Chapter 30: The Goddess of the Moon

Inexorable, bridge, 6 July, C.E. 71

“Captain, we have something.”

Captain Jose Luis Rodriguez Miguel Emmanuel Enrique Lopez Sandoval (who cursed his parents thrice daily for inflicting such an excruciatingly long name on him), sat upright in his command chair. “What is it?” he asked, his voice carrying a faint but definite Spanish accent.

“We’re picking up a faint heat signature, sir,” the tac officer said. “It’s on the estimated course for the Earth Forces fleet.”

Sandoval nodded. “Report to Commander Strassmeier and continue tracking.”

“Yes, sir.”

The captain leaned back, rubbing his black mustache as he thought. Jose Sandoval had been tapped to command the Inexorable even before construction began. His record as a ship commander, first a Laurasia-class frigate, followed by the first Nazca-class destroyer, was excellent. He had hoped to get an independent command, but to his disappointment he and his ship had been assigned to the Strassmeier team.

Sandoval’s disappointment had not lasted long. Though no pilot, he appreciated the importance of mobile suits, and he had been impressed by his new commander’s raw skill. Strassmeier’s mania for efficiency (and “mania” was precisely the right word, Sandoval reflected with a barely suppressed grin) had been obvious from the start, yet his team was almost completely free of spit-and-polish.

“Captain, Commander Strassmeier acknowledges the report,” the comm officer said. “He says Admiral Halberton will be setting up a teleconference in an hour or so.”

“Understood,” Sandoval said. “Anything else?”

The comm officer concentrated on his earpiece. “There are hints of unusual activity in the ruins of Heliopolis. The Thunderbird is sending three Astray Strikes to investigate, and the Archangel is dispatching the Blitz.”

Sandoval nodded slowly. “Very well.” He turned to the tac officer. “Launch the GuAIZ team as a screen.”

This is strange, he thought, frowning at the screen. What could the Earth Forces want with Heliopolis? There is nothing there anymore but debris. He knew that he was not going to like the answer.

Ruins of Heliopolis

Nicol shook his head at the sight before him. Never thought I would see this place again. He vividly recalled obtaining his Gundam in this very place, almost six months before. Though he enjoyed piloting the sinister machine, it was not his fondest memory.

His board beeped at him. “Three M1As,” he said in surprise. “What are long-range Astrays doing way out here?” He keyed his comm. “Asagi, Juri, Mayura, I’ve got three M1As. Any idea what they’d be doing here?”

“Not a clue,” Mayura said. “You can bet they’re Sahaku’s, though.”

“Maybe they’re looking for something left over from the Astray project,” Asagi suggested. “I heard Gai Murakumo was supposed to destroy the factories, but his employer betrayed him, so he abandoned the mission.”

“There’s more coming,” Juri put in. “Three Strike Daggers –the basic model- and a GAT-X133 Sword Calamity.”

Nicol muttered a curse. He vividly recalled the last time he fought a mobile suit with an anti-ship sword. Battling Kira’s Sword Strike had been bad enough; the Sword Calamity had two swords to the Strike’s one. On the plus side, it was highly unlikely that this guy could match Kira’s skill.

“I’ll take the Sword Calamity,” he said at last. “You girls get the Daggers out of the way first, then take the Astrays. Don’t attack before I do.”

“Roger that,” they said in unison.

Nicol activated his Mirage Colloid. No sense letting them spot me. Carefully, using a minimum of thruster power, he boosted forward, coming to rest on one of the larger chunks of debris. Raising his Trikeros, he took aim at the Sword Calamity, waited a heartbeat, and squeezed the trigger.

He missed.

Nicol swore under his breath as the Earth Forces machines scattered. “So much for that. Take them!” Shutting down his stealth system, he charged the Sword Calamity, firing as he came. Unfortunately, the X133 proved significantly more maneuverable than its long-range predecessor and dodged without much effort.

“Is that the best you can do, space monster?” an unfamiliar voice asked mockingly.

Nicol did not waste his time replying. If he makes you mad, then he is already halfway to winning. He juked to the left, firing a blast that splashed on his opponent’s shield. The Earth Forces pilot responded by hurling one of his beam boomerangs.

“I didn’t even feel that!” he yelled.

“Then maybe you’ll feel this!” Mayura shouted, bringing her own blade down and cutting off the Sword Calamity’s right arm.

“And this too!” Asagi’s beam saber speared through the back of the enemy’s head. “Do it, Juri!” The two M1Ss pulled away; Nicol, realizing something nasty was about to happen, did the same…

Just as Juri Wu Nien’s hyper-impulse cannon blasted directly through the Sword Calamity’s cockpit.

Nicol looked around, realizing that the Daggers and M1As were already scrap. “That was quick.”

“I took care of the Daggers,” Mayura said, swinging her Schwert Gewehr for emphasis. “Asagi handled the Astrays.”

“They were too easy,” Asagi said. “I don’t think they were ready for an M1S.”

Nicol nodded. Asagi was using an Aile pack, Juri a Launcher, and Mayura a Sword. “The Astray Strike is still a top-secret design, and since we got them all it’s unlikely that the Earth Forces know about it yet.” He turned. “Let’s get back to the Fleet.”

“Roger!” three voices said.

Valkyrie, bridge

Alex grimaced. “So, you have no idea what they were up to.”

Murrue shook her head. “Nicol and the Astrays were able to completely destroy them, but we have no idea as to their objective.”

“Maybe not their objective, but there’s only one logical destination for the fleet we were sent after,” Fredrik Ades put in.

Blank stares all around. L3 was so unimportant that nothing of significance had happened there before Rau Le Creuset’s attack on Heliopolis. After that brief spasm, the whole area had gone quiet again, aside from the occasional skirmish.

Natarle got it first. “Artemis.”

“Artemis!?” Lia said incredulously. “Why would they bother with Artemis?”

“I have to agree with Lia,” Alex said. “Artemis has no strategic value, which means its light-wave barrier is pointless, and the CO is a political admiral who was promoted to his level of incompetence.”

Natarle shrugged. “I agree that it’s ridiculous on the face of it, but there’s nowhere else for that fleet to go.”

“Precisely,” Ades said. “Besides, we’re not the only ones the Earth Forces have to worry about. They may well be planning to use Artemis as a staging area for operations against Neo ZAFT.”

“That makes sense,” Admiral Halberton agreed. “Ultimately, Patrick Zala’s thugs are more of a threat than we are.” He smiled humorlessly. “After all, we’re not planning wholesale genocide.”

Alex gave a slow nod. Patrick Zala had openly declared his intention to exterminate the Naturals, whereas Siegel Clyne and the Orb/ZAFT alliance merely desired to free their homelands. It was obvious which faction was the greater threat to Earth.

“In any case, we need to decide what to do about this,” Waltfeld said. “Any ideas?”

Alex pushed out of his chair, moving to the tabletop display on the Valkyrie’s bridge. He mentioned a map of the area, trying to refresh his memory. The Umbrella is only open when enemies are in range. If we can catch them at the right point.

He looked back at the main viewer. “I have an idea, but we’ll need to get the Archangel’s pilots in on it.”

Murrue nodded. “Just a moment.”

When Kira and the others linked up (Alex silently blessed the multiply redundant comm system), Alex began to lay out his plan. “What we need to do is catch the Alliance fleet at a point where the Umbrella can’t be activated.”

“That’ll be tricky,” Athrun said. “The timing has to be exact.”

Alex nodded. “Agreed. It would be best if we hit them when the lead units are entering the harbor. That way they probably will not be able to counterattack effectively, but at the same time the Umbrella can’t be activated.”

“There’s still Sahaku,” Nicol pointed out. “I can’t see him actually going inside.”

“Leave that bastard to me,” Cagalli growled. “He’ll pay for what he’s done to Orb.”

Alex cleared his throat. “Anyway. If we can hit them at precisely the right moment, they will be trapped. We can then mop them up at our leisure.”

Of course, all knew that it was unlikely to be quite that easy. Murphy’s Law, if nothing else, was sure to complicate things. Still, it had a good chance of success.

“Sneaky,” Dearka commented. “Kinda like a spider’s web.”

“He’s not wearing that uniform for nothing, Dearka,” Yzak said.

Alex suppressed a chuckle at his cousin’s obvious partisanship. That’s Yzak for you. He looked at Admiral Halberton. “Does this plan meet with your approval, sir?” he asked.

Halberton nodded. “It sounds like our best bet, Commander. And I second Mister Elsman’s description, by the way; it does sound like a spiderweb.”

“If you say so.” Alex shrugged.

“That will be all, then,” Halberton said. “We should be in attack position sometime tomorrow.” He cut the circuit.

Alex moved for the hatch. “I’ll be in my quarters, Lia. Call me if anything happens.”


Artemis, Admiral Garcia’s office

Finally, someone actually realized that Artemis can be of use. Gerard Garcia shook his head. Took them long enough.

Ever since the Le Creuset team had attacked back in January (an attack Garcia himself had barely survived), Artemis had been even more neglected. Aside from the Umbrella, they had only token defenses; the ships that had not been destroyed by the Buster and the Blitz had pulled out.

Garcia slammed a fist into his desk. If only that Coordinator –Yamato if he recalled correctly- had cooperated. With complete data on the Strike, Eurasia would have been in a better position to influence Alliance policy. That would have been good both for Eurasia and for Garcia personally.

The comm unit on his desk beeped. He pressed a switch. “This is the Admiral.”

“Sir, the commander of the fleet is asking to speak with you,” the base XO said. “Should I put him on?”

Garcia nodded. “Yes, please.”

To his surprise, the fleet commander did not wear the uniform of the Atlantic Federation. Rather, the dark-haired, crimson-eyed man wore a long black cloak over a suit of some kind. His face was arranged in what he evidently believed to be a friendly expression, but there was no disguising the haughtiness.

Garcia frowned. An Orb aristocrat. “This is Rear Admiral Gerard Garcia,” he said. “You’re the commander of our reinforcements?”

The Orb noble gave him a slightly condescending smile. “Correct, Admiral. My name is Rondo Ghina Sahaku.”

Garcia kept his face still, but inwardly he grimaced. Sahaku was a stereotypical aristocrat, convinced of the superiority of his own birth, and filled with contempt for “commoners”. On the plus side, he understood military realities, and he was certainly no coward.

“I expect we will arrive at noon tomorrow,” Sahaku continued. “Is that acceptable?”

Garcia forced himself to smile pleasantly. “Certainly, Lord Sahaku. The Umbrella will protect us in the meantime.”

“Excellent.” Sahaku gave him an approving nod. “You’re probably surprised that so many ships are being deployed to a place like Artemis.”

“I have been wondering,” Garcia admitted. “We’ve been considered a backwater since the war began, and we’re not exactly convenient to the PLANTs.”

Sahaku nodded again. “It’s quite simple, Admiral. While you are correct that Artemis has little use when it comes to attacking the PLANTs, it is an ideal staging area for operations against the so-called ‘Neo ZAFT’ organization.”

That made sense. Earth Forces Intelligence still had not been able to pinpoint Patrick Zala’s base; all that was known for certain was that was nowhere near the PLANTs.

“I understand,” Garcia said at last. “Neo ZAFT is clearly the greater threat; say what you will about Clyne, he’s not trying to blow up the whole planet.”

“Exactly,” Sahaku agreed. “Even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t, Clyne wouldn’t dare turn against the Orb exiles.” He snorted. “Particularly since Uzumi’s daughter is engaged to Ezalia Joule’s nephew.”

Garcia rolled his eyes. “I heard the announcement. What was Uzumi thinking, anyway? He has enough problems without having his daughter marry a Coordinator.”

Sahaku laughed. “It certainly upset the Seirans. Yuna has long fancied Lady Cagalli for himself, while his father merely hates the idea of a closer relationship with the PLANTs.” He shook his head. “In any case, our arrival may well prove to be a double-edged sword. Artemis will have improved defenses, but at the same time the mere fact that we’re reinforcing you will make you a target.”

“Let them come,” Garcia said. “Like I said, we still have the Umbrella.”

“Very well.” The image winked out.

Garcia turned to gaze out at Artemis’s harbor. He had, to be sure, overestimated the Umbrella once before, but now that they knew the Blitz’s capabilities, they could compensate. This time, Gerard Garcia intended to come out on top.

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Artemis, Kira thought. I never thought I would see it again. More to the point, he had hoped he would never see it again. He had bad memories of Artemis Base, and of Rear Admiral Gerard Garcia in particular. He was the first Earth Alliance officer whom Kira had actually hated.

“But you are already a traitor to your fellow Coordinators, are you not? The fact that you’re a Coordinator siding with the Earth Forces makes you unbelievably valuable.”

Those words had depressed him, until Alex and Cagalli had reminded him that he did not owe anyone loyalty simply because their genes were similar to his. Kira’s loyalty belonged to the people he could trust, be they Natural or Coordinator.


He turned, smiling. “Hi, Flay.”

She sat beside him on his bunk. “Now what are you looking so depressed about?”

Kira wrapped an arm around her waist. “I never thought I’d see Artemis again,” he said quietly. “I didn’t exactly enjoy our last visit.”

Flay winced; Kira had gone through that because she had blurted out that he was a Coordinator. “I’m sorry, Kira. I shouldn’t have-“

Kira cut her off with a quick, firm kiss. “Flay, don’t worry about it. You were scared, and it probably would have happened anyway.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “Thank you.”

“What really bothered me was when Garcia called me a traitor to my fellow Coordinators,” Kira said. “That really hurt, since I’d just been fighting Athrun, and had to fight Nicol on the way out.”

“But that’s past you,” Flay reminded him. “Athrun and Nicol are both right here on the Archangel, so you don’t have to fight them anymore.”

“Yeah.” Kira tightened his grip, just a little. “Yeah, you’re right.”

She looked up, smiling. “Just one thing, Kira.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“When we hit Artemis, see if you can make that bastard Garcia squirm.”

Kira laughed, the image of Gerard Garcia standing transfixed by the Freedom’s beam rifle flashing through his mind. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Good.” Flay sat up and kissed him long and hard.

It was an odd place for a fleet action. Artemis had long been considered a backwater by both sides; its Umbrella shield a complete waste. Gerard Garcia was generally thought of as an incompetent, and as such had been banished to the middle of nowhere.

“Many in ZAFT were already calling Commander Strassmeier the next Rau Le Creuset,” Vesalius captain Fredrik Ades said after the war. “Artemis proved them right.”

Artemis nearspace, 7 July, C.E. 71

The huge Earth Forces fleet seemed incongruous next to Artemis Base. Until very recently, Artemis had lacked any strategic value; now, it was abruptly bustling with activity. A seemingly endless swarm of mobile suits accompanied three Agamemnon-class battleships and scores of lesser vessels.

Then one of the mobile suits blew up.

Alex smiled like a shark, watching his DRAGOON system reduce a GAT-01D1 Duel Dagger to molten slag. Two more Duel Daggers tried to avenge their partner, but he blew them away with single shots.

“You bastards are just copies!” Yzak Joule shouted, firing all his ranged weaponry. “No Dagger can beat the original!”

Surprise was effectively total. The Earth Forces began scrambling their machines, but it took precious minutes. In the meantime, the First Fleet’s mobile suits had a field day; two Nelson-class ships exploded under fire from the Buster and the Aegis.

Alex turned his attention to a pair of Buster Daggers. Though they were better at close range than Dearka’s machine, thanks to their beam sabers, they still were not much of a threat to the Anubis. “Try this,” he said softly, snapping his sabers together.

They saw him coming, not that it did them any good. A handful of hasty gun-launcher shots bounced harmlessly off the Anubis’s PSA, and then Alex was in range. Two saber slashes later, they exploded. A stab impaled an irate Strike Dagger that charged a second later.

The battle seems to be going well thus far, he thought. Not that he was foolish enough to think it was already over.

He jerked back abruptly as an enemy M1 flashed past. A red mobile suit chased it, spitting laser fire from a rifle. Both of the M1’s arms evaporated, along with its head.

“Sorry, but I had no choice,” Athrun Zala said. A swift kick sent the M1 in the direction of the Kusanagi, where the pilot would be given a chance to mend his ways.

Alex shook his head. Normally, he did not believe in using disabling attacks unless he wanted to capture his opponent, but he made an exception for Orb forces. He had a certain amount of sympathy for soldiers who had been betrayed by their leaders.

Speaking of which… Alex spun, blocking a laser blast from one of Sahaku’s M1As. He deployed his DRAGOON system, destroying the Astray’s limbs and head.

“I’d suggest another line of work,” he told the hapless pilot.

Archangel, bridge

“Twenty degrees to starboard,” Murrue snapped. “Watch out for debris.”

“Aim Valiants at the nearest Drake,” Randall Tucker said crisply. “Fire!”

So far, the battle had been mostly between mobile suits. The Archangel had only just entered the maximum range of its own weapons.

Murrue looked over her shoulder at Flay. “Give me an open channel to the Izumo and its mobile suits.”

Flay touched a key on her board. “You’re on, Captain.”

“This is Captain Murrue Ramius of the mobile assault ship Archangel,” Murrue said. “Though you are almost certainly unaware of it, your leader, Rondo Ghina Sahaku, is guilty of treason. The Earth Alliance is little more than a front for the terror organization Blue Cosmos, and Sahaku knows it, yet he continues to work with them.”

“Captain, we’re receiving a transmission from the Izumo,” Flay said. “It’s on a secure channel.”

Murrue frowned. What does Sahaku want? “Put him on.”

Rondo was smiling mockingly. “Quite an eloquent speech, Captain,” he said, managing to sound both condescending and genuinely impressed. “It was a waste of time, however. Both the Izumo’s crew and our mobile suit pilots are very loyal to me.”

“So why bother calling us?” Murrue asked, eyes narrow.

The renegade Orb noble shrugged. “Call it curiosity. I must admit, I did not expect someone like you to want to give my people a chance. You’re so very loyal to Uzumi, after all.”

“It’s because of that loyalty that I’m giving your people a chance,” Murrue shot back. Without waiting for an answer, she slashed her hand. Flay, recognizing the gesture, cut the transmission.

Sai shook his head. “What’s with that guy, anyway?”

“I’ve heard he wants to rule the world,” Tonomura said, never looking away from his displays.

“No wonder Cagalli doesn’t like him,” Mir said. “Talk about ego.”

Artemis nearspace

Nicol pulled the trigger, sending emerald darts into a 105 Dagger. What is with these guys, anyway? He started to shift to another target, but something slammed into him before he could make a move. “What the!?”

A winged mobile suit, blue in color, hung in space a few meters away. Despite the assorted color scheme, and the lack of certain weapons, it bore an uncanny resemblance to a Gundam that had first seen action at Orb.

GAT-X333 Raider Full Spec, Nicol thought, recalling an Intelligence briefing. A mass-produced version of the Raider. Like the Daggers, it is inferior to the Gundam it is based on, but it is still fast. No energy weapons, though.

He raised the Trikeros, fired, and missed when the X333 dodged. Cursing under his breath, Nicol tried to correct his aim, but the Raider Full Spec was not making it easy. Nicol ignored the machine gun blasts his opponent sent at him, knowing that they were useless against PSA.

The Orb pilot, apparently realizing that his attacks were ineffective, opted for a ramming attack. Nicol tensed, knowing that he could be in trouble. There were three ways to damage Phase-shift armor: Energy weapons, superdense melee weapons/projectiles, and weapons that had PSA, like the Blitz’s Gleipnir. The X333’s pilot, lacking both energy weapons and a spherical breaker, had opted for the third method.

Of course, such an attack would only work if the target stood still, and Nicol had no intention of doing so. At the last instant, he flung the Blitz to one side, launching the Gleipnir at the same time. The piercer lock impacted on the X333’s left side, smashing a wing off. When it began to spin, Nicol triggered a blast from his rifle, drilling the Raider Full Spec’s cockpit. The Orb machine seemed to hang in space for a moment, then exploded.

Mu La Flaga was having the time of his life. For quite possibly the first time, his side actually had a clear advantage, and he was making the most of it. The Strike was equipped with a variation of the Gunbarrel pack, based on data from the Moebius Zero. It did not have the overwhelming firepower of the Anubis’s DRAGOON system, but it was more than enough to take out any Earth Forces mobile suit.

“How could the Hawk of Endymion betray us!?” a Dagger pilot yelled incredulously.

Mu’s rifle flashed, coring through the unfortunate Dagger. “I’m not fighting for scum like you anymore,” he growled.

“You traitor!” Five more Daggers appeared, all of them 105s.

Mu shook his head sadly. “Stubborn bastards.” He fired twice, taking out one Dagger; the second shot missed. The second Dagger returned fire, but the beams splashed on the Strike’s shield. Mu’s next shot connected.

Two down, three to go. Mu drew a saber, bisecting the next Dagger. His gunbarrels disposed of the fourth, and a precisely aimed rifle blast eliminated the last one.

“You’re not getting past me,” he said, watching yet more Daggers approach.

Izumo, bridge

“Lord Sahaku, our mobile suit forces are in disarray,” the Izumo’s captain said. “ZAFT and the Athha loyalists are inflicting heavy losses.”

“I see.” Rondo stroked his chin. “What of Artemis?”

The captain touched his board. “They can’t activate the Umbrella with our fleet in this position,” he said.

“It would seem, then, that I will have to teach these commoners a lesson myself.” Rondo stood, pressing an intercom switch. “Prepare the AMATU for launch.”

“Yes, sir.”

Artemis nearspace

The Freedom’s weapons erupted, unleashing a storm of beams and heavy projectiles. Scores of Daggers and M1s were disabled in a heartbeat; even now, Kira made a point of avoiding deadly force when possible.

Then a red mobile suit, startlingly similar to the Calamity, appeared ahead of him. “Ah, so you’re Kira Yamato,” the pilot said. “They call me Ed the Ripper.”

Kira winced. “Kind of a disturbing name.”

“Yeah, I don’t much like it either; it makes me sound so vicious,” Edward Harrelson said. His machine, a GAT-X133 Sword Calamity, raised both blades. “Nothing personal, Yamato, but I can’t let you go any farther.”

Kira sighed. “I guess I don’t have a choice.”

The ensuing engagement was short, and decidedly frustrating for Ed the Ripper. His initial attack, a blast from his Scylla energy cannon, missed completely. Realizing that he would have to get in close to do any considerable damage, Harrelson hit his thrusters, trying to close the distance.

Kira, however, had no intention of allowing that, and with the Freedom’s superior mobility he had the advantage. Keeping out of the Sword Calamity’s reach was child’s play; Harrelson threw both beam boomerangs, only to have them shot down by the Freedom’s rifle. Two additional shots destroyed both swords –and the hands that gripped them- and a double railgun shot reduced the Scylla to slag.

“Please, just back off,” Kira pleaded. “I don’t want to kill you.”

Harrelson grimaced. The lightning-like attack had rendered his Sword Calamity helpless. “I guess you’ve won,” he said. The admission was ungrudging; Edward Harrelson, a native of South America, was not exactly the most loyal Earth Forces pilot.

Kira watched him go, his feelings decidedly mixed. He had no regrets about his decision to fight the Earth Forces, but he could tell Ed the Ripper was not a typical Alliance officer, and he had hoped for a chance to convince him to leave the Alliance.

A green blast flashed past the Freedom’s head, snapping Kira back to reality. Seeing several Duel and 105 Daggers, he activated his multilock system. When the last Dagger entered his effective range, he opened fire, disabling all of them in a matter of seconds.

I am so sick of this, he thought. But I have no choice; there are some things you cannot protect without fighting.

Cagalli smirked as she blasted yet another Strike Dagger into flaming dust. “This is for Orb!”

She had made a point of not engaging any of the Izumo’s people; despite their loyalty to Sahaku, Cagalli could not bring herself to fight them. Fortunately, there were more than enough regular Alliance targets; she had already destroyed two Drake-class ships.

Then her proximity alarm went off, and she swore at her display. “That’s the AMATU!”

A laugh sounded over the comm. “Daughter of the Athha family. What can you do?”

Cagalli glared at the demonic Astray. “Rondo, I won’t let you have your way with Orb!” She snapped her rifle up and fired. “Take that!”

Sahaku caught the blast on his Trikeros. “Did you really think it would be that easy? I am no ordinary foe.” The AMATU vanished.

Cagalli snarled something vicious under her breath. “You can’t hide forever,” she muttered.

He did not intend to. Less than a minute later, the AMATU reappeared behind a GINN. The tip of a beam saber protruded from the ZAFT machine’s torso. “Ha, ha, ha!” Sahaku crowed. “The terror of AMATU, savor it as you die!”

“You bastard!” Cagalli put on a burst of speed, firing all the while.

Sahaku dodged and blocked. “Not enough, Lady Athha,” he said, smiling a superior smile.

“Don’t call me that!”

The AMATU met the Akatsuki’s charge, beam saber clashing against the Golden Gundam’s shield. “It’s actually a pity,” Sahaku said. “Despite your impulsiveness, you are very strong, and your fiancé has much to recommend him as an ally.”

“Alex would never join you!” Cagalli snarled. “He’s not like you!”

“True, sadly.” Rondo hurled a PSA-equipped spear, grazing the Akatsuki’s right shoulder. “His fanatical devotion to the PLANTs blinds him to reality.”

“What reality!?” Cagalli released a mobile turret long enough to destroy the spear. “We’re fighting for our people, not that you care!”

Sahaku laughed. “But I do care. I want what is best for Orb.”

“You want what’s best for yourself, you traitor!” Cagalli shot back. “And I won’t allow it!”

“There is nothing you can do to stop me,” Sahaku said. AMATU’s saber ignited once more.

For several minutes, the two machines clashed blades; Cagalli was unable to use the mobile turret system because the AMATU was too close. Though Cagalli was overall a better pilot, Sahaku was a far more difficult opponent than any she had faced before.

Sahaku yawned. “This is boring. I think I’ll kill you now.” Before Cagalli could react, the AMATU had grabbed her. “Miss Strassmeier was kind enough to design an energy-draining system for the AMATU,” he said conversationally. “I know I can’t force a nuclear-powered machine to shut down, but it will still hurt.”

Cagalli struggled furiously. “Rondo, you bastard!”

Behind her eyes, a gold seed burst.

Akatsuki’s thrusters flared, temporarily blinding the AMATU. Now free, Cagalli spun around, deploying her mobile turret system even as she mentioned her rifle. Her machine’s other handheld the double beam saber.

“So, there is more to you than meets the eye,” Sahaku said. “Like your brother, you possess the SEED.”

“That’s right,” Cagalli said icily. “And now you’re going to die!”

Rondo’s lip curled. “You think you can best me?” His voice dripped contempt. “Very well. Show me your dance.”

The Akatsuki’s mobile turrets spread out in an attempt to englobe the AMATU. Sahaku tried to shoot them down, but the AI system kept them moving in an intricate pattern, denying the renegade a solid targeting lock. He then activated his saber and charged, but the mobile turrets quickly surrounded the Akatsuki, encasing it safely in an energy shield.

“Enough! Down you go!” Cagalli drew her double beam saber. An upward slice removed the AMATU’s right arm; a follow-up attack destroyed the left. Then she reversed, preparing deliver the coup de grace. “It’s over, Rondo,” she snarled, and plunged the glowing weapon into the AMATU’s cockpit.

Rondo Ghina Sahaku died instantly.

“Don’t let him-” The Earth Forces pilot was cut off in mid word as Alex’s beam saber cut him in half. He then spun, leveling his rifle at the bridge section of a Nelson-class warship, and fired a single shot.

These guys are pathetic, he thought, unleashing his DRAGOONs on another Dagger. “Or not,” he amended as a familiar sensation filled his head. “Only one person that could be.”

As he had expected, a Gunbarrel 105 Dagger was visible nearby. “You wanna see tough?” Morgan Chevalier asked mockingly. “I’ll show you how a soldier really fights!”

Alex sighed. “You again.” He recalled his DRAGOONs. “I suggest you back off, Lieutenant,” he said. “Your 105 Dagger is no match for the Anubis, even with a Gunbarrel pack.”

“We’ll see about that, kid!” Chevalier’s gunbarrels spiraled out, spitting laser fire.

The Coordinator shook his head. “You have guts, I’ll grant you that. It won’t be enough, though.”

It was the first time two machines with remote weapons clashed. Alex had the advantage, with his Anubis Gundam and greater experience with mobile suits in general. Nevertheless, Chevalier was far from a normal opponent, as he was putting up quite a fight.

Alex muttered a German curse when Chevalier fired, narrowly missing the Anubis’s head. He deployed his DRAGOONs in an attempt to surround the Eurasian, who unfortunately proved impossible to corner. None of his units were destroyed, but the Mad Dog came away without a scratch.

“You’re good,” Chevalier acknowledged, “but not good enough!” His gunbarrels opened up again, spraying the Anubis with emerald beams.

Alex swore again. His return fire took out one gunbarrel, but he was forced to dodge immediately after.

“Come on, can’t you do better than that with that fancy suit?” Chevalier taunted.

“I’m just getting warmed up, Mad Dog!” Grinning suddenly, Alex energized the Shirasaya beam sword hidden in his shield.

“Hmm, nice trick.” Chevalier stowed his rifle and drew both sabers, letting his gunbarrels keep the Anubis honest.

Alex snapped his own sabers together, holding them in the Anubis’s right hand while the left arm swung the Shirasaya. “En guarde, Mad Dog.”

Chevalier was hard put to keep up. His left saber kept the combined weapon at bay, while his right clashed with the shield weapon. That went on for several minutes, until Alex’s saber staff hooked Chevalier’s left-hand saber and sent it flying into the ether. An instant later, the Shirasaya cut off the Dagger’s right hand.

“It’s not over yet!” Holding his rifle somewhat awkwardly, Chevalier resumed firing.

“No more games.” With the Dagger already maimed, Alex was able to use his DRAGOONs to maximum effect. A rapid succession of beams took out the rifle and all three remaining gunbarrels. “You lose, Mad Dog.”

Chevalier sighed in resignation. “Finish it.”

“I think not.” Alex grabbed what was left of the Dagger. “you’ll be coming with us. Perhaps you will see the error of your ways.”

Artemis control room

Rear Admiral Gerard Garcia stared in disbelief at the carnage outside. “How is that possible!?” he shook himself. “Get the Umbrella up, NOW!”

“Can’t, sir,” a tech said apologetically. “The Blitz destroyed too many emitters. It’s just like last time.”

Garcia swore sulphurously. “We have to do something! Our fleet is getting slaughtered! Prepare to-” He broke off, staring in shock at the huge shape just outside the viewport.

ZGMF-X10A Freedom loomed before them, beam rifle aimed directly at Garcia’s head. More than one person swallowed hard at the sight; Orb and ZAFT saw the Freedom as a sort of mechanized guardian angel, but to the Earth Forces it was evil incarnate.

“Admiral Garcia,” the pilot said. The admiral winced; he knew that voice. “This is Lieutenant Commander Kira Yamato, Orb Navy. Your defenses have been destroyed; the surviving Alliance ships are retreating.” His voice hardened. “Surrender, or I will have no choice but to open fire.”

Shaking uncontrollably, Garcia nonetheless managed a bit of bravado. “Just who do you think you are!?” he demanded, unable despite his best efforts to keep his voice from quavering. “You can’t just-“

“I haven’t forgotten what you did to me,” Kira cut him off coldly. “This is your only chance.”

Defeated, Garcia’s shoulders slumped. No choice. “Very well.”

Archangel, hangar

Murrue felt cold satisfaction as Garcia was escorted off his shuttle by two armed guards. It is about time. This is no more than he deserves, after what he did to Kira. In the corner of her eye, she saw Kira standing with Cagalli and Alex, who had come over from the Valkyrie. Alex was expressionless as usual, though there was a cold gleam in his eyes. The twins were much less restrained; both looked at Garcia with contempt.

The Eurasian admiral stopped in front of Murrue, pointedly not offering her a salute. “Captain Ramius,” he said tonelessly.

“I commend you for surrendering, Admiral,” she said. “it undoubtedly saved not only your life, but the lives of your people as well.”

Garcia glared at her. “Spare me, you traitor. If you had not betrayed the Alliance, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“If we hadn’t turned against the Alliance, the PLANTs may well have been destroyed by now,” Murrue countered, letting her own voice cool. “I for one have no intention of fighting for Blue Cosmos, Admiral.” She gestured for the guards to lead him away.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen you like that before, Murrue,” Alex murmured. “Not that I’m complaining; Garcia is a fool who deserves whatever he gets.”

Kira nodded. “Alex is right. Normally I do not like that sort of thing, but I know from experience what Garcia is capable of.”

Murrue squeezed his shoulder. “It was hard, I know.”

Kira smiled; he knew Murrue saw him as a little brother. He reciprocated the sentiment. “It’s thanks to my friends that I was able to get through it.” He nodded at his future brother-in-law. “And it’s thanks to Alex that we were able to pull this off.”

Alex merely shrugged.

With the loss of Artemis, Eurasia ceased to be a space power for the remainder of the war. Alex Strassmeier, who had masterminded the attack, became known as the Spider of Artemis. Among Orb and ZAFT, at least; the Earth Forces had a far more ominous nickname for him: Silver Death.

Chapter 29: Setting the Stage

Refugee center, Junius Three, 30 June, C.E. 71

Shinn Asuka snapped his suitcase closed. Unlike the majority of the Orb refugees, his family was going to be remaining in the PLANTs even after Orb was freed. That suited him simply fine; after watching that parade in Orb more than a month earlier, his dream was to join ZAFT the moment he was old enough.

To his relief, his parents had not objected at all. On the contrary, they were incredibly supportive, if understandably nervous. In the meantime, though, they were moving to Maius City, there to start a new life.

Shinn stepped out onto the street; his parents and younger sister had gone ahead of him. The station is east of here, he recalled, and set off.

He did not get extremely far. Around one corner, he came to a jarring halt, almost running into four uniformed youngsters. To his shock, Shinn found that he recognized three of them; Kira Yamato, pilot of the Freedom, Cagalli Yula Athha, daughter of Orb’s Chief Representative and pilot of the Akatsuki, and Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT’s newest star.

“Ah, sorry,” Shinn stammered. “I didn’t mean to-“

Alex held up a hand. “Don’t worry about it. You can hardly be blamed for almost colliding with someone around a blind corner.” He stooped and picked up the suitcase Shinn had dropped.

Shinn took it gratefully. “Um, thanks, Commander.”

The black-haired Gundam pilot smiled. “I see you know who I am, at least.”

“Yeah.” Shinn was still nervous. “I’ve seen all of you except her.” He nodded at a redhead in Orb uniform.

“At the parade in Orb, no doubt.” Alex waved at the girl. “This is Ensign Flay Allster, the Archangel’s communications officer.” Flay smiled at the young Coordinator. “So, what brings you out here?”

Shinn squared his shoulders. “We –my family- have decided to stay in the PLANTs even after Orb is freed,” he said. “I’m going to join ZAFT as soon as I’m old enough.”

“Indeed.” Alex gave him a considering look. “May I ask how old you are?”

“I’ll be fourteen in September,” Shinn said.

“I see.” Alex nodded slowly. “If you’d like, I’ll sponsor your entrance to the Academy.”

Shinn’s eyes went wide with shock. “C-Commander?”

“ZAFT needs all the people it can get,” Alex said. “Remember, the Earth Forces still outnumber us by something like a hundred to one.”

It took almost a minute for Shinn to get a coherent sentence out. “I…thank you, Commander.”

Alex smiled. “Don’t mention it, kid.”

Kira watched the crimson-eyed youth go on his way. Somehow, Shinn Asuka reminded him of himself, back at Heliopolis. Except that he is all fired up to do his part, while I wanted nothing to do with the war, Kira thought.

“Are you sure about sponsoring him, Alex?” Flay asked. “He’ll only be fifteen…”

“Flay, you were only fifteen when you enlisted with the Earth Forces, remember?” Alex countered mildly. “Then there’s Nicol, who’s about two weeks older than you are. Besides, Shinn’s a Coordinator. He’ll be fine.”

Flay nodded slowly. He has a point.

“For now, what say we get some lunch,” Alex said. “I know a high-quality restaurant near here.”

Evidently, they were not the only ones to have that idea. Before they had gone more than a few steps, they ran into Athrun and Lacus. A few steps after that, Dearka and Andrea turned up, followed by Yzak Joule and Shiho Hahnenfuss. Then, just for good measure, Nicol Amalfi appeared with M1 Astray pilot Mayura Labatt.

Fortunately, the restaurant in question had a sufficiently diverse menu to satisfy everyone’s tastes. Both Strassmeiers ordered seafood (of course). Cagalli munched on chili kebabs (secretly grateful that Andrew Waltfeld was not there to tease her about it).

“How can you eat something that spicy!?” Andrea asked in feigned exasperation. “I’m amazed you’re not breathing fire!”

Cagalli swallowed. “You’re one to talk, Andrea! I’ve seen the way you eat.”

“Just don’t get Mu started,” Kira said. “He agrees with Commander Waltfeld.”

His sister shot him a nasty look. “What, he prefers yogurt sauce?”

Alex and Yzak exchanged despairing glances. “Could you guys think of something more pointless to argue about?” Alex asked.

“Probably not,” Andrea said, completely unrepentant.

Her brother pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. “That’s what I thought.” He dipped a piece of lobster in sauce, then popped it in his mouth.

“See! Alex likes it that way, too!” Cagalli said triumphantly.

“He’s always been crazy,” Andrea responded with a dismissive wave of her hand.

Alex washed the lobster down with some milk. “Don’t bring me into this,” he warned, trying to stare them down. It was futile, and he knew it; Andrea had always been immune to his glare, and the only person who could stare Cagalli down was her own father.

Shiho, meanwhile, was looking at them in confusion. “Am I missing something?”

“Don’t worry about it, Housenka,” Yzak said. “Cagalli and Andrea are so much alike it’s scary.”

“Maybe that’s why Alex fell in love with her,” Andrea said with a grin.

Alex sputtered into his milk, prompting gales of laughter from the others. He mopped his napkin over the spill, muttering darkly in German all the while. I knew she could not let this go without tweaking me about it, he thought.

“Now, now, be nice,” Flay said once she stopped laughing.

“Fat chance of her ever being nice,” Dearka commented, earning himself an elbow in the ribs. “Ow!”

Yzak shook his head. “I warned you what she’s like, Dearka. Not my fault you didn’t listen.”

“Oh, shut up,” Dearka muttered.

Kira appeared to be focused on his lunch, but he was following things very closely. He found the whole thing highly amusing, bringing out a side of Alex that had not been visible at Heliopolis. He acted like a machine, but he is just as human as the rest of us, Kira thought with a carefully hidden grin.

Rondo Ghina Sahaku’s office, Ame-no-Mihashira

Sahaku smiled at the Earth Forces representative. “Thank you for your assistance, Commander,” he said. “I am sure this will prove very useful.”

The other smiled back. “We’re happy to be of service, Lord Sahaku, and grateful that you are willing to send Orb forces to help bring the fight to ZAFT.”

“Think nothing of it,” Sahaku said. “In point of fact, our people are in little danger. Fool though he may be, Uzumi Nara Athha cares deeply for Orb; in light of that, his ZAFT allies are unlikely to do more than disable our units.”

“That’s what we’re counting on,” the other replied. He drew himself up and saluted. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Sahaku shook his head. “What a fool,” he murmured. “Neither ZAFT nor the Earth Forces will be necessary in my ideal world.”

Thanks in part to the Earth Forces, he was well on his way to achieving that goal. The Alliance had provided him with several new mobile suits, including a GAT-X333 Raider Full Spec and a GAT-X133 Sword Calamity. Combined with Orb’s M1s and his own Gold Frame AMATU, they gave him a substantial military force.

Orb is only the first step. Once those Seiran vermin are out of the way –one of the few things I agree with Strassmeier on; pity he would never join me- I can begin to act more openly. Sahaku snorted. Those idiots actually think the Earth Alliance will allow them to do whatever they wish with Orb.

That was one mistake he would never make. He knew perfectly well that the Alliance was dominated by Blue Cosmos, which meant that he had to act very circumspectly. After all, Rondo Ghina Sahaku was himself a Coordinator.

Eventually, Blue Cosmos must be dealt with…permanently.

He pressed a key on his desk. “This is Sahaku. Prepare the Izumo for deployment within the week.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sahaku sat back. Soon, Athha. Very soon.

Vesalius, bridge, 1 July, C.E. 71

For Captain Fredrik Ades, things had taken a very strange turn since Operation Spit Break. Patrick Zala had fled the PLANTs, openly declaring his intention to exterminate the Naturals. At the same time, Rau Le Creuset, Ades’s own CO, had disappeared, resurfacing long enough to nearly kill Alex Strassmeier at Panama.

I never thought the Commander would turn traitor, Ades thought, then turned as his new commander stepped through the bridge hatch. “Commander Strassmeier, welcome aboard,” he said, saluting.

Strassmeier, his space-black hair making an odd contrast to the pristine white uniform he wore, returned the salute. “Thank you, Captain.” He clasped the older man’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you off the battlefield.”

Ades nodded, hiding his surprise. Strassmeier was more personable than he had heard. “Likewise, Commander,” he said.

Strassmeier’s cold blue gaze swept over the bridge. “I trust things are proceeding smoothly?”

“Yes, sir,” Ades replied, grateful for the change of subject. “Our mobile suit complement is at full, three each of GuAIZs and the new Astray Strikes. The last major battle we were involved in was the destruction of the Eighth Fleet, so the ship itself didn’t need much work.”

“Excellent.” Strassmeier nodded approvingly. “Alles in ordnung, Captain.”

Ades frowned. “Sir?”

“Oh, sorry.” Strassmeier looked briefly sheepish. “My father was German, and I’m afraid I occasionally forget which language I’m speaking. It means ‘all in order’.”

Ades gave a slow nod. That made sense; he had heard of Strassmeier’s mania for efficiency. According to Yzak, it was in his blood. German efficiency and all that. “I’m glad you approve, sir.”

Strassmeier smiled; the expression looked somehow out of place on his angular face. “No need to be surprised, Captain. The Vesalius has an impressive battle record, and I do not for an instant believe that it is solely due to Rau Le Creuset. You are to be commended on your skill.”

“Thank you, sir,” Ades said, feeling decidedly strange. The Commander was not at all what he had been told to expect.

“On to other matters.” Strassmeier brought up a general map of space. “I came aboard at this time because there have been some new developments of which I felt I should personally inform you. First, the Earth Forces are reinforcing their Ptolemaeus lunar base.”

Ades frowned. “That’s hardly a surprise, sir.”

“Perhaps not, but Committee Chairwoman Joule told me that there’s a major construction project there.” Strassmeier’s expression hardened. “Best guess is two, possibly three Archangel-class warships.”

The Vesalius’s captain winced. Having faced two such vessels before, he had no desire to repeat the experience. “That could be a problem.”

“It’s not the worst, either.” Strassmeier grimaced. “In addition to the various Dagger models, the three Gundams we faced at Orb are being transferred to space.” For a brief moment, he looked like he wanted to spit. “On top of that, Rondo Ghina Sahaku is up to something.”

“I’ve never understood his motives,” Ades said. “He’s a Coordinator, so why would he deal with the Earth Forces? For that matter, why would they deal with him?”

The younger man snorted. “To answer your second question first, it’s unlikely that they know he’s a Coordinator in the first place. As for the rest, I have long known that Sahaku has his own agenda. He’s undoubtedly using the Earth Forces for his own ends.”

“That would explain it,” Ades agreed.

“In any case, the First Fleet will be moving out in four days,” Strassmeier said. “I thought I should give you a heads-up.”

“Understood. And I appreciate it,” Ades said.

Strassmeier nodded. “All right, then, Captain. I’ll leave you to your duties.” He saluted, then pushed off for the hatch.

Zala residence, December Five

For the first time since the Bloody Valentine, Athrun’s home actually felt alive. With Kira’s parents, Kira himself, and the ever-lively Flay Allster staying there, it was almost like the war had never happened. As far as Athrun was concerned, that was a good thing.

“Thanks for coming, guys,” Athrun said quietly.

Kira grinned. “I should be saying ‘Thanks for inviting me’ or something like that.”

“Normally, yeah.” Athrun sighed. “But it’s different here. With my mother gone, and my father out of his mind…”

“I understand.” Kira gripped his friend’s shoulder.

Athrun managed a smile. “Thanks, Kira.”

“Athrun, you were always there for me back at Copernicus,” Kira said. “I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t help you with something like this.”

There was no doubt he meant what he said. Kira and his family had moved to Heliopolis in order to avoid the war entirely. Nevertheless, he had piloted the Earth Forces’ GAT-X105 Strike in order to protect people important to him. When Kira Yamato accepted someone as a friend, he was loyal to the end.

That attitude had caused Athrun some problems after Heliopolis, but they had only come into direct conflict three times, and neither had been shooting to kill.

“I appreciate it, Kira, believe me,” Athrun said. “You and Flay are welcome to stay here whenever you’re in the PLANTs.”

“That’s enough gloomy talk!” Flay said before Kira could respond. “We’re supposed to be relaxing here. I know we’re going to be leaving in a few days, but we shouldn’t be thinking about that now.”

Kira and Athrun both laughed. Somehow, it was hard to be depressed with Flay around. “All right,” Kira said, still laughing. “We’ll be good.”

Flay smiled. “Good.”

They moved to the living room, where they were joined by Lacus Clyne, as well as Kira’s parents. Haruma and Caridad Yamato had been delighted when Kira and Athrun reunited at Orb. Having met Athrun before, they knew that he was nothing like his father, and that he would back Kira no matter what.

Mindful of Flay’s desire to avoid discussing the war, they instead spoke of their plans for after the war. Flay and all three Yamatos intended to return to Orb. Kira was going to remain in the service, though he would likely go on extended leave.

Athrun, too, planned to remain a soldier. In the wake of the Bloody Valentine, he felt it was his duty to defend his people. As it happened, Lacus’s father had approaching him with an interesting proposal.

“It’s called FAITH,” he said, tucking an arm around his fiancée. “Fast-Acting Integrated Tactical Headquarters. He wants me to be the field commander.”

Flay leaned forward. “What’s it about?”

“It’s a sort of special operations unit, reporting directly to the Chairman,” Athrun explained. “Members will act outside the normal ZAFT chain of command.”

“Father thought Athrun would be best because he’s already a hero to our people, and he has the Justice,” Lacus said.

Athrun nodded. “I’ll be asking Nicol to serve as my exec; the Blitz would be useful for a unit like that.” He sipped from a glass of water. “I think Chairman Clyne is considering Alex for FAITH, as well.”

“It would fit him,” Kira said. “He’s always done well on his own.”

“No kidding,” Athrun said with an involuntary shiver. He clearly remembered being briefly scared by his first sight of the Valkyrie; the ship looked positively evil. “There’s a reason people are calling him the next Rau Le Creuset.”

Flay had a dreamy look in her eyes. “You know, he’s really handsome in that white uniform.”

“Hey!” Kira protested. “What am I then!?”

She smiled affectionately. “The one I love,” she said, eliciting a furious blush.

Athrun laughed. “Just be glad Cagalli didn’t hear you. She’s pretty possessive where Alex is concerned.” He smiled at the redhead. “So, you’ll be going to Orb?”

“Where Kira goes, I go,” Flay said firmly. “Everyone I really care about is with either Orb or ZAFT these days. With Daddy gone…”

Athrun flinched, looking away. “Flay, I’m sorry about-“

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened, Athrun,” Flay said. “You were doing your duty as a ZAFT soldier, and you couldn’t have known my father was on one of those ships.”

“And besides, you didn’t destroy the Montgomery,” Kira added.

The Justice’s pilot seemed to sag. “Thanks, both of you.”

Jachin Due defense perimeter

He is right on schedule, Chris Madsen thought, watching the Laurasia-class frigate slide into parking orbit. Such a vessel was of course a common sight near the space fortress Jachin Due, but this particular ship was rarely seen anywhere near the PLANTs, for it did not belong to ZAFT. The Cobra belonged to the mercenary organization known as Serpent Tail, the group to which Chris once belonged.

Two mobile suits launched from the frigate, one a customized ZGMF-1017 GINN, the other the MBF-P03 Astray Blue Frame, the Second G version if Chris saw it correctly. He keyed his comm. “Gai, Elijah, is that you?”

“It’s us,” Gai Murakumo confirmed. “Been a while, Chris.”

Chris smiled, goosing the Inferno forward. “Yeah, it has.”

“Is it true you’ve joined ZAFT?” Elijah Kiel asked.

“I’m sitting here in a heavily-armed Gundam and the Jachin forces aren’t shooting at me. What do you think?” Chris said mildly.

“We thought they might have hired you,” Gai said.

Chris shook his head. “I’m under Alex Strassmeier’s command, and he doesn’t operate that way. Oh, he will use mercenaries if he has to, but he does not really trust them. Nothing personal, he’s just wary of someone who’s loyalty is to his paycheck.”

“Can’t blame him,” Gai admitted. “Come on, we can chat aboard ship.”

Laurasia-class frigate Cobra, Gai Murakumo’s quarters

“…So, we ran into Alex’s sister outside Orb, and things went on from there,” Chris said, lounging back in his chair.

Gai, who wore the remains of an Atlantic Federation uniform, raised his eyebrows. “So why did you go so far as to join ZAFT?”

Chris was silent for a few moments. He had left Serpent Tail even before the Nova battle of the previous year, where Gai had confronted Mikhail Coast, barely escaping with his life. Most of that time had been spent helping his friend Alex at Heliopolis.

“Part of it was because Alex did,” he said at last. “Mostly, though, because it was the right thing to do.”

“So, you won’t be returning to Serpent Tail?” Elijah asked.

Chris shook his head. “It might sound crazy, but…I’ve found something to believe in.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about fighting Serpent Tail at this point,” Gai said. “Given their recent actions, I don’t think they’d hire us in the first place, and we wouldn’t accept if they tried.”

The younger man looked surprised. “I always thought you were pretty much for sale to the highest bidder.”

“Normally, you’re right,” Gai said. “But working for the Earth Forces isn’t very healthy right now.”

“True.” Chris shrugged. “Like I said, I’ve found something to believe in. And the PLANTs are my home; I am not letting those Blue Cosmos bastards win. Or Sahaku, for that matter.”

Gai nodded. “Speaking of Sahaku, that’s one reason we came. Erica Simmons –I’m sure you know her- asked for help getting out from under control.”

Chris tilted his head. “She’s not exactly rich. How much is she paying you?”

“Nothing,” Gai replied. He smiled at his friend’s expression. “Erica was a tremendous help when I was in Orb, Chris. I pay my debts.”

“Besides,” Elijah put in, “Rondo hates mercenaries, so it’s a matter of self-preservation.”

Chris snorted. “I’ve noticed.” He cocked an eyebrow. “So, what does this have to do with ZAFT?”

“More Orb, actually,” Gai said, “but ZAFT as well. Specifically, we’d like to see whatever information you have on Rondo Ghina Sahaku.”

Chris pursed his lips. “I’ll see what I can do. The Orb stuff should not be a problem; Lord Uzumi considers Rondo a traitor, after all. ZAFT might be a little trickier; a lot of people remember that you attacked the fleet at Nova, and of course there’s Miguel Aiman to consider.”

Gai nodded. Since he was the reason Miguel had been unable to use his custom GINN at Heliopolis, he understood very well. “We’ll take what we can get, Chris, don’t worry. I won’t ask you to compromise your loyalties.”

“Thanks.” Chris smiled gratefully. “I’ll talk to Alex about the ZAFT data; since his aunt chairs the Defense Committee, he might be able to do something.”

Gai clasped his hand. “I appreciate it, Chris. Say hello to Andrea for me.”

“You got it.”

Eternal, bridge, 2 July, C.E. 71

Andrew Waltfeld shook his head at the report. Apparently, the Earth Forces were sending a vast number of reinforcements into space, specific destination unknown. Three Agamemnon -class ships, an undetermined number of Nelson- and Drake-class vessels, along with numerous cargo ships and transports. Orb had only a limited involvement; Rondo Ghina Sahaku was going with the Izumo and his Gold Frame AMATU.

Bet Cagalli will be thrilled to hear that Waltfeld thought, sipping his coffee. She hates him almost as much as she hates Seiran. Hopefully, Alex will keep her under control.

“What’s up, Andy?”

He grinned at the woman standing next to his chair. “The Earth Forces are moving again. A whole bunch of ships are on their way.” He handed her the report.

Aisha scanned it. “No idea where they’re going?”

“All we can say for sure is they’re not heading for the moon,” Waltfeld said.

“It’s a tempting target,” Martin DaCosta, Waltfeld’s loyal protégé, put in. “You think Command will be sending us out?”

Waltfeld grunted. “I’ll bet they do, DaCosta. For one thing, we have a whole bunch of new machines to field test. Two warships, Eternal and Thunderbird, plus the Astray Strikes and Alex’s Anubis. Besides, if we can nail Sahaku, it’ll make retaking Orb that much easier.”

DaCosta nodded. Rondo Ghina Sahaku was easily the best pilot the “provisional government” had; killing him would weaken them both militarily and politically.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how Kira does in a space battle,” the Tiger went on. “Sure, we’ve got reports from the Le Creuset team, but that’s not the same as a firsthand look.”

“If he’s anywhere near as good as we’ve heard, the Earth Forces are in for a nasty fight,” Aisha said.

Waltfeld chuckled softly. “And that’s just facing him alone. The way he and Athrun fight, it is like they read each other’s minds. I’ve never seen anything like it.” As he spoke, he mentioned a visual record of the Battle of Orb.

More than one person whistled in amazement. Freedom and Justice moved in almost perfect unison; their maneuvers coordinated to the millisecond. It was as though a single mind was controlling both machines.

“That’s right,” Waltfeld said, grinning at his crew’s astounded expressions, “Kira Yamato and Athrun Zala are phenomenal alone; together they’re the next best thing to unbeatable.”

DaCosta looked up over his shoulder. “What about Neo ZAFT?”

“They could be a problem,” Waltfeld admitted. “Le Creuset almost killed Alex with that new machine of his; he’s probably the only person who could give Kira a run for his money. At least, the only one who would actually fight him,” he amended, recalling Athrun.

“Kira will do fine,” Aisha said. “I’m glad you didn’t shoot him back in Banadiya.”

“So am I,” Waltfeld said. “Things would have been a lot tougher for all of us if I had.”

Tougher indeed. Kira Yamato was by far the best mobile suit pilot in their ranks, barely edging out his friend Athrun and significantly better than Waltfeld himself. While he was no leader, Kira was nonetheless an inspiration to his comrades, Orb and ZAFT alike.

Naturally, he found it highly embarrassing…

Archangel, cafeteria

Tolle speared a piece of meat with his fork. “You know, I’m actually looking forward to the next battle.” He held up a hand to forestall Mir’s incipient protest. “It won’t really be as dangerous as you think, Mir. Since the Aegis is primarily a space model, I will have an easier time out there, and no mass-produced unit can match a Gundam.”

She nodded reluctantly. “But what about those new machines?”

“If they turn up, Kira and Athrun will take them,” Kyle Perry put in, setting his tray down. “Seriously, Mir, you’re worrying too much.” He smiled gently. “Look, we’re all in danger here, and besides, he’s right. The Aegis is superb in space, and no grunt suit can match a Gundam.”

Mir still looked uncertain. “What about people like Rena Imelia, or Morgan Chevalier?”

“Mir, they’re the exception, not the rule,” Kyle said. “Besides, I think Alex would take the Moonlight Mad Dog; he held him off in an M1at Orb.”

“You should listen to him,” Tolle said. He took her hand. “Mir, I’ll be fine, and it’s not like I’ll be fighting alone out there.”

“That’s true,” she conceded. The Archangel alone had seven Gundams, the Duel, Buster, Strike, Blitz, Aegis, Justice, and Freedom. Natarle Badgiruel’s Thunderbird had the Dreadnought, a DEEP Arms, and eight Astray Strikes. And, of course, there were the Strassmeier team’s units.

“Hey, guys!” Sai joined them. “Lacus is going to be performing in a few minutes.”

The cafeteria’s main monitor lit up. Lacus Clyne stood on stage in a blue dress, her hair tied in an intricate braid.

“Hello, everyone,” she said in a clear voice. “I am incredibly pleased to be here today. Thank you all for coming.”

Tolle and his friends found themselves riveted. This was the first time any of them had actually seen one of Lacus’s concerts, and even though she had not started singing yet, they could not turn away.

“These are challenging times,” Lacus said. “Orb has fallen, and many of their people have been forced to flee their homes. However, we must not give up hope!” She spread her hands, smiling brightly. “If we continue on, we can bring peace once again!”

After the applause had died down, Lacus moved to the center of the stage. “This song if for my fiancé, Athrun Zala, and the brave crew of the Archangel,” she said. The lights dimmed, a spotlight focused on her, and she began to sing.

The small group in the Archangel’s cafeteria were entranced. Lacus’s voice seemed to flow over them, wrapping them in a soothing blanket.

“What a beautiful voice,” Sai murmured.

Mir rested her head on Tolle’s shoulder. “Yeah,” she agreed.

“Athrun’s a lucky guy,” Tolle said softly. Mir nodded; she felt no jealousy at the remark. Tolle was completely devoted to her, and Lacus was not his type in any case.

“Yeah, he is,” Mir whispered.

Restaurant Divine Constellation, December Three

“I’ll say this much for the Pink Princess,” Mu said. “She sure can sing.”

He and Murrue sat in a dimly lit restaurant not far from the ZAFT Academy. Most of the patrons were, naturally, ZAFT cadets, but there were a few civilians scattered around, as well as a few Orb soldiers. At the moment, all but a few were watching Lacus’s performance.

“It’s no wonder she’s so popular,” Murrue said. “She has a good voice, and the gift of holding people’s attention.” She smiled. “Athrun is a very lucky man,” she added, unknowingly echoing Tolle’s words.

“You got that right,” Mu said. “Of course, he’s not the only lucky guy around here.”

Murrue blushed, knowing exactly what he meant. “Maybe,” she conceded. “There’s a lot to choose from.”

Mu laughed. “Yeah. Alex and Cagalli just got engaged, Kira and Flay have been together ever since we landed on Earth, Dearka and Andrea are going out, and I happen to know Nicol’s been seeing Mayura Labatt lately.”

“The Astray pilot?”

“That’s the one,” Mu confirmed.

Murrue shook her head in wonder. “Amazing how things turn out sometimes.” She took Mu’s hand in hers. “I, for one, have no regrets.”

He squeezed gently. “Neither do I, Murrue. Neither do I.” He threw a brief glance at a corner booth, spotting a familiar hawk-faced figure. And neither does he, I will bet.

Cagalli shook her head fondly. “You know, Alex, if we weren’t already engaged, I’d think you were trying to work up the nerve to propose. This sort of thing isn’t quite your style.” She indicated the dishes on the table between them, laden with far more expensive food than normally preferred.

He shrugged. “I thought it would be fitting for us to have at least one elegant dinner, cliché though it may seem.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining,” she said, smiling. “I could wish we were a little less conspicuous, but there’s no help for that.” Since they both wore white uniforms, visible even in dim light, she had a point.

Alex waved a hand. “Everyone’s watching Lacus right now, though I’m pretty sure Mu saw us.” Not that either minded; Mu could be annoying at times, but he was a good friend.

“He’s here with Murrue,” Cagalli pointed out. She sipped her drink. “Do you have any plans for after the war?”

“Besides staying with ZAFT, not at the moment,” Alex said. “I just hope Aunt Ezalia doesn’t start trying to pressure us to set a wedding date.”

Cagalli snorted. “She wouldn’t dare. We’re both so stubborn that it’d be a waste of time, and she knows it.” She grinned. “Besides, she has her hands full with Yzak.”

“Oh, man,” Alex groaned, briefly covering his eyes with one hand. “I’d forgotten about that. Can you imagine how he would react? I sure can.”

His fiancée laughed, images of Yzak turning bright red appearing in her mind’s eye. “Yeah, you’ve got a point,” she said when she could manage a coherent sentence. “Trying that with Yzak is a BAD idea.”

“To put it mildly.” Alex took a bite of fish. “So, how long do you think we should wait?” he asked in a softer voice.

Cagalli frowned thoughtfully. “We should at least wait until I’m of age,” she said. “Sometime next year at the earliest.”

“I agree,” Alex said. “The timing of our engagement was for morale purposes, but I don’t think either of us is ready to settle down just yet.”

“We have plenty of time,” Cagalli said. Neither of them doubted that they would survive the war.

Yes, we will, Alex thought. We will win this war, free both Orb and the PLANTs, and then we will have a chance to rest. I do not for an instant believe that this will be the last war, but if we can win, we will be in a much stronger position next time.

On the screen, Lacus had wrapped up her song. “Thank you again,” she said. “I have an announcement to make.” The Pink Princess paused dramatically. “I will be accompanying the First Combined Fleet aboard the warship Eternal,” she said.

“Did you know about that?” Cagalli asked softly.

Alex nodded. “Aunt Ezalia told me. Lacus has decided it’s time to do her part.” The meal finished, he stood. “Come on. There’s a place I want to show you.”

Curious, Cagalli rose and followed him.

Observation gallery, core of Martius Four

Sometime later, they floated in the core of Alex’s home colony. The facility was seldom manned by more than a couple of techs, as most of it was automated. Their main duties were to monitor the colony’s rotation and the lift tubes that connected the habitation areas at either end.

“I used to come here when I needed to get away from everything,” Alex said. “The view soothed my nerves.”

Cagalli immediately saw what he meant. Though small, the gallery provided a breathtaking view of the PLANTs, Earth, and the stars. Since the area was in freefall, it was easy to imagine drifting through space, free of any constraints.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, entranced.

“This is one of the things I missed most,” Alex said, moving to her side. “Heliopolis had nothing like it.” He pointed at a distant pinprick of light. “That’s Jachin Due, gateway to the Homeland.”

Cagalli nodded absently. She knew Jachin was a fortress bristling with weapons, but it was impossible to tell at such a distance. “I can see why you like it here.”

Alex smiled, wrapping an arm around her waist. She promptly nestled against his side. “Here, I could forget entirely the increasing tension between Earth and the PLANTs, even after my parents were killed.” He waved his free hand expansively. “This is what I’m fighting for.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s what we’re all fighting for.” Freedom, and the ability to just live in peace. Cagalli closed her eyes, heaving a contented sigh.

Alex smiled down at her, reflecting on just how lucky he was. In the space of seven months, he had reunited what was left of his family, gotten his wish of joining ZAFT, and won the heart of a princess along the way.

Cagalli, sensing his gaze, looked up. “What are you staring at?” she asked almost coyly.

“The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” Alex said, then bent down and kissed her.

Siegel Clyne’s office, Aprilius One

“The fleet has almost finished assembling,” Clyne told his guest. “Their first target will be an Earth Forces convoy on its way to L3. Fortunately, only one Orb vessel is involved, the Izumo.”

Lord Uzumi sighed. “I do not wish for any more of Orb’s people to be harmed, but if it must be so, then Sahaku’s cabal is the ideal choice. The man is a traitor, and I have no doubt he is merely using both the Earth Forces and Orb itself for his own ends.”

“And your daughter?” Clyne asked quietly. “Are you worried, knowing that she will be going into battle again?”

“Of course, I am worried,” Uzumi said. “Any parent would be. However, there is no stopping her, and she is piloting the most powerful mobile suit Orb has yet produced.”

“Not to mention the fact that her brother and fiancé will be there as well, and both are very protective of her,” Clyne agreed.

Uzumi nodded. “In any case, Cagalli’s presence on the battlefield will be valuable, both because of her own skill and the fact that a noble of Orb is willing to fight for her people.”

“I only hope it will be enough,” Clyne murmured. “If Neo ZAFT were to intervene, it could be a disaster.” He shook himself. “No matter. If Patrick dispatches his own forces, then we will deal with them as they come.”

Though it will be hard on Athrun, he thought. Having to fight his own father, it is fortunate he has Lacus and Kira to help him. That was one of the main reasons he had been willing to allow Lacus to accompany the fleet.

Uzumi sighed. “Regardless, we must deal with both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT, if we are to stop this war.”

Clyne nodded reluctantly, wishing that his former friend had not lost his mind. “Would that it could be otherwise…”

“What is done, is done,” Uzumi said.

Clyne nodded again. “Yes. Yes, you’re right.”

The respite was nearly over. Soon battle would rage in space once again…

Chapter 28: Home At Last

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters, 25 June, C.E. 71

More than a week after the fall of Orb, they were now just a day out from the Coordinator Homeland. They could have made the journey in less time, but they first had stopped at Ame-no-Mihashira to rendezvous with the refugee ships. It had taken days to get things together, but they had done it; numerous Orb vessels (minus Izumo and Susanoo, the Sahaku and Seiran family ships respectively) now slowly cruised to the PLANTs, escorted by the cream of ZAFT’s space forces.

One unpleasant but sadly unsurprising bit of news had reached them at Ame-no-Mihashira: the Orb Union was now a protectorate of the Atlantic Federation. Unato Ema Seiran had been installed as provisional governor, with Rondo Ghina Sahaku in command of the military.

Alex had no doubt Sahaku had plans of his own. Given the man’s undisguised hatred for the Seiran family, it was likely that he was merely biding his time. Sahaku was a snake, ready to strike when no one expected.

The admittance chime sounded, breaking Alex out of his reverie. “Enter.”

Uzumi Nara Athha stepped in. “I hope I am not disturbing you, Alex.”

Alex shook his head. “No, not at all. I was just mulling over what happened after we left Orb.” He waved Uzumi to a chair, then seated himself behind his desk.

“I too have been considering recent events,” Uzumi said. “Before I get to that, Lia asked me to deliver a message.” Alex cocked his head, and the politician sighed. “The Third Battle of Victoria is over. The Earth Forces have won.”

“Did they recover the mass driver intact?” Alex asked sharply.

“Unfortunately, yes. They deployed several new models, including a mass-produced version of the Raider and what appears to be a cross between the Calamity and the Sword Strike.” Uzumi looked angry. “Moreover, the lead Alliance unit was the Gold Frame AMATU.”

“Sahaku.” Alex muttered a German curse. “I bet Andrea and Nicol are kicking themselves about now, since they helped him design the thing.”

“Indeed. According to the reports we have, he destroyed several mobile suit teams all by himself.” Uzumi sighed. “To think that a member of one of the Five Noble Families could be so merciless…”

Alex stood, turning to gaze into space. “Sahaku has always had his own agenda,” he reminded the other. “You know that even better than I do. It was he who got Orb involved in the G-weapon project; this is merely a logical extension of that action.”

“I wish you were wrong. Unfortunately, you’re right.” Uzumi joined him at the window. “I have no doubt he is using the Earth Forces for his own ends, whatever they may be.”

“You can bet it’s something we won’t like,” Alex said, then faced the older man. “Sir, you obviously didn’t come here just to tell me about Victoria. If Lia did not want to use the intercom, she could have sent some low-level type.”

Uzumi chuckled softly. “Perceptive as always. Very well.” He met Alex’s gaze. “It’s about Cagalli.”

Alex blinked. “Cagalli?” He would never tell me to stay away from her, so what is he getting at?

“Yes.” Uzumi nodded at the fleet outside. “Those people just lost their homes to the Atlantic Federation. While few are hurt physically, they are almost certainly in poor spirits.”

The ZAFT Elite frowned. “What does that have to do with Cagalli and me?”

“I would like the two of you to become officially engaged.” Uzumi held up a hand to forestall a protest. “I am well aware of your opinion of arranged marriages, but this is really nothing of the sort. You were clearly headed in that direction already; I am merely requesting that you make it official.”

Alex hesitated. “I understand what you’re saying, sir…”

“Think about it: the heir of Orb and one of ZAFT’s best team commanders.” Uzumi shook his head when Alex started to disagree about his own prowess. “During our brief stay in Carpentaria, I heard some describing you as the next Rau Le Creuset.”

Alex’s eyes widened. Being compared to the masked man was a major professional compliment, his obvious insanity notwithstanding.

“It would give both ZAFT and the Orb exiles something cheerful to focus on,” Uzumi said.

Alex smiled wryly. “All right, if Cagalli agrees.”

The older man smiled. “I already discussed it with her. She was delighted, to put it mildly.”

“Figures.” As Alex gazed out, an old poem came to mind.

I swim through a sea of stars

Never looking back to shore.

Faster than light, bending time,



Archangel, cafeteria

“You guys hear about Victoria?” Tolle asked, setting his tray next to Mir’s.

Nicol winced. “Yeah. The Earth Forces managed to take the mass driver intact.”

“How in the world did they manage that!?” Sai demanded incredulously. “Wouldn’t ZAFT have destroyed it first?”

“They didn’t get a chance to,” Nicol told him. “An Alliance special ops team managed to get in and disable the self-destruct. On top of that, they had those three Gundams we faced at Orb, plus something called a Sword Calamity.”

“Sounds like a cross between the Calamity and the Sword Strike,” Dearka commented.

Nicol nodded. “That’s about what it is,” he confirmed. His expression darkened. “They also had the AMATU.”

Everyone knew why he was suddenly depressed. He, along with Andrea Strassmeier, had helped Rondo Ghina Sahaku design the Gold Frame AMATU. Now that it was being used to kill ZAFT soldiers, both were feeling more than a little guilty.

“Nicol, you shouldn’t be blaming yourself for that,” Dearka said. “Andrea was saying the same thing, and I’ll tell you what I told her: You couldn’t have known what Sahaku was up to. It’s his fault, no one else’s.”

“Dearka’s right, Nicol,” Kira said. “Don’t blame yourself.”

Nicol managed a smile. “Thanks, guys.”

The conversation turned to their plans for when they reached the PLANTs. All of them had some shore leave coming up, and they intended to make use of it. Athrun did not contribute much, but no one really blamed him, and it was clear that he was still looking forward to it.

Flay Allster appeared. “What did I miss?”

Kira smiled, pulling out a chair for her. “We were just talking about what we’ll do when we get to the PLANTs.”

She sat beside him. “I actually visited Aprilius One with my father a few years ago,” she said. “I don’t remember much, though.” She sipped from a glass of water. “I think I’ll visit the Junius Seven memorial and pay my respects.”

“I’ll take you,” Athrun said. “I should go there anyway.”

Flay looked briefly contrite. “I’m sorry, Athrun. I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

She smiled. “Anyway, I figured after that I’d sightsee for a while.” She nudged her boyfriend. “Is that all right with you, Kira?”

Kira squeezed her hand. “Sure.”

“Hey, guys!” Andrea practically flew past the table, almost hitting the viewport. “You’ll never guess what just happened!”

Dearka grabbed her hand, bringing her to a stop. “Man, you’re hyper,” he said with a laugh. “Mind letting us in on the secret?”

She seemed to radiate glee. “Alex and Cagalli just got engaged!”

Reactions to that one varied. Kira and Flay both had expressions that basically said, “It’s about time.” Tolle burst out laughing. Athrun and Nicol grinned at each other, while Sai looked faintly dumbfounded. Dearka merely shook his head in wonder.

Yzak, however, looked puzzled. “That’s not like him.”

“Why’s that?” Kira asked. “I’m amazed it took this long.”

“You’re missing the point.” Yzak’s voice had no rancor; their rivalry was long past. “Alex takes his time with something like this; the only reason his confessed to her when he did was because she disappeared, and it almost drove him insane.”

Kira nodded slowly. “I guess I can see what you’re getting at.”

“It was because Uzumi asked him to,” Andrea said. “He said that Alex and Cagalli were heading in that direction anyway,” general nods; what she said was well known, “and making it official now would give everyone something cheerful to think about.”

“That makes sense,” Athrun said. “Look at me, I’m engaged to Chairman Clyne’s daughter. Sure, we do not usually think about it in those terms, but it has an impact on the people. Same for Cagalli and Alex; the heir of Orb and one of the best team commanders ZAFT has.”

“That’s pretty much what Uzumi said,” Andrea agreed.

Yzak nodded. “Explains why Alex is going along. If speeding up something he is going to do anyway will help the PLANTs, he’ll go for it.” Then his eyes narrowed. “I know that look. You’re up to something.”

She gave him her best innocent look. “What makes you say that?”

“I know you too well.”

Andrea laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t tease him…too much.”

Yzak groaned softly. “I knew it.”

Everyone else laughed. Maybe they were retreating in the middle of a war, but there was still some light along the way.

Main Dock, ZAFT HQ, December City, 26 June, C.E. 71

It was the first time in over a year that Alex had set foot in the PLANTs, and he was struck by the changes. Last time he had been a civilian, out on his own for the first time; now he wore the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite, and he returned as a respected team commander.

Still, he could not help feeling a twinge of guilt. “I finally return to my homeland, but the one I love has to flee hers,” he murmured, unaware that he was speaking aloud.

“Alexander Heinrich Strassmeier, don’t you dare start feeling guilty just because you can go home when I can’t,” Cagalli said sharply from behind him. “It’s not your fault.” She glared at him.

Alex held up his hands. “All right, all right, I’ll be good.” He raised an eyebrow. “How do you know my full name, anyway? I know I haven’t mentioned it, and I doubt Yzak has.”

“Andrea told me.” Cagalli looked surprised that he did not know. “Didn’t she mention it?”

“No.” Alex twitched his head. “Come on. We have quite the reception.”

Reception indeed. Waiting for them in the gallery was Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne, along with Representatives Tad Elsman, Yuri Amalfi, and Eileen Canaver. Standing at Clyne’s elbow was a somewhat younger, dark-haired man.

Siegel came forward and clasped Uzumi’s hand in greeting. “Welcome. Please accept my sympathies about what happened to Orb.”

“Accepted, but unnecessary,” Uzumi replied. “We knew what we were getting into, just as you did.”

“I understand.” Siegel nodded a greeting at Ezalia Joule, then smiled as his daughter came forward. “Lacus, I’m glad to see you well.”

She hugged him quickly. “It’s good to be back.”

Siegel returned the embrace, then looked at the two captains. “Captains Ramius, a pleasure to meet you both.”

“And you, sir,” Murrue said, saluting. “It’s been a very strange journey.”

“You got that right,” her niece agreed. “I never thought I’d wind up joining ZAFT, that’s for sure.” Lia grinned at her expressionless friend. “Blame Alex for that.”

“Indeed.” Siegel looked closely at the young pilot. “It’s about time you returned to the PLANTs, Commander,” he said. “You have been away far too long.”

Alex did not even twitch. “I did what I had to do, Your Excellency,” he said quietly.

“Of course, you did,” Siegel agreed. “I wasn’t implying that you had deserted your homeland, Commander; I’m well aware that it was because of Patrick that you left.”

“I appreciate that, sir,” Alex said.

“Though you fought against ZAFT initially,” the chairman went on, “it is clear that you were working for the good of your homeland throughout, and your performance since enlisting has been superb. In light of that, it has been decided that you will be granted the white uniform of an elite commander.”

“Think of it as a sort of engagement gift,” Ezalia put in.

That got a reaction; Alex’s cold blue eyes widened for an instant, and he inhaled sharply. It was gone quickly enough, aside from an annoyed look at Ezalia; he then braced to attention and saluted. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

“No thanks are needed,” Siegel assured him. “You have more than earned it.”

“Indeed, he has,” the stranger said, speaking for the first time. “He is much like Commander Le Creuset, without the evident instability.”

Alex frowned. Who is this guy?

Siegel noticed his puzzlement. “This is Gilbert Durandal, one of our top geneticists. He’s been working on the birthrate problem.”

Alex shook Durandal’s hand. He kept his expression polite, but alarm bells were going off in his mind. Coast told me about this guy. Boy genius, involved in the Ultimate Coordinator project, which means he knows about Kira and Cagalli. Always seemed to have his own agenda.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. It was not quite a lie. “The Valkyrie’s doctor has been working on a way to give Naturals Coordinator abilities, so he has experience at seemingly hopeless tasks.”

Durandal smiled. “Perhaps we can help deal with each other’s problems.”

“Perhaps.” But I will have to warn Vincent not to completely trust you.

Siegel waved them forward. “The Council will be meeting to discuss the recent events on Earth this afternoon. Lord Uzumi, I presume you will wish to attend?”

Uzumi nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

Alex trailed behind them, reading a note Ezalia had slipped him. He was to change into his new uniform and report to the Council that afternoon on the new Gundams they had faced at Orb. He would then go on leave until further notice. They figured I need a rest. They are probably right.

“Hey, Alex,” Cagalli said. “Where to now?”

He walked with her to a nearby shuttle. “I’m supposed to report to the Council this afternoon,” he said. “I’ll be on leave after that, presumably until the next major operation commences.” He handed her a keycard. “This will grant you access to my home in Martius Four. I’ll meet you there.”

“Right.” Cagalli nodded. “I’ll be going with Kira and Flay to the Junius Seven memorial.”

“Okay.” Alex sat back in the padded seat, taking Cagalli’s hand in his.

Patrick Zala’s office, Neo ZAFT HQ

“So,” the former chairman of the Supreme Council said. “Orb as fallen, and the accursed Naturals have retaken Victoria.”

Rau Le Creuset nodded. “ZAFT took heavy losses at Victoria; the Earth Forces deployed their new G-weapons there, along with some knew machines based on them.”

Zala grunted. “Clyne is a good speaker, but he was always out of his depth when it came to the military.”

“In fairness to Chairman Clyne,” Daniel Bartlett put in, “this wasn’t his fault. ZAFT hasn’t been able to get the GuAIZ into more than limited production as yet; the units available were hopelessly outclassed.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Zala conceded. “Nevertheless, it is still a major blow. Particularly with Orb now a protectorate of the Atlantic Federation, and little though I agree with Strassmeier on anything else, he’s exactly right about the implications of Unato Ema Seiran being named governor.”

Bartlett snorted. “No kidding. I know Seiran’s reputation; he’s in this for his own aggrandizement, period.” He paused. “Speaking of whom, how long until the Deathdealer is complete?”

Rau’s reaction was hidden by his mask, but Zala chuckled. “Don’t worry, Commander. Your new machine will be ready in time to challenge him.”

“Good.” Bartlett’s gray eyes flashed in the dimness. “This time, I’m bringing him down.”

Le Creuset turned away. Dream all you want, Bartlett. It will not matter; Strassmeier is far better than you will ever be. And you, Your Excellency, I wonder just how far you will go before the forces you have unwittingly unleashed destroy you. It should be remarkably interesting to watch.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the Neo ZAFT ranks, Le Creuset knew exactly what was going on. Zala’s desire to wipe out the Naturals was only the beginning. Personally, Le Creuset doubted it could be achieved as yet, even with the new weapon they were building. They had too many powerful enemies; Strassmeier, Kira Yamato, Mu La Flaga, Athrun Zala, and many others were likely to put a crimp in their plans.

So be it. Ultimately, none of them will escape their fate.

He was looking forward to watching events unfold.

Junius Seven Memorial

Flay knelt and placed a bouquet of flowers on a marker. Though she had never had the chance to meet Lenore Zala, Athrun had told her much about his late mother during the journey from Orb. Flay wanted to honor the woman who had raised Kira’s friend.

“Thank you, Flay,” Athrun said softly. “Mom would have been happy to meet someone like you.”

Flay smiled. “I’m glad you think so.”

“Athrun’s right,” Lacus said. “His mother was always sweet and kind. Kira, you met her, didn’t you?”

Kira nodded, staring at row upon row of markers. The sheer immensity of the Bloody Valentine was overwhelming. “She visited Copernicus a couple of times.”

More than two hundred thousand people, their lives snuffed out in an instant of nuclear fire. The fact that Junius Seven was a farming colony made it worse; at least the PLANTs of Maius and December Cities had legitimate targets, mobile suit factories and ZAFT Headquarters, respectively.

Kira was not given to fits of rage, but he had seen the remains of Junius Seven firsthand. He had stumbled across the bodies of women and children in the ruins. He had seen the expressions of horror, frozen on their faces for eternity.

Dying once is not nearly enough to pay for this atrocity.

“This is why the Earth Forces have to be stopped,” Cagalli said, echoing her brother’s thoughts. “So that no one else has to die because of their genes.”

“That’s what we’re fighting for,” Kira said. “We’re fighting so that everyone can live in peace, no matter what their genes look like.”

“The problem is, my father doesn’t want that any more than the Earth Forces do,” Athrun said with a sigh. “He wants to exterminate the Naturals, just as the Earth Forces want to exterminate the Coordinators.”

Flay looked at him in concern. “Does he really think Coordinators are a new species?”

Athrun nodded. “He’s argued with Chairman Clyne about that for years. He…he insists that we’ve evolved, that we don’t need the Naturals anymore.” He shook his head. “He’s wrong, of course; we still haven’t solved the birthrate problem.”

“Doctor Lockwood and Mister Durandal are working on that,” Lacus said. “In the meantime, the marriage laws here have been changed.”

“I bet Alex is happy about that,” Flay said. “He told me once that he loves his homeland but hates the marriage laws.”

Kira wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It wouldn’t matter for us, since we’re Orb citizens.” Flay blushed.

“So, what are your plans, Cagalli?” Athrun asked. “Kira and Flay are staying at my place.”

Cagalli looked at the ring on her finger. She was not quite used to it yet. “I’ll be staying at Alex’s home,” she said softly. “He hasn’t said, but I think he’s afraid of being alone there. With his parents gone…”

“Yeah. He wants something to fill the void.” Kira nudged her. “You’ll be spending a lot of time there, anyway, won’t you?”

She blushed. “Well, yeah, of course I will be,” she said. “Whenever I’m in the PLANTs.” Cagalli gave her brother a mock-angry look. “You don’t have to talk about it like it’s some kind of shady deal.”

“Who, me?” Kira gave her an innocent look. “Why would I do that?”

“Because you thought it would get a rise out of me,” Cagalli shot back, trying in vain not to grin. “Kira, I love you, but sometimes you’re just crazy.”

Athrun laughed. “Pot, kettle, black? Face it, Cagalli, you’re crazier than Kira’s ever been.”

“Oh, shut up.” Cagalli glanced at her watch. “I’d better get going. Alex’s place is in Martius Four, so I have to move if I want to get there by the time he finishes with the Council.”

Flay waved. “See you later.”

Athrun looked back down at the marker bearing his mother’s name, a rush of confused emotions flooding him. Mother, I will stop Father. I promise.

Supreme Council Chamber, Aprilius One

Alex sat on the same bench Rau Le Creuset and Athrun Zala had occupied when they met with the Council after the Heliopolis attack. It was an eerie feeling; he was not exactly awed by the Council, given that he was related to one of its members, but he now wore the white uniform of an elite ZAFT commander, and was present to report on the Earth Forces’ latest weapons.

“Commander Alex Strassmeier will now present a report on the new G-weapons that were deployed at Orb,” Chairman Clyne said, as if he had read Alex’s mind. “Commander?”

Alex stood, surreptitiously drawing a deep breath. “The machines deployed during the Earth Forces attack on Orb were of a new generation of mobile suit. Prisoner interrogation has allowed us to determine some of the basic capabilities of these new units, though some aspects remain a mystery.”

He called up a schematic. “All three machines are equipped with Trans-phase armor. More efficient than standard PSA, it only activates on impact, thus saving power; as a result, the machine does not change color when the system is activated. However, multiple impacts from multiple directions can overwhelm the system, so it is in some respects weaker than standard Phase-shift.”

“So, you don’t suggest we attempt to copy this system,” Yuri Amalfi observed.

Alex shook his head. “It may save power, but not enough to matter.” He then called up an image of the Calamity. “GAT-X131, the Calamity. Judging by its specs, we believe this unit to be the successor to the X103 Buster, and it is superior in some ways. It is equipped with the same 580mm multiphase energy cannon as the Aegis, as well as a 125mm dual high-energy long-range beam cannon, a 115mm dual ram cannon, and a 337mm plasma-sabot bazooka. We have reports of a similar unit intended for close combat, which was deployed when the Earth Forces recaptured Victoria.”

Next was the Forbidden. “GAT-X252, the Forbidden. Like the Blitz, this unit is apparently intended for special operations. However, instead of turning invisible, this machine mounts a feature called the Geschmeidig Panzer system. This feature uses colloid gas, held in place by magnetic fields, to deflect beam attacks; my friend Kira found that out the hard way at Orb. It is the only one of the new units to include the head mounted Igelstellungs. In addition to that, the Forbidden is equipped with two 115mm machine guns, a single plasma cannon, two 88mm railguns, and a heavy scythe for close combat. There are also at least two variants designed for underwater combat.”

He changed the image again. “GAT-X370, the Raider. A transformable unit like the Aegis, this one’s mobile armor form doubles as a flying platform for the Calamity, the only one of the new machines incapable of atmospheric flight. In this form, it mounts a single 80mm machine gun, two 76mm machine guns, and two short-range plasma cannons in its claws. In mobile suit mode, it has a dual 52mm hyper-velocity shield cannon, a single 100mm energy cannon in the head, and a superdense spherical breaker capable of damaging PSA.” Alex closed the screen. “If you have any further questions, I will do my best to answer.”

Tad Elsman spoke up. “Commander, how much of a threat are these new units, in your judgment?”

“Hard to say, sir,” Alex said. “They are powerful, to be sure, but in the words of the Red Baron, it’s not the crate, it’s the man who flies it.”

“What do we know of the pilots, then?” Eileen Canaver asked.

Alex took a sip of water, stalling to gather his thoughts. “Not much,” he admitted. “It is clear that they are highly skilled, but their level of discipline seems questionable. I personally witnessed them fire on each other; in particular, the pilot of the Calamity seemed quite fond of attacking his teammates.”

“They actually fired on each other!?” Clyne said incredulously.

“They did,” Alex confirmed. “Or rather, the Calamity fired on the others; the Forbidden merely deflected a couple of shots past the Raider, whose pilot appeared content to shout at his teammates. The few prisoners we took knew little about them, but they were described as thugs.”

Ezalia Joule shook her head in disgust. “So, this is what the Alliance has been reduced to.” She looked at her nephew. “What do we know about these pilots?”

“Only their names: Orga Sabnak, Shani Andras, and Clotho Buer.” Alex shrugged. “I checked with Intelligence when we arrived at Carpentaria. It turns out that not even the Earth Forces have much data on them. They’ve been designated as ‘Biological CPUs’ –in other words, equipment rather than pilots- and from what we can tell, their personnel records have been erased.”

Siegel Clyne sighed. “It would seem Blue Cosmos is influencing things more openly.” He rose. “Thank you for your report, Commander. Now, I suggest you get some rest.”

Alex saluted. “Your Excellency.” He bowed respectfully and departed.

Strassmeier residence, Martius Four

As soon as she arrived at Alex’s home, Cagalli decided that Yzak had been understating its size. The house was a full three stories, and the grounds were quite extensive. Not to mention the fact that the property was right on the edge of the biggest artificial lake in Martius Four.

Lovely place, Cagalli thought, sliding the keycard through a slot beside the gate. Though far from spoiled, she appreciated a comfortable home. I could get to like this.

She walked down a path lined with hedges; Alex had described his father as something of a nature lover. The place was clearly well-preserved, as Ezalia had intended. Probably by some kind of housekeeping robot, since very few people could even get inside.

Cagalli had just reached the porch when she heard footsteps. Knowing who it had to be, she stopped to let him catch up. “How’d it go?”

“I managed to nauseate most of the Council,” Alex said wryly. “C’mon, let’s go inside.”

Like the grounds, the interior of the house had been kept meticulously clean. Though no one had lived there since Klaus and Elena Strassmeier had died, it was impossible to tell just by looking. Nothing was dusty; it was easy to imagine that the owners had merely stepped outside.

If only that were true, Alex thought.

“Hard to believe we’re in space,” Cagalli said.

He shook himself. “Yeah. It is so clean because the house and grounds have an extensive AI system. A whole lot of remotes of distinct types keep everything tidy when no one’s home. Aunt Ezalia made sure the complete system was kept in working order.”

“Makes sense.”

Alex took her hand. “This way.”

He showed her the living room first. It was large, in keeping with the house’s general design. Two of the walls were dominated by paintings, one of a starscape, the other an ocean view. Each painting had a couch beneath it, and there were a couple of armchairs on either side of the window.

“Cozy,” Cagalli remarked. “And a pleasant view, too.”

“Mom and Dad wanted outside realities –like the escalating tension between the PLANTs and the sponsor nations- to intrude as little as possible,” Alex said. “They never attempted to exclude current events from conversation, but they at least wanted a comfortable atmosphere.”

“I’d say they succeeded.”

Alex then led her through the rest of the ground floor. Cagalli, ever the tomboy (a trait Alex found very attractive), was fascinated by a workshop Andrea had set up near the garage. They did not spend much time on the second floor, as there was little of interest.

The only thing they bothered with on the top floor was Alex’s own room; they avoided Andrea’s out of respect for her privacy.

Cagalli looked around. “Looks like a cross between a library and a munitions dump.”

The description was apt. One wall was lined with books, a mixture of history and military strategy. The others had an assortment of weapons; an old AK-47 assault rifle, a black-sheathed katana over Alex’s bed, assorted handguns, and a couple of more modern assault rifles. A neat desk sat in front of the window.

“You’re not the first to say that” Alex said dryly. He picked up a small model off the desk. “This is a model of the plane Heinrich Strassmeier flew during the Battle of Britain, a Messerschmitt Bf-109E-1. The 109 was probably the most-produced fighter of all time; something like thirty-five thousand were built.”

Cagalli whistled at that.

“And this,” Alex picked up another model, “is Sergeant Michael Rork’s plane, a Supermarine Spitfire Mark V.” He set both models back down, then sat on his bed. “So, what do you think?”

“I think this is a wonderful place to live,” Cagalli said, sitting down beside him.

He wrapped an arm around her. “Glad you like it. I was half afraid you’d insist on someplace else.”

She reached up and traced the scar on his face. “Alex, you know I’d never do that. This place is important to you.”

He smiled. “Thanks.”

They returned to the ground floor. Alex fixed a small lunch, kebabs for Cagalli and fish for himself.

“Where’d you get this stuff, anyway?” Cagalli asked between bites.

“There’s a cryostorage unit in the kitchen,” Alex said. “I think it’s a legal requirement here in the PLANTs.” He indicated her dish. “Dad had kebabs on occasion, so he made sure to have a supply in stasis.”

Cagalli chewed appreciatively. “This is really good. I didn’t know you cooked.”

“It’s a hobby,” Alex said with a shrug. “Not all my interests involve all-out mayhem.” He glanced out the window. “Though it would seem fortunate that I have long been interested in the military.”

She swallowed a kebab. “You think the war is going to move back into space?”

“Most likely.” Alex sipped some milk, gathering his thoughts. “My report caused something of a stir in the Council. I think that even Chairman Clyne now sees no choice but to escalate the conflict. With Blue Cosmos effectively controlling the Alliance –not to mention the loss of Orb and Victoria- it’s really our only option.”

Cagalli closed her eyes for a moment. “That must be hard.”

“It is,” Alex agreed. “Siegel Clyne is fundamentally a man of peace, but he recognizes that this is no longer solely a matter of independence for the PLANTs. We’re fighting for the very survival of all Coordinators everywhere.” He stood, moving to the living room. “And to make sure what happened to my parents never happens again,” he added softly.

Cagalli followed him, concerned. “Alex?”

Her fiancé sat heavily on a couch. “I…it’s been three years, but I can’t get past it. I thought I had but coming here brought it all back.” He looked away, trying to hide the tears that welled up. When that failed, he angrily dashed them away, muttering something about how a ZAFT commander should not act like that.

“Alex, that’s stupid,” Cagalli said sharply. “Anyone who wouldn’t cry over his parents’ deaths isn’t human,” she went on more gently. “Yeah, you shouldn’t do it in front of your people, but we’re alone here,” she whispered, embracing him. “Trust me.”

Alex finally let go, three years of pain coming out in a rush. Cagalli just held him.

Soon enough, they were both asleep.

Several hours later, Andrea Strassmeier and Dearka Elsman walked in. They stopped dead at the sight that greeted them; Alex and Cagalli together on a couch, both in civilian clothes, both sound asleep. Andrea cautiously approached, but neither so much as twitched.

“They look beat,” Dearka said softly.

“Alex has been through a lot,” Andrea said. “Looks like it finally caught up with him.”

Dearka frowned at her. “Didn’t you have it worse? I mean, you were involved in the Combat Coordinator program.”

Andrea shook her head. “In some ways, yes. Alex, though, he has had to do so much on his own. Building up what amounted to a guerrilla force, hiding from Zala, ultimately having to fight ZAFT, all the while mourning our parents and wondering where I was.” She touched her brother’s face, not waking him. “He acts tough, but he’s no superman.”

Dearka just watched her. You have been through a lot, too, Andrea. He vowed that he would never allow something like that to happen again.

Andrea straightened. “Let us leave them be. They really need the rest. Besides,” she added with a giggle, “they look cute.”

The Buster’s pilot chuckled softly. “Yeah, I guess so.”

They left, Andrea pausing to turn out the lights.

Orbital drydock, December City, 27 June, C.E. 71

Natarle Badgiruel gazed out at the electric-blue warship hanging motionless in space. The mobile assault ship Thunderbird was a joint project between Orb’s Morgenroete Inc. and Maius Military Industries. Based on data from the Archangel and the Valkyrie, it was actually more heavily armed. Most noticeably, the Gottfried beam cannons the other two ships mounted were replaced by a pair of triple-barreled Fafnir cannons.

And it was hers to command.

“I’m sorry to see you go, Natarle,” Murrue said. “Still, I have to say you deserve this command.” She followed the former XO’s gaze. “I understand it carries more mobile suits than virtually any other ship.”

Natarle nodded. “Ten, to be exact. We’re getting Troy Cadwallader and his Dreadnought, Shiho Hahnenfuss with her CGUE DEEP Arms, and eight of the new Astray Strikes.”

The MBF-M1S Astray Strike was another joint project between Morgenroete and MMI. Intended as an answer to the Earth Forces’ 105 Dagger, it was essentially an M1 Astray with Striker pack capability. Though it lacked the Phase-shift of the Strike Gundam, it was still a powerful unit.

“I’m sorry to see you go,” Murrue repeated, reaching out to touch the patch on her friend’s shoulder. It depicted a blue eagle grasping a lightning bolt in its talons. “Randy should do well, though.”

“I’m sure he will,” Natarle agreed. Randall Tucker, a blonde, gray-eyed native of December City, was known for being exceptionally good at his job.

Murrue saluted. “Good luck, Natarle,” she said.

“And you, Murrue,” Natarle said, then clasped her former CO’s hand. “Take care.”

When her old captain had departed, Natarle strode to a docking port connected to one of the Thunderbird’s main hatches. My first command. Dutiful though she was, Natarle Badgiruel was not immune to ambition, and being tapped to command something like the Thunderbird was a major feather in her cap.

Once onboard, she returned the crew’s salutes absently, not really paying much attention. She did, however, note the odd mix of uniforms; some of the crew wore Orb uniform, while others were in ZAFT green.

Five of the Archangel’s crew are ZAFT, Natarle thought. And with Alex engaged to Cagalli Yula Athha, Orb and the PLANTs are effectively bound together.

“Captain on the bridge!” her XO barked as she arrived.

“As you were,” Natarle said; after serving under Murrue Ramius, she had learned the value of a certain amount of informality.

Commander Daryl Morris smiled. “Welcome aboard, Captain.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Natarle returned the smile.

Morris consulted a memo board. “Two more days until we’re fully operational. Thunderbird is going to be assigned to the First Combined Fleet, along with both the Archangel and the Strassmeier team.” He handed her the board. “Here’s the tentative ship list.”

Natarle scanned it. A new warship named the Eternal, commanded by Andrew Waltfeld; the Strassmeier team was being augmented with two additional ships, the Inexorable, a sister-ship of the Eternal, and Rau Le Creuset’s former flagship, the Nazca-class Vesalius.

“I never thought I’d find myself fighting alongside that ship,” she remarked.

“Captain Ades couldn’t stomach Neo ZAFT’s agenda,” Morris said. “With Commander Strassmeier already being called the next Rau Le Creuset, it seemed an appropriate assignment.” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve spent a lot of time with him, Captain. Is he really as good as they say?”

Natarle nodded firmly. “Alex isn’t as good a pilot as Kira, but he is definitely one of the best, and he has a cool, calculating mind.”

“What about his rivalry with Commander Bartlett?”

The black-haired captain snorted. “It’s entirely one-sided. Trust me, Commander, Alex considers rivalries in general to be beneath his dignity.” She settled back in her command chair. “In the meantime, we have a ship to run. Carry on.”

Thunderbird’s command crew went about their duties with the precision of a well-oiled machine. There were some rough edges, given their inexperience, but far fewer than Natarle would have expected. Everyone knew their duties to the letter and carried them out with only slight hesitation.

If this crew is already performing so well before we even leave drydock, Natarle thought, then we should be more than ready for anything the Earth Forces throw at us.

Strassmeier residence

The first thing Alex noticed when he woke up was the fact that he was not alone. A mass of blonde hair was visible just below eye level, and he could hear soft, regular breathing. His initial impulse was to pull away, but he quickly relaxed. There is nothing improper about this; we are engaged, after all.

Still, they could not stay like that all day. “Cagalli, wake up,” he whispered, nudging her gently.

She blinked groggily, looking up at him. “Alex? What time is it?”

Alex glanced at a wall clock. “0900,” he said, reflexively using military time, “which means we probably slept longer than we should have.” He stood, rubbing his aching neck. Note to self, sleep in a bed next time.

Cagalli vanished into the kitchen, reappearing a moment later with some biscuits. “What’s the plan for today?”

Alex took one, wondering how she had learned to find her way around the kitchen so quickly. “I’ll be heading to December City; Aunt Ezalia said something about getting me a new mobile suit.” He turned at the sound of a knock on the door. “Speaking of whom.”

Ezalia was not alone. With her was a little girl, no more than five years old. Approximately sixty centimeters tall, with long silver-white hair, she looked more than a little nervous.

“Cassandra!” Alex knelt and gave the girl a hug. “I’m surprised you remember me.” He smiled at the sign he got in return.

“Uh, Alex?” Cagalli did not understand sign language.

“Oh, sorry. She said, ‘Of course I remember you.’ She’s always been precocious, even for a Coordinator.” Alex smiled. “Cassandra, this is Cagalli Yula Athha. My fiancée.”

Cassandra, visibly calmed, signed again. ” ‘Nice to meet you,’ ” Alex translated. “She’s very nervous around strangers, but since you’re my fiancée, she figures she can trust you.”

Cagalli nodded, smiling at the girl. “Nice to meet you too, Cassandra.”

“She can’t actually hear or see us,” Alex said. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how she perceives the world around her, though I suspect she may be psychic in some way or other.”

“Cassandra is the product of some kind of bio-weapon project,” Ezalia explained. “We’re a little uncertain about the details, and quite frankly, I don’t want to know.”

Cagalli grimaced. “Can’t blame you.”

“She thinks Yzak’s word is law,” Alex said. “She’ll do pretty much anything he says.” He looked at Ezalia. “I understand you have a new mobile suit for me.”

She nodded. “I think you’ll find it a fitting replacement for the Stormbird.”

“Okay.” Alex glanced at the clock. “Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up, and we can be off.”

Top security hangar, December Nine

“This machine was already in development by Operation Spit Break,” Ezalia said, leading Alex and Cagalli onto a catwalk. “Fortunately, the people here were loyal to Clyne, so Neo ZAFT was unable to steal it.” She snapped the lights on. “Here it is.”

Alex gaped. Though it was dull gray, the mobile suit bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Akatsuki. The weapons loadout was somewhat different –it had a Lupus beam rifle and two Lacerta sabers, as opposed to the Akatsuki’s double saber- but the backpack unit appeared identical.

“This is the ZGMF-X14A Anubis,” Ezalia said. “As you can see, it’s based largely on the Akatsuki, though without the reflective coating.”

Alex pointed at the backpack unit. “Is that a DRAGOON system?”

Ezalia nodded. “It actually has one more unit than the Akatsuki, but it isn’t visible from the front. It also has the same energy shield technology.”

Alex whistled softly. This thing makes the Stormbird look like a ZuOOT. “Is it fully operational?”

Ezalia smiled. “We were just waiting to turn it over, Alex. Care to give it a test run?”

He was practically rubbing his hands. “Just as soon as I get suited up.”

They moved to a special test area adjoining the hangar. It was larger than the equivalent facility in Morgenroete –more room in space- but not much different otherwise. The main advantage was the ability to test space model mobile suits.

Alex caressed the control bars. This is more like it. The raw power of the Anubis Gundam dwarfed anything he had flown before. He pressed a button on his console, and the Anubis changed from dull gray to silver with black trim as its PSA activated.

“Ready, Alex?”

He looked up. Hovering at the other end of the huge room was the ORB-01 Akatsuki. Several other Gundam pilots had come to watch; Alex could see the Strike, Duel, Buster, Specter, Freedom, and Justice staying well out of the way. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

“Then here I come!”

Alex drew his sabers and snapped them together, blocking Cagalli’s saber attack at the last instant. He pushed back, following up with a low-power laser blast. Knowing all about the reflective coating, he aimed for the optics, temporarily blinding her.

“Good one.” Cagalli twirled her saber a couple of times, then lunged forward. Alex split his weapons and crossed the blades in an X, binding the Akatsuki’s saber. The two machines strained, fighting to break the impasse.

Alex abruptly released the Akatsuki and drew back. He then deployed his DRAGOON system, unleashing a torrent of green energy. Cagalli followed suit with the Akatsuki’s mobile turret system, and the room seemed to explode with green light.

“I think this is a draw,” Ezalia Joule said. She looked at a woman in Morgenroete uniform. “What do you think?”

“It’s easy to tell that the Anubis is based on the Akatsuki,” Erica Simmons said. “The only area where Cagalli’s machine is superior is the reflective coating.”

Outside, the various mobile suits powered down. “The Anubis was designed with Alex in mind,” Ezalia said. “His powers of spatial awareness rival Commander La Flaga’s, hence the DRAGOON system.”

“The color scheme is certainly appropriate, given his relationship with the princess,” Erica murmured. “His silver to her gold.”

Ezalia laughed softly. “Yes, it is at that.”

And it is a good thing they are both highly skilled, she thought. This war is going to heat up again before long.

Seiran residence, Orb Union, 29 June, C.E. 71

Yuna Roma Seiran stormed into his father’s office. “Father, are the reports from the PLANTs accurate?” he asked without preamble.

His father, Unato Ema Seiran, grimaced. “I’m afraid so. Cagalli Yula Athha is now officially engaged to that ZAFT upstart, and that fool Uzumi is openly supporting it.”

Yuna swore. “The Chief Representative’s daughter marrying a Coordinator, one related to a Supreme Council member, no less!”

“I agree that it’s absurd, but it’s happening.” Unato smiled humorlessly. “Look at it this way, Yuna; having you marry the girl is no longer necessary. Thanks to the Earth Forces, our hold on Orb is secure.”

“Secure?” Yuna snorted. “How can it be secure with that lunatic Sahaku running around?”

“Let Rondo Ghina and his idiot sister play their little games,” Unato said with contempt. “They have their uses, but the time will come to dispose of them.” Both men hoped it would be soon. “In any case, things may be coming to a head soon.”

Yuna looked suddenly interested. “How?”

“The Earth Forces will be sending a fleet to Artemis,” his father told him. “None of our people will be involved, but it will give the Alliance a substantial presence in space.”

“Enough to wipe out the PLANTs?”

Unato shook his head. “Not yet. We’ll need to increase our own space forces for that, unless of course something breaks.” He waved a hand. “But that is for the future. For now, I want you to take command of the Home Fleet. Keep Carpentaria Base honest.”

Yuna nodded. “Of course, Father.”

Chapter 27: The Fall of Orb

Skies over Orb, 15 June, C.E. 71

“CAGALLI!” Alex screamed.

Max Labatt’s custom M1 appeared, getting between the Raider and the Akatsuki, but Alex barely noticed. He did not even notice that the younger pilot was blasting away with a beam rifle. All that mattered was the fact that the one he loved was in mortal danger.

Behind his eyes, a blue seed burst.

Snarling with rage, Alex drew a beam saber and hit his thrusters. Clotho, caught by surprise, was barely able to interpose his shield in time. He pushed the silver M1 back, gaining an instant of breathing space, and tried to swing the Mjollnir.

Who is this guy? Clotho thought in disbelief as Alex contemptuously dodged the attack. “Who in blazes are you!?”

“Your worst nightmare,” Alex said in a voice colder than space. He slashed again; this time it bounced off the Mjollnir’s chain. Anti-beam coating, it has to be.

“Ha, ha, ha! Nice try, bastard!” The Mjollnir swung again, this time hitting Alex’s M1 in the right shoulder and causing it to drop the saber. Another swing forced the Astray back.

Which was when X102 Duel appeared. “NO ONE DOES THAT TO MY COUSIN!” Yzak shouted. The Duel opened up with its full ranged weaponry, even adding a CIWS burst in an attempt to wear down the Raider’s TPA.

Clotho swore viciously. “Another one!” He fired a blast from his Zorn energy cannon, but Yzak took it on his shield. He cursed again.

Meanwhile, Kira was busy fighting Clotho’s compatriot (in a loose sense) Shani. It was more than a little frustrating; the Forbidden had demonstrated a very annoying feature that actually deflected beam attacks.

This guy’s nuts! Deciding that close combat might be better, Kira emulated Athrun’s tactic of snapping his sabers together. He went on the attack, finally driving Shani back. Unable to use the Forbidden’s plasma cannon –the only weapon he had that could damage the Freedom- the Alliance pilot could only dodge and weave.

Then he saw the melee around the Raider. Cagalli! Forgetting Shani for the moment, Kira boosted skyward, determined to rescue his sister (and future brother-in-law, a distant corner of his mind wryly noted).

“Leave her alone!” he yelled, beam rifle blazing.

Clotho glared at his newest opponent. “They won’t quit!” he growled. He wound up for a Mjollnir attack…and a perfectly timed laser blast from Alex’s Astray drilled through the Raider’s head. Muttering an obscenity, he shifted to mobile armor mode and retreated as fast as the machine would go.

Kira and Alex let him go; they had more important things to worry about. “Cagalli, are you okay?” her brother called anxiously.

The Akatsuki’s flight stabilized. “Yeah, I think so,” Cagalli said. “What was that, anyway?”

“Judging by the effect, that mace thing was extremely dense,” Alex said, casually blasting a 105 Dagger that got too close. “I can’t think of any other way for a physical weapon to damage PSA.”

“Let’s just hope he’s the only one,” Yzak said grimly. “One was bad enough.”

Tarawa-class carrier Powell, bridge

“Captain, the Raider is pulling back. It is damaged,” a radar operator said.

The Powell’s captain jerked upright. “What!?”

“Don’t blame Clotho, Captain,” Muruta Azrael said unexpectedly. “We’ve already confirmed Joule’s nephew, Strassmeier, is piloting that silver M1, and he’s no ordinary pilot; ZAFT doesn’t give the red uniform to just anyone. Clotho’s good, but Strassmeier’s in the top tier of even the redcoats.”

The captain grunted but agreed. “If he can do that with an M1, I’d have to agree.” He shook his head. “At least Strassmeier seems to be ignoring him now.”

Azrael smiled humorlessly. “That gold machine belongs to Athha’s daughter, and our spies say it’s common knowledge in Orb that Strassmeier’s in love with her. Since Clotho’s retreating –for now- Strassmeier won’t care about him until he’s made sure the princess is all right.” He rolled his eyes. “Sooner or later, that’ll get him killed.”

Orb shoreline

Two blue mobile suits exchanged energy fire on the shore of Onogoro Island. One was an Earth Forces unit, Orga Sabnak’s GAT-X131 Calamity; the other belonged to ZAFT, Shiho’s YFX-200 CGUE DEEP Arms.

“You’re bugging me, loser!” Orga snarled. His bazooka and shield-mounted ram cannon fired simultaneously, narrowly missing the CGUE.

Shiho returned fire with her beam cannons. “You’ll be sorry if you underestimate me because I’m a girl!”

The Calamity merely intensified its fire, adding blasts from its Schlag and chest-mounted Scylla multiphase energy cannon.

Shiho growled and drew her sword. “I’m sick and tired of your nonsense!” A perfectly timed chop bisected the Calamity’s bazooka.

Orga gaped at the stump of his weapon. “How did she-” Before he could finish, the DEEP Arms body-slammed his machine, knocking him over.

The young ZAFT Elite glared down at him. “So much for you, Earth scum.” Both cannons leveled, her finger tightened on the trigger…

And was forced to flee from a pair of Launcher-armed 105 Daggers. Aware that her CGUE stood no chance against that kind of firepower, Shiho retreated, covered by Nicol’s Blitz Gundam. One of the Daggers continued to fire, while the other handed the Calamity a replacement bazooka.

Orga, typically, did not thank them for the rescue. “Who was that!?”

“Ensign Sabnak, we have incoming ZAFT mobile suits,” one of the Dagger pilots said.

Orga glared. Four TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, the mainstay of ZAFT’s ground forces. Two of them were armed with missile pods, while the others had railguns. Neither would be any threat to the Calamity, though Orga knew the beam sabers could hurt him.

Only if they get in close, and I am not going to let them! he thought. He raised his bazooka and fired, catching one BuCUE off guard. The remaining three spread out, beam sabers sprouting from their heads. Laughing, Orga nailed another with his ram cannon, and kicked the third away.

The last one was trickier. Its pilot clearly realized that a BuCUE was far more maneuverable than the Calamity, and he was making the most of it. He zigzagged around, unleashing a missile salvo; since the Earth Forces had no NJCs, Orga’s new Trans-Phase armor would not last forever.

Orga knew it, of course; he may have been a homicidal lunatic, but he was not stupid. If he ran out of power, he would have been easy prey even for a ZuOOT. Therefore, he had no intention of allowing that to happen. Grinning tightly, he powered up his Scylla.

The ZAFT pilot never knew what hit him.

Beneath the waves, it was exclusively a battle between the Earth Forces and ZAFT; Orb had no underwater mobile suits. It was left to ZAFT to deal with the Deep Forbiddens and Jane Houston’s Forbidden Blue.

The bulk of ZAFT’s underwater force consisted of GOOhNs and ZnOs, with a few GINN WASPs mixed in, but also among them was Brian Kilgore’s Scorpion Gundam. Once again equipped with a phonon maser, the Scorpion cut a swathe through the Deep Forbiddens; while the Earth Forces machines shared the Forbidden’s beam deflector, it was useless against sabers.

His attacks did not go unchallenged. “No one does that to my people,” Earth Forces ace Jane Houston growled. “I’ll show you the power of the Forbidden Blue!”

Brian, of course, saw her coming. “Uh-oh. This could be trouble.” He fired his maser once and was unsurprised to see the blast deflected. “Definitely trouble.”

Houston’s maser fired back, impacting on the Scorpion’s shield. She was careful not to engage in close combat, as her trident would be useless against PSA. Indeed, the maser was the only weapon she had that could be effective, unless the Scorpion ran out of power.

That applies to me, too, Houston reminded herself. I do not have a titanium hull. “Look, I really don’t have anything against you guys,” she told the other pilot. “Just back off, and I won’t have to kill you.”

“Maybe you don’t think so,” Brian shot back, “but your superiors sure do!” Four ZnOs and a pair of GINN WASPs moved to flank him. “If you want Orb, you’ll have to go through us first!”

Open sky

Kira had once again found himself in a duel with the Forbidden, but this time he had help, in the form of Athrun’s Justice. The two of them attacked in a spiral pattern, never giving Shani a target long enough to fire. It was giving him fits.

Not that Kira and Athrun were having fun. Kira fired repeatedly with his rifle and plasma cannons, only to see the beams deflected. Projectiles were ineffective, and while Athrun occasionally detached his subflight unit and sent it to attack separately, overall, it was a stalemate.

Then several things happened at once. The Raider appeared (with a new head), Alex chased after it, and a double blast of green light flashed up, narrowly missing the Raider.

Clotho glared at the Calamity. “Orga! You jerk!”

“Do Earth Forces pilots normally shoot at each other?” Alex asked, sounding bemused.

“Not that I’ve seen,” Athrun said, frowning.

Another double blast lanced out, this time hitting the Forbidden’s shield…and once again narrowly missing the Raider. “Shani! You bastard!” Clotho shouted, understandably put out.

The three Coordinators watched in amazement as the Alliance pilots squabbled. Orga was the only one who fired; the other two seemed content to just snarl. Clotho did, anyway; Shani barely said anything.

Alex was the first to take advantage of the situation. Drawing a saber, he attacked the Raider; he was still furious that Clotho had nearly killed Cagalli.

Clotho let out a startled-sounding yelp. “You again!” The Zorn fired, but Alex dodged the blast.

“You’ll have to do better than that.” Alex began swinging his blade in an infinity loop, peripherally aware of his friends resuming their attack on the Forbidden.

It could not last much longer. Alex was pushing the pace against the Raider, Kira and Athrun were wearing down the Forbidden, and the Calamity was firing at random. The new Earth Forces machines had to be running out of power.

What few knew was that the pilots were running out of time.

“You’re bugging me!” Orga snarled, boosting skyward. The Schlag locked onto the Forbidden. “The same goes for you, Shani!” He fired again, and once again it was deflected.

Clotho practically shook with rage. “I’ve had enough, Orga! You bug me- aaahhh!”

His transmission ended in a scream of pain, one swiftly echoed by his nominal comrades. As the astounded Orb and ZAFT pilots watched, the Raider converted to mobile armor mode and grasped the Raider in its claws. It then sped off, followed by the Forbidden.

Mu La Flaga spoke for all of them. “What was that?”

Powell, bridge

“The Raider, the Forbidden, and the Calamity are returning, sir!”

The Captain leapt to his feet. “They’re what!?”

Azrael smiled thinly, though inwardly he was seething. “I guess they ran out of time.” He stood, stretching languidly. “Well then. Captain, I think it’s time we took a little break from this battle”

The officer spun around. “Are you serious!?”

“Face it, we’re not going to get much further without the new GAT-X machines,” Azrael said. “Not when they have the Archangel and all five of the Heliopolis G-weapons, not to mention three ZAFT-built and one Orb G-weapon, and four of Strassmeier’s mobile suits.”

The Captain muttered something vicious under his breath. “We should thank that lunatic Le Creuset for taking care of the fifth one,” he growled. “All right. Fire a signal flare, temporary withdrawal!”

Main hangar, Onogoro Island

Everyone was grateful for the respite, even though they knew it was bound to be brief. Mobile suits were recharged and rearmed, those that could not be repaired were dumped offshore so the Earth Forces could not recover them, and the pilots got some much-needed rest.

Losses had been severe. As Azrael had told the Alliance Council, quantity has a quality all its own, and both Orb and ZAFT had paid for it. Brian’s inconclusive duel with Jane Houston had allowed the Deep Forbiddens to ravage ZAFT’s submarine forces, while Orga Sabnak had wreaked havoc on the land defenses before turning his guns on his teammates.

Orb’s surface fleet had taken a beating as well. The Archangel itself was undamaged, but the conventional forces were not so lucky. On top of that, every single Eurasian vessel that had joined them at Alaska had been sunk, though only one was lost with all hands.

“Heavy casualties, sir,” Alex said, rubbing his hands over his face. “Our submarine mobile suits were virtually wiped out; I don’t think we’ll be able to use them next time. They’ve been sent to Carpentaria.”

Lord Uzumi nodded. “I am deeply sorry to put your people through this, Alex,” he said softly. “So many ZAFT soldiers have died defending a country not their own…”

“Lord Uzumi, Chairman Clyne knew what he was getting into when he offered to ally with Orb,” Alex said. “Just as I knew what I was getting into when I chose to join ZAFT. And truly, it is my country.” He met the Chief Representative’s gaze squarely. “I love Cagalli very much. That relationship makes Orb my country as well, if only by adoption. There’s also the fact that you and my father were close friends.”

Uzumi smiled. “Your father would be proud of you, Alex,” he said.

Alex looked slightly uncomfortable. “I like to think so,” he replied, looking away.

“I’m serious.” Uzumi laid a hand on the ZAFT Elite’s shoulder. “I knew your father better than anyone save his wife, and I can tell you that he would be proud to hear of his son’s accomplishments.”

The younger man relaxed. “Thank you, sir. That…means a lot to me.”

“I know.” Uzumi looked at the Specter and Buster Gundams. Andrea and Dearka appeared to be in close conversation. “Your sister seems to have taken a shine to Mister Elsman.”

Alex laughed. “I saw that coming months ago. You should’ve seen her in the Marshall Islands; she shot down at least a dozen helicopters before they could hit the Buster.” He shook his head fondly. “The way she acts in battle, you’d think she had some kind of split personality.”

“Indeed.” Uzumi turned to leave. “And now, I have preparations to make.”

Alex saluted. “See you on the Valkyrie.”

He is right, Alex thought a few minutes later. Dad would be proud of me. I have achieved my dream of becoming a ZAFT soldier, brought what is left of the family back together –or will have when we get to the PLANTs, anyway- and even found someone to love.

He climbed into the cockpit of his borrowed M1 and brought up the main terminal. The saber he had lost in battle with the Raider had already been replaced, so pretty much all he had to do was make sure the software had not been corrupted or some such.

“How long are you going to keep at that?”

Alex looked up. “Huh?” He checked the time display and blinked. He had been working for over an hour. “I guess I’m done,” he said, pushing the terminal away and standing.

Cagalli handed him a coffee cup. “Good.” She sat beside him on the machine’s torso. “How long do you think we’ll have?”

Alex sipped his coffee. “I’d say till dawn. Those new G-weapons took a beating, and we destroyed quite a few of their mass-produced units. They’ll need time to regroup.”

“Makes sense,” she agreed, then looked at him curiously. “You had a talk with my father, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.” Alex’s shoulders twitched. “He apologized for putting us –meaning ZAFT- through this. I pointed out that Chairman Clyne knew what he was doing when he proposed the alliance.” He took another sip. “He said that my father would be proud of me,” he went on in a softer voice.

Cagalli rubbed a hand along his spine.

“He was right, too,” Alex said. “I’m a ZAFT Elite, fighting to defend the PLANTs. The rest of the family is back together, and” he wrapped an arm around her waist, “I met you.”

She smiled affectionately. “So, you think he’d approve of our relationship.”

“The only reason he vetoed Lord Uzumi’s suggestion of an arranged marriage was because he knew how I’d have reacted,” Alex reminded her.

“Good point.”

Across the hangar, Kira and Athrun sat on a pair of crates near the Freedom and Justice. Both were exhausted; they had had a field day with the mass-produced units, but the new GAT-X models had turned out to be more of a challenge.

It makes sense, Kira admitted to himself. They are not going to put inferior pilots in Gundams.

“Hard to believe those guys are regular military,” Athrun commented.

Kira raised an eyebrow. “You mean those new Gundam pilots?”

“Yeah,” the other said. “The way they were fighting…” He pursed his lips. “We both fought Natural mobile suit pilots in Panama. Those new ones we saw today, they were nothing like those others.”

“The others were in mass-produced units,” Kira pointed out.

Athrun nodded. “That’s true, but Commander La Flaga pilots a G-weapon, and his style is completely different. True, he’s probably the best Natural pilot around, but those new pilots have to be among the best, too, yet they’re not at all like him.”

“You think they’re Coordinators?”

Athrun shook his head. “Commander La Flaga is proof that with the right OS, which the Earth Forces clearly have, Naturals can fight Coordinators on equal terms; if he was ZAFT, he’d easily qualify for the red uniform.”

“Like Troy Cadwallader,” Kira agreed. “So, you’re saying they don’t need Coordinators.”

“Exactly, and you know as well as I do that if the Earth Forces don’t need Coordinators, they won’t use them,” Athrun said. “The Combat Coordinator project was a failure, and I know of only two of our kind who joined voluntarily, you and Jean Carrey.”

Kira nodded soberly. Jean Carrey had defected to Orb just after Operation Odin’s Lance; his white M1 was in that very hangar, in fact. “They aren’t AIs,” he said. “We both heard them snarling at each other, and AI-controlled units don’t move that fluidly anyway.”

“Maybe ZAFT intelligence can tell us more,” Athrun said, then paused as an Orb Navy steward appeared. The man handed both cups of hot soup, then departed.

“I hope so,” Kira said, then took a large mouthful of soup; he had learned to appreciate the value of a hot meal in the months since Heliopolis. “It’d be nice to know why the Earth Forces are using freaks like that; when I was with them, the kind of behavior we saw today would get you court-martialed.”

“Same with ZAFT,” Athrun said. He looked at his hotheaded teammate, who was standing near the Duel, talking to Shiho. “Yzak’s been known to disobey orders, but he’d never dream of shooting at his own teammates unless they turned on him.”

“Yeah.” Kira had come to know Yzak well since defecting. “Well,” he said, yawning, “I think I’ll get some sleep while I still can.” Before Athrun could respond, Kira was stretched out, asleep.

Valkyrie, bridge

Lia Ramius rubbed her eyes wearily. Her ship had gotten into a close-range battle with an Atlantic Federation cruiser midway through the battle. The Alliance ship had crossed the Valkyrie’s T, but since the ZAFT vessel’s weaponry faced fore-and-aft instead of broadside, all it did was give Lia’s people a bigger target. It took less than five minutes.

“The latest status report, ma’am,” her XO, a stocky, brown-haired man said.

She sighed. “Just give me the highlights, Nash.”

Nash Fletcher nodded. “We sustained moderate damage to the starboard levitator; backups should suffice until repairs are complete.” He checked a memo board. “We’re topped off on food and water since we’ll be leaving soon. Main engines are in good condition, linear catapults and weapons are go.”

“Good.” Lia forced herself to straighten. “That reminds me, before we leave for space, we really need to outfit one of the cabins into something that could pass for VIP quarters; we are going to be carrying the Chief Representative, after all.”

“Point.” Nash made a note on his board. “Fortunately, I don’t think he’ll expect much; frankly, I don’t think he’ll expect anything, since he knows this is a warship.”

“We should still make the effort,” Lia said. “This is a head of state we’re talking about.”

“True.” Nash nodded slowly. “All right, then. I’ll see to the preparations.”

Lia smiled to herself. Nash was the perfect XO: efficient, reliable, and possessed of an almost psychic ability to anticipate exactly what his captain needed at any given moment. A native of September City, he had been on vacation in Heliopolis when Alex and Lia recruited him into their little band of misfits.

Hard to believe it has been so long. Now we are all ZAFT soldiers. Well, all of us, she amended, seeing Alex and Cagalli sitting together on Alex’s borrowed M1.

The decision to join ZAFT had been difficult for her. Born and raised on a Junk Guild freighter, Lia had grown up among people who had little use for either the Earth Forces or ZAFT. When she met Alex Strassmeier, however, that had slowly changed. Even at an early age, Alex had been a fanatical PLANT patriot, and would often complain bitterly about the way the sponsor nations treated his homeland.

Lia had taken those stories to heart. After the Mandelbrot Incident, she had found herself slowly drifting away from the standard Junk Guild attitude of neutrality. When Alex had produced his plan just after the Bloody Valentine, she had joined him without hesitation.

The decisive step had been something else. Lia had, of course, wholeheartedly supported Alex’s decision to pursue his dream and join ZAFT, but her own loyalties had been more problematic. In the end, she had received encouragement from her parents and Astray Red Frame pilot Lowe Guele.

Stay with your friends, he said. Well, Alex and Andrea are my friends, and I will stand by them no matter what.

Powell, bridge

“So how much longer?” Azrael asked.

The Earth Forces captain snorted. “We’re almost ready. I’m told the main problem is with your people.” His voice dripped disdain.

“My fault, sorry.” Azrael did not sound sorry at all. “I think they’ve been punished enough. Now that they know what will happen if they do not improve their performance, we should get some better results.”

“Hmph.” The captain sounded skeptical. “I just don’t like relying on unstable elements. People like Houston and Imelia can be admired; your people are nothing more than thugs.”

“Maybe.” Azrael shrugged. “We need them at least long enough to take out Yamato.”

The captain turned around, frowning. “But Yamato’s dead.”

“No, he isn’t.” Azrael shook his head. “He’s piloting one of those new machines, the one with the multibeam trick. I doubt even Morgan Chevalier could take him. No, Orga, Shani, and Clotho are our best bet to deal with him.”

“Especially when he’s fighting alongside that red machine,” the captain agreed sourly. “That one is assigned to Patrick Zala’s son, according to Intelligence, and he’s the best ZAFT has.”

Azrael raised his eyebrows. “Patrick Zala’s son? Then why isn’t he with the ‘Neo ZAFT’ faction?”

“He’s engaged to Clyne’s daughter, the pop star,” the other said. “On top of that, he and Yamato have been friends since childhood, or so I heard from Captain Sutherland.”

“That would explain it,” Blue Cosmos’s leader agreed.

The captain checked his watch. “Can the biological CPUs be ready in time for a dawn attack?”

“Easily.” Azrael smiled. “Just a few hours, and we’ll take out a lot more space monsters.”

Main hangar, Onogoro Island, 16 June, C.E. 71

Yzak hated waiting. It was annoying at the best of times; when the enemy was sitting right outside, it was infuriating. Even worse was the fact that they would have to abandon Onogoro, and Yzak hated retreats even more than he hated waiting.

But the Earth Forces are not going to get this place for free, he thought viciously.

“Are you okay?”

Yzak turned, his eyebrows going up in surprise. “Shiho? Yeah, I’m fine.”

Shiho Hahnenfuss snorted. “You don’t sound like it.”

He rolled his eyes. “How do I sound, then?” he asked. Shiho was one of the few people who could get away with that sort of query.

“Like you’re itching to go out and blow up as many Earth Forces bastards as possible,” Shiho said. “Like that cousin of yours,” she added.

Yzak snorted. “He’ll be going after that black G-weapon, but only because it attacked Cagalli. He’s as cold as they come.”

“Tell that to the princess,” Shiho said, nodding at the couple.

“That’s not what I meant,” Yzak said, though he could not help smiling at the sight. “Alex doesn’t let his emotions get in the way in battle, that’s why Bartlett keeps losing. He’s obsessive about protecting the PLANTs –and his family- but he normally keeps his feelings locked down in battle.”

Shiho chuckled. “Nothing like you.”

“Yzak and Alex have always been opposites, even though they look almost the same,” Andrea said, walking up to them with Dearka by her side; they were found together a lot these days. “Aunt Ezalia and my mom always said they were like day and night.”

Yzak shook his head, smiling; Andrea brought out a side of him that few people ever saw. “You were always there, too,” he said. He laughed softly at the looks Dearka, and Shiho gave him. “The three of us spent a lot of time together, since our parents had to be away a lot.”

“Makes sense,” Dearka agreed. He exchanged sly looks with Andrea. “Maybe we should go check our machines.”

She grinned in a way that made Yzak suspicious. “Yeah, why don’t we,” she said, confirming his suspicions. She kissed Dearka on the cheek. “They could use the time anyway.”

Shiho watched them curiously. “What was she talking about?”

Yzak heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Knowing Andrea, she was trying to play matchmaker.”

“Matchmaker?” The brown-haired pilot blinked.

“Yeah.” Yzak met her amethyst gaze. “She’s always been like that.”

“Ah, I see.” Privately, Shiho did not mind at all. Not that she could tell Yzak…yet.

Yzak leaned back against the Duel’s leg. Just a couple more hours, he estimated. Then the Earth Forces would begin their next attack. Despite his anger, Yzak found he was looking forward to it; he found blasting Alliance units into dust was a great stress reliever.

“Airborne mobile suit force approaching Onogoro!” the PA system blared abruptly. “All units, prepare to intercept!”

Yzak grabbed his zip line. Looks like I overestimated how long it would take. Fine. Let us go, bastards.

Open sky

Alex’s hands clenched on his control bars as he launched. “All right, people, this is it. We’ll have to pull back eventually, but we’re going to make the alliance pay in blood first!”

Unfortunately, the Earth Forces had proved they could give as good as they got. The three new Gundams alone were a major pain, to say nothing of the nastier mass-produced models.

So be it, Alex thought. He selected a 105 Dagger as his target. It tried to evade, but he quickly locked on, sending an emerald dart through its Striker pack. One down, who knows how many to go.

A second Dagger blew apart, courtesy of a precisely aimed shot from the Akatsuki. “Take that!”

Alex grinned to himself, then jumped, narrowly avoiding another 105 Dagger. He turned to engage, but the other pilot proved to be made of sterner stuff than his deceased predecessor. In addition to that, Alex found that he could sense his enemy, which meant the Earth Forces pilot had the same powers as Alex and Mu.

Trouble. Definitely trouble. Instead of an Aile pack, it had something unpleasantly reminiscent of the Moebius Zero’s wired gun barrels. Four remote units spat green death at his M1, forcing him to fly a complex evasion pattern.

“You’re good,” his opponent admitted, “but you can’t dodge forever!”

“I didn’t intend to,” Alex said, drawing a saber. “Who in blazes are you, anyway?”

A bearded face appeared on his screen. “The name’s Lieutenant Morgan Chevalier,” he said. “Some call me the Moonlight Mad Dog.”

“Commander Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT,” Alex responded. A neat slash bisected one of the gun barrels. “I have to say, I didn’t expect to run into you here.”

Chevalier locked his saber with Alex’s. “Just doing my job, kid.”

“Really. I wouldn’t have thought your job would include mass murder.” Alex disengaged, getting a little breathing space. “I haven’t forgotten my sister’s kidnapping, or the Mandelbrot Incident…or Junius Seven.”

“Junius Seven wasn’t our fault, kid,” Chevalier countered, shifting his saber to his Dagger’s left hand, and raising his rifle. “Blame Blue Cosmos for that one.”

“Same thing,” Alex said, taking the attack on his shield. He is good. If only I still had the Stormbird. He returned fire.

Chevalier was becoming more impressed by the minute. Intelligence got it right for once. This kid really is as good as the reports say. He snorted. Of course, he is that good; he is a ZAFT Elite, for crying aloud!

Alex, for his part, was getting nervous. Chevalier was not like the new Gundam pilots; there was no hope of making him angry enough to make a mistake. That, combined with the Gunbarrel Striker, made him extremely dangerous indeed.

Freedom and Justice soared high overhead. They made a deadly team; any Earth Forces mobile suit that escaped Kira’s multibeam attack long enough to close fell to Athrun’s lethal sword dance. The Alliance pilots soon learned to avoid them.

Except, of course, for Orga, Shani, and Clotho, who were spoiling for a rematch with the two nuclear machines.

“Ha! There’s the hotshots we fought yesterday!” Orga shouted.

Athrun cursed. “Here we go again, Kira. I’ve got the Raider.” Comm intercepts had given them the codenames for the new Gundams.

“Roger that. I’ll take the Forbidden.” Kira peeled off, drawing a saber, and slashing down hard.

Shani dodged at the last instant, swearing. “Bastard,” he muttered. He fired his plasma cannon, only to see the blast splatter against the Freedom’s shield. An instant later, he was forced to block a double shot from the Freedom’s railguns.

Athrun spared them one glance. Be careful, Kira, he thought, then brought up his own shield to fend off a Mjollnir strike. “This guy’s out of control,” he muttered.

“Ha, ha, ha! You’re terminated!” Clotho fired the Zorn, missing by centimeters.

“I don’t think so.” The Justice’s Fortis beam cannons erupted; Clotho hurriedly began spinning the Mjollnir. The anti-beam coating on its chain absorbed the attack…barely.

Fighting had now become general. Kyle and Dearka were now keeping the Calamity busy, while Chris Madsen’s Inferno Gundam had come to Athrun’s aid. Hiro Nakamura focused on sneak attacks, occasionally backed up by the Scorpion.

“Special attack!” Clotho switched to mobile armor mode and struck with his claw-mounted plasma cannons.

Athrun grimaced, barely getting his shield up in time. He knew he was better, but Clotho’s sheer insanity was making him hard to predict. I have to win this, and soon. Unfortunately, Athrun was not sure how to. A beam to the cockpit would have worked, except that the Raider was an annoyingly evasive target.

“All right, Earth scum!” Chris Madsen abruptly shouted. “It’s time for you to burn!”

Clotho cried out in shock as the Inferno attacked, beam rifle and flamer blazing. The rifle was bad enough, but the flamethrower, fed by plasma, was actually hot enough to damage his Trans-phase armor. It was not doing any serious harm –yet- but that would change, given time.

“You’re the one who’s gonna burn!” he screamed. “Exterminate!” Shield cannon and Zorn fired simultaneously, followed by a Mjollnir swing.

Chris swore under his breath. He had no time to dodge, and while the shield cannon was ineffective against his PSA, the other weapons were another matter. The Zorn blast blew of the Inferno’s left arm, destroying its flamethrower in the process, while the Mjollnir knocked its head off.

He still had one trick left, though. Reverting to his mercenary training, Chris lined up his rifle by eye, his targeting systems gone with the Inferno’s head. He squeezed the trigger once, hesitated, and squeezed a second time.

The results were all he could have hoped for. His first shot blew the Raider’s left arm off, ending the Mjollnir threat, while the second took its head off.

Clotho cursed incredulously. “I’m too good for this. Realizing that he was beaten –not to mention low on power- he transformed again and fled, pausing only to retrieve the beleaguered Calamity.

“Thanks, Chris,” Athrun said. “Now get back to the Valkyrie; your machine is in no shape to continue battle.”

“I wish I could disagree,” Chris said sourly, glaring at his displays. They were not encouraging. “Unfortunately, my damage control board is lit up like a freakin’ Christmas tree.” He eased his machine into a turn. “It’s almost over, anyway.”

Athrun did a quick scan of the battle area. Chris was right; the only major engagements left were Kira’s battle with the Forbidden and Alex’s running duel with the Moonlight Mad Dog. Aside from the Gundams and a few mass-produced units like the Astray trio, their own forces were pulling back.

“Athrun,” Miriallia Haw said in his ear, “new orders. All units are to begin pulling back to Kaguya.” She sighed. “It’s time to leave.”

“Roger that.” Athrun could imagine what she was feeling. Unlike the majority of the Archangel’s crew, Mir was from Orb. I would feel the same way if we had to abandon the PLANTs. “I’ll go help Kira with the Forbidden, then pull back.” He hesitated. “And Mir…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She managed a smile. “You’ll help Kira, then pull back, understood. Be careful.”

Athrun started to move, then saw that Kira did not need his help. Judging by the fact that Kira’s plasma salvo was not deflected, the Forbidden was running low on power.

And Shani knew it. After firing one last shot, he turned and followed his teammates.

“You’ve lost this round, Mad Dog,” Alex said. “I suggest you retreat.”

Chevalier grimaced. The ZAFT kid was right; he was down to one gun barrel and a saber. Alex’s M1, by contrast, was barely scratched. “You’re just letting me go?”

To his surprise, pain flickered in the redcoat’s eyes. “My father was Eurasian,” he said quietly. “Maybe I’m making a mistake by letting you go, but we’re fighting a losing battle here anyway.”

The Mad Dog turned to leave. “Eurasian, you said?”

“He was born and raised in Berlin,” Alex said, his voice still soft.

“I see.” Chevalier felt an odd sense of disquiet as he left.

Alex sighed. “He’s a good man,” he murmured. “Too good for the Earth Forces.”

Cagalli’s Akatsuki appeared to his right. “Come on, Alex. Time to go.”

“Yeah.” The Duel joined him on the other side. “There’s nothing more for us to do here,” Yzak continued, sounding unusually subdued.

Alex shook himself. “You’re right.”

The Alliance will pay for this. I swear it.

Valkyrie, bridge

The bridge was more crowded than usual. In addition to the usual crew, Troy Cadwallader and Shiho Hahnenfuss were present; they would be hitching a ride back to space. Chief Representative Uzumi Nara Athha stood behind Alex’s chair; he had refused to go to his quarters until they actually left Orb waters.

There had been a slight change of plans. Morgenroete had already been destroyed; now the Archangel and the Valkyrie would focus their attacks on the mass driver, denying it to the Earth Forces. It had been determined that the mobile suits would not be needed.

“All ships report withdrawal successful,” Murrue said from her own bridge. “We’re ready.”

Uzumi sighed, but if there was sadness in his eyes, there was also a firm resolve. He had insisted that the order to attack was his responsibility. “Very well,” he said, a corner of his mind noting the way Alex and Cagalli stood, flanking him on either side. His daughter took his hand in hers. He squeezed gently, grateful for the support. “Open fire.”

A hail of missiles, beams, and antimatter erupted from the two warships, striking the mass driver at its most vulnerable point. Everything seemed to hover for an instant, and then the whole island was engulfed in a titanic explosion.

When it faded, there was barely even any wreckage.

“Bring us about,” Lia said quietly. “Destination, Carpentaria.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex shook his head. “You apologized to me, sir, but I am the one who should apologize. Orb is being occupied because of someone else’s war-“

Uzumi held up a hand. “No, Alex. Orb would have been attacked even if we had not joined forces with ZAFT. Your people are not responsible for this.”

“That’s very generous of you, sir.”

“It is no more than the truth.” Uzumi laid a hand on his shoulder. “Orb has always welcomed Coordinators; we would have been attacked for that reason alone, even without the mass driver. Your people have enabled us to survive that, and thanks to ZAFT we will ultimately reclaim our homeland.”

Alex nodded. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to Lia. “How many remained behind?”

She checked her board. “A few thousand, mainly those loyal to the Seirans and the Sahakus.”

“Traitors,” Cagalli spat.

Her father nodded grimly. “Rest assured, Cagalli, they will pay the price.”

Alex moved for the elevator. “All right,” he said, forcing a brisk tone. “I’ll be in the hangar; Chris’s machine needs a lot of work.”

“I’ll go with you,” Cagalli said, moving to his side.

Uzumi smiled to himself as the hatch closed. Klaus, I wish you could see them now.

“They really belong together, don’t they,” Lia said quietly.

“Yes. Yes, they do.”

Carpentaria Base, 17 June, C.E. 71

The mobile assault ships Archangel and Valkyrie sailed into the harbor amid cheers from the assembled ZAFT soldiers. Sure, they had not actually won at Orb, but they had known that going in, and the Earth Forces’ victory had been much more costly thanks to their efforts.

Alex stepped out onto the dock, blinking in the morning sunlight. He had never been to Oceania before, but he liked what he could see. Nevertheless, what he was really looking forward to being the trip to space; finally, he was going home.

“Hey, Alex!” Yzak called. “Mom’s waiting for us!”

Alex jumped a little. “Right.”

Ezalia Joule stepped forward as her nephew approached. “Alex, it’s been too long,” she said, enfolding him in a tight embrace.

Alex hugged her back, for once unable to contain himself. “I’m sorry I took so long,” he whispered.

“Don’t worry about it. You’re here, that’s what matters.” Ezalia then turned to Andrea. “And you, too, Andrea.”

The black-haired girl practically tackled her aunt. “It’s good to see you again, Aunt Ezalia.”

Ezalia looked past her, spotting Uzumi. “Lord Uzumi, thank you for taking care of her, and helping Alex.”

He clasped her hand. “I made a promise to their father long ago.” Uzumi nodded at the two youngsters who had accompanied him. “My daughter, Cagalli, and her brother Kira.”

“Ah, yes.” Ezalia gave her nephew a sly smile. “So, this is the princess I’ve heard so much about. You’re incredibly lucky, Alex.”

Alex actually blushed. “Yeah.”

Cagalli bowed. “It’s an honor, Representative Joule. Alex has told me a lot about you.”

Ezalia waved a hand. “Just Ezalia; I see no reason for formalities.” She nodded respectfully at Kira, who braced to attention instinctively. “And you as well, Lieutenant –excuse me, Lieutenant Commander Yamato. Congratulations on your promotion.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, thank you.”

Alex stirred. “Aunt Ezalia, we need to make arrangements for getting the ships to space…”

She smiled. “I know, Alex, and I understand how much you want to go home. Not to worry, it will be expedited. There really isn’t much we can do here.”


Ezalia turned back to Uzumi. “Lord Uzumi, Prime Minister Cadwallader wishes to meet with you, if that’s all right.”

“Of course.”

Troy Cadwallader appeared out of nowhere. “While he’s seeing my dad, why don’t I show you lovebirds the sights?” he said, grinning at Alex and Cagalli.

Both glared at him. “Sure, but if you use that term again, I will break your neck,” Alex growled.

The Aussie, completely unfazed, laughed. “Sure, sure. C’mon, mates.”

Alex and Cagalli exchanged an exasperated glance, then followed. General laughter from their friends trailed them, but neither really minded. They were only glad that people could laugh at all. It made facing the conflicts to come just a little bit easier.