, Mu thought. This is even tougher than Nova. Of course, we are not trying to kill each other here.

Miguel lunged again, but this time Mu was ready for him. The Strike sidestepped and brought its saber around, the point of the glowing weapon stopping a bare meter from the GuAIZ’s monoeye sensor. Miguel, conceding the point, slowly backed away. Then his beam rifle abruptly snapped up, spitting brilliant yet harmless green darts.

Most splashed against the Strike’s shield, but one struck the optics, temporarily blinding Mu. The GuAIZ pressed its attack, claws slashing is a cross pattern. Mu, recovering his sight, swung his saber in an infinity loop, keeping Miguel just barely off him. Their weapons locked for a third time…

“Man, I knew La Flaga was good, but not that good,” Dearka commented, watching the Strike with frank admiration.

The black-haired young woman next to him shrugged. “I’ve always thought our advantages over the Naturals were overstated,” Andrea Strassmeier said. “This is just more proof.”

Dearka nodded. His contempt for Naturals had been thoroughly burned out of him by his association with the Archangel’s crew. Tolle Koenig and Miriallia Haw, Kira’s closest friends from the Heliopolis gang, had taken a particular interest in him. He felt humbled, a new experience for him. He had tried to kill them several times.

“You hear Doctor Lockwood is looking for a way to give Naturals Coordinator abilities?”

Dearka looked at her in surprise. “Is that even possible? I mean, all the standard treatments have to be administered way before birth.”

Andrea laughed. “Dearka, a long time ago people said we’d never be able to fly, and now look. Millions of people live in space, and the number is increasing every day.”

“Got a point there,” the Buster’s pilot admitted. He turned slightly, making sure to keep her in view. Something about Andrea had caught his attention from the first. It helped that she was attractive (downright gorgeous, in Dearka’s opinion), but there was something more. Dearka was not sure what it was, but it was there.

Andrea hid a smile. She had an innovative idea what he was thinking; like Cagalli, Dearka Elsman was not particularly good at concealing his feelings. As it happened, her brother’s teasing after their run-in with that Earth Forces task force in the Marshall Islands had been right on the money. She had more than a passing interest in the former Le Creuset team pilot.

“Anyway,” she said, stepping closer, “I’ve never cared about someone’s genes. Besides, it was the Naturals who created us in the first place.”

Dearka nodded, watching the match conclude. To no one’s surprise, it had ended in a draw. “I’ve learned my lesson.” He hesitated before turning back to her. “Say, Alex told me about a restaurant in the capital…”

She grinned. “Are you asking me out?”

“Uh, yeah.” He still was not sure what to make of this girl.

The grin broadened. “Sure.” As if I would ever refuse…

Not far away, Nicol Amalfi sat at a computer terminal, tweaking the Blitz’s OS. Unlike most of his teammates, he had always had a respect for what Naturals could do, so the outcome of the day’s match had not surprised him. Even though his scores had earned him the red uniform, and later one of the Gundam units, he did not consider himself superior, either to the Naturals or the majority of his ZAFT comrades.

We might be physically superior, with better immune systems and the like, but those advantages only go so far. The G-weapons were designed by Naturals.

“I hope I’m not bothering you.”

Nicol turned. A redhead in Morgenroete uniform stood a few meters away. He recognized her but did not remember her name. “You’re one of the M1 test pilots, aren’t you?”

She nodded. “I’m Mayura Labatt. You’ve seen my brother Max around.”

Nicol remembered the youngster, a boy with reddish-blonde hair with an odd habit of speaking of himself in the third person. “He pilots a custom Astray.”

“That’s right. He’s one of the few Naturals who doesn’t need a special OS, and he has spatial awareness rivaling Commander La Flaga.” Mayura reached past him and punched up a schematic of Max’s machine. It was mostly blue, with an unusual backpack. “This is the Integrated Weapons Striker Pack, or IWSP.”

Nicol studied it with interest. “Heavily armed,” he commented.

“Yep,” Mayura agreed. “Beam rifle, two 105mm cannons, two 115mm railguns, two katana-style anti-ship swords, a beam boomerang, and a shield-mounted Gatling gun inspired by the CGUE. It was originally intended for the Strike, but the power system turned out to be incompatible; even though it was built by Morgenroete, the Strike has a different energy battery.”

Nicol nodded. “What about the standard machines?”

“Our M1s have the same weapons as the Aile Strike, minus the Armor Schneider knives,” Mayura said. “Thanks to the backpack unit, we can fly in atmosphere, which gives us a major advantage.”

That was a major point. Out of all ZAFT’s Gundams, only the Stormbird, Scorpion, Specter, Dreadnought, and Justice were capable of atmospheric flight without a subflight unit like a Guul, and of its mass-produced units, only the AMF-101 DINN could manage it. Orb has three more flight capable Gundams, the Aile Strike, Freedom, and Akatsuki.

“So, when did you decide to join ZAFT?” Mayura asked suddenly.

Nicol blinked in surprise, then leaned back, recalling his feelings at the time. “It was just after I heard about Junius Seven. When the Earth Forces used nuclear weapons, even though the pilot did not know,” Mayura nodded at that; they’d both met Lieutenant Commander Harris, “it took everything to a whole new level. ” He shrugged. “I figured I should do my part and join the fight, so I enlisted.”

“I can see that.” Mayura smiled. “I’ve been fascinated by mobile suits since the first GINN was rolled out, so when I was offered a position as a test pilot, I jumped at the chance.”

“Yeah. They’re fun to pilot, even though I don’t really like to fight.” Nicol looked out at the Blitz. “Guys like Yzak and Dearka sometimes seem like they live to fight. Me, I fight because I have to, because it’s the only way to protect the Homeland.”

“I know what you mean. Lieutenant Yamato says the same thing.” Mayura took an empty chair. “So, you going to stay with ZAFT after the war?”

Nicol nodded. “There will always be a need for protectors, and since I’m really good at it -I’m not wearing this red uniform for nothing- I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Mayura nodded, then followed his gaze to the Blitz. She could not help noticing the contrast between machine and pilot; GAT-X207 Blitz was easily the most malevolent of the original five Gundams. It looked positively sinister, which was one thing Nicol Amalfi was not. He was much like Kira: open, friendly, yet murderous towards any who would threaten his people or his home.

End of Part 2

Athha Residence, conference room, 17 May, C.E. 71

The conference room was far more crowded than usual. All the Archangel’s officers were present, along with every ZAFT Red currently in Orb. Lieutenant Commander Harris was there, as well as several ex-Eurasian officers who had survived the betrayal in Alaska. Colonel Kisaka was present, of course, and Admiral Halberton attended electronically from his flagship.

“I believe you all know the purpose of this meeting,” Uzumi said. He nodded at Troy Cadwallader. “Agent Cadwallader, if you would.”

Troy activated a wall screen. “This, as you all know, is Panama, site of the Porta Panama mass driver, the only such facility currently under the control of the Earth Alliance. It is the target of Operation Odin’s Lance.”

“That’s a pretty sizable target,” Mu commented. “Do we have the forces, after Alaska?”

“Yes and no, Commander,” Troy said. “Our mobile suit forces have been augmented now that Orb’s M1s have come online, but we still haven’t recovered from the Alaska fiasco. Much as we would like time to reconstitute our forces, we simply do not have that time. To regain the initiative, we must close the door to space, and trap the Alliance on Earth. Hence Odin’s Lance.”

Alex leaned forward in his chair. “If we are still understrength, why in blazes are we contemplating attacking Panama, of all places? That is the most heavily defended target they have right now, except maybe Heaven’s Base.”

Troy shrugged. “Like I said, we don’t have much choice.”

He changed the image. “As for how we intend to do it, here is our trump card, the Gungnir. It is an EMP weapon designed for taking out anything in its path. All our mass-produced units have enough shielding to avoid the effect, as do Gundams as a matter of course. The Earth Forces’ units are, of course, another story.”

Another image appeared, an orbital schematic. “The Gungnirs will be dropped from orbit by a force of Laurasia-class frigates, covered by Admiral Halberton’s flagship. Our job is to clear them a path.”

Athrun lifted an eyebrow. ” ‘Our’ job? You’re coming, too?”

The Aussie grinned. “Why do you think Chairman Clyne gave me the Dreadnought? With the new DRAGOON system, I’ll give those Earth Forces bastards something to think about.”

“So will I,” Cagalli put in. “They had to modify the Akatsuki more than expected, since a mobile turret system needs a nuclear engine to work properly, but that’s been taken care of.”

“I look forward to seeing it in action,” Troy said with a grin. He then sobered. “We might face an enemy machine with the same ability.” He mentioned a schematic of a truly evil-looking Gundam. “ZGMF-X13A Providence, stolen by the so-called ‘Neo ZAFT’ faction when they fled the PLANTs. Overall height: 18.16 meters at antenna. Weight: 90.68 tons. Armament: two MMI-GAU2 Picus 76mm CIWS, like the Freedom; MA-MV05A composite armed shield system, consisting of a beam saber and two beam cannons; MA-M221 Judicium beam rifle; and, of course, a DRAGOON system, eleven units for a total of forty-three separate emitters. Then there’s the most likely pilot.”

There was a long silence, broken by the Hawk of Endymion. “Rau Le Creuset,” he said darkly.

“That’s the most likely,” Troy agreed. “Given the number of Gundams at our disposal, it’s not likely he’ll be able to stop us, but fighting him won’t be fun.”

No kidding, Alex thought sourly.

“Well,” Uzumi said, “if there is nothing further, I believe we can adjourn.”

Kisaka stood. “Since we have officially announced our alliance with the PLANTs, there will be a series of events tomorrow.” He looked at the mobile suit pilots, assembled in a group. “I believe you know what that will include.”

Murrue followed his gaze. “What kind of event?”

Alex shrugged. “A parade.”

The meeting ended on that note.

Neo ZAFT Headquarters, Lagrange point Three, 18 May, C.E. 71

Patrick Zala was almost unrecognizable. That was Rau Le Creuset’s assessment, anyway. His once dark hair had turned iron gray, and there were always dark circles under his eyes. The man’s personality had also changed; even after the Bloody Valentine Zala had been upbeat, despite his grief. Now, though, a perpetual air of gloom hung around him.

Not that it had reduced his determination any.

“Those cursed Naturals,” he snarled. “They’ve infected the PLANTs, Clyne, and even my own son.”

Fool. “With all due respect, Your Excellency, Athrun isn’t really a surprise. According to him, Kira Yamato is a first-generation Coordinator. Because Athrun knows Yamato’s parents, it is to be expected that he would be less than sympathetic to our goals.”

Zala grunted. “Perhaps you’re right. In any case, we must stop them, and this Operation Odin’s Lance is the perfect opportunity.” He stood behind his desk. “You and Commander Bartlett are to take your teams and ambush them at Panama. Pay especially close attention to Yamato and ‘Commander’ Strassmeier; they are priority targets.” He shook his head in disgust. “How Ezalia Joule’s nephew could fall in love with an Orb princess is something I will never understand.”

Le Creuset saluted. “Understood, Your Excellency.”

“I’m assigning the new mobile suit to you, Commander,” Zala went on. “You are the only one who can use it to its full potential. Unfortunately, Commander Bartlett’s new machine is not ready yet, so he will have to make do with his CGUE.” He stared hard at the masked commander. “Don’t fail me, Le Creuset.”

Oh, I will not fail, “Your Excellency.” You will not like the results, though. “I understand, sir.”

Streets of Orb capital

As parades went, this one was the most bizarre in history. Most military parades involve a combination of armored vehicles and marching infantry, and while there was plenty of that, there was an added feature. Specifically, column after column of ZAFT and Orb mobile suits.

A team of ZuOOTs led the way, followed by Andrew Waltfeld’s custom LaGOWE and several BuCUEs. Then came the workhorse of ZAFT’s forces, the ZGMF-1017 GINN. Behind them were white ZGMF-515 CGUEs, and then ZMGF-600 GuAIZs, led by Miguel Aiman’s distinctive orange machine. Orb’s own MBF-M1 Astrays, with Asagi Caldwell, Juri Wu Nien, and Mayura Labatt in the lead, came next, while purple AMF-101 DINNs flew overhead.

Last in line were the various Gundams.

Deep in the cheering crowd, a thirteen-year-old Coordinator with black hair and red eyes stood with his parents and younger sister, staring in awe at the mobile suits. Even the tank-like ZuOOTs were impressive, but what really captivated him were the Gundams. Four of the Strassmeier teams units, Devastator, Scorpion, Shinobi, and Inferno. Yzak Joule’s Duel, looking like an armored knight. Dearka Elsman’s hulking Buster, bristling with weapons. Mu La Flaga’s Strike, in Aile mode for the parade. Nicol Amalfi’s sinister Blitz, demonic in the morning light. Tolle Koenig’s Aegis, its red armor glinting. Troy Cadwallder’s Dreadnought, practically screaming lethality. Andrea Strassmeier’s Specter, looking remarkably like an angel. Athrun Zala’s crimson Justice, tall and proud. And, especially, Alex Strassmeier’s menacing Stormbird, Cagalli Yula Athha’s golden Akatsuki, and Kira Yamato’s majestic Freedom.

“Shinn, look at them!” his sister piped up.

Shinn Asuka nodded mutely. This is amazing! He had heard about the alliance with the PLANTs, of course, but seeing what ZAFT had to offer was something else. He found himself wishing he were just a little older. The minimum age for enlisting in ZAFT was fifteen, so he had to wait another year and a half.

As soon as I am old enough, I am joining up.

The Gundams moved to flank a stage, where Chief Representative Uzumi Nara Athha waited. The pilots dismounted; none of them wore flight suits, as this was a ceremonial occasion. Instead, they were all in uniform, Mu, Kira, Cagalli, and Tolle in the silver-white of Orb, the rest in ZAFT Elite red.

Uzumi was making speech, but Shinn was not listening. He had eyes only for the Gundams and the red uniforms their pilots wore. In that moment, he knew where he wanted to be…

“Well, that was interesting,” Alex commented when it was over. “I’ve never liked parades, but this one was actually fun.”

Cagalli punched his shoulder. “You just liked being cheered.”

“I admit I acquired a taste for adulation during my tournament days,” Alex said. “That’s beside the point.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Alex smiled. “By the way, Happy Birthday, Cagalli.” Before she could respond, he pulled her close and kissed her.

Several moments later, she pulled back slightly. “Thanks,” she said simply. She rested her head on his shoulder.

He stroked her hair. “You’re welcome,” he whispered.

Author’s note: The author apologizes for taking so long; the author had a serious case of writer’s block. Credit goes to Storm Wolf77415 for breaking the jam, as well as suggesting the term “Neo ZAFT” to refer to Zala’s faction. Not exactly action-packed, but the next chapter should be different. The Battle of Panama, where Alex will have a very unpleasant experience.

Chapter 23: Spit Break

Valkyrie, hangar, 8 May, C.E. 71

Today’s the day, Kira thought, watching the little sub be lifted into the hangar. In just a couple of hours, Operation Spit Break will commence. He looked up at the mobile suits on either side of the cavernous room. Five of the Strassmeier team’s machines, plus his own Freedom, Cagalli’s Akatsuki, Mu’s Strike, Tolle’s Aegis, and Nicol’s Blitz, a positively frightening assembly of firepower.

His mind was not on those, however, as his sister was quick to note. “Looking forward to seeing Flay again?” she asked in a teasing voice.

He nodded but did not speak.

Cagalli rubbed a hand along his spine. She knew perfectly well that her brother was not afraid for his own life; nothing the Earth Forces had could touch the Freedom. No, Kira’s fears were for others, and especially for Flay Allster, the girl who had captured his heart the very day they met.

The sub’s hatch opened, and Mu, Natarle, and Flay climbed out. Flay immediately made a beeline for Kira, while her superiors approached Andrea Strassmeier.

“So, how’d it go?” Andrea asked.

Natarle snorted. “As expected, Captain Sutherland did his level best to blame all the problems we had on Kira.” He looked at the brown-haired Coordinator. “One could make a case, albeit a bad one, for your being responsible for the collapse of Heliopolis, after what you did to Commander Le Creuset’s CGUE. The rest, however, was utter nonsense.”

“They wanted to use Flay for propaganda,” Mu put in, rolling his eyes. “I was slated for an instructor’s slot in California. Don’t know where Natarle was headed.”

“They weren’t very specific,” Natarle said. “All I heard was that my in-depth experience with the Archangel would prove useful.”

Andrea’s eyes turned briefly as cold as her brother’s. “Sounds like they’re building another Archangel-class ship. That could be bad.”

The older woman winced; that thought had not occurred to her. It should have, though. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” she said, then smiled at another youngster in Orb uniform. “Are you ready, Ensign Koenig?”

Tolle Koenig grinned. “Yes, ma’am!” he said, saluting smartly. “The Aegis’s controls are close enough to an M1 that adapting wasn’t too hard. I had a little trouble with the transformation system, but Athrun helped me with that.”


“Very good,” Andrea agreed. She touched a concealed earpiece. “We just received a transmission from Commander Le Creuset’s flagship. Operation Spit Break commences in two hours.”

It was as if a cold breeze had blown through the hangar. Kira, one arm around Flay, looked up at the Freedom, know that soon he would fly the skies of battle once again. Mu was similarly intent on the Strike; to date, his only mobile suit experience had come from sparring with Kira.

Tolle, despite his confident exterior, was extremely nervous. He had flown in combat exactly twice, crashing the second time. Granted, it was deliberate, but it still was not exactly a confidence builder.

Do not worry about it, he told himself firmly. Kira and Athrun think you can do it, that is all that matters.

“Flay, our crew is a little messed up just now,” Andrea said. “Since Cagalli will be flying, could I ask you to take her bridge post for now?”

The redhead smiled. “Sure, no problem.”

“In addition to that,” the older girl added, turning to Natarle, “with Lia on the Archangel, I’d like you to take temporary command of the Valkyrie. I can’t think of anyone better qualified.”

Natarle saluted. “I would be honored.”

“Everyone else, mount up,” Andrea said. “When Alex gives the word, we launch.”

Cousteau, Bridge

“Signal from the Valkyrie, Commander,” a comm operator said. “Commanders La Flaga and Badgiruel, along with Crewman Allster, are aboard safely. Their mobile suits are being prepped for launch now.”

Rau Le Creuset nodded. “Excellent. Execute.”

“Alaska,” one of the three redcoats standing behind him murmured. “I never thought I’d be here.”

It was a pity, Rau thought, that Athrun was such an idealist. He had much to recommend him as an ally; superb piloting, exceeded only by his friend Kira Yamato, excellent marksmanship, an unusual trait in a pilot, and a cool, analytical mind. Unfortunately -from Rau’s perspective- he was also a fervent supporter of Siegel Clyne. Inevitable given his engagement to the man’s daughter, but still disappointing.

His companions would have served just as well, save for the fact that they lacked Athrun’s intellectual brilliance. They were, sadly, just as unfit; Yzak was firmly in his cousin Alex’s camp, and Dearka had developed an… interest in Strassmeier’s sister.

“The quickest way to slay the beast is to chop off its head,” Rau said, turning to regard his senior subordinate. “Think of it this way, Athrun; if we succeed here, the war will be that much shorter.”

Athrun nodded. “Even Kira admits that sometimes you have to kill a few so that many will live. And if those few happen to be Blue Cosmos fanatics, so much the better.” He grimaced; Alex’s covert report had included a transcript of the board of inquiry they had faced.

Rau snorted, knowing what Athrun was thinking. “I agree that what happened was absurd. As Commander Badgiruel pointed out, one could make a case for your friend being responsible for the collapse of Heliopolis considering what he did to my CGUE. As for the rest…” The masked man shook his head. “Feeble, even for them.”

The ship’s comm unit came alive with Patrick Zala’s voice, broadcast to all ships. “As we embark on this operation, it is my greatest hope that it will bring the war to a swift conclusion, inspiring the hope in us all that this will lead to true freedom and justice! Let Operation Spit Break now commence!”

Rau turned; he would be out there himself for this battle, piloting a custom DINN. What no one knew was that his goals were different from his comrades’, different even from Zala’s.

Even as he and the three redcoats marched to the submarine’s hangar, they could hear weapons fire outside. Operation Spit Break had begun.

Archangel, Bridge

The atmosphere on the bridge was both tense and somehow relaxed. Murrue and her crew had redonned Orb uniform, much to their relief, while Alex and Lia once again wore red and gray, respectively. Natarle, Flay, and Tolle were not there, of course, but Lia had temporarily taken Natarle’s place in CIC.

Murrue smiled grimly, thinking of the consternation that had to be erupting in the command center. They deserve a little chaos, after they slandered Kira like that. She knew that orders to launch would be coming soon, and while she was not looking forward to their next move, she had reluctantly concluded that Rau Le Creuset was right.

“Incoming message from the Joint Operations Room,” Romero Pal said.

Murrue nodded, then carefully arranged her face in a startled expression. “Captain Sutherland! What’s going on?”

“All defense forces are to launch at once. Commence interception!” Sutherland looked outraged. “They tricked us! At the last moment they switched their target here, to JOSHUA! If they-” He broke off, eyes widening in shock as Murrue’s uniform registered.

A shock that deepened when Alex stepped into view, resplendent in the red of a ZAFT Elite. “The joke’s on you, Sutherland you bastard,” he said, smiling like a shark. He touched a key on the unoccupied comm board. “Strassmeier team, launch!”

Murrue felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the look on Sutherland’s face. “You were had from the beginning, Captain. The Archangel ceased to be an Earth Forces unit the day we arrived at Orb, and that nation is now allied with the PLANTs. We no longer have any love for the Earth Alliance.”

Sutherland turned bright red, then, with an effort, calmed himself. “You won’t get away with this, Captain,” he said softly. “You will fall along with ZAFT.” He cut the circuit.

Murrue leaned back in her chair. “I’m almost surprised he didn’t drop dead of apoplexy,” she said, smiling at the ZAFT Elite.

Alex shrugged. “He’s too mean to die that easily, I’m afraid.” He turned. “I’d best get the Stormbird prepped. Fight your ship, Captain.”

Skies over Alaska

Despite his bone-deep hatred of warfare, Kira felt a fierce sense of exultation as he took to the sky in the ZGMF-X10A Freedom. As Athrun had said, he understood that sometimes a few had to die so that many could live, and if those few were Blue Cosmos, who hurt others because of genetic differences, so much the better. The more of them we take out, the better things will be.

A brilliant gold machine cruised at his left. “Let’s go, brother!” Cagalli said, beam rifle already spitting hard light at the Alliance formation.

Kira grinned, and the grin broadened when a red Gundam came up from the right. “Athrun, you ready?”

“Let’s go get them, Kira!” Athrun responded, then looked at another red machine, which was moving hesitantly. “You okay in there, Tolle?”

Tolle blasted an F-7D before replying. “I will be.”

“If you get a chance, use the Scylla on one of those warships.” Below them, the Archangel fired into the astonished Allied naval fleet. “It can take out a capital ship in one hit.”

“Roger that.”

Tolle was soon joined by the other four original Gundams, X102 Duel, X103 Buster, X105 Strike, and X207 Blitz. Alex’s friend Kyle Perry appeared in the formation a moment later; he had decided it would be best to combine his fire with the Buster’s.

Kira smiled at the sight, but the expression faded when he saw a white machine ahead. It was a DINN, white instead of the standard purple, and only one person could be flying it.

“Now,” Rau Le Creuset said, “the curtain has risen, and it’s time for the actors to show their talents!”

Kira stifled a sigh. He did not trust the masked man, but this was not the time. So, bringing up his targeting system, he locked onto a dozen fixed gun emplacements. He took a deep breath, let half of it out, and pulled the trigger.

The eruption of laser beams, plasma bolts, and railgun slugs came as a complete shock to a lot of his allies; Kira could only imagine the effect it was having on the Earth Forces. Every shot hit dead on, courtesy of the Freedom’s advanced multilocked system.

Cagalli and Athrun achieved comparable results, albeit not as spectacular. Cagalli picked off targets in a coldly precise manner reminiscent of her emotionless lover. Athrun, whose marksmanship had gained even Yzak’s admiration, shot down ten fighters in less than five seconds, not missing even once.

“No wonder you earned the red uniform,” Mu La Flaga commented, leveling his own rifle at an Earth Forces destroyer. Four shots later, it exploded.

A trio of DINNs followed in Mu’s wake, the pilots almost awed at fighting alongside the Hawk of Endymion. One took a hit from an enemy fighter, which he promptly blew out of the sky. His companions concentrated their fire on the enemy fleet below them.

Chris Madsen, as usual, spent his time torching everything in his way. He even repeated his tactic of setting fire to a carrier’s flight deck. “This isn’t shooting fish in a barrel; it’s dynamiting them in a fishbowl!”

Yzak Joule was inclined to agree. “These targets aren’t much of a challenge at all. Is this really all we have to shoot at?”

He soon got his answer, in the form of an Earth Forces tank scoring a hit on a BuCUE’s ankle joint.

“Can’t have that, now!” The Duel’s railgun went into rapid fire, destroying the offending tank and three of its fellows. A few others tried to retaliate, but then Andrew Waltfeld’s modified LaGOWE appeared.

Pathetic, the Tiger thought; the tanks had not lasted more than a few seconds.

“Say, Andy,” Aisha said. “Is it just me, or are all these guys Eurasian?”

He frowned. “It sure looks like it. Hey, Joule, you see anything up there that isn’t Eurasian?”

Yzak blinked at the query. “You know, I don’t think I do.” He gave the area a brief once-over. “The tanks are definitely a Eurasian design, and the fighters have Eurasian markings.” He looked at the Strike. “What about you, Commander?”

A missile salvo fell to the Strike’s CIWS. “I’m seeing the same thing you are, Yzak,” Mu said. “Something’s not right here; this is Atlantic Federation territory, and all the defenders are Eurasian.”

“We’ve always known the Alliance isn’t as solid as their high command would have us believe,” Alex put in, the Stormbird moving to flank the Duel. “I think we just might be witnessing a double-cross. It would explain all the submarine activity we saw when we got here.”

“Not to mention Sutherland’s reaction when he learned the truth,” Murrue added from her bridge.

“The answers almost certainly lie inside the base,” Alex said. “Mu, Kira, what say we go inside and see for ourselves.”

The Freedom immediately broke off its attack. “Roger that.”

“I’m with you,” Mu acknowledged.

Le Creuset had had the same idea. His white DINN had already disappeared through one of the smaller gates. Shaking his head, Alex followed the DINN inside.

Archangel, Bridge

“Target Gottfrieds on the destroyer to starboard,” Murrue said crisply. She waited a beat, then, “Fire!”

So far, the battle seemed to be going well. The ZAFT fleet had achieved complete surprise, and the defenders still had not become organized. Archangel’s sudden attack had compounded matters, hitting the Alliance ships from behind. Several had attempted to retaliate, but their attacks had glanced harmlessly off the Orb ship’s laminated armor.

Adding insult to injury were the three next-generation Gundams, Kira’s Freedom, Athrun’s Justice, and Cagalli’s Akatsuki. Kira especially had come as a nasty surprise; his multitargeting capabilities exceeded anything either side had done before.

“Message from Commander La Flaga, Captain,” Mir said. “He, Kira, and Alex are going to infiltrate JOSH-A.”

Murrue spun in her chair. “Infiltrate? Why?”

“According to Yzak, everything we’ve faced thus far has been Eurasian,” Mir replied. “Alex suspects a double-cross, so they’re going in to see for themselves.”

“I don’t know if it’s a double-cross, but Joule’s right about one thing,” Tonomura put in. “Every single ship, tank, and aircraft on my board is Eurasian; not one is from the Atlantic Federation. Not one.”

Murrue frowned. “It makes sense,” she said slowly. “We already know that the Alliance is effectively controlled by Blue Cosmos, and it would explain why Sutherland was so confident.”

An Alliance ship flashed across the Archangel’s bow before anyone could reply. It started to bring its guns to bear, only to have a bright red beam core through it amidships. The unmistakable shape of GAT-X303 Aegis hovered above the wreckage.

“Thanks, Tolle,” Murrue said, sighing with relief. “That was too close.”

“No problem, Captain.” The Aegis raised its rifle in salute, then flew off in search of more targets.

JOSH-A Base, interior

Alex settled his machine next to Le Creuset’s DINN and unstrapped, drawing his heirloom Luger as he did so. Popping the hatch, he grasped his zip line and lowered himself to the ground. Now for a few answers.

It occurred to him that he might well be playing into the Earth Forces’ hands. Sutherland had seemed disturbingly confident when he predicted their defeat, which caused Alex to wonder just what sort of trick the treacherous Earth Alliance might have up its collective sleeve, and if that made him a mere pawn at Alaska.

He shook himself. It does not matter.

“Is it just me, or are there a lot fewer people than there should be here?” Kira wondered, checking his pistol’s safety.

“Beats me, kid,” Mu replied, pulling the slide back on his own weapon. “Hard to tell from this far out.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Rau Le Creuset said, walking toward them. A ZAFT machine pistol hung from his right hip. “I suggest we proceed together for the moment. There’s no telling what sort of unpleasant surprises the Earth Forces will have for us.”

Though neither the two Orb officers nor his fellow ZAFT commander much liked him, his suggestion made sense. Alex took point; his enhanced eyesight made him better at spotting threats before they got too close. Mu followed him; he knew the layout of the base better than the others. Kira and Rau brought up the rear, the former looking extremely nervous.

“Odd,” Rau murmured as they moved cautiously through the darkened corridors. “One would expect more activity at the Alliance’s terrestrial headquarters, especially when they’re under attack by the Carpentaria fleet.”

“Not to mention all five G-weapons, plus Alex’s people and the new ones ZAFT cooked up,” Mu agreed, forgetting for a moment his dislike of the other. “I’m thinking Alex is right about a double-cross.”

Alex tuned them out, straining eyes and ears both for any sign of the enemy. Footsteps, but they are too far away to matter. Other than that, nothing. With each step, he was convinced that the Atlantic Federation was up to something.

He stopped dead in his tracks when it hit him. “It’s a trap,” he said.

His companions stared at him. “What do you mean, Alex?” Kira asked

“Think about it,” the other said. “Everything we’ve faced here has been Eurasian. You know as well as I do that the Earth Alliance is nowhere near as united as they would have ZAFT, or the neutrals believe. This is a case of the Atlantic Federation getting rid of both a good-sized chunk of ZAFT and some of their troublesome ‘allies,’ along with the ‘traitorous’ Archangel.”

Mu swore viciously. “That could be it.”

“The clincher was Sutherland’s message to Murrue,” Alex continued. “He wasn’t in the Joint Operations Room; he was on the bridge of an Alliance submarine.”

“Which means we’re probably not going to find anyone except some stray Eurasians,” Kira said grimly. “How are they going to pull this off?”

“We’ll most likely find out when we reach the command center,” Rau said.

They arrived moments later. Kira and Mu assumed positions at the two doors, while Alex and Rau moved to a computer terminal. One of the screens showed a tactical schematic of the battle outside; two more displayed nothing but alarm messages. The third, however…

“Well, that explains that” Rau said quietly.

Alex muttered a German obscenity under his breath. “This is even worse than I’d imagined. If something like that goes off here…”

“Everything within ten kilometers will be reduced to a blasted wasteland,” Rau finished.

“Hey, what’s got you all worked up?” Mu called.

Alex cursed again. “Do the words ‘Cyclops System’ mean anything to you?”

The Hawk was there in an instant, followed by Kira, and he went pale at what he saw. Even if it had not been clearly labeled, there was no mistaking the honeycomb formation of discs on the screen. Dozens of disc-shaped microwave generators. It was a Cyclops all right.

Mu swore viscously. “Are they really planning on using it here? It’ll make Endymion look tiny!”

“For once, Mu, we are in complete agreement,” Rau said, though he wished he had made the discovery alone. It would have furthered his own plans quite nicely…

“We need to get out of here right now!” Mu said. “Even the Archangel wouldn’t be able to survive that.”

An instant later, they were off and running again, Alex pausing long enough to shoot an unfortunate Eurasian who blundered into them. He only hoped they would make it in time; the Cyclops was obviously set for remote activation, rather than a timer. If the Alliance brass chose the wrong moment…

“We should warn the Eurasians, too,” Kira said as they reached their machines. “They were betrayed by people they trusted, and besides, it could get us some more allies.”

“No argument from me, kid,” Mu said, grabbing his zip line. “Even Chairman Zala wouldn’t pull a stunt like this.”

Four mobile suits, three Gundams and a DINN, took to the sky once more. With the touch of a button, the situation had changed dramatically for the worse.

Open sky

Cagalli blasted yet another fighter, trying not to worry about what was happening inside JOSH-A. Two of the three people most important to her had gone inside half an hour earlier, and there had not been any word from them.

“Worried about your boyfriend?”

She blinked, then glared at the blood red CGUE to her left. “What’s it to you, Bartlett?” she demanded; one of the few things that annoyed her about the new alliance was being on the same side as Alex’s old rival.

On her screen, Bartlett shrugged. “There’s no cause for concern, milady,” he said. “You’re aware of my opinion of him, but don’t go thinking I don’t respect his ability. Strassmeier is not going to be taken out by anything the Earth Forces have in there; he is too good for that. I should know.”

“Yeah, you should know, because he beat you every time,” Cagalli snapped. Pushing the obnoxious ZAFT officer out of her mind, she lined up on a formation of tanks, carefully allocating shots. One was more than enough to dispose of such vehicles.

Yzak had taken Kira’s place at her right, explaining that Alex would never forgive him if he let something happen to Cagalli. She had been tempted to snap something about not needing protection, especially with the Akatsuki, but had restrained herself. Yzak was extremely protective of his family, and he had decided to include Cagalli, even though nothing had been formalized.

An F-7D blazed past, pursued by a white mobile suit. The Alliance pilot might have had a more agile machine, but he stood no chance against Andrea Strassmeier. It was over in a matter of seconds.

Athrun Zala was going after the ships directly. Connecting his sabers together in a staff-like weapon, he sliced several open near the waterline, then followed up with a blast from his Fortis beam cannons. He was soon joined by Nicol Amalfi, his closest friend in ZAFT. A series of green flashes erupted from the Trikeros, stitching the length of a cruiser’s hull.

This is too easy, the princess thought, vaporizing yet another fighter.

“You know, I’m starting to think Alex is right about a double-cross,” Yzak commented. “Something’s just not right here.”

Cagalli started to reply but stopped when four blips appeared on her scope. That is a DINN, Strike, Stormbird, Freedom, they are okay! “Alex and the others are returning.”

“I see them,” Yzak acknowledged. “Wonder what they found.”

Whatever it was, it clearly was not good, judging the machines were moving. The next transmission confirmed it. “Attention, all ZAFT and Earth Alliance forces!” Kira called; the fact that he was speaking to the Eurasians as well spoke volumes in and of itself. “The Alliance high command planted a Cyclops under the base; it could go off at any time! Please, withdraw from this area immediately!”

Cagalli froze, shocked by her brother’s words. A Cyclops? Those bastards

The ZAFT fleet, of course, followed his request with alacrity. Rau’s subsequent confirmation was unnecessary; word of Kira’s friendship with Athrun Zala, one of their most famous pilots, had percolated through the fleet soon after the Archangel’s desertion had been announced. With that kind of endorsement, they were inclined to take him at his word.

The response from the Eurasians was decidedly mixed. Some of them dismissed Kira’s warning as a clumsy attempt at deception, while others sensibly recalled that Alaska was Atlantic Federation territory, and their own nation was not exactly on the best of terms with them, the formal alliance aside.

In the end, one carrier, two battleships, four cruisers, and eight destroyers got the message and began pulling away from JOSH-A. The ZAFT submarines, after a stern warning from one Commander Strassmeier, let them through. Truth be told, he did not need to have bothered; after such events as the Copernicus bombing and Junius Seven, most ZAFT soldiers were instinctively sympathetic to victims of treachery, especially Atlantic Federation treachery.

The rest of the Allied fleet was not so sanguine, and the ZAFT mobile suits, led by Athrun Zala, found themselves in the uniquely bizarre position of defending Earth Forces warships against attack by Earth Forces warships.

Kira had not been so scared since Heliopolis, and even that had not been as intense. At least he had been in control of his own destiny at Heliopolis once he had taken over the Strike. This was far different; with a Cyclops involved, even the Freedom’s defenses would be less than useless.

“I never thought I’d face a Cyclops again,” Mu muttered. “After Endymion…”

“I understand the official story is that the ice-melting system went out of control,” Rau said. “How likely is that?”

Mu snorted derisively. “You were there, Commander. Do you really think the timing was a coincidence?”

“To be honest, no.” Rau paused to blast a fighter that was preparing to strafe one of the escaping warships. “In point of fact, I don’t believe it was intended for melting ice in the first place, for the simple reason that there was so little ice there to melt.”

Alex unlimbered his plasma cannon, blowing a hole in an enemy cruiser. “You’re saying Endymion was a trap as well.”

“Most likely.”

They broke formation then, Rau returning to the Cousteau. Kira and Mu covered a group of retreating ZuOOTs, while Alex boosted higher, scanning for any additional threats. He did not really think he would find anything, but he would not put anything past the Atlantic Federation at that point.

Blast, it is taking too long, Kira thought. That worried him more than any personal danger; some of the ground machines were painfully slow, especially the ZuOOTs. The BuCUEs and Waltfeld’s LaGOWE were safe enough; they were the most maneuverable land-based mobile suits.

Someone on the ground agreed. The ZuOOTs ground to a halt, and a BuCUE stopped by each one long enough to pick up the pilot. BuCUEs were not meant to carry passengers, but one each was not much of a problem under the circumstances, and there were more than enough BuCUEs.

“Kira, are you all, right?” Flay called frantically.

He managed a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine, Flay. The Freedom is more than fast enough to get me out in time; it’s the ZuOOTs that I’m worried about.”

Flay nodded, relaxing just a little. “I understand.” She glanced at something off-screen. “Cagalli’s back onboard, so she’s safe.”

“Increased radiation detected inside JOSH-A!” Jackie Tonomura suddenly called out. “Estimate five minutes until detonation!”

“All units, go to flank speed!” Murrue snapped an instant later. “Redline your drives if you have to, just get out of here!”

Kira knew he could not wait any longer. A bitter taste in his mouth, he shifted the Freedom into HiMAT mode and went to full throttle.

According to many of the survivors, it was as if the earth itself had erupted. The Cyclops, as Rau Le Creuset had so aptly put it, reduced everything within ten kilometers of ground zero to a blasted wasteland. Within that area were all too many ZAFT and Eurasian soldiers…and a small town, which had provided the civilian support for JOSH-A.

The survivors of the ZAFT fleet swore revenge on the Earth Forces for the cowardly action. They were joined by the Eurasians who had believed Kira’s message and pulled out in time; Cagalli Yula Athha, as the senior Orb officer present, accepted their enlistments in the Orb forces on a provisional basis.

Mu La Flaga, one of only two members of the attacking force to have seen a Cyclops before, practically blew up when he landed. Murrue was finally able to calm him down after he had ranted for about ten minutes.

The other Gundam pilots stood apart, silently watching the conflagration. “I knew the Atlantic Federation was capable of anything at Spit Break, when they betrayed their own allies,” the youngest of them, Nicol Amalfi, said after the war.

The three who had suffered the most because of the Alliance, Athrun Zala and the Strassmeier’s, agreed.

Archangel, briefing room

Murrue sighed wearily, scrubbing her hands over her face. “Do we have any casualty figures?”

“I’m afraid so,” Natarle said unhappily. She checked her board. “Out of all forces engaged, we lost fifty percent, including ninety percent of those who penetrated the base interior. Of fifty-five submarines, fifteen were sunk outright, ten were so severely damaged that they had to be scuttled, and all the rest sustained light to moderate damage.”

“What about the mobile suits?” Murrue asked, afraid to hear the answer yet knowing she had to know.

Natarle sighed. “Severe: eleven GOOhNs, nine ZnOs, forty DINNs, sixteen GINNs, more than a dozen CGUEs, six BuCUEs, and every single ZuOOT. Fortunately, most of the ZuOOT pilots were evacuated by the BuCUEs before the Cyclops went off.”

“That’s something, at least.”

“Those bastards!” Yzak snarled. He hammed his fist on the table. “They used their own allies as bait, then blew them up! And all those civilians…!”

Alex sighed. “Judging by what I was able to see from the air, the town had a population between seven and eight thousand. I…do not believe there were any survivors.” He closed his eyes, more anguished than he cared to admit. While he had not been at Endymion, he knew perfectly well the effect of a microwave bombardment on the human body.

Cagalli squeezed his hand. “Don’t blame yourself, Alex.”

“I know.” Alex smiled at her briefly, then turned to Murrue. “Any word on Le Creuset or Bartlett?”

She shook her head. “Nothing.”

He cursed under his breath. Rau Le Creuset and Daniel Bartlett had vanished within hours of the Cyclops going off, and nothing had been heard from them since. Nicol, always ready to give anyone (except Blue Cosmos) the benefit of the doubt, had suggested it was a simple mix-up. Alex, who knew Bartlett better than anyone save the man’s mother, disagreed. He believed something more sinister was in the offing. Mu, Le Creuset’s longtime adversary, felt the same.

“I don’t get it,” Dearka said, shaking his head. “Why would Commander Le Creuset just up and vanish? Bartlett I can understand; that guy’s nuts.”

“Your CO’s just as nuts, Dearka,” Mu said. “I fought him at Endymion, and he actually spoke to me during the battle.”

Athrun sat up sharply. “What did he say, sir?” he asked; he had had more close contact with Le Creuset than his teammates had.

Mu frowned; this had been puzzling him for a year. “He asked if I was the one who was ‘calling’ him. Then he asked my name. I told him, he started laughing. I asked what was so funny; he said it was the irony of fate. I never could figure out what he meant.”

Flashback, Endymion Crater

“Cain! Russell! Anyone! Do you read me?” Was everyone wiped out? On both sides?

“Mu La Flaga, do you read me?”

“What? Who is that?”

“You and I shall meet another day. I look forward to that occasion with great anticipation.”

“Wait! Who are you?”

“My name is Rau Le Creuset. You would do well to remember it.”

End flashback

Murrue noticed Athrun looking thoughtful. “What is it, Athrun?”

The Justice’s pilot shook himself. “You’ve all met Commander Le Creuset in person now. What you do not know is that he never appears in public without that mask. Even in the PLANTs the only people who’ve seen him without it are my father and whoever his personal physician is.”

“I know he had it on the few times I met him back home,” Alex agreed.

“I think,” Natarle said quietly, “that there is more to Le Creuset than any of us ever suspected.” She shook her head. “In any case, what happened today was an unmitigated disaster; the only reason it wasn’t even worse was the discovery of the Cyclops before those Earth Forces bastards could set it off.”

Heads nodded around the table. Shockwaves from the failure of Spit Break were bound to be felt throughout the world. The Earth Forces would certainly be burning for revenge, not knowing that they were betrayed by their own high command. ZAFT, by contrast, knew precisely who the culprits were, and they were bound to be even angrier.

The PLANTs are bound to be in chaos once they hear about this, Alex thought. Operation Spit Break was Zala’s bid to end the war in one fell swoop. Instead, it failed miserably, so the war will go on.

December Four, PLANTs, 10 May, C.E. 71

Alex had been righter than he could have imagined. The failure of Spit Break, which everyone in the PLANTs had expected to be a crushing victory, struck the Coordinator homeland like a hammer. In the ensuing uproar, Siegel Clyne and his allies made their move. Patrick Zala, finding his position untenable, had been forced to flee, unfortunately taking something like half of ZAFT’s remaining strength with him. His last words before departure were a vow to exterminate the Naturals.

Now, Siegel Clyne stood in a ZAFT hangar, gazing at a giant mobile suit. Originally built as a prototype for the Justice and the Freedom, now they had no choice but to press it into active service. Not only was it highly likely that ZAFT would soon be facing Earth Forces mobile suits, but Zala’s people had stolen at least one other new machine, two.

“The situation is grave,” Siegel said, turning to the young redcoat at his side. “With Patrick gone, and half of ZAFT with him, it is all too likely that we will find ourselves amid a three-cornered war. Orb’s joining our cause will alleviate that to a certain extent, but that only goes so far.”

“Which is where I come in,” the blonde youth said.

Siegel nodded. “I want you to join our forces assembling at Orb. They already have a number of G-units, as you probably know, but it would be unwise to take chances.”

“I understand, sir,” the youngster said, saluting. “I won’t fail.”

This is it; the redcoat thought an hour later. There is no turning back.

“Radiation levels stable,” a voice said in his ear. “Cable disconnect from YMF-X000A confirmed. Clear for launch.”

“Troy Cadwallader,” the Oceanian said, “Dreadnought launching!”

YMF-X000A Dreadnought leapt into space, its destination, Earth.