Chapter 35: The Blade of Light

Archangel, bridge, 26 September, C.E. 71

Murrue stared in disbelief at the carnage. Just minutes before, the Earth Forces had been pressing an all-out attack. Now those who had survived the Neo ZAFT attack were retreating in confusion. Murrue did not blame them; even a nuke did not have the destructive power of the blast they had just witnessed.

“What in blazes was that!?” Randall Tucker demanded.

Jackie Tonomura tapped rapidly at his board. “Checking…” His jaw dropped. “It was a focused burst of gamma radiation!”

Murrue spun around. “Gamma rays!?”

“I’ve read about using gamma rays for propulsion,” Athrun said shakily. No surprise; he was still in shock over his father.

“Propulsion?” Mu La Flaga said in surprise. “Are you sure about that, Athrun?”

The younger man nodded. “You set off a nuclear bomb and use mirrors to focus the gamma rays. Supposedly it has incredible acceleration.”

“And that bastard’s turned it into a weapon,” Mu said grimly. He shook himself. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Don’t worry about it, Mu,” Athrun said. “I don’t blame you. This…this is even worse than the Bloody Valentine.” He swallowed hard. “He asked what my mom would think of what I’ve done, but he’s the one disgracing her memory…” He trailed off.

Flay spoke up. “Captain, message from Committee Chairwoman Joule. We’re to fall back for now.”

Murrue nodded. “Understood. Mir, recall all mobile suits.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Command center, Jachin Due

“It’s just like Athrun said,” Erica Simmons told the assembled group. “A focused burst of gamma radiation, like a laser of sorts.” A graphic of Zala’s GENESIS weapon appeared on the monitor. “What we saw was a fraction of its power,” Simmons went on. “If turned on Earth, it would burn ninety percent of the surface to a crisp, rendering the planet effectively uninhabitable.”

Siegel Clyne closed his eyes. “So, this is what it has come to,” he whispered. “The destruction of both Earth and the PLANTs.”

“I think that’s what Commander Le Creuset wants,” Athrun said. “My father…he intends to wipe out the Alliance fleet, then turn GENESIS on Earth. After that he can…deal with the Naturals in the PLANTs at his leisure.” His voice was tortured, a mix of anguish and loathing.

Kira laid a hand on his shoulder. “Athrun…”

Athrun gave him a grateful smile. “It’s not going to happen, though,” he went on, his voice a little stronger. “Le Creuset will see to that.”

“Not if I can help it,” Mu growled.

“What about that nutcase Bartlett?” Nicol asked.

Alex snorted. “Leave him to me, Nicol. His only goal is to settle the score with me, so I’ll oblige him.” He smiled like a shark. “Only the outcome won’t be the way he planned it.”

“Alex, are you sure about that?” Cagalli asked, concerned.

“Cagalli, Bartlett is suffering from a severe case of tunnel vision,” Alex said. “All he cares about is destroying me. That is his weakness.” He waved a hand. “In any case, it’s a minor concern.”

Siegel nodded. “We must stop both the nuclear attack and GENESIS.”

“The nukes will be easy enough to deal with,” Simmons said. “The METEOR units work just fine for that, and the missiles are also susceptible to proximity soft kills.” She nodded at the GENESIS graphic. “As for this, we have two options. Either infiltrate the control facility or destroy the weapon itself from the inside. I think the first is probably safer.”

Athrun winced. Father is there. Can I really…?

“Ultimately, GENESIS has to be destroyed regardless,” Alex said, coming to Athrun’s rescue. “Even taking the control facility will only buy us time.”

“He’s right,” Waltfeld said, giving the youngster an approving nod. “There’s no way we can leave that thing intact.”

Heads nodded. Having a strong military was one thing; GENESIS was something else entirely. Given what Simmons had told them, such a weapon had no legitimate use. It was on the same moral level as bioweapons, nothing but mass death.

“How could it have come to this?” Kira wondered sadly.

“Wish I knew, kid,” Waltfeld said; he had taken an almost paternal interest in the Ultimate Coordinator. “Hate to say it, but Le Creuset was right about one thing. People will always be fighting each other; that’s the way things are.” He looked at the looming shape of GENESIS on the main monitor. “Never expected that, though.”

“No one did,” Athrun said softly. “Even after Neo ZAFT was formed, this was completely out of the blue.” But I will stop it, he vowed silently. I will stop the nukes, GENESIS, and my father! It is my duty!

Dominion, bridge

“Just what was that!?” Sutherland demanded.

Azrael, though shaken, at least knew what he had seen. “It was a blast of gamma rays,” he said softly. “I’d heard rumors about a star drive concept based on that, but I never thought someone would turn it into a weapon.”

“Well, it looks like someone has,” the captain said bitterly. “For now, we have no choice but to fall back and regroup.”

Azrael nodded jerkily. “Yes, do what you have to.”

While Neo ZAFT’s intervention had not been unexpected, its power had been. Forty percent of the fleet wiped out in a single blast; even the destruction of Eighth Fleet at the hands of Rau Le Creuset paled by comparison.

One thing is for sure, Azrael thought. Those hourglasses can wait; that thing could take out Earth itself. He only hoped they could take it out in time.

Officer’s lounge, Jachin Due

This is all so complicated, Dearka thought. You go someplace else, and all of a sudden, your enemies and your allies have changed places, but inside we are still the same people. Like his friend Athrun, he was wondering how he could ever have respected Rau Le Creuset.

The black-haired girl sharing the sofa with him stirred. “Dearka? You, okay?”

“Yeah. Just thinking.”

Andrea chuckled softly. “About what?”

Dearka smiled down at her. “How things have changed.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

She snuggled against him. “Just a few months ago, I was a prisoner of the Earth Forces, and you were trying to shoot down the Archangel. Kinda weird how these things turn out.”

“And now I’m fighting my old commander.” The blonde pilot shook his head. “A clone of Mu’s father, who wants to wipe out humanity. What a psycho.”

“We won’t let that happen,” Andrea said. “We’ll stop the nukes, GENESIS, and Le Creuset, and we’ll live to tell about it.”

Dearka chuckled softly. “Always the optimist, eh? Not that I’m complaining.”

She gave him a quick kiss. “You’d better believe it.”

“Well, this is it,” Andrew Waltfeld said, sipping his coffee. “It ends tomorrow, one way or another.” He looked at one of the young pilots sharing his table. “Remember what I said back in Banadiya, kid?”

Kira nodded. “You said there are no clear rules for ending a war like this.”

“Right,” the Tiger said, smiling at his young friend. “So how do you determine the winners and the losers? When every one of your enemies has been destroyed?”

Kira sighed. “It looks like that’s how,” he said quietly. “We have to stop both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT at all costs, and the only way to stop someone like Le Creuset is to kill him. It’s just that…”

“You don’t like to kill,” Waltfeld said. “I know what you mean. The first time I had to shoot someone it turned my stomach. They told me I would get used to it, and eventually I did. I still don’t like it, though, and to be honest I wouldn’t want to serve with someone who did.”

“Neither would I,” Athrun agreed. “Yzak may act like it but enjoying a fight and enjoying killing aren’t the same thing.”

Waltfeld grinned. “You got that right.” He nodded at Kira. “Taking him on was quite a rush. Biggest challenge I’ve had as a pilot.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“You really should take that as a compliment, Commander Yamato,” Samorei Joule said, joining them. “Commander Waltfeld here is the best ground soldier ZAFT has ever had.”

The Desert Tiger laughed. “Flattery will get you nowhere, Colonel,” he said. “So, what brings you here?”

Sam shrugged. “I’d heard a lot about the famous Kira Yamato, so I figured I’d see for myself.” He held out his hand. “It’s an honor to meet you, Commander.”

Kira shook it. “Please, just call me Kira. I don’t like to get too formal.”

“No problem. Alex is the same, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.” Sam nodded at Athrun. “Good to see you, Commander Zala. Glad you got the rank you deserve.” He indicated the FAITH insignia on Athrun’s uniform.

Athrun waved a hand. “Please, just Athrun. Like Kira, I’m not too into formality.”

“No problem.” Sam looked back at Kira. “I understand it was the attack on Heliopolis that got you involved.”

Kira nodded. “I piloted the Strike in order to protect my friends, and things kind of went on from there.” He sighed. “I didn’t like having to do it, but a lot of good came out of it.”

“Like your relationship with Flay Allster,” Sam observed, and laughed at Kira’s expression. “Hey, if I hadn’t been blown out of the sky at Junius Seven, I’d never have met Mina.”

He has a point, Kira thought. If there was one thing Kira had to thank the war for, it was that it brought him Flay. Had Rau Le Creuset not attacked Heliopolis, Flay would probably have married Sai, and Kira would never even have known what he had missed.

This is worth fighting for. Much as he hated to fight, Kira knew that sometimes it could not be avoided. Someone had to protect the innocent from harm, and Kira Yamato had the skills to do it.

” ‘If we must fight so that we may protect, then we have no choice but to fight,’ ” Sam murmured. “Zala’s a lunatic, but he was right about that.”

Athrun looked at him curiously. “Where did you hear that?”

“My mother told me,” Sam said. “I fight to protect Orb, the PLANTs, my family, and Mina. Just like you fight for Orb, your family, and Flay, Kira.”

“The PLANTs, too,” Kira added. “As far as I’m concerned, Athrun’s family, so I’ll protect his home like my own.”

“The same goes for me,” Athrun said firmly.

Sam smiled. He had expected nothing less.

Alex contemplated the ring on his finger. Who would have thought it would turn out like this. I started out as commander of a small guerrilla faction, and now I am a ZAFT soldier, and engaged to a princess on top of that.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Rondo Mina Sahaku said.

Alex chuckled softly. “I didn’t know Orb nobles spoke in clichés.”

“You’ve spent too much time with the Athhas,” Mina said wryly. “Even Lord Uzumi is hardly what you’d call a typical aristocrat.”

“And Cagalli would shoot me herself –somewhere harmless, like an arm or leg- if I called her something like that,” Alex agreed. He raised an eyebrow. “You want to talk to me?”

Mina nodded. “I wanted to apologize for our first meeting.”

Alex snorted. “I’m the one who pulled a gun, Lady Sahaku,” he pointed out. “I think you have the greater grievance here.”

“Perhaps, but I do not blame you for your reaction, Commander. Leaving aside your close connection to the Athha family, my own family’s history justifies some suspicion on your part,” Mina said. “And please, just call me Mina; we are going to be family, after all.”

He nodded. “Call me Alex, then; I dislike excessive formality anyway.” The young pilot sipped from a mug of coffee. “I gave Sam a bit of a hard time over you, of course; with him marrying a Sahaku and me marrying an Athha, it had the potential to create some, shall we say, friction.”

Mina tilted her head. “You didn’t try to change his mind?”

Alex barked a laugh. “Try to change Samorei’s mind? Ha! Like I told Aunt Ezalia, easier to herd cats than to convince Sam when his mind is made up.” He shook his head. “Stubbornness seems to be a genetic trait in my family.”

“I’ve noticed,” Mina agreed. “Sam’s a good man, for all his quirks.” She looked at Alex sidelong. “He has often spoken of you.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “In what context?”

The Orb noble smiled at his expression. “He said that despite your cold exterior, you are very –one might almost say obsessively- devoted to your family and the PLANTs. Though he obviously did not know her identity until you arrived in Orb earlier this year, Sam mentioned you had a friend in the Junk Guild.”

“Lia, right,” Alex said. “I kept her identity secret at her parents’ request; they were concerned that my being related to a Supreme Council member could have sent the wrong message if things became public.”

Mina nodded. “I know about your sister’s abduction, of course; it was one of Sam’s reasons for joining ZAFT. I also know that you have long been suspicious of Patrick Zala.”

“Wouldn’t you be, listening to his speeches?” Alex asked. “At the very least, it was clear early on that he had some kind of Master Race complex.”

“Point,” she conceded. “I remember him expressing surprise that you and Yzak are so close.”

“Probably because of our differing personalities,” Alex said. “Yzak, as you have no doubt noticed, has a volcanic temperament, whereas I am a cold and methodical sort.” He smiled wistfully. “My mother often called us day and night.”

Mina laughed softly. “Yes, I can see that.” She gave him a sly look. “So, still think I can’t be trusted?”

Alex shook his head. “As Sam no doubt told you, I am highly skilled at reading people; it gives me a significant advantage at times.” He met her gaze. “I trust you.”

“That will make things easier,” she said. “As I said, we’re going to be family.”

“And what a strange family it will be,” Alex said. He raised his eyebrows. “So, you don’t have any problem with the fact that it will bind you to the Athhas?”

Mina waved a hand. “It wouldn’t make any difference if I did; it would be both wrong and futile to attempt to split you and Lady Cagalli.”

“Like I said, stubbornness seems to be a genetic trait with my family,” Alex agreed. “And stubborn doesn’t begin to describe her.” He smiled. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t,” Mina said with an answering smile.

The room slowly emptied over the next couple of hours.

“Guess everyone’s calling it a night,” Yzak commented, sipping his drink.

“You can’t blame them,” Alex said. “Win or lose, it ends tomorrow, and we can’t fight the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT at the same time we’re fighting our own fatigue.”

Sam smiled slyly. “So, you and Cagalli-“

“Don’t even go there,” Alex cut him off sharply, eyes narrowing to icy slits. “You know me better than that, and I’m really not in the mood for your innuendoes.”

Predictably, the older pilot was unfazed. “Suit yourself, Alex,” he said with a shrug.

“Don’t be so hard on him, Sam,” Andrea said. “He’s been through a lot over the past year. Remember, you never had to fight Yzak. Alex did.”

Sam nodded. “I know, and I know it must have hurt. You two were always so close, more like brothers than cousins. There’s no way it was easy, even though neither of you were shooting to kill.”

“Cliché, but true,” Alex agreed. “But that’s behind us now, right, Yzak?”

Yzak nodded firmly. “I thought you were crazy, but I was the crazy one. Not anymore.”

“Hey, you’re still crazy,” Alex said, prompting a laugh from his cousin. “Regardless, with Chairman Clyne firmly in control, and Zala ousted, I have no regrets about my decision to join ZAFT.”

“You’d better not,” Sam said. “It was your dream, before Zala soured it; don’t start getting cold feet now.”

“You’ve nothing to fear in that regard,” Alex assured him. “I answer to Athrun and Chairman Clyne, both of whom I trust implicitly. I do, however, have some concerns about the Chairman’s new aide.”

Yzak raised his eyebrows. “Durandal? What about him?”

Alex sipped his coffee, stalling to gather his thoughts. “Gilbert Durandal was involved in the Ultimate Coordinator project,” he said. “Doctor Coast told me, and I have no reason to doubt his word. Whatever else that guy might be, he isn’t a liar.”

Sam looked surprised. “He’d have been something like twelve at the time. What was he, some kind of boy genius?”

“That’s about how Coast described him,” Alex confirmed. He steepled his fingers. “According to Coast, Durandal always seemed to have his own agenda, even at such a young age. He was always polite, but it never quite rang true.”

Yzak snorted. “If this guy made a cold fish like Mikhail Coast nervous, then there must be something wrong.”

“But why?” Andrea wondered. “He’s helping Doctor Lockwood with the gene therapy project, and he’s working to overcome our birthrate problem.”

“That I don’t know, Andrea,” Alex said. “Coast told me that Durandal was always a quiet sort.”

Sam grinned. “Like you.”

“Shut up. Anyway, Durandal was making plans for the future, that much was clear.” Alex shook his head. “What those plans are is unknown, and that worries me.”

“Who’s that?” Yzak asked.

Alex grimaced. “Like I said, Durandal was involved in the Ultimate Coordinator project. That means he knows all about Kira and Cagalli –and me- and if he has plans, he is not telling anyone about, that could be unbelievably bad indeed.”

The others winced in almost perfect unison. True, Klaus Strassmeier had been involved in the project, but he had not made any long-term plans afterwards, and the same was true for Mikhail Coast. None of them doubted that Durandal’s work on the gene therapy and birthrate issues was done in good faith, but there was clearly more to him than met the eye.

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Sam said. “First we end this war, then we can worry about Durandal.”

Alex nodded agreement. But once things calm down, I think I will do some discreet checking into Durandal’s background, he thought. I do not for an instant believe he is playing things entirely straight, and that means trouble for the Homeland, possibly for the entire world…

Athrun’s quarters, Jachin Due

It was quite possibly the worst night of Athrun’s life, even more so than when he had learned of his mother’s death. Now he was facing the very real possibility that he would have to personally kill his own father.

Why did it have to come to this!? he screamed silently, tears stinging his eyes.

The hatch slid open, and Lacus Clyne stepped quietly in. “Athrun?” When he did not respond, she moved closer. “Athrun?”

He finally looked up. “Lacus? What are you doing here?”

“Can’t I visit my own fiancé?” she asked rhetorically. “I was worried about you, Athrun, knowing who is opposing us.”

Athrun swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Lacus,” he said softly.

“Don’t be,” she told him. “You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t afraid to fight against your own father.” She embraced him. “And you wouldn’t be the Athrun Zala I love,” she whispered.

Athrun hugged her back, managing a smile. “Thank you, Lacus,” he whispered back. “You’ve kept me going through this war, even when I’ve been a little crazy –like when I was fighting Kira.”

“You weren’t being crazy,” Lacus said. “Each of you had responsibilities, which sadly conflicted. It turned out all right in the end, though, so you don’t have to worry about it anymore.”

“Yeah,” Athrun agreed. “Kira’s the closest I’ve ever had to a sibling; I don’t know if I could have handled being forced to kill him.”

“You never have to find out,” Lacus reminded him.

He nodded. “You’re right. Still…” He sighed, his mood darkening again. “Tomorrow…”

“Just remember that no matter what happens, you won’t be alone,” Lacus said firmly. “I’ll be there, and you have Kira, Nicol, Cagalli, Yzak, Dearka, even Alex, whatever he seems like on the outside.”

Athrun could not help chuckling. “Hard to imagine Yzak Joule like that, but you’re right.” He sighed. “Tomorrow, I’ll do what I have to do. It’s my responsibility.”

“But not yours alone,” Lacus said. “Never forget that.”

He kissed her on the forehead. “I won’t.”

Kira’s quarters

“So, it’ll be finished tomorrow, one way or another,” Flay said softly.

“Yeah.” Kira nodded. “From here on, it’s winner take all. And it’s my job to make sure we’re the winners.”

“Mine, too,” Flay said. “I may be only a communications officer, but that’s still important.”

He nodded again. “That’s true.” He wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close. “You know, even though I hate this war, some good did come out of it. If Heliopolis had not been attacked, we probably wouldn’t be together now.”

She snuggled against him, sighing happily. “And you wouldn’t have found out you had a sibling, at least not as soon.” Flay was glad of that for more than just Kira; she herself had become close friends with the Lioness of Orb.

“Not to mention the others I’ve met,” Kira went on. “Murrue, Mu, Yzak, Dearka, Nicol, Lacus, Waltfeld…” He leaned back. “I guess it’s true that shared hardship forges friendships.”

Flay rested her head on his shoulder. “You’d never guess that Cagalli’s a princess by the way she acts.”

Kira laughed. “Call her a princess, and she’ll beat you to death, she hates wearing a dress, and she’s a better pilot than about ninety percent of the Earth Forces.”

Flay looked up at him. “Are you worried about her?”

“Maybe a little,” Kira admitted. “Not very, though; like I said, she is a good pilot, and you know Alex will keep an eye on her. No, it is Athrun I am worried about. You know what he has to face.”

She nodded. Athrun was quite possibly in the worst situation of all. Most of their group was just focused on winning; he had to fight his own father, and it was clearly eating at him.

“He’ll be all right,” she said at last. “It won’t be easy, but he has you and Lacus to help him through it. And I will help him if I can.”

Kira smiled at her. She sure had come a long way since their first meeting. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate it,” he said.

“I hope so,” Flay said softly, then looked up at him. “You make sure you come back, too. I don’t want to lose you, Kira.”

His smile widened. “Don’t worry,” he said softly. “I’ll be coming back, I promise.” He bent down, brushed her hair out of her eyes, and kissed her.

Alex and Cagalli’s quarters

Soon, Le Creuset, Alex thought. Soon you will pay for Heliopolis. And you, Bartlett. I do not consider you a rival, but you have been a thorn in my side for far too long. It is time to put an end to this. He clenched a fist. And you, Patrick Zala. Tomorrow will end your insane ambitions.

“Brooding again?”

Alex shot his fiancée a sour look. “Tomorrow is the culmination of what I’ve been working towards ever since I arrived at Heliopolis,” he reminded her. “The whole reason for the construction of the Valkyrie was to stop Zala.”

“That, and to protect the PLANTs from the Earth Forces,” Cagalli said. “You’re a patriot to the core, Alex.”

“One with two countries to protect,” Alex said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining.” He sat down next to her. “My life has gotten more complicated than I could ever have imagined over the past year.”

She smiled affectionately. “I’m not complaining, either. Even if I did think you were a spy at first.”

“For all of a day and a half,” Alex said with a snort.

Cagalli shook her head. “True, but it’s still weird how things turned out.” She took his hand. “I never thought I’d fall for a ZAFT soldier.”

“I wasn’t ZAFT at the time, but I see your point,” Alex said. “You can never really predict that kind of thing, though I tried.”

She laughed, recalling what Kira had told her months before. “You said any girl who took that kind of interest in you should have her head examined.”

“Until I met you; as I said, anyone who calls you crazy has no sense of self-preservation,” Alex said. “As both the Alliance and Neo ZAFT are going to learn.”

Cagalli squeezed his hand. “We’ll make it,” she said.

“I know.” Alex squeezed back. “We have to win, therefore we will. The alternative is too horrific to consider.”

Alex was right. The alternative to victory was horrific beyond imagination, and it came all too close to reality.

Lagrange point five

“This is our decisive battle,” Lacus Clyne said from the bridge of the Eternal. “With the Earth Alliance and Neo ZAFT upon us, we stand or fall here, and so does the Homeland. Soldiers of Orb and ZAFT, I pray for your success!”

Yzak Joule clutched the Duel’s control bars. “Joule team, launching!” The Duel and the Buster, accompanied by several GuAIZs, leapt from the launch bay. For this battle, they deployed from Jachin itself.

“Strassmeier team, heading out!” Andrea Strassmeier said crisply. Her Specter led the Valkyrie’s Gundams into space.

Kira Yamato leaned back in his pilot’s chair. All the nuclear Gundams save Troy Cadwallader’s Dreadnought had been stored in a special hangar since the return to the PLANTs. His Freedom stood in the center, Anubis and Akatsuki to the right, Justice and Gladiator to the left. Also present was the Gold Frame AMATU.

“Are you ready, Athrun?” Kira asked quietly.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” his friend replied. He looked drawn, but his voice did not waver in the slightest. “Let’s do it, Kira.”

Kira nodded firmly. “Alex, Cagalli, you ready?”

“You bet, Kira!” his sister said.

Alex snorted. “I’m always ready to hit the Earth Forces,” he said coolly. “Sam, Mina?”

“Do you really have to ask?” his cousin returned.

“Like you, we have been working toward this for a long time,” Mina added.

The Spider shook his head. “Right, forget I said anything.” He rammed the throttle forward. “Alex Strassmeier, Anubis launching!”

Dominion, bridge

Muruta Azrael smiled grimly. Despite the intervention of Neo ZAFT and Zala’s new GENESIS weapon, he was confident that the Earth Alliance would ultimately emerge victorious. GENESIS was slow firing, and the Alliance outnumbered both of the other factions combined.

“Peacemaker Force launching,” Captain Sutherland said.

“Enemy mobile suits moving to intercept,” the XO reported.

Sutherland nodded. “As expected, Locate the Archangel ASAP. Once we find them, we strike.” He looked up at Azrael. “Director?”

“Of course,” the other said. “Make the enemy G-weapons priority targets as well, especially the nuclear machines. They have the greatest potential to spoil our plans.”

“All too true,” Sutherland agreed.

And this time it ends, Captain Ramius…

Jachin nearspace

Kira swore, unleashing a missile storm from his METEOR. “Don’t you feel any remorse for doing this!?”

“You dare even call yourselves human!?” Athrun snarled, duplicating his friend’s attack. Dozens of nuclear missiles detonated under the assault.

Strangely, Neo ZAFT had thus far stayed out of the fighting, the majority of their machines guarding GENESIS. No one was stupid enough to think their restraint would last, but for the moment it was a straight up Earth versus ZAFT fight.

Nicol’s Blitz fought alongside the Astray trio. “Take this!” he snarled, beam rifle flashing.

Mayura’s Schwert Gewehr bisected a Dagger that got too close to the Blitz. “You leave him alone!” she snarled.

A hyper-impulse blast skewered several Daggers in a line. “Take that!” Juri snapped.

“For Orb!” Asagi cried. Rifle in one hand, saber in the other, she cut a huge swathe through the Allied formation.

“Keep it up, girls!” Mu encouraged them. “Doing all right, Nicol?”

The green-haired pianist grinned. “Just fine, Mu!”

Kira spared them a brief look, then returned to his own battle. He and Athrun, with their METEOR units, were tasked with eliminating the nuclear threat. If we can take down those missiles, we will be able to spare more forces to stop the fleet.

“You won’t escape me!” Athrun launched another missile spread, wiping out an entire Moebius squadron before they could launch their missiles.

The Freedom’s right beam sword ignited, slicing an Agamemnon-class battleship in half lengthwise. A horizontal slash took out a half dozen Daggers at once.

“Hey, hey, hey!”

Kira sighed. “Those three again.”

It was indeed Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider, all of them firing as they closed. They soon split up, Forbidden and Raider avoiding the two aces entirely.

Clotho let out a war cry. “Exterminate!” he screamed, his Mjollnir slamming into a GuAIZ, destroying it.

Could this get any crazier? Mu wondered. Then a familiar sensation filled his mind. “I had to ask,” he muttered, spotting ZGMF-X13A Providence leading the Neo ZAFT formation. “Looks like Zala’s people are finally crashing the party,” he said, keying his comm. “Watch out!”

Mu knew that the Strike, while more than a match for anything else, was outclassed by the Providence. Nevertheless, he had no intention of running.

Le Creuset, of course, knew he was coming. “How fitting that we have our final match here, Mu!”

“Is this what you were hoping for, you jackal!?” Mu demanded. “A three-cornered fight, nuclear weapons, and that GENESIS thing!?”

“You shouldn’t blame me!” Le Creuset rejoined. “This is mankind’s dream, mankind’s desire, mankind’s destiny! To be the strongest, to go the farthest, to climb the highest!” His DRAGOON system swept out, producing a lethal web of green energy.

Mu knew he was in trouble. He had seen Alex use a DRAGOON system to lethal effect; he was not looking forward to facing one himself. “All of this is the result of your twisted logic!” he snarled, deploying his gunbarrels. They were woefully inadequate against something like the Providence, but they were all he had.

The masked man laughed. “It has all come down to this!” He turned, aiming his huge Judicium beam rifle at a Long Dagger. One blast, and the Alliance machine exploded.

“I’m going to put an end to this right now!” Mu added rifle fire to the gunbarrels. “I won’t let you make things worse!”

Another laugh. “And just what can you do about it, Mu? You’re good, but the Strike is no match for the Providence!”

He is right, Mu thought, trying in vain to draw a bead on his foe. Despite the Providence’s bulk, Le Creuset was making it dance, easily avoiding Mu’s attempts to bring him down. Mu was occasionally able to dodge the DRAGOONs long enough to fire, but he had not yet even come close to connecting.

Alex muttered a German obscenity, dodging a blast from a Buster Dagger and blowing the offending unit to scrap. His Shirasaya ignited, slicing another pair in half, then he deployed his DRAGOONs and immolated a squad of Moebius.

“Done with a surgeon’s precision,” a dry voice said.

Alex felt his lip twist. “Hello, Doctor,” he said, eying the ZGMF-1017M GINN High Maneuver. “Never thought you’d have any praise for me.”

“Despite your fondness for Naturals, your reputation is entirely merited,” Coast replied, firing into a Duel Dagger. Alex noticed that the assault rifle had been replaced with a beam weapon.

“I’m amazed you’re not with Neo ZAFT, given your attitude towards Naturals.” Alex spun, drew a saber, and impaled a 105 Dagger that had been trying to sneak up on him. “I seem to remember you calling them a disease.”

Coast whipped his sword around, bisecting a Strike Dagger. “That was perhaps a misdiagnosis,” he conceded. “Besides, I’m not such a fool as to think I could stand against the Ultimate Coordinator, particularly when he has a machine as powerful as the Freedom.”

Alex nodded slowly. “I see your point.”

The two, soon joined by Cagalli’s Akatsuki, proceeded to carve a huge chunk out of the Earth Alliance fleet. With a few exceptions, the enemy gave them a wide berth; a GINN High Maneuver was one thing, but two Gundams made things far more difficult.

Then a double beam cannon blast flashed past them. “It’s time, Strassmeier!” Daniel Bartlett called. “Ready to die?”

Alex swore under his breath. “Leave him to me, guys.”

“As you wish,” Coast responded.

Cagalli moved more reluctantly. “Be careful, Alex.”

Bartlett laughed. “Getting overconfident, are we?” he asked mockingly. “Sending away your support like that.”

“I don’t want to put anyone else in danger,” Alex countered. His rifle came up. “It’s time to end this.”

The other laughed again. “Go ahead! Try and die!”

Cagalli forced herself not to look back at the Anubis. He will be all right, she told herself firmly. Pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind, Cagalli focused on a Moebius team headed her way. They were carrying what she recognized as a new torpedo design introduced during the Eighth Fleet battle.

“Probably heading for the Menelaos,” she said, “to make Halberton pay for betraying them. Not if I can help it!”

It was entirely possible that the mobile armors never knew she was coming. With marksman ship skills honed by training with Alex, Athrun, and Kira, Cagalli relentlessly picked off the Moebius one by one. Eleven mobile armors exploded in as many seconds.

“Ha!” Cagalli said smugly. “This is too easy.”

A superdense slug from the Seraphim caught her machine in the right side, spinning her around. She regained control, only to spot the Forbidden all too close. Shani had evidently noticed the new chink in her armor and was preparing to take advantage of it with his plasma cannon. No!

The blast never connected. GAT-X102 Duel interposed itself between the two units. “Not so fast, bastard! You’ll have to get through me first!”

“Pest,” Shani muttered. “Just die!”

“Not happening!” Covered by a shotgun blast from Dearka, forcing Shani to go defensive, Yzak drew both sabers and charged, yelling all the way. His left saber sliced the Forbidden’s scythe in half, while the right drilled into the cockpit.

Shani let out a chopped-off scream, and then GAT-X252 Forbidden exploded.

Cagalli slumped in her cockpit. “Thanks, Yzak. I owe you one.”

Yzak’s grinning face appeared on her screen. “Don’t mention it. Alex would never forgive me if I let that psycho take you out.” His expression softened. “Besides, you are family, even if it’s not official yet. That’s enough.”

The princess shook her head, seeing why Alex was so fond of his hotheaded relation. “Let’s go.”

Thunderbird, bridge

“Target Fafnirs on that Nelson to starboard,” Natarle said crisply. A beat. “Fire!”

Six beams of green light struck the Alliance warship amidships, splitting it apart. A follow-up missile barrage struck both Drake-class ships that had been flanking it, severely damaging one and destroying the other outright.

Natarle looked back at her XO. “What about Neo ZAFT?”

“They seem to be in the midst of setting up another mirror for GENESIS,” Morris said. “Commander La Flaga appears to be dueling with the Providence, and Commander Strassmeier is keeping the Deathdealer busy.”

“Bartlett,” Natarle muttered.

Morris looked at her questioningly. “Do we assist?”

She shook her head. “There would be too much risk of hitting our allies. Besides, knowing Mu and Alex, they would prefer to handle these battles personally.” She frowned at her display. “We can, however, cover them. Launch Sledgehammer missiles at that Neo ZAFT GuAIZ formation, set for proximity detonation.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Captain, the Cherubim is closing!” the radar operator said sharply.

Natarle cursed. “Evasive maneuvers!”

The enemy Archangel-class ship’s forward weapons erupted, sending beams, missiles, linear cannon slugs, and antimatter at Natarle’s ship. The beams and antimatter missed completely, but a slug and two missiles got through. One Valiant was wiped away, along with a pair of missile tubes on the starboard side.

“Damage report!” Natarle snapped.

“Valiant One, destroyed,” Morris replied, coughing. “Missile tubes one and two destroyed. Minor damage to outer hull. We’re still in this, Captain.”

But we may not be for long, Natarle thought grimly. “Return fire.”

“Can’t,” Morris said. “A power surge scrambled the fire control. It’ll take a few minutes to sort out.”

“Get it back up as quickly as you can,” Natarle said. “We can’t afford this.”

Fortunately, the Cherubim seemed to be moving off. Either its captain believed the Thunderbird disabled, or Natarle’s ship was considered a low priority target. The latter seemed more likely, judging by the Daggers that occasionally took potshots at them. They did not last long; Troy and Shiho made short work of them.

“Captain!” Morris yelled. “GENESIS!”

Natarle’s head whipped around, and her eyes widened. “It’s firing again.”

Patrick Zala’s team of mad scientists had done their job to perfection. This time the huge weapon was aimed not at the Alliance fleet, though it did destroy a number of warships along the way, but at the Earth Forces base at Ptolemaeus Crater.

There were no survivors from the Alliance’s primary orbital base.

Jachin nearspace

“And so, it continues!” Le Creuset said.

Mu snarled viciously. “I don’t think so, bastard! We’re going to put an end to all of it!”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the masked man said. “It’s been fun, Mu, but I’m afraid I must bring this battle to a close.” His DRAGOON system swept out again, hitting the Strike repeatedly.

Mu cursed, realizing that his enemy had been toying with him. His beam rifle exploded, followed by the Strike’s left arm and right leg. Just as he regained control, something in the cockpit exploded, peppering him with shrapnel. “Urgh!”

Le Creuset laughed, watching the Strike retreat. “Perhaps we’ll meet again before the end!”

Archangel, bridge

“Captain, the Strike is returning,” Mir said. “It’s damaged, and Commander La Flaga is wounded.”

Murrue’s breath caught in her throat. Mu.

The Hawk’s image appeared on the main viewer. “I had a run-in with the Providence,” he said, wincing in obvious pain. “I’m heading back in.”

Murrue swallowed. “All right.” She looked back at Mir. “Are any of our machines in range?”

“Freedom and Justice are nearby,” the girl said promptly. “Athrun says he’s heading for the GENESIS control facility.”

And his father, Murrue thought with a pang.

“Kira is moving to intercept Le Creuset,” Mir went on.

Murrue sighed. “Tell him to be careful.”

“Captain! It’s the Dominion!” Chandra cut in.

The bridge crew froze in their chairs as the black shape of the second ship of the Archangel class loomed before them. Though the only difference in design was a slightly improved comm and radar system, the Dominion looked truly evil. And unlike Lia’s Valkyrie, looks did not deceive.

“Receiving a transmission, Captain,” Flay said quietly.

Murrue clenched a fist. “On screen.”

“Well, hello again, Captain,” Muruta Azrael said. “Thought I’d give you one last chance to surrender; you did enable us to complete the G-weapon project after all.”

She glared at him. “We’re not surrendering to anyone, least of all scum like you,” she said coldly.

Azrael shrugged. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said, then turned to the Alliance officer behind him. Murrue recognized him, Sutherland. “Fire the Lohengrin.”

More than one person actually cried out, knowing that there was no time to counter or evade. The huge assault cannons extended from the Dominion’s “legs” and began to glow. Murrue forced herself to remain calm. I am sorry, Mu…

The blast never connected. Archangel was enveloped in a polyhedral shield, stopping the antimatter attack cold.

Murrue sagged in her chair. She knew who had saved the ship; there were only two machines capable of producing that effect, and one of them was busy. “Thank you, Cagalli.”

“From all of us,” Flay added.

Cagalli grinned out from the main screen. “I couldn’t just leave you there, now, could I?” She glanced to the side. “Your turn, Yzak.”

Murrue smiled. Knowing Yzak as she did, the next few seconds were likely to be spectacular.

Dominion, bridge

Azrael stared in disbelief. How did she do that!?

It did not matter, he knew. The all too familiar blue shape of GAT-X102 Duel was already moving to a position directly outside the bridge viewport. At that point even a prototype GINN would have been deadly; a Gundam meant certain doom.

“This is Yzak Joule of ZAFT,” the pilot said. “You thought you would be able to take out our Homeland, but we were too much for you. Now you’re going to pay the price.” The Duel’s rifle slowly rose. “This is for the PLANTs, for Junius Seven, for Orb, and for everyone you bastards have murdered.” Joule’s face appeared on the monitor, wearing a thin smile. “It ends here and now.”

The rifle grenade slammed through the main viewport, stopping directly between Azrael and Sutherland’s command chair, where it exploded.

Jachin nearspace

Yzak did not content himself with just destroying the bridge. With the command center gone, he methodically raked his fire along the doomed ship’s flanks, exploding Igelstellungs, missile tubes, and pretty much anything else he could see.

Not far away, his brother was doing basically the same thing to the Cherubim. Samorei first sliced clean through the superstructure, cutting it from the rest of the ship. He then fired his Callidus down the hole he had created and followed that with a hail of laser fire. By the time he was finished, the Cherubim had been reduced to flames and molten slag.

“Looks like we’re finally turning this around,” Tolle remarked, vaporizing a 105 before it could shoot Yzak in the back.

The older pilot tossed him a salute. “It’s not over yet,” he said, returning the favor by blasting a Duel Dagger to pieces. “The Earth Forces might be crippled, but there’s still Neo ZAFT and GENESIS. Not to mention Le Creuset.”

The Aegis’s arm-mounted sabers ignited, slashing in an X pattern through an enemy CGUE. “Yeah, well, Kira’s taking on Le Creuset, and Athrun’s heading for the control center.” Tolle closed his eyes briefly. “I hate to think about what he’s going through.”

“Yeah,” Yzak agreed. “Nobody should have to fight his own father.”

Tolle powered up his Scylla, blowing a hole through a Drake-class ship. “Lucky he’s got Kira and Lacus to help him out.” He frowned, something catching his eye. Then, “Kyle, look out!”

Kyle Perry swore as a trio of 105 Daggers managed to close with him. He was able to destroy two, but the third got in a number of saber attacks before he could respond, taking out his weapons and severely damaging the torso. The Alliance pilot drew back for a killing blow…

Only to be struck by a green beam from above. “No one does that to my team!” Andrea snarled. “Kyle, get back to the Valkyrie. There’s nothing more you can do here.”

He sighed. “I understand.”

Yzak watched him go, shaking his head. “Stay alive, Kyle.” He looked at the Specter. “Let’s do some damage!”

Andrea grinned. “You got it, Yzak!”

As Yzak had noted, with the destruction of two of their Archangel-class ships and severe damage to the third, the Earth Forces were in full retreat, allowing Orb and ZAFT to focus on the Neo ZAFT traitors. Peripherally, Yzak saw Athrun almost casually slice the Calamity in half with his beam sword, before jettisoning the METEOR unit.

“Be careful, Athrun,” Yzak whispered.

“All right,” Kira said. “I’ll take care of Le Creuset, Mu. You get back to the ship.” Ignoring the horde of mass-produced units, none of which could do more than annoy him, he made for the area where Mu had reported engaging the Providence.

He was about halfway there when a peculiar sensation filled his mind. This feeling…do I have the same power as Alex and Mu? Alex said it starts manifesting in mid-to-late adolescence, so it makes sense that I would not have noticed anything before now.

Regardless, since all three allies with that power (Mu, Alex, and Morgan Chevalier, who had defected after Artemis) were accounted for, Kira knew who it had to be.

He was right. “Ah, Kira Yamato, how delightful to see you again!” Le Creuset said. “Perhaps you can give me more of a fight; Mu’s good, but the Strike is hopelessly outclassed by the Providence!”

Kira snarled. “Shut up! I won’t let you have your way!” He opened up with all of his METEOR’s weapons, hoping to overwhelm the Providence.

No such luck; Le Creuset ignored the missiles, which could not hurt him, and dodged the beams. “A worthy attempt, Kira, but not enough!” His DRAGOONs swept out.

Kira dodged most of the beams, wincing when his right “arm” was blasted off.

“You’re nothing but an irritant, a pest! You’re someone who shouldn’t have been allowed to exist, boy!” Le Creuset charged, igniting his saber, and slicing the METEOR’s other arm off. Kira jettisoned the remains, which promptly exploded.

“You’re crazy, and so’s your logic!” Kira unleashed a multibeam attack, managing to catch one weapon pod.

“If people learned of your existence, they would want to be just as you are!” The Providence wove a deadly web with its DRAGOONs, though Le Creuset knew Kira would not be easy to trap.

Kira clenched his hands. “But that’s… Even if that is true, I’m not defined by my abilities alone!”

The two clashed sabers, Kira’s blades locked in an X over the Providence’s single weapon. “And just who’s going to believe that!?” Le Creuset demanded. “Maybe your friends will, but the masses certainly won’t, be they Natural or Coordinator!”

“No way! People, people aren’t like that at all!” Kira’s voice was firm.

The machines broke apart, trading laser fire. “That’s how people think. Envy, hatred, all of it! Blue Cosmos was only the beginning!”

“That’s garbage!” Kira was having none of it.

Then another machine entered the fray. “Time to die, Commander!” Dearka shouted.

Le Creuset did not even reply. The DRAGOONs swept out again, destroying the Buster’s head, both missile pods, and one leg. Something in the cockpit exploded, shattering Dearka’s faceplate.

“Dearka!” Kira called, watching in horror.

“Forget about me, Kira!” the other responded, blood running down his face. “Just get Le Creuset!”

Kira swallowed. “All right,” he said softly. He glared at the Providence. “That’s it, Le Creuset. I’m not going to let you hurt anyone else!”

The masked madman laughed. “Come at me!”

Anubis and Deathdealer circled each other, firing whenever an opening presented itself. As with every one of their previous battles, Alex held a slim advantage, which as always drove Bartlett half mad with frustration.

“This is where our rivalry ends, Strassmeier!” Bartlett said gleefully. “With Deathdealer’s superior firepower, I will bring you down!”

“Talk is cheap,” Alex countered, his voice glacially calm. His beam shield stopped a cannon attack cold. “And it is your rivalry, not mine. I care nothing for such things; my goal is the protection of my homeland, and those I love. A rivalry would disperse energy better put to that purpose.”

Bartlett stabbed with his javelin, only to have it chopped in half by the Anubis’s Shirasaya. “The ones you love. Don’t make me laugh!” He shifted to his rifle. “You don’t love anyone or anything; you’re just a computer programmed to defend the PLANTs!”

Alex blocked the laser blast. “You always did think with your prejudices, didn’t you?” He returned fire, melting a saber to useless junk. “I do not care what you think about me. The only people whose opinions matter to me are those whom I respect. You, needless to say, are not one of them.”

Bartlett drew his remaining saber. “Always so cold, Strassmeier. Always so convinced in the rightness of your path.” He was starting to sound almost as unhinged as Le Creuset.

Alex blocked the slash with his Shirasaya. “I pity you, Bartlett. You never saw that there was more to life than a meaningless schoolyard rivalry, more than endless competition. That means nothing to me; I have a home, a family, and someone to love. That is what is profoundly important.”

“Ha!” Bartlett laughed. “You tried to be the best, but you didn’t care what that would bring you!”

“I wanted to protect the Homeland to the best of my abilities,” Alex countered. “The Valkyrie and its mobile suits were constructed to further that end.” He slashed, destroying his opponent’s remaining saber. “However, you are correct about one thing.”

Bartlett sneered. “And what’s that?” he returned, pulling his rifle again.

“Your rivalry –and it is yours, not mine- ends here.” Alex snapped up his own rifle, firing repeatedly. The Deathdealer’s shield came around just barely in time, stopping the barrage before it could strike Bartlett’s cockpit.

Bartlett growled incoherently, bringing his back-mounted cannons to bear. “Try this!”

Anubis nimbly avoided the double blast. “Too slow,” Alex said. A DRAGOON pod swooped in, blasting the Deathdealer’s left arm off at the elbow. “If you lose control of your anger, you’ll lose even battles you should win.”

Bartlett laughed suddenly. “Maybe so, but this won’t be one of those battles.” He pulled back, shifting his aim.

Alex frowned, wondering what his eyes was up, and then widened. “No…”

“Eat this!” The Deathdealer’s rifle, cannons, and missile launchers fired all at once, but they were not aimed at Alex. All of it struck the Eternal-class vessel Inexorable amidships, blowing a gaping hole in the hull. Bartlett’s follow-up salvo went through the hole at an angle, reaching the ship’s main powerplant.

Inexorable blew up with all hands.

For a long moment, Alex felt like he was in a dream. He had not known Captain Sandoval exceptionally long, but the man had impressed him with his ability. Now he was gone, just like that.

“Vaya con Dios, Captain,” Alex whispered.

Behind his eyes, a blue seed burst.

Daniel Bartlett was still laughing. “So much for those traitors!” he said gleefully. “They got what they deserved!”

That was when Alex stabbed a saber through the Deathdealer’s left missile pod, destroying it.

“What the!?” Bartlett stared in shock.

“You have been a thorn in my side for far too long, Bartlett,” Alex said, his voice as cold as the space around them. “I don’t consider you a rival, but you are a danger to everything I hold dear.” He stabbed again, taking out the other missile pod. A reverse slash reduced the beam rifle to junk, and a DRAGOON pod moved behind to neutralize the cannons.

Bartlett was frozen in disbelief. His machine had been completely disarmed in mere seconds. “Impossible!”

“Goodbye, Bartlett,” Alex said. He squeezed the trigger, and an emerald beam struck ZGMF-X15A Deathdealer dead center.

Valkyrie, bridge

Lia Ramius felt tears sting her eyes as she watched the Inexorable fiery death. To have fought so hard, only to be brought down by a madman, was as wrong as could be. Even Alex’s subsequent defeat of Bartlett did not assuage it.

“Target all weapons on the Bismack,” she said coldly. Time to finish what Alex started. “Fire!”

Beams, missiles, and antimatter pummeled the Neo ZAFT Nazca. The ship’s anti-beam coating resisted for a split second, then melted under the unrelenting assault. Pieces began to break off of the main hull, and then the remains were consumed in the blinding fury of matter-energy conversion.

Lia sat back in her chair. “It’s almost over,” she said softly.

“Captain, GENESIS is reorienting!” her XO said.

She spun around. “How!?”

He cursed. “It’s aiming at Earth itself! Projected target, Washington.”

In other words, the very heart of the Atlantic Federation. “Do you have an estimate on when it will fire?” Lia asked tightly.

The XO grimaced. “Ten minutes on the outside, Captain. Very probably less.”

Lia cursed. “And there’s nothing we can do to stop it, not in time.” She sighed. “Keep up the pressure on the Neo ZAFT ships.” It is all up to Athrun.

GENESIS control facility

Athrun Zala and Nicol Amalfi charged down the corridor as fast as their legs would move. They, too, had caught the change in GENESIS’ position, and knew exactly what it meant. Patrick Zala was getting ready to wipe out the majority of the system’s Natural population.

I have to stop him, Athrun thought. Before he can continue this madness.

Thus far, they had not encountered much in the way of security. Either Patrick Zala had not seen the need, believing that no one could penetrate his fortress, or he simply did not care. Athrun was not sure which it was, and it did not really matter. What mattered was stopping him before it was too late.

“I think we’re almost there,” Nicol said.

Athrun nodded. Father.

They burst through the control room door minutes later. Both had their guns out before anyone in the room could react. “Hold it!” Athrun snapped.

Patrick Zala slowly turned. “So, you’ve come,” he said slowly, ignoring Nicol.

“Father, please, stop all this,” Athrun pleaded.

Zala glared at him. “You would stop me from avenging your mother?” He laughed harshly. “It’s too late. GENESIS will fire and cleanse the world of the Naturals! There is nothing you can do to stop it!”

Nicol, who had gotten to a control panel while father and son argued, cursed. “He’s right, Athrun. The firing sequence is too far along to cancel.”

Athrun swallowed. “Why? Why do you have to kill all of them, even people who had nothing to do with Mother’s death!?”

“It doesn’t matter,” his father said. “The Naturals are all the same; sooner or later, even your so-called ‘friends’ will turn on you.” His lip curled. “And yet you are willing to point a weapon at me.”

“I have no choice,” Athrun said, choking on his words. “I have to stop you, or everything we’ve fought for will be lost.”

Zala fixed him with a pitiless gaze. “It is clear you are beyond redemption. So be it.” He reached for the machine pistol at his side.

Tears flowing freely, Athrun pulled the trigger.

GENESIS interior

“Athrun, where are you going?” Nicol asked frantically.

“I’m going to destroy GENESIS from the inside,” Athrun told him. Seeing his friend’s look of concern, he managed a bleak smile. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of dying here. There’s still too much I have to do.”

Nicol nodded. “All right. Be careful.”

Athrun watched the Blitz withdraw. You, too, Nicol. Pushing those thoughts –and the pain of what he had just had to do- to the back of his mind, he aimed the Justice at an access hatch. A blast from his Fortis cannons blew it open, and then he was inside.

The way to the core was fairly straightforward. A couple minutes of high-speed flying, and he was there. “No time to be subtle,” he muttered. “I guess the only thing to do is shoot everything, then get out before I’m caught in the blast.”

With that in mind, Athrun systematically raked the chamber with energy fire from one side to the other. Girder’s melted, circuits shorted out, power relays overloaded. Something big in the rear exploded, telling him that it was time to leave posthaste.

Spinning around, Athrun shunted as much power as he could into his thrusters and fled.

Jachin nearspace

Dearka Elsman was in a decidedly foul mood. Le Creuset’s attack had almost completely disabled his machine. The Buster’s right arm was useless, so he was unable to fire the gun launcher, and the loss of its head meant he could barely see.

It could, of course, get worse, and it did. GAT-X370 Raider, piloted by withdrawal-crazed Clotho Buer, appeared nearby.

Buer was laughing insanely. “I’m gonna…I’m gonna…!” With a strangled cry, he charged the Buster, firing wildly.

So, this is it, Dearka thought, watching the Zorn begin to glow. The red-orange blast erupted…

Only to be blocked by a white mobile suit the appeared out of nowhere. “Not so fast, Alliance bastard!” Andrea Strassmeier shouted. “You’ll have to get through me first!”

“Andrea!?” Dearka said incredulously.

“I’m not letting him get you,” she said furiously. Her Trikeros snapped on target. “Die!”

Clotho never realized just what he was facing, though even being in his right mind (loosely defined) would not have mattered. Happy-go-lucky under normal circumstances, Andrea was as cold as her brother on the battlefield, and almost as good a shot. She fired four times, taking out both of the Raider’s arms, its head, and one wing, before sending a fifth blast through the cockpit.

Ignoring the expanding cloud of debris, Andrea moved to grasp the Buster. “Dearka, are you all right!?” she called frantically.

“Minor head wound from Le Creuset’s attack, but I’m fine otherwise,” Dearka said. “Thanks.”

Samorei’s Gladiator and Mina’s AMATU joined them. “Dearka Elsman, you are one lucky guy.”

Dearka grinned. “Yeah, I like to think so.”

“Believe it,” Mina said. “Sam has told me a lot about his young cousin; if you managed to win her heart, then you’re something special.”

The blonde pilot waved a hand. “Yeah, whatever.” He looked out to where the Freedom and Providence were still dueling. “I hope Kira’s all right.”

Le Creuset laughed. “No matter what happens now, I’ve won! When GENESIS fires on Earth, the screams of the victims will trigger battle anew!”

“I won’t allow that!” Kira snarled, firing and dodging.

The Providence closed to melee range. “Why torment yourself? Ultimately, it will all end the same! Justice and fate, ignorance and escapism, they never learn, they never listen!” Le Creuset was sounding crazier by the minute.

Kira clashed his saber with Le Creuset’s. “You don’t understand anything else!”

“Of course, I don’t understand! People can only understand what they’ve experienced!” Le Creuset triggered another energy web. “I know that humanity will become extinct, just as they deserve!”

Both machines had taken major damage. One of the Freedom’s legs was gone, with the railgun above it. Providence had lost several DRAGOON units, and its beam rifle was gone. Two almost equally skilled pilots, in two almost equally powerful machines, doing their best to annihilate each other.

“It won’t happen!” Kira shouted, nailing another pod, this time with a saber. “I’ll never give up!”

Le Creuset hacked downward, severing the Freedom’s left arm at the shoulder. “It won’t matter! We have reached the end of the path! No one can stop it from happening now!”

Kira dodged furiously, countering when he could. “Die!”

“Oh, I’ll be dead soon enough, but so will you, and all your friends!”

That was the wrong line. In an instant, images of people flashed through Kira’s mind. Athrun, standing by him through thick and thin; Flay, giving him her love despite his origins; Cagalli, his beloved sister; Alex, coldly determined to protect his home and loved ones. So many, friends, all.

Behind his eyes, an amethyst seed burst.

Kira let out a war cry, launching a furious attack. “It’s all your fault, you’re the one to blame!” DRAGOON pods exploded one after another under Kira’s fire, until one of them struck his rifle. “You brought us to this!”

“It would have happened even without me!” Le Creuset retorted. His shield-mounted beam cannons kept of an almost constant stream of fire. “This will be a day of reckoning for everyone!”

Kira kept coming, even after a DRAGOON blew the Freedom’s head off. “I won’t allow it!” He snapped his sabers together. “THIS IS STILL A WORLD THAT’S WORTH PROTECTING!”

At the last instant, Le Creuset realized he had underestimated Kira. The beam saber stabbed into his cockpit, wounding him in the side. It was fatal, and he knew it, but he did not care. What mattered was that it was over, and he smiled as his faceplate shattered.

ZGMF-X09A Justice grabbed the Freedom just as GENESIS fired for the last time, the destruction at its core triggering a misfire. The Providence vanished, but Freedom was carried to safety. Kira was too exhausted to thank his friend, but Athrun knew what he was thinking.

“I’d never leave you behind, Kira,” he said softly, smiling despite his grief. “You did great.”

Main dock, Jachin Due

Kira wearily opened Freedom’s hatch, more exhausted than he had ever been. The fight with Rau Le Creuset had taken its toll on him, so he offered no resistance as Athrun helped him out of the cockpit.

“Kira!” Flay Allster threw herself into his arms. “Oh, Kira!”

He hugged her. “I’m here, Flay. It’s over.”

“You were terrific, kid,” Mu said, approaching with Murrue beside him.

“Good work, Kira,” Murrue said with a smile.

Alex and Cagalli moved to join them. “I always knew you were something special,” Cagalli said, breaking away from her fiancé to embrace her brother.

Kira smiled shakily. “I’m nothing special.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, my friend,” Alex said. “You pulled moves ninety-nine percent of Coordinators, me included, could possibly have managed. I’m not saying you’re defined by your abilities, but the fact remains.”

The younger pilot sighed. “Maybe. Right now, I’m just…so tired.”

“Get some rest, then,” Murrue told him. “You’ve earned it, little brother.”

After almost a year of virtually nonstop fighting, they had finally stopped the Earth Forces from dominating the PLANTs and had effectively destroyed Neo ZAFT. They were exhausted, and everyone knew Blue Cosmos was still out there, but for the moment it did not matter.

The war was over. They had won.

Chapter 34: The Nightmare Reborn

Neo ZAFT HQ, 15 August, C.E. 71

So, the Naturals have driven ZAFT off Earth entirely. No surprise. The man smiled. Now, all that is needed is something to…give them a boost.

A soldier came up behind him and saluted. “You wanted to see me, sir?”

“Yes.” The other turned. “I need you to deliver this to the drop,” he said. “It’s very important.”

The soldier saluted again. “Yes, sir. I won’t fail you.”

“I know you won’t,” Rau Le Creuset said.

When the man had left, Le Creuset leaned back in his chair, smiling. It begins. The final act is now at hand. Mankind will become extinct, just as they deserve.

Muruta Azrael’s office, Ptolemaeus Base, 17 August, C.E. 71

Azrael stared moodily at his desk terminal. Though ZAFT had been driven off Earth with the completion of Operation 8:8, that success had been offset by the losses at Artemis and Mendel. Essentially, while the Alliance reigned supreme on Earth, ZAFT and the Orb exiles-controlled space save for the Moon and some facilities at L1.

There has to be a way. Those monsters have had their way in space for far too long. But how? Even with the three Archangel-class ships, we cannot just blast our way through Boaz and Jachin…

His intercom buzzed. “Director Azrael, there’s someone here to see you.”

He shook himself. Only one person that could be. “Send him in.”

As expected, his top special agent stepped into the room. “Director, I found this at the drop. It’s from our contact.” He dropped a computer disc on the desktop.

“I see.” Le Creuset. A space monster like the others, but he has his uses. “Thank you.”

“Sir.” The agent nodded and left.

Azrael slipped the disc into his terminal. “What do we have here?” Data began scrolling, meaningless to most people, but Azrael was more than capable of interpreting it. “Wait, this is…” His eyes widened. “It can’t be!” The data was clear, however.

Incredible! They have signed their own death warrants!

“Perfect!” Azrael exclaimed. “That disgusting race is finished!” He was practically rubbing his hands with glee. N-Jammer Cancellers…now we will show those space monsters!

Officers’ quarters, Jachin Due, 11 September, C.E. 71

Alex sighed, rubbing his temples. “And here I thought things couldn’t get any worse.” He dropped the hardcopy document on his desk.

His fiancée grimaced. “What now?”

“Something has sparked the Alliance into a major offensive,” Alex said. He tapped the sheet of paper. “This is an intelligence report Chairman Clyne forwarded me. As of today, Operation Elvis has begun. The target is the PLANTs themselves.”

Cagalli closed her eyes. “They’re not just content to chase ZAFT off Earth.”

“They never were.” Alex shook his head. “Cagalli, the Earth Forces’ main objective has always been the extermination of our kind, whatever they might have said for public consumption. They hate our very existence, and they can’t stand being dependent on the PLANTs for resources.”

“So, they’re going to destroy the PLANTs.”

Alex nodded. “I just wish we knew what had sparked them into action. Aside from the Moon and L1, we control space. They have the advantage of numbers, but it shouldn’t be sufficient to get them past Boaz and Jachin.”

“Yeah.” Cagalli leaned back on her bunk.

“In any case, there’s nothing I can do at present,” Alex said. “It’s the Alliance’s move.”

Which will give me a chance to get used to my new…living arrangements, he thought. When he and Cagalli had arrived at Jachin a week before, they had been informed that they would have to share a cabin, due to space concerns. Alex would have believed that, but for two factors: One, the officer he had spoken to was visibly trying to suppress a grin, and two, Alex had learned that said officer was an Academy classmate of Samorei Joule.

At least I insisted on separate bunks.

As if Alex’s thoughts had been a signal, there was a knock on the hatch. “Anybody home?”

The young FAITH operative suppressed a sigh. “It’s unlocked, Sam.” Alex raised an eyebrow. “Why are you here, anyway? I thought you and Mina were on the Izumo.”

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Sam said. “I thought I’d see how you were doing.” He gave the room a brief once-over. “Two bunks. Figures.”

Alex snorted. “Spare me the innuendoes, Sam. You know perfectly well how I’d handle something like this.” His cold blue eyes narrowed. “This whole thing is your doing, isn’t it?”

Sam gave him an innocent look. “What makes you say that?”

As I thought. “I did a little digging, and it turns out the guy I spoke to be a classmate of yours at the Academy.” Alex tilted his head. “Anything to add?”

Sam shook his head, laughing softly. “Suspicious as ever.” He shrugged. “Yeah, I had a little something to do with it. Figured you could use a…call it a preview of married life.”

Cagalli and Alex exchanged an exasperated glance. “The wedding’s in less than a year,” the princess said. “Why bother?”

“I don’t think we want to know, Cagalli,” Alex said. “Trust me, Sam has a truly disturbing sense of humor.”

Sam laughed again. “You’ll never change.” He calmed…slightly. “Anyway, Mina and I are getting married around January.”

“I’m amazed you’re taking that long,” Alex commented. “You’ve known her longer than I’ve known Cagalli.”

The other shrugged. “We had to be cagey because of her brother. Ghina wouldn’t have been happy if he’d known.”

“He’s got a point there,” Cagalli said.

Alex chuckled. “True.” He sobered. “Where’s the Izumo going to be?”

“We’re being posted near Boaz,” Sam told him. “Chairman Clyne told Uzumi and Mina about this Operation Elvis, and we’re going to be on the front lines.”

Alex stood and gripped his cousin’s shoulder. “Be careful out there, Sam. The Earth Forces have something new; there’s no way they’d be attacking the PLANTs themselves otherwise.”

“I know,” Sam said. “You be careful, too.” His gaze shifted. “Watch out for him, okay? He’s good, but he sometimes gets tunnel vision.”

Cagalli laughed. “I’ve noticed.”

Sam nodded, offered a ZAFT salute, and departed.

Alex sank onto his bunk. “Tunnel vision, is it?” He shook his head. “I should never have introduced you.”

The princess laughed again. “If you hadn’t, Andrea would have.” She came over and sat beside him. “You’re worried, aren’t you?” she said in a softer tone.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” He sighed. “One of my relatives is back from the dead, and now he may well die for real. I…I don’t know if I could take it.”

Cagalli gently embraced him. “He’ll make it. Remember Mendel, where he took down all those Daggers by himself? If he can do that in an M1, think of what he’ll do with the Gladiator.”

He took a deep breath. “You have a point.”

“And if the worst does happen, you won’t be alone,” Cagalli said softly. “I’ll be there, no matter what.” She reached up and touched his face. “I love you, Alex.”

Alex smiled. “I love you, too,” he said, and then pulled her close and kissed her.

Thunderbird, bridge, 23 September, C.E. 71

“Captain, we’re picking up a heat signature, a big one.”

Natarle looked up from her board. “What kind of heat signature?”

The tech frowned. “A lot of ships. Checking profiles…” He grimaced. “They’re definitely Earth Forces. Drake- and Nelson-class ships, Agamemnon-class ships…and the three new Archangel-class.”

Natarle swore. “Them again. All right, report to the Boaz defense command.” She touched an intercom switch. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

“Captain, the enemy is launching mobile suits!” the sensor operator called. “All known Dagger types, plus the three new GAT-X models.”

Just what we need. “All right. Launch mobile suits; load all missile tubes; prepare to fire Fafnirs and Lohengrin!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Natarle glared at the enemy formation. Like Alex, she knew that the Earth Forces would not have attacked Boaz directly unless they were confident, they could win; she wondered uneasily what could have given them that confidence.

It is not like chasing us off Earth could have done that all by itself. Space is home ground for ZAFT, and even former Alliance pilots like Mu have spent most of their careers in orbit. Natarle found herself wishing she could talk to Murrue; they had always made a good team in spite of their differing styles.

She straightened in her chair. “Engage the enemy,” she said coldly.

Boaz nearspace

Samorei Joule’s Gladiator Gundam leapt off the Izumo’s catapult, followed closely by Mina’s AMATU and several Astrays. Though it was his first actual battle in it, he had spent plenty of time familiarizing himself with the machine, both in simulations and practice matches with the AMATU, Anubis, and Duel.

A Duel Dagger closed with him; saber ready. Sam, completely unimpressed, drew one of his new Excalibur anti-ship swords and sliced the Dagger in half. Shifting the weapon to his left hand, he pulled his rifle and shot a Buster Dagger that was trying to draw a bead on him.

Beside him, the AMATU simply vanished, reappearing seconds later to bisect a Strike Dagger.

Sam grinned. Keep it up, Mina. “All right, people, let’s show the Earth Forces what we’re made of!” Suiting action to words, he snatched a beam boomerang off the Gladiator’s shoulder and threw it, neatly slicing a 105’s head off.

Another 105 pilot, having heard the transmission, froze in shock. “Lewis! You traitor!”

“I am no traitor.” The Gladiator’s blades combined, slashing once, twice through the unfortunate Dagger. “Nor am I Samuel Lewis. My name is Samorei Joule, and I am the Sahaku’s Sword.” And wouldn’t Alex just sneer at that line? He may be giving Mina a chance, but that does not mean he likes her.

The AMATU blasted more Daggers, along with a Moebius that somehow wandered into her sights. “Sahaku’s Sword, eh? I’m flattered.”

Sam grinned. “Alex might say something similar about himself and the Athhas. He’s quite the poet when he wants to be.”

“Which isn’t often,” Mina noted.

Then they were in among the warships, though nowhere near the three Archangels. Sam made a beeline for one of the big Agamemnons. A savage smile on his face, he sliced his combined sword through the ship’s bridge tower, then backed off and fired off his Callidus beam cannon. The resultant explosion destroyed two Drake-class escort ships unfortunate enough to be in close proximity.

One down, about a hundred to go, he thought grimly.

Troy Cadwallader laughed to himself. ” ‘Sahaku’s Sword’, is it? You’re a weird one, Samorei Joule.”

“Don’t encourage him,” Shiho said, her DEEP Arms flashing past and slicing a Duel Dagger in half. “What’s with these guys, anyway!?”

“Got me.” Troy’s DRAGOON system lashed out, enveloping a trio of 105s in a storm of laser fire. His shield-mounted saber ignited, slicing another in half. “It’s not exactly endemic to their genetic profile; I’m a Natural, too, remember.”

That, predictably, sparked a heated reaction. “Why is a Natural fighting the Earth Forces!?” one enemy pilot demanded.

“You traitor!” another snarled.

Troy shook his head sadly. “Just because I’m a Natural fighting for ZAFT doesn’t make me a traitor,” he said, snapping up his rifle and shooting one of them down. “I happen to be from Oceania, a PLANT ally.”

Shiho blasted the other with her cannons. “No one calls my friend a traitor!” She looked back at the Dreadnought. “You’re wasting your time, Troy. These lunatics think Oceania is a nation of traitors since your people aren’t part of the Earth Alliance.”

The Aussie sighed. “You’ve got a point there, mate.”

They soon found themselves back-to-back, blasting distant enemies and slicing up those that managed to close the range. Both sides fought with increasing ferocity; if Boaz fell, the only thing standing between the PLANTs and total annihilation was Jachin Due.

Nicol, I wish you were here, Mayura thought. Her Sword-equipped Astray Strike was more than a match for the Duel, Buster, and Strike Daggers she encountered, but the more advanced 105s were more problematic. Luckily, she was backed up by Juri’s Launcher and Asagi’s Aile.

“I’m really starting to hate these guys,” Asagi complained. Her rifle flashed, and a Duel Dagger exploded.

Juri’s hyper-impulse cannon erupted, coring through a Drake-class escort ship. “I know what you mean, Asagi.” She shifted her aim, and suddenly a 105 Dagger was aiming at her. “Oh no!”

The blast never connected. A giant sword interposed itself between Juri and the Dagger, blocking the shot, then slashed sideways, cutting the 105 in half. “Juri, are you all, right?”

She trembled with relief. There was no mistaking the MBF-P02 Astray Red Frame, or the voice of its pilot, Junker Lowe Guele. “Thanks, Lowe.”

“From all of us,” Mayura added. “But why are you here? I thought the Junk Guild was neutral.”

Lowe shrugged. “We can’t let the Earth Forces destroy the PLANTs,” he said, sounding unusually serious. “Besides, I have a friend in ZAFT.”

Mayura nodded. Lia Ramius’s Junk Guild origins were common knowledge. “We’re glad to have you along, Lowe. Watch out for Shiho, though. She doesn’t like the Junk Guild.”

“I’ll remember that.” The Gerbera Straight came up in a salute, and then Lowe was off, tearing into the Alliance formation.

Sam chopped a Dagger in half, then drew his rifle and opened up on a Nelson-class warship. “They just don’t know when to give up.”

“If they did, this war would have been over long ago,” Mina said, adding her fire to his. Then, “Sam, incoming!”

He turned, cursing. Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider were heading right for them, weapons blazing. Having met Orga Sabnak, Shani Andras, and Clotho Buer after the fall of Orb, Sam knew all too well what the thuggish pilots were capable of. What they lacked in skill they partially made up for in sheer ferocity…when they were not attacking each other.

“Look, it’s the Orb lady and her lapdog!” Orga shouted gleefully, firing his Scylla.

“Mind if I kill them?” Shani asked softly.

Clotho laughed. “Hey, they’re traitors. They deserve whatever they get, as long as it’s bad!”

Sam spun his blades, clashing against the Calamity’s shield. “I am no one’s lapdog, Sabnak,” he growled. “And even if I was, you have to remember that a dog’s teeth are still sharp.”

“Not sharp enough!” Clotho lashed out with the Mjollnir, knocking the Gladiator’s head off. “You’re terminated!”

“Sam!” The AMATU interposed itself between the Gladiator and its foes. “Are you all right!?”

He swore under his breath. “I’m fine, but my machine isn’t.” He sighed. “Sorry, Mina, I have to fall back.”

She closed her eyes, hearing mocking laughter from the druggies. “I as well; the AMATU can’t possibly stand off all three by itself.” The AMATU jetted away, carefully guiding the Gladiator.

“Just let them go, boys,” Muruta Azrael told his pilots. “There’s nothing they can do, and it would be nice for some witnesses to survive, so they can tell their people what awaits them.”

Thunderbird, bridge

“Colonel Joule and Lady Sahaku have returned to the Izumo, Captain,” Commander Morris said. “Our machines have returned as well.”

Natarle nodded grimly. “Very well.” The words were acid in her mouth. “Prepare to retreat.”

Outside, scores of Moebius mobile armors, escorted by the three Gundams and a horde of Strike Daggers, began an attack run on Boaz. Beams blew away fixed defenses, and missiles erupted from the mobile armors, streaking into the giant fortress’s gates.

“Captain, we’re picking up a massive energy release!” The petty officer turned to face her, his face white with horror. “Ma’am, they’re nukes!”

Natarle’s head whipped around. Disbelief, horror, and rage flooded through her as the eye-tearing flashes of nuclear detonations engulfed Boaz. Though it seemed to last an eternity, it only took seconds for the inferno to reduce the mighty fortress.

When the light faded, Boaz was gone.

Just like that. Bastards! “Bring us about,” Natarle said, glaring at the Earth Forces fleet. She swallowed bile. “Destination, Jachin Due.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The helmsman sounded unusually subdued.

Natarle did not blame him. The youngster was with ZAFT, which had just suffered its most crushing losses in space since the Bloody Valentine itself. She felt a twinge of guilt, recalling her own former loyalty to the Earth Forces, then firmly suppressed it. It was irrational; no one in ZAFT or the Orb forces held her past allegiance against her. Indeed, she had made a number of friends in ZAFT.

Nuclear weapons. So that is why they were confident enough to attack the PLANTs directly. The next battle would be do or die, she knew. If Jachin was destroyed, then the PLANTs would fall, and the Earth Forces were guaranteed to use nukes on the colonies.

Next time, it was victory or death.

Supreme Council Chamber, Aprilius One, 24 September, C.E. 71

Once again, Alex found himself a guest of the Supreme Council. The circumstances were far different, however; he was there as a top FAITH operative, and the state of the war was nothing short of bleak.

The Hun is at the gate, he thought darkly. Nuclear weapons, Boaz gone, this is it. Days from now, at the most, we either win, or are destroyed.

“Commander Strassmeier,” Siegel said, “do you have anything to add?”

Alex stood. “Only speculation, Your Excellency; though I believe I am correct, I cannot prove it.” He brought up a still picture of Boaz. “This was taken by the Thunderbird at Boaz,” he said. “As you can see, the nuclear missile were launched by a squadron of Moebius mobile armors, identified by comm traffic as the ‘Peacemaker Force’.” His lip curled at the last line. “They were escorted by a number of mobile suits, including the three new G-weapons. Those machines had driven off Rondo Mina Sahaku and my cousin Samorei earlier in the battle.”

“So, the Earth Forces have regained nuclear capability,” Yuri Amalfi observed.

Alex nodded. “Which means the Neutron-Jammer Canceller data has leaked,” he agreed. “Not from us, however. My people triple-checked it, and it came up clean every time.” With his experience at keeping things secret (i.e., his operations at Heliopolis), Alex was a natural choice to check for security leaks.

“If not from us, then it would have to be Neo ZAFT, but I don’t see how that’s possible,” Eileen Canaver said. “Patrick Zala may be insane, but there is no way he would leak that kind of technology to the Earth Forces.”

“I’m not accusing Zala,” Alex told her. “As you all know, Mu La Flaga, Kira Yamato, Athrun Zala, and I confronted Rau Le Creuset at Mendel two months ago. There, he revealed himself to be a clone of Mu’s father and said that humanity was destined to be wiped out. I have no doubt that he would have leaked this data in order to further that goal.”

Tad Elsman slammed his fist on the table. “And we are paying the price for his madness. Is there any indication that Zala knows?”

Alex snorted. “If he did, Rau Le Creuset would be dead. Old Metal Mask is valuable, but not to the extent that Patrick Zala would overlook something of this magnitude. No, sir, it is safe to assume Zala is completely ignorant of this matter.”

“I agree,” Siegel said. “Patrick still cares for the PLANTs in his own twisted way; if he knew Le Creuset had leaked this to the Earth Forces, he would take action.”

“Indeed,” Canaver said. “Commander, did you find anything else?”

Alex shook his head. “No, ma’am. There wasn’t much to find; more light escapes from a black hole than information from Neo ZAFT.”

“Then you had best return to Jachin,” Siegel said. “With Boaz destroyed, that will be the Alliance’s next target.”

Alex saluted. “Of course, Your Excellency.”

Officers’ lounge, Jachin Due

Athrun Zala leaned his head against the window. The news of Boaz had brought back memories of the Bloody Valentine, when he had learned he would never see his mother again. Now L5 was ablaze with nuclear fire once again.

This should not be happening. He clenched his fists, thinking of Rau Le Creuset. You will pay for this, Commander. To think I used to respect you!

“Athrun? You, okay?”

Athrun raised his head. He recognized the voice, of course. “Sorry. It’s just, this reminds me of the Bloody Valentine.”

“Yeah, I thought it would,” Kira said, moving to stand next to him. “Alex thinks it was Le Creuset who leaked the NJC data.”

“I’ll bet he’s right,” Athrun said grimly. He slammed a fist into his open palm. “To think I used to respect that bastard.”

Kira gazed at his friend, concerned. “There’s more, isn’t there,” he said quietly.

Athrun sighed. “You can bet we’ll be facing more than just the Earth Forces. Neo ZAFT will be there, too, and if they’re involved…”

Kira nodded. It was obvious where Athrun was headed. “Then you’ll have to fight your father.”

“Yeah.” Athrun closed his eyes. “He isn’t my father anymore, that much is clear. What he is doing, the man who raised me would never have even contemplated.” He swallowed. “But that doesn’t make it easy.”

“If it were easy, you wouldn’t be human,” Kira said gently. He laid a hand on the other’s shoulder. “If it helps any, I’ll be right behind you.”

Athrun managed a smile. “It helps a lot, Kira. Thanks.”

“What are friends for?” Kira looked out into space. “The war is almost over, Athrun. One way or another, it will end sometime in the next few days. Either we stop the Earth Forces and destroy Neo ZAFT, or everything we’ve fought for will be lost.”

“Yeah.” Athrun followed Kira’s gaze, thinking of his father. “That’s why we have to win, no matter what.” He shook himself. “So, how do you feel about having Alex Strassmeier as a brother-in-law?”

Kira laughed, his spirits brightening. “It’s kind of weird. You would never expect him to fall for anyone, yet he and Cagalli are inseparable. Can’t judge a book by its cover, I guess.”

“I don’t think his book has a cover,” Athrun said with a chuckle. “He doesn’t let anyone know what he’s thinking if he can avoid it. Cagalli’s one of the few people who can actually read him.” He snickered. “And you’ll be related by marriage to Yzak. I wonder if he’s realized that.”

Kira waved a hand. “We talked about it months ago, just after Orb fell. Now that he actually knows me, he’s okay with it.” He grinned. “Not that he’d try to talk Alex out of it.”

“Yeah.” Athrun gave him a sly look. “What about you and Flay?”

Kira blushed. “Uh, we’re headed that way, but nothing’s official. We’re not really old enough.”

“Not stopping Alex and Cagalli.”

“Alex is older than I am, and they’re waiting until Cagalli comes of age,” Kira pointed out. “It’ll be longer for Flay; she’s only sixteen, and she’s a Natural.”

“Point,” Athrun conceded.

Even now, he still has some innocence, he thought, smiling to himself. Even as a hardened warrior, Kira is still Kira, still the good-natured kid I knew. I hope that never changes.

The next couple of days were tense for all concerned. Muruta Azrael and his people were practically boiling over with excitement; finally, they would be rid of the “space monsters” for the last time. With the nuclear weapons and the three GAT-X models, they were confident of their ultimate victory.

ZAFT and the Orb exiles went about their duties with grim determination. As Kira had said, win or lose, this was the end. Either the Alliance and Neo ZAFT were stopped, or all was lost. That knowledge sent a chill down more than one person’s spine, but it also stiffened their resolve.

And slowly cruising to L5 was Patrick Zala’s shadowy Neo ZAFT organization. Carefully concealed in their midst was a weapon they were sure would end the scourge of the Naturals forever…

Dominion, bridge, 26 September, C.E. 71

“Almost there,” Azrael said softly. “Once we get past Jachin, we can finish those space monsters.”

William Sutherland nodded. “Even with the Orb exiles –and that traitor Sahaku- reinforcing ZAFT, we outnumber them at least five to one, Director. As you told the high command, quantity has a quality all its own.”

“And we have the three new GAT-X models, as well as people like Imelia,” Azrael agreed. “Not to mention the new anti-Phase Shift weapon, even if it’s slow firing.”

The new superdense projectiles had been developed in response to the unique abilities of Orb’s ORB-01 Akatsuki. It had been tested at the Battle of Mendel, and proved effective, even though Orb ace Kira Yamato had promptly rendered the Seraphim defenseless. The new weapon had still taken a bite out of the Akatsuki.

“What of the assassination attempt after Mendel?” Sutherland asked.

Azrael shrugged. “It was worth a try, if only to calm that little bastard Yuna Seiran down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we have someone loyal in Orb, but that kid is really annoying sometimes.”

“Captain, Director, we’re approaching the target,” the XO said. “Picking up a large number of warships and mobile suits holding position around Jachin Due. Both Orb and ZAFT types detected.”

“Understood,” Sutherland said. “Standby to engage.” He looked at Azrael, the true commander of the operation. “Director?”

The leader of Blue Cosmos waved his hand. “Whenever you’re ready, Captain.” He had total faith in Sutherland’s military judgment.

Sutherland nodded. “Launch Peacemaker Force and all mobile suits. Today we put a final end to those space monsters.”

Jachin nearspace

Justice and Freedom leapt from the Archangel’s catapults, followed by the original GAT-X models. They were soon joined by the Valkyrie’s Gundams, including the repaired X108 Stormbird piloted by former Alliance pilot Jacob Harris, Samorei Joule’s Gladiator and Rondo Mina Sahaku’s AMATU off the Izumo, and Troy Cadwallader’s Dreadnought off the Thunderbird.

Behind the Gundams were a veritable swarm of mass-produced models. Orb’s M1s, M1As, and M1S Astray Strikes, along with ZAFT GINNs (regular, recon, and High Maneuver), CGUEs (including Shiho’s beloved DEEP Arms), and GuAIZs.

Yzak as the first to spot the Peacemaker Force. “No! Those are the nukes!” His rifle snapped up, firing at the Moebius and escorting Daggers.

The Daggers responded by turning to engage, while the mobile armors launched their deadly payloads.

“We have to shoot down every one of those missiles!” Yzak shouted. “Don’t let them hit the PLANTs!”

A GuAIZ seemed to stagger in space, then exploded under a burst of plasma. “Not a chance,” Shani Andras said softly. “I wanna see all the pretty lights.”

“I’ll give you pretty lights!” Andrea Strassmeier snarled. “Strassmeier team, ignore the enemy mobile suits unless they attack you directly, they can wait! Take out those missiles!”

Kira and Athrun, meanwhile, moved to flank the Eternal. Already separating from the ZAFT ship were a pair of special weapon platforms called METEORs. When connected to the Eternal, they served as large gun turrets.

When docked with the Justice and Freedom Gundams, they more than quadrupled the machines’ firepower. More, the platforms enabled them to lock onto vast numbers of targets at once. Kira and Athrun did precisely that, unleashing a storm of missile and energy fire best described as apocalyptic.

That, of course, attracted the attention of a certain trio. “Hey, hey, hey, it’s them again!” Orga called gleefully.

“Time for a rematch!” Clotho yelled. He swung the Mjollnir, only to have it stop halfway through. “What the!?”

GAT-X207 Blitz faded into view. “I don’t think so!” Nicol snarled. “Kira, Athrun, I’ve got this guy! You take the nukes while you still can!”

“Roger that,” Kira said. “Thanks, Nicol.”

In theory, the Raider was more advanced than the Blitz. In practice, Nicol’s superior skill was giving the psychotic Clotho fits. His lancer darts were useless, but he had a definite range advantage with his rifle (Clotho’s only beam weapon had nothing for range), and the Gleipnir could penetrate PSA.

Not to mention his now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t tactics were absolutely maddening.

Dearka growled a curse, seeing a formation of Buster Daggers. “I am so sick of you!”

“You again, Elsman?” a familiar female voice said. “This time you’re not getting away!” The lead Dagger snapped its weapons together and sent a sniper blast his way.

He snap-rolled, returning fire with his beam rifle. “Imelia again,” he muttered. “Just who I don’t need to run into.”

“No argument there,” Mu agreed, adding his fire to Dearka’s. “Imelia’s one of the best.”

Dearka grunted. “I figured that out at Orb. You know her?”

“I met her a couple of times before Heliopolis,” Mu said, taking a shotgun blast on his shield. “Murrue knows her better than I do.”

The Dagger paused. “La Flaga, why did you betray the Alliance?” Imelia demanded. “You’re fighting against your own people, and for what!?”

Mu sighed. “Dearka, I’ll try and distract her,” he said, then switched to the open channel. “Kira had the same problem with his buddy Athrun, Imelia. Athrun wanted to know why Kira was fighting his own people. Kira said that ZAFT and the PLANTs weren’t his people just because they were Coordinators.” He drew a saber. “The Earth Forces aren’t my people just because they’re Naturals!”

Imelia jetted backward, gaining some breathing space. “It’s not the same thing, and you know it. Yamato is an Orb national; you are an Atlantic Federation officer, which makes you a deserter!”

“A deserter because I refused to fight for Blue Cosmos? Don’t make me laugh!” Mu swung his saber in an arc, narrowly missing the Dagger. “They want to wipe out the Coordinators, and they don’t care who else gets hurt along the way!”

“Don’t be a fool!” Imelia fired both guns at once.

Mu nimbly dodged. “There’s nothing left for me in the Alliance,” he said, shifting back to his rifle. He aimed carefully…

“Got her!” Dearka crowed.

While Mu and Imelia had been arguing, Dearka had gotten around behind and unleashed a shotgun blast. Both of the Buster Dagger’s arms had been shredded, along with the shoulder-mounted missile pods. Imelia still had sabers, but with no arms she could not use them.

Mu grabbed the wreck. “Sorry, Imelia. You’re not as bad as most of them, but I can’t let you go.” He looked at the Buster. “I’ll get her back to the Archangel. Take care until I get back.”

“Roger that.”

The Freedom’s METEOR erupted again, showering missiles and beams in a wide arc. Missile after missile vanished in the inferno, but there always seemed to be more. Mobile suit escorts of several types only added to the chaos.

“Man, they just keep coming!” Kira exclaimed.

Athrun swung his METEOR’s enormous beam sword, slicing three Daggers in half. “Back off, or else!” He paused, taking stock of the situation. “I think that’s all of the nukes, at least for now.”

“It’s not like they have an unlimited supply,” Kira agreed. Then, “Whoa!”

Two 105 Daggers streaked by, pursued by the Gladiator. Both of Sam’s rocket anchors shot out, grasping the Daggers, and slamming them together. A shot from the Callidus finished the job.

“Sorry if I startled you, Kira,” Sam called.

Athrun shook his head. “You’re as crazy as Yzak.”

The older man laughed. “You want crazy, look at my cousin the arachnid.” His beam rifle snapped up, blasting a Strike Dagger. “He tried to go up against ZAFT with one ship and five mobile suits.”

Kira started to slap his forehead, then caught himself before he could hit his faceplate. “Alex is right, you’re hopeless.” He ejected his METEOR; now that the nukes were destroyed, he did not need the overwhelming firepower.

Athrun followed suit. “Let’s go, Kira.”

“Kira, Athrun, look out!” Mir suddenly called. “It’s Neo ZAFT!”

Kira cursed, bringing up his multilock feature. “Why’d they have to show up!?” His ranged weapons opened up all at once, disabling or destroying more than a dozen Neo ZAFT machines.

Anubis and Akatsuki joined them, remote weapons spewing death in multiple directions. “Murphy’s Law, my friend,” Alex said. A curse. “Here comes Bartlett.” The two machines left as quickly as they had come.

Athrun spun his combined sabers, slicing in one direction and then the other. “Why do you have to do this!?”

The voice that answered him was completely unexpected. “I would have thought you, of all people, would understand, Athrun.”

Athrun froze, staring at the asteroid being towed by a formation of Laurasia-class warships. “Father…?”

“You’ve turned against everything you believed in,” Patrick Zala continued coldly. “What would your mother think of you now?”

N-No, I… Athrun tried to speak, but nothing came out.

The Freedom moved to hover protectively in front of the Justice. “You bastard!” Kira shouted. “How could you of all people do this to him!? He’s your son!”

“I have no son,” Zala said icily. “That became clear when he turned against me, when he turned against the fight to purge this world of the Naturals.”

Athrun trembled in his cockpit. Father, no. Has it really…has it really come to this?

“There will be no peace until the last Natural is gone!” the former chairman thundered.

Athrun finally found his voice. “Father, why!? Not all the Naturals hate us! Why do you have to kill all of them!? A lot of Naturals are on our side!”

“I’m wasting my time talking to you,” his father said coldly. There was a click as he disconnected.

Athrun just sat there and stared, shocked speechless by his loss.

“You are really getting on my nerves, Bartlett,” Alex growled. “Wiping out the Naturals won’t solve anything.”

Bartlett laughed. “So what? It’ll be worth it if I can finally settle the score with you!”

Alex shook his head. “So, you think a schoolboy grudge is worth the deaths of literally billions of innocents? You really have gone off the deep end.”

“Maybe so. It doesn’t matter!” The Deathdealer’s beam cannons erupted, forcing Alex to dodge. “All that matters is that I destroy you!”

Alex deployed his DRAGOON shield, delaying. It is a cardinal mistake to allow your opponent to dictate the terms of the battle. Therefore… His DRAGOON pods suddenly shot outward, peppering the Deathdealer and forcing Bartlett into a wild evasive pattern.

“Try this!” Bartlett drew his beam lance, jabbing at the Anubis in an attempt to keep Alex at bay.

“I think not.” Alex countered with his Shirasaya, lopping the lance in half. “You persist in underestimating me, despite losing to me time after time. Your facility for holding a grudge is clouding your thinking.”

Bartlett leveled his rifle, splashing emerald beams against Alex’s shield. “You were always a fool, Strassmeier! That is your weakness!”

“Dense as ever.” Alex snapped his sabers together. “You’re the fool. You’ve lost whatever grip on reality you ever had and become nothing more than a cheap thug.” He spun the combined weapon. “You could never beat me.”

“We’ll see about that!”

Saber clashed against saber, intermixed with laser blasts and the occasional missile attack from the Deathdealer. It soon became clear that, once again, Bartlett was good, but Alex was better. Bartlett’s sheer ferocity was countered by Alex’s cold precision.

Frustrated, Bartlett fell back and fired all his ranged weapons at once. “Give up already!”

Alex did not bother replying, choosing instead to return fire. His DRAGOON system kept his opponent on the defensive, dodging more than firing. Keep up the pressure, he told himself. Eventually, he will slip up, and then you have him.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Bartlett abruptly ceased fire, laughing. “You put up a good fight, but it’s too late! Witness the power that will rid the world of the Naturals for the last time!”

Alex started to ask what he was talking about, but something caught his eye. He turned, and his jaw dropped. An enormous structure faded out of Mirage Colloid; the gas had evidently been continuously replenished during its journey to L5. Even as he watched the weapon (which it obviously was) colored in the distinctive PSA effect.

What is that? And is that a mirror they are putting in front!?

“All units, radiation levels increasing exponentially!” Mir shouted, “Get away from that thing!”

Reflexively, Alex obeyed the call, as did the vast majority of his ZAFT and Orb comrades. The Earth Forces, though they heard the transmission, ignored it, thinking that anything that hurt their enemies helped them. They were tragically wrong.

A giant red beam erupted from the weapon, engulfing the Alliance fleet. Ships and mobile suits alike simply vanished in the conflagration; even those at the fringe of the beam were destroyed. The Dominion escaped, as did a number of smaller vessels, but the huge blast had nonetheless annihilated forty percent of the Allied fleet in one blow.

Both sides stared in utter disbelief, astounded even now at the extend of Patrick Zala’s insanity. Those who could still think recognized the attack as a focused burst of gamma radiation, but no one had ever thought such a thing was possible.

Athrun Zala’s anguished cry echoed over the comm. “FATHER!”

Chapter 33: The Missing Joule

Strassmeier residence, Martius Four, PLANTs, 14 July, C.E. 71

“Samorei, you have a lot of explaining to do,” Yzak said coldly.

The group had gathered in the living room of Alex’s home. Alex himself stood looking out the huge window; the weather people had decided it was time for some rain, which he had always found soothing. Ezalia and Andrea occupied the couch beneath the ocean painting, while Yzak and Samorei had claimed the armchairs on either side of the window. Cassandra sat in Sam’s lap. As it was a strictly family affair, Dearka Elsman, Rondo Mina Sahaku, and Cagalli Yula Athha were elsewhere.

Sam quirked an eyebrow at his brother. “Where should I start?”

“How about telling us what happened when you landed on Earth,” Ezalia suggested. She had been shocked speechless at first; now she looked both overjoyed and angry.

Sam shrugged. “Not really much to tell. I crash landed on the coast of Izanagi, and the Sahakus –mainly Mina- took me in. They nursed me back to health, and I wound up working for them out of gratitude.”

“I think you’re leaving some key factors out,” Alex said, turning away from the window. “Specifically, why didn’t you let the rest of us know you were still alive?”

“And why did you start wearing that freaky disguise after I saw you in Orb!?” Andrea added.

She really has gotten beautiful, Sam thought. Elsman’s one lucky guy. “You’d already disappeared, Andrea,” he said. “I…I didn’t want to cause any more pain, so I felt it best to be officially dead.”

“You actually thought that having us thinking you were dead would cause less pain!?” Yzak said incredulously. “Have you lost your mind!?”

Sam jerked his head at their hawk-faced cousin. “He disappeared not long after I did. Why not yell at him?”

“Because I at least made sure that Aunt Ezalia and Yzak knew I was still alive,” Alex countered, his voice starting to rise. “You, by contrast, made sure everyone thought you were dead. The difference is clear to all but the willfully blind.”

“And then you turn up alive and act like nothing’s wrong!” Yzak added. “What is wrong with you!?”

Sam sighed. “Maybe I was wrong to do that,” he conceded. “Still, it’s not like I didn’t help out at all.” He looked at Alex. “Do you remember who the chief mechanic was for that M1 you used at Orb?”

Alex nodded, wondering where this was headed. “Someone named Samuel Lewis.” His eyes narrowed. “Are you saying…”

“That was me,” Sam confirmed. “I’d heard what Le Creuset did to you at Panama, and I wanted to make sure you had a fighting chance.”

“So, my dead cousin made sure I had an Astray in complete working order,” Alex said. His right arm twitched, and a knife dropped neatly into his hand. “It would have been nice, dear cousin, if you’d had the sense to drop the charade right then and there!”

Ezalia, Andrea, and Yzak flinched in near unison. Alex almost never shouted, and when he did, it was an unbelievably bad sign.

Sam, by contrast, was completely unperturbed. “It would have been very bad timing, Alex, and you should know that.”

Seeing Alex almost ready to explode, Ezalia spoke up. “Children, that’s enough,” she said. “We should all be glad that Samorei is back with us, safe and sound.”

Yzak slowly nodded. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Alex forcibly reigned himself in. “Agreed.” He shot another glance at Sam. “You and I will have to talk about some…other things, though.”

Like Mina, right, Cousin? “All right.”

Orb Embassy, Aprilius One

Even as her fiancé and his family read Sam the riot act, Cagalli was having a confrontation of her own.

“Just who do you think you are!?” she demanded. “You and that worthless brother of yours join forces with the Earth Alliance, and then you have the gall to come and ‘help’ us!”

Rondo Mina Sahaku tilted her head. “So, you don’t believe that I’ve actually changed?”

“Why should I!?” Cagalli shot back. “You and Ghina betrayed Orb because it suited you, and now you’re helping my father because it suits you!”

Mina sighed. “I know you won’t believe me, but there really is more to it than that. Certainly, it suits my purposes; I’ve no desire to be executed.” Her expression hardened. “And it is not easy, Lady Cagalli. You did kill my brother, after all.”

Cagalli did not even blink. “What, was I supposed to let him kill me? He would have, and you know it.”

“Yes, he would have,” the older woman conceded. “I realize that you had no choice. That doesn’t make it any easier.”

That was enough to penetrate Cagalli’s anger. I would feel the same if someone killed Kira, even if they had no choice. “You’re right,” she said, cooling some. “If someone killed Kira, I’d feel the same.” She met the other woman’s gaze. “My father was willing to give you a chance, so I really should do the same.”

Mina smiled. “If you need added incentive, recall that we’re going to be marrying into the same family.”

Cagalli nodded. “Just how did you meet Samorei, anyway? It’s not every day an Orb noble gets to know a ZAFT ace.”

Mina’s gaze took on a faraway look. “It was just after the Bloody Valentine,” she said in a distant voice. “Sam’s GINN had crashed on the beach in the north of Izanagi Island. Some of our people found him and brought him in.”

Cagalli frowned. “I remember hearing about some kind of impact, but I thought it was a meteor.”

“Ghina made sure it was kept quiet,” Mina said. “A GINN High Maneuver quickly visiting on Orb would have caused quite a stir. In any case, our doctors nursed him back to health, and he ended up working for Morgenroete. He now holds a commission in the Orb forces.”

“Explains the uniform,” Cagalli said. “But Morgenroete?”

Mina winced slightly. “Yes. He was involved in the G-weapon project, which I somehow doubt is going to sit well with Commander Strassmeier.”

Cagalli winced in turn. “No kidding. If certain people –Kira and his classmates, plus Murrue and Mu- had not been onboard, Alex would have attacked the Archangel.”

“I’m not surprised. Sam told me about how his aunt and uncle were killed in the Mandelbrot Incident, Andrea’s kidnapping, and Alex’s hatred for the Alliance.” Mina’s lip twisted. “I supported your father when he chose to give Andrea refuge in Orb.”

That was not a surprise. If Mina really were involved with Samorei Joule, then of course she would support giving his beloved cousin safe haven.

“Now it’s your turn,” Mina said. “How did you meet the Spider of Artemis?”

Cagalli shrugged. “The first time was at a diplomatic reception four years ago. He had just had his right arm bitten off by a shark –he told me that after Heliopolis- and he was not in a good mood. Of course, I couldn’t tell by looking.”

Mina chuckled. “Yes, Sam told me about Alex’s cold façade. Never expected to see it firsthand, though.”

“Anyway, I didn’t see him again until Heliopolis.” Cagalli flushed, embarrassed. “I thought he was a ZAFT spy at first. He actually lost his temper when I confronted him about it, after the colony collapsed.”

“A rare occurrence, Sam tells me,” Mina said.

Cagalli nodded. “He spilled his guts about everything he’d been through, and we were friends from then on.”

“And now you’re much more,” Mina observed. “I heard about the engagement.” She smiled wryly. “For a moment, I was sure Yuna Seiran was going to drop dead of an apoplectic fit. Pity he seems to be made of sterner stuff.”

“He’ll get what he deserves in the end,” Cagalli said darkly, her dislike momentarily forgotten. She shook herself. “I wonder what Alex is up to now.”

Mina snorted. “Probably giving Sam a challenging time. He dislikes me, that much is clear, and by all accounts he’s a fanatical PLANT patriot.”

“You got that right,” Cagalli agreed. “He’s obsessed, and he’s never liked your family to begin with. Your brother’s work on the G-weapon project only made things worse. And,” she added grudgingly, “our engagement will complicate things even more.”

Mina nodded slowly. “One engaged to an Athha, the other to a Sahaku. Yes, that could complicate things a great deal.”

Strassmeier residence, garden

Alex sighed, contemplating the plants around him. The garden had been his father’s refuge; Klaus Strassmeier had explained that he needed to immerse himself in nature from time to time, get away from the lab. Of course, whether the gardens could be called “nature” was debatable, inasmuch as a lot of them were genetically engineered, many by Klaus personally. Not to mention being arranged in a perfect geometric pattern.

“I thought I’d find you out here,” Sam said, walking up to him. “You said you wanted to talk?”

Alex nodded. “We’ve already hashed out your disappearance in general terms. Now it’s time to get specific.” He nodded at the emblem on his cousin’s uniform. “Starting with your connection to the Sahakus.”

Sam shrugged. “I already told you that I worked for them out of gratitude.”

“And just what did that entail?” Alex asked pointedly.

The other tensed slightly, knowing how Alex was likely to react. “I went to work for Morgenroete,” he said. “The job took me to Heliopolis.”

“So, you were involved in the G-weapon project,” Alex said softly.

Sam covered a wince. On the rare occasions Alex shouted, he was ready to kill. When he whispered, he was ready to kill everything. Such was Sam’s view, anyway. “I was.”

Alex’s eyes bore a strong resemblance to ice crystals right then. “You were involved in the G-weapon project. The project that brought Rau Le Creuset to Heliopolis, ultimately resulting in the colony’s collapse. The project that forced Kira and me to fight people important to us just so we could do what we believed was right.”

“Right so far,” Sam confirmed.

“That’s perilously close to outright treason, Sam,” Alex said, his voice still soft. “You just admitted working on prototype mobile weapons intended for the Earth Forces.”

“It also helped Orb,” Sam countered. “And I was operating under the Sahakus’ orders the whole time.”

Alex snorted. “Maybe so. The Sahaku connection is another issue entirely.” He glared at the older man. “What were you thinking, joining forces with them? They are not as bad as the Seirans, granted, but that does not make them trustworthy. They are smarter than the Seirans, and far more ambitious. The Seirans just want to rule Orb; the Sahakus want to rule the world.”

“Rondo Ghina Sahaku did,” Sam told him, his voice cooling noticeably.

Another snort. “Do you expect me to believe that Rondo Mina Sahaku isn’t just as ambitious as her brother was?”

“She used to be,” Sam admitted. “I, however, was able to influence her enough to change things.” He matched his cousin’s glare. “She’s willing to help put an end to this insane war. What more do you want!?”

“For her to put an end to her family’s rivalry with the Athhas,” Alex shot back. “Or have you already forgotten who I’m engaged to?”

“If Cagalli will do the same, the way her father already is,” Sam told him. “Listen to me, Alex. Just as you love Cagalli, I love Mina, and I will do anything to keep her safe. Do I make myself clear?”

Alex nodded, recognizing the implicit threat. “Very clear.”

Sam grinned. “Now that we have that out of the way, I think we ought to do a little catching up. How’s Andrea doing?”

Alex relaxed. “Aside from joining ZAFT and dating Dearka Elsman, same as ever.” He shook his head. “She’s also close friends with Flay Allster, of all people, a fact that deeply disturbs me.”

“I’m just glad she got out of that Combat Coordinator mess,” Sam murmured; he had always been closer to Andrea than Alex. Indeed, her disappearance had been one of his main reasons for joining ZAFT. “And I’m glad your dream finally came true,” he added, noting Alex’s white ZAFT uniform.

Alex fingered his collar. “I hesitated at first, until Uzumi pointed out that I was a son of the PLANTs regardless, so my joining ZAFT didn’t change anything in that regard.” He looked at Sam sidelong. “And I’m glad you finally understood something clearly at last about Patrick Zala. Only took you three years.”

“It only took you that long to find a girlfriend,” Sam retorted, grinning. “Figures it’d be the Athha girl; you’ve always been attracted to the tomboy type.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “I’d hit you, Sam, if it didn’t have potential diplomatic repercussions. And if you weren’t right.” He raised an eyebrow. “You, on the other hand, go for the schemer type. Lady Macbeth, anyone?” His tone made clear that he was joking.

Sam threw back his head and laughed. “Lady Macbeth, nice, except Mina’s hands aren’t bloodstained.” He wiped his eyes. “Man, anyone who says you don’t have a sense of humor doesn’t know you.”

“You know perfectly well I don’t believe in showing my true feelings in public,” Alex said mildly.

“So, you like making people think you’re a cold fish?” Sam asked.

Alex nodded. “Yzak often says I’m like his teammate Nicol Amalfi on the inside. Since many potential adversaries see that as a weakness –stupid, given the skill of people like Nicol and Kira- it’s best not to show it.”

Sam shook his head fondly. “Same old Alex. Cold as ice on the outside, warm and fuzzy on the inside.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Warm and fuzzy?”

“Hey, you fell for that Athha girl, didn’t you?”

The Spider of Artemis closed his eyes in resignation. “Hopeless. Completely hopeless.”

Unato Seiran’s residence, Orb Union, 15 July, C.E. 71

“So, Rondo Mina Sahaku has joined Athha,” Unato Ema Seiran said.

His intelligence chief nodded. “Yes, my lord. Her pet ZAFT renegade attacked the Earth Forces fleet at Mendel, and the Izumo itself reached the PLANTs yesterday.”

Yuna Roma Seiran clenched his fists. “As if Lady Cagalli’s engagement to the bastard Strassmeier wasn’t bad enough,” he growled. “Father, we need to eliminate Sahaku. Bad enough to see one Orb noble, even a traitor, marrying into a PLANT family, but two? Especially Sahaku, who has a private army to draw on.”

“Agreed.” Unato grimaced. “I always knew that we would eventually have to dispose of her, but I didn’t expect something like this.” He looked at the intelligence chief. “Can we get an asset to the PLANTs?”

The man shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. Even if we could, the chance of success would be low. Lady Sahaku is no fool, and that ZAFT renegade is not just an ace pilot; he is also a highly capable bodyguard. Then there’s Strassmeier. He may dislike Sahaku, but her relationship with his cousin means he would almost certainly protect her the way he would a blood relative.”

“And the Spider of Artemis is a martial arts master and a crack shot with any firearm known to man,” Unato said sourly. “You raise an excellent point, unfortunately.” He rubbed his temples. “What are our options?”

The intelligence chief shrugged. “All we can really do is hope the Earth Forces –or Blue Cosmos- get lucky. My sources tell me that the Alliance is trying to regain nuclear capability.” He tapped a folder he had brought along. “Failing that, we can hope all four of them fall in battle.”

“How likely is that?” Yuna asked.

The other side. “Unfortunately, not very. Before joining Orb’s military, Samorei Joule was a ZAFT Elite, as was his cousin before his recent promotion. Lady Cagalli is also highly skilled, and the Akatsuki is a very formidable unit. As for Lady Sahaku, rumor has it she is even better than her brother was.” He looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, my lord, but that’s the situation.”

Unato grimaced again. “I see. No help for it.” He looked at his son. “Yuna, I want you to contact Azrael. I know he’s already made Strassmeier a priority target; we’re just asking that he add Joule, Sahaku, and the Athha girl to the list.”

“Of course, Father.”

Amalfi residence, Maius City, PLANTs

Music filled the small room, the light notes of a piano. The musician, a sixteen-year-old with green hair, was very gifted; he barely glanced at the sheet music before him, playing largely with his eyes closed. Looking at him, one would never realize he was an ace mobile suit pilot.

It has been too long, Nicol thought. I have spent so much time in battle, I had almost forgotten what it was like to do this. Even that recital Athrun and I attended after the Eighth Fleet battle was not the same.

He smiled wistfully. Though he had no regrets about his decision to join ZAFT, there were some things he missed, and this was one of them.

Nicol’s dream was to become a concert performer, but after hearing of the Bloody Valentine, he had felt that he ought to do his part and join the fight. He had enlisted the day he turned fifteen, and quickly rose to near the top of his class. On graduation in September of C.E. 70, Nicol’s scores had been high enough to earn the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite and had won him a place on the Le Creuset team.

Now, almost a year later, he was fighting alongside people who had once been his enemies…

Footsteps sounded behind him. “Don’t mind me.”

Nicol smiled, recognizing the voice. “Hi, Mayura,” he said, his fingers never faltering. “What brings you here?”

Mayura Labatt parked herself in a nearby chair. “Your mother invited me to drop by,” she said.

Nicol nodded, unsurprised. Both of his parents had been delighted when he and Mayura started dating. His mother in particular wholeheartedly approved of the young Astray pilot, saying that Mayura was just the kind of person Nicol needed in his life.

“You really are good,” Mayura went on. “I’m not really into this sort of thing, but I can still tell.”

“Thanks.” Nicol finished the piece and started another. “I’ve always enjoyed this, ever since I was little.”

“Ever play in concert?”

Nicol shook his head. “The closest was a recital just after the Eighth Fleet was destroyed.” He smiled wryly. “Athrun was there, but he kind of fell asleep, though he told me later he was only resting his eyes.”

Mayura laughed. “Sounds like him. I don’t know him the way you and Kira do, but that’s easy to picture.” She stood and moved to lean against the piano. “You really should see about playing in concert.”

“Not till after the war,” Nicol said. “When the PLANTs are free, then I’ll see what I can do.” He finished playing, stood, and drew her into an embrace.

She rested her head on his shoulder. “I’ll help, any way I can.”

Public park, Junius Five, 18 July, C.E. 71

“Would someone mind telling me what we’re doing out here in the pouring rain?” Alex asked.

Sam chuckled. “Hey, you’re the guy who finds rainfall soothing.”

“I prefer to be indoors when it rains,” Alex retorted.

“Come now, Alex, at least we’re all wearing raincoats,” Rondo Mina Sahaku said, taking Sam’s right hand in hers.

Alex shot her a glance but held his peace. He still did not exactly trust her, but he was willing to give her a chance. Not to mention pressing the issue with Sam around was a Bad Idea.

“Besides, it helps us stay incognito,” Cagalli put in. She pressed a hand on her hip; beneath the coat, Alex knew, was a holstered auto pistol. “And we can take care of things if we have to.”

Alex nodded. He himself wore his Luger in a shoulder holster and had three knives in a compartment in his artificial arm. Sam had a knife up each sleeve, one in his right foot, and one on his belt, as well as his old ZAFT-issue machine pistol. Mina Sahaku had a gun in her coat, and all four of them were highly proficient at hand-to-hand combat.

He did find it odd that Mina and Cagalli were not tearing into each other, though.

“There they are,” the quad leader said. “Just a little longer…”

His number two nodded, expression quietly vicious. Just a little longer, and we can take out some space monsters on their own ground. He did not know how Lord Yuna had gotten the information that led to this attack, but it was definitely spot-on.

“Now!” the leader snapped.

Alex spun around, yanking out his Luger. “Heads up, we’ve got company!” At least a dozen armed men were charging them. One of them fired, his shot bouncing off Alex’s right arm; Alex’s return shot took him in the right eye, shattering his skull.

Sam talked Mina to the ground and produced his machine pistol aimed. “Who are these guys, anyway!?” he demanded, putting a precisely aimed burst in an attacker’s chest.

“For the preservation of our blue and pure world!”

Alex cursed in German. “That answer your question?” His right hand twitched, and a knife appeared in an assassin’s throat.

Cagalli appeared at his side. Her pistol barked, smashing through a terrorist’s nose. “Bastards!”

Then it was Mina’s turn. Her gun, it turned out, was not a gun at all, but rather a needler. The small hypervelocity projectiles literally separated an attacker’s head from his shoulders.

“This is not how I’d planned to spend my day,” Sam muttered. His right-hand knife came out just in time to slash the throat of an enemy who got too close. “Six down.”

Alex’s Luger chose that moment to jam. Cursing, he shifted the weapon to his left hand and lashed out with his right, smashing yet another terrorist’s face. The dead man toppled over, tripping up one of his fellows.

It soon became clear that Alex’s initial estimate of attackers’ numbers had been low. Even more were coming seemingly out of nowhere. Luckily for Alex and his companions, there was plenty of cover, and none of the attackers were Coordinators.

Sam had knives in both hands now, slashing left and right, Mina covering him with her needler. Cagalli and Alex crouched together, he is having unjammed his pistol. Slowly but surely, they struck down the somewhat inept assassins, taking them out one by one.

Mina abruptly leapt to her feet. “This one’s mine!” Ignoring Sam’s startled protest, she lunged at an isolated Blue Cosmos operative, tackling him to the ground and knocking him unconscious.

“Why did she do that!?” Cagalli wondered, putting a bullet through an enemy’s heart.

“I think she decided it would be wise to take at least one of these vermin alive for interrogation,” Alex said. His hand twitched again, and a knife buried itself in his target’s chest. “She’s probably right.”

Then it was over, and the four youngsters just stood there, watching the rain spread red streams in what had been a peaceful park just minutes before.

Detention center

The man Mina had captured was soon awake. In light of the fact that his group had attacked at least three foreign representatives, plus one of ZAFT’s top commanders, the local police did not hesitate to use truth drugs.

“I have to say, it’s lucky you guys were armed,” the officer in charge said. “Those were some pretty serious challenging cases.”

“We noticed,” Alex said. “I don’t know of any Blue Cosmos operative who isn’t a hard case.”

The OIC nodded. “You’ve got a point there.”

“Hard cases aside, who set them on us?” Sam asked. “It’s not easy to get that many operatives into the PLANTs.”

“I don’t know how they did it, and neither does the prisoner,” the OIC said. “He does, however, know who sent them.”

Cagalli gave him an impatient look. “And that is?” she prompted.

“Yuna Roma Seiran.”

Mina’s jaw dropped. “How good he have managed that? Yuna’s not smart enough to pull it off.”

“He probably bribed someone who did know the tricks and let them handle it,” Alex said, then turned to the police officer. “Why were they sent after us?” As if I could not guess.

The other snorted. “The Seirans need the four of you eliminated, so Yuna –without his father’s knowledge, evidently- decided to do something about it, even though he’d already been warned the chance of success was very low.” He jerked his head at the holding area. “What should we do with him?”

Alex looked at his companions. “What do you guys think?”

“I say let the justice system run its course,” Sam said. “He’ll get what he deserves.”

“I agree,” Mina said. “However, as a noble of Orb, it really isn’t my decision to make.” Cagalli nodded agreement.

Alex shrugged. “Very well.” He turned to the OIC. “Just go through whatever SOP is for this sort of thing.”

“Yes, sir.”

The door opened behind them. “Hey, Alex, the Chairman wants to see you.”

Alex turned and froze despite himself. His cousin Yzak was now dressed in the white uniform of a ZAFT commander. On top of that, the scar that had typified him ever since coming to Earth was gone. His demeanor had changed subtly as well; though still a hothead, at the same time Yzak seemed more relaxed.

Sam broke the silence. “Never thought I’d see you in white, Yzak,” he said with a grin. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” Yzak grinned back, then gave Alex a smug look. “You gonna just stand there?”

Alex shook himself. “Right.” He gave Cagalli a quick kiss and departed.

“So, what’s going on, anyway?” the princess asked.

Yzak smirked. “Alex just earned himself another promotion. You’ve heard about that new spec ops unit Chairman Clyne is setting up, right?” Cagalli nodded. “Alex landed a spot with them. Athrun’s going to be the field commander, with Nicol as his exec.”

“It makes sense,” Sam said. “I heard a lot about what Alex was able to pull off before he joined ZAFT. This new FAITH organization is the perfect place for him.” He tilted his head. “So how come you’re not jealous?”

Yzak shrugged. “In case you did not notice, Sam, I got promoted, too. I’ll be taking over for Athrun, with Dearka as my second-in-command.”

“Alex still outranks you, though,” Mina pointed out.

“So what? I’m a mobile suit pilot, simple,” Yzak said. “Alex has always been better than I am at grand strategy and stuff like that.”

Sam nodded. He distinctly recalled Alex’s near obsession with military history. Alex had read every book on strategy he could get his hands on, starting with the works of Sun Tzu. He had a knack for it, as Artemis had proved.

“Why’d you get rid of the scar?” Cagalli asked suddenly.

Yzak actually looked embarrassed. “Well, since the guy who gave it to me is a friend now, it seemed kind of pointless.” He turned to leave. “See you guys later.”

“And where are you off to?” Sam asked, a teasing note in his voice.

This time, to the astonishment of all present, Yzak blushed. “A date with Shiho Hahnenfuss,” he admitted.

The room dissolved into laughter.

Siegel Clyne’s office, Aprilius One

Siegel smiled as the hawk-faced young man entered his office. “Welcome.”

The youngster saluted. “Commander Alex Strassmeier, reporting as ordered, Your Excellency.”

“Please, relax,” Siegel said. “In fact, be seated, all of you.” He waited until the three had obeyed, then flowed suit. “No doubt you at least are wondering what’s going on, Commander Strassmeier.”

“Yes, sir, I am,” Alex admitted.

Siegel nodded. “Understandable. Athrun and Nicol have been involved in this already, so they have a clever idea of what’s happening.” He nodded at the two ZAFT Elites. “After recent events, I deemed it wise to bring you in as well.”

Alex frowned. “Are you talking about the new special operations force?”

The Chairman nodded again. “It is still in the process of formation. Athrun here will be the field commander, with Nicol as his exec.” He stood, activating a view screen. “Orb has fallen, and we are on the verge of losing Kaohsiung. Victoria is in Earth Forces hands, as you know, and we have reason to believe they are preparing for an assault on Gibraltar.”

Alex grimaced. “That’s bad.”

“Indeed. That is why Ezalia, and I decided we needed a new force, one outside the normal chain of command.” Siegel looked at him shrewdly. “With your experiences prior to joining ZAFT, you demonstrated considerable ability. And that, Commander, is why I am offering you a position in FAITH.”

The younger man met his gaze. “Assuming I accept, just what would that entail?”

At Siegel’s nod, Athrun answered. “You’ll be able to act pretty much as you see fit, within limits,” he said. “You’ll answer only to the Chairman personally.”

That could have advantages, Alex thought. “All right,” he said. “I accept.” He stood, came briefly to attention, and saluted.

“You’ll have to get over the excessive formality,” Siegel said with a chuckle. “This isn’t like the regular ZAFT forces.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Alex said. “What about my team?”

“Your sister will take over command,” Siegel told him. “She may not have your strategic ability, but she’s still very good at her job.”

Athrun laughed. “Even if she is completely insane. No offence.”

Alex waved a hand. “Nothing I haven’t said many times –to her face.” He stood. “Well, I’d best get going. If you will excuse me, Your Excellency.”

He ran into Ezalia Joule just outside. “Hi, Aunt Ezalia.”

“Alex.” Ezalia smiled, touching the wing-like emblem on his collar. “I see you’ve accepted.”

“Yeah.” Alex smiled back. “I could hardly refuse an opportunity like this.”

She laughed softly. “You always did love a challenge. Sometimes that is what made you fall in love with Cagalli. By all accounts, having a good relationship with her is a huge challenge.”

“Depends on how much she likes you or doesn’t like you as the case may be.” Alex shook his head. “Lucky for me, I happen to be on the positive end of the spectrum.”

“True.” Ezalia’s expression softened. “Your parents would be enormously proud of you, Alex. Thanks to you, the family is back together. You’ve fulfilled your dream and found someone to love in the process.”

Alex felt tears sting his eyes but refused to let them fall. “I like to think so,” he said softly.

“It’s true. Trust me, Alex.” She gave him a quick hug. “Try to be understanding about Sam, though.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You don’t mind his choice of…companion?”

“Even if I did, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Ezalia said. “He’s just as stubborn as you and Yzak.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” Alex muttered. “Easier to herd cats than to get Samorei Joule to change his mind. Less painful, too.”

His aunt laughed. “You haven’t lost your gift for one-liners.” She shook her head. “Speaking of Sam, I have to talk to him. MMI just finished a new prototype, a test bed for some weapons intended for the next generation of mobile suits. I thought Sam would be a good pilot.”

“Makes sense,” Alex agreed. “He’s a hot pilot who was involved in the G-weapon project. I’d best leave you to it, then.”

Ezalia hugged him again, quickly. “Take care of yourself, Alex.”

“I will.”

ZAFT test facility, December Five

Samorei Joule stood on a high catwalk, facing a dormant mobile suit. “Mother, just what is this thing?”

Ezalia switched on a set of spotlights. “This is a new prototype, a test bed for weapons intended for the next generation of mobile suit. YMF-X001A Gladiator.” She pointed to various parts of the machine. “Of its weapons, only the CIWS –it uses the same model as the Freedom- and rocket anchors aren’t contemporary designs.”

Sam whistled softly. “A beam rifle, two beam boomerangs, two anti-ship swords, and something that looks suspiciously like the Scylla mounted by the Aegis and Calamity.”

“It’s called a Callidus,” Ezalia said. “Of course, aside from the CIWS and rocket anchors, these are all very preliminary versions.”

“They’ll do,” Sam said. “It’s better than anything the Earth Forces have.” He turned to face his mother. “Mom, Alex has already read me the riot act about Mina. How do you feel about it?”

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Samorei, if she was able to win your heart, then she must be a special person.”

“Alex doesn’t seem to think so,” Sam said, a grin tugging at his lips.

“Alex was born suspicious, you know that” Ezalia said. “Admittedly, I can’t blame him in the case of Mina Sahaku, not after what her brother did.”

Sam nodded. “Mina doesn’t, either especially since he’s engaged to Lord Uzumi’s daughter. It’s only natural that he’d be suspicious of any Sahaku.” He shrugged. “I don’t know if he’ll ever like her, but he’s willing to at least give her a chance.”

“And he’s not going to harangue you about it again,” Ezalia said. “He told me that herding cats was easier than getting you to change your mind about something.”

He laughed. “That’s Alex, all right. A one-liner for every occasion.” He came forward and embraced her. “Thank you for understanding,” he whispered. “And…I’m sorry I made you worry.”

She hugged him back. “It’s all right. Just be careful out there.” She pulled back, meeting her son’s gaze. “And do make sure Lady Sahaku survives as well. With her brother dead, and the likely fate of the Seirans, Orb is running low on nobles.”

Sam laughed again. “No problem there. I’m not worried, though; Mina can handle herself on the battlefield.” He looked back at his new Gundam. “I can’t wait to take this baby for a spin.”

Ezalia sobered. “You’ll have your chance soon enough, I think. Things are going badly on Earth; it’s only a matter of time before they attack the PLANTs directly.”

Sam nodded. “And I’ll fight them. For Mina, and for the Homeland.” The last came out with absolute conviction; though he was now a citizen of Orb, Samorei Joule still bore love for the PLANTs.

Yes, I will fight them, he thought. For Mina, for the Homeland, for Andrea, and for the aunt and uncle they murdered.

Zala residence

Kira Yamato stood gazing over the artificial lake. He had received word of the attack an hour earlier and had come out to try and calm himself. It had not worked very well; Kira normally had a calm disposition, but attacking his beloved sister was guaranteed to put him in a murderous rage.

Those bastards! If I ever get my hands on Yuna, he is dead!

A hand landed on his shoulder. “Kira, are you all, right?”

He took a deep breath. “I will be, Flay. It’s just that-“

“You’re angry about what happened,” Flay finished for him. “So am I. At least they came out all right and took out most of their attackers. The only reason Lady Sahaku spared one was so that they could interrogate him.”

“Yeah.” Kira clenched his fists. “If I ever get my hands on Yuna Seiran, he’s dead. Nobody attacks my family like that.”

“You’ll have to take a number,” Flay said wryly. “I don’t think Alex has been that mad since the Raider almost killed Cagalli at Orb.”

Kira nodded, stroking the robot bird on his shoulder. One thing he had never doubted about his future brother-in-law was his ability to protect Cagalli. With his skill in the martial arts, a talent for knife tricks, and uncanny marksmanship, the man was a veritable walking death machine. Getting on his bad side was a safe way to commit suicide.

Of course, a lot of my friends are like that, he thought with a wry smile. Athrun Zala, Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Mu La Flaga, and Andrew Waltfeld, just to name a few. For that matter, Cagalli herself had a rarely seen vicious streak.

“Do you know when we’ll be going out again?”

Kira shrugged. “FAITH is finally getting set up, so Athrun and Nicol aren’t in the regular chain of command anymore, though they’ll still be flying off the Archangel. Yzak’s taking over the team.”

Flay chuckled softy. “Never thought I’d see him in a white uniform. He deserves it, though.”

“Yeah.” Kira wrapped an arm around her. “He’s good, Flay. Maybe not on my level, or Athrun’s, but still one of the best.” There was no arrogance in that statement; Kira was telling the simple truth.

She rested her head on his shoulder. “And you’re the best.”

“Maybe.” Kira smiled. “Flay, thank you.”

She looked up at him, puzzled. “For what?”

“For being there.” Kira stroked her cheek. “Without you, I would’ve lost my mind a long time ago.”

Flay smiled. “You’re welcome, but I wasn’t the only one. Cagalli was there. Sai, Tolle, Mir, Alex, even Kuzzey. You were never alone.” She snuggled against him. “But I’m glad I could help.”

“More than you know.” Kira leaned close and kissed her.

“They look so happy together,” Lacus said. She and Athrun stood in the hallway behind the two Orb soldiers.

Athrun nodded. “Yeah.” They turned away, letting the couple have some privacy. “When I first heard that they were together –Cagalli told me on that island- I thought it was proof the Earth Forces were manipulating Kira.”

Lacus raised her eyebrows. “Why is that?”

Her fiancé rubbed his cheek ruefully. “Her father, Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster, was a top Blue Cosmos official. Anyway, Cagalli slapped me in the face over it.”

Lacus laughed softly. “I can see that.”

“I knew when I actually met Flay that she was no Blue Cosmos fanatic,” Athrun said. “Cagalli was right; she was the only thing really keeping Kira going. And he was all she had left after her father was killed.”

Lacus nodded. “I wonder what they’ll do, after the war.”

“You can bet they’ll get married sooner or later,” Athrun said. “We’ll still see them a lot; I’ll be working with Orb quite a bit.” He grinned. “Besides, they’ll be visiting the PLANTs fairly often. Remember who Cagalli’s engaged to.”

“Yes.” Lacus looked pensive. “They needed each other just as much as Kira and Flay did. Alex was in despair over his family, and Cagalli needed someone who would treat her like a normal person.”

Athrun smiled. “And what about us?”

Lacus smiled back. “It may have started as a parental arrangement, but we’re far beyond that, I think.” She held up her favorite Haro. “You wouldn’t have given me Mister Pink, otherwise.”

“Haro! Haro!” the robot chirped.

Athrun chuckled. “Yeah, you’re right.” His eyes took on a distant look. “We’ll have a future.”

Jachin Due command center, 8 August, C.E. 71

Alex stared at the situation plot; his expression grim. ZAFT had already lost Kaohsiung and Gibraltar, and now the Earth Forces were launching a major attack on Oceania. Alliance mobile suits had been confirmed around Ayer’s Rock, including a few Buster Daggers, one of them reportedly piloted by Rena Imelia, and Kira’s onetime nemesis Edward Harrelson in a Raider Full Spec.

“So, it’s begun,” Siegel Clyne murmured.

“I don’t think we can hold Carpentaria, Siegel,” Ezalia Joule said. She looked at the trio of Orb nobles standing nearby. “We’ve confirmed Rena Imelia’s involvement.”

Cagalli snorted. “No surprise there. She knows better than anyone else how to use those Buster Daggers.”

“What bothers me is their next move,” Mina said. “If we lose Carpentaria, there’s only one place left for the Alliance to strike. Here.”

Grim nods all around. The PLANTs, the Coordinator Homeland, were the only possible objective if the Earth Alliance truly intended to win. While Patrick Zala’s Neo ZAFT was a wild card, and had to be destroyed, the true symbol of victory for the Alliance was the complete destruction of the PLANTs.

“We will prevail,” Uzumi said. “We have no other choice.”

Alex took Cagalli’s hand. The Earth Forces may be coming, but they will have to fight on our home ground. We have the advantage in space. He was not stupid enough to think it would be easy, but he was confident they would succeed.

Chapter 32: Rau Le Creuset Unmasked

Mendel nearspace, 11 July, C.E. 71

Though the Earth Forces had pulled back, and Neo ZAFT seemed to be as well, Andrea was still worried. Her brother Alex had accompanied Mu La Flaga, Kira Yamato, and Athrun Zala into the colony, and nothing had been heard since. It had not been exceptionally long, but since they had gone in pursuit of Rau Le Creuset, she could not help worrying.

“Worrying about your brother?” Dearka asked, the Buster appearing to her left.

Andrea nodded. “Yeah.”

He smiled. “Andrea, I’ve fought against him. Trust me, he’s not going down that easily.”

She forced her muscles to unknot. “Yeah. Yes, you’re right.” She snapped her Trikeros up, vaporizing an enemy GuAIZ that got too close, then keyed her comm. “Archangel, Valkyrie, any word on the others?”

“Nothing yet, sorry,” Lia said.

“We haven’t heard anything either,” Murrue said, sounding tense. No surprise; her relationship with Mu was well known, and she saw both of the twins as younger siblings.

“Don’t start panicking yet,” Yzak put in. “They’re our best pilots, and both Alex and Athrun are crack shots. Le Creuset isn’t going to take all four of them by himself.”

Andrea nodded again. She knew her cousin was right, but she was still worried. Rau Le Creuset was quite possibly the greatest soldier ZAFT had ever known; awarded the Order of the Nebula after the Battle of Yggdrasil, hero of the Grimaldi Front, commander of an elite unit, skilled pilot in his own right…

She clenched her hands on the Specter’s control bars. If you hurt my brother, Le Creuset, I will kill you myself.

Archangel, bridge

Murrue leaned back in her command chair, rubbing her eyes wearily. “At least we have a chance to catch our breath,” she said.

“Duel, Buster, Blitz, and Aegis have returned to the ship, Captain,” Mir said. “Deck crew is commencing resupply.”

“Understood,” Murrue replied. “Make sure the pilots get some food and rest while they can.” She looked up at Flay. “Any word from the colony interior?”

Flay shook her head, her face pale and drawn. “No, ma’am. Nothing from any of them.” She swallowed hard. “According to Commander La Flaga’s last transmission, it was definitely the Providence, though, so it must be Commander Le Creuset in there.”

Murrue frowned. “Are you all right, Flay? You sound like you’re worried about more than Le Creuset.”

The redhead nodded. “According to Alex, the only logical place for Le Creuset to go is the GARM facility, where Kira and Cagalli were born.”

“And you’re afraid Kira will learn something he doesn’t want to hear,” Murrue said.

“Yeah,” Flay admitted.

Miriallia smiled at her friend. “Don’t worry so much, Flay. Kira already knows about his origins, and even if he does hear something new, he is not alone there. You can bet Athrun will back him up.”

“Don’t forget Alex,” Sai added. “The only time I’ve ever seen him lose his cool was when Captain Badgiruel took Lacus hostage. He’s got ice water in his veins.”

“Commander La Flaga won’t let Le Creuset get away with anything,” Neumann said.

Flay turned back to her board, feeling marginally reassured. Kira, my love, be careful in there. Please, come back safe.

Mendel colony interior, GARM facility

It was a strange tableau. The enigmatic Rau Le Creuset stood in the open, gun in hand but pointed at the floor, a slight smile on his face. Alex Strassmeier stood directly opposite, face unreadable as usual, his heirloom Luger held in a rock-steady grip, aimed directly at Le Creuset. Mu La Flaga also had his weapon aimed at the masked man; he looked angry. Athrun Zala stood protectively in front of his friend Kira Yamato, weapon ready but not actually aimed.

“This place is a forbidden temple,” Le Creuset said. “A monument to the twisted dreams of people who thought they could play god.”

“Save the melodrama, Le Creuset,” Alex said coldly, his trigger finger tightening very slightly. “We’re not the kind of people who can be impressed by theatrics.”

Le Creuset shook his head pityingly. “You never did appreciate the theater, did you? Very well.” He looked at Kira. “You know of your origins, of course, presumably thanks to Chief Representative Athha.”

“So what?” Kira glared at him.

Le Creuset smiled. “Did Lord Uzumi tell you everything? Did he tell you how many were sacrificed prior to your birth?” He waved at the long-dead embryos. “A great many of your siblings perished before you, the one success, were born.”

Kira’s eyes went wide. “No…I didn’t…”

Athrun gripped his friend’s shoulder with his free hand. “Kira, it’s not your fault,” he said firmly. “You’re not responsible for what happened.”

“He’s right,” Alex said, not taking his eyes off Le Creuset. “Is there a point to that, Le Creuset? That’s like blaming Athrun for his father’s plans for genocide.”

Mu found his voice. “What does my father have to do with this?” he demanded. “He died a long time ago.”

“Ah, now we come to the crux of the matter,” the other said. “Your father, Al Da Flaga, was a major source of funding for Doctor Hibiki’s experiments. One could say you’re young Kira’s godfather.”

“Word games,” Alex said, his poker face slipping just enough for a hint of contempt to show through. “Enough of the riddles, Le Creuset. If you have something to say, then say it, and stop wasting our time. We have a war to fight.”

“All in suitable time.” Le Creuset gestured expansively with his free arm. ” ‘Today my secret shall be revealed. I did not come into this world through natural birth.’ George Glenn was the first Coordinator whom humanity knew.”

Athrun snorted. “Everyone knows what happened to him.”

His former CO gave him an approving nod. “Exactly my point; it’s good to see you still have your quick mind. Yes, it ultimately led to his death, and far more. I wonder if he ever fathomed what kind of darkness, he unleashed with that one announcement.”

“So, you’re blaming George Glenn for the actions of a few psychopaths?” Alex did not bother to conceal his skepticism. “Blue Cosmos started out as an environmentalist group; they’d have been crazy even if Glenn hadn’t spoken out.”

“Perhaps so,” Le Creuset conceded. “Nevertheless, even those who don’t support Blue Cosmos are often uncomfortable with our kind.” He waved a hand. “Oh, I admit it’s not always the case; even Patrick Zala never accused Mu of such prejudice.” He nodded politely at the Hawk.

Mu glared at him. “Just what are you getting at?”

“Hatred feeds on hatred,” Le Creuset said. “Coordinators see Naturals as vermin, Naturals view Coordinators with a mixture of envy and disgust. That cycle has no end, but it certainly had a beginning. And Ulen Hibiki’s work only made things worse.”

“Watch it, Commander,” Athrun said, his voice unusually soft. “It’s not Kira’s fault people want to kill him.”

Le Creuset laughed. “Oh?” He looked at Kira. “The dream of humanity, the ultimate Coordinator. Why wouldn’t people, even other Coordinators, see you as a threat?”

“I don’t see him as a threat,” Athrun snarled. “He’s my friend, no matter how he was created.”

“Ah, but you have a long-standing connection to him,” Le Creuset said. “Your bond is such that even learning of his origins was unlikely to separate you. Do you really think others would react the same?”

Neither Athrun nor Kira answered. Alex, however, was unaffected. “The same could be said of the basic conflict between Naturals and Coordinators. Orb is proof that there can be peace.”

“And yet Orb was invaded,” Le Creuset said. “Besides, isn’t one of the Five Noble Families opposed to Coordinators?”

“Unato Ema Seiran is a traitor, and his son is a fool,” Alex countered. “Orb has always been a refuge for our kind, and you know it.”

Le Creuset smirked. “No longer now that Orb is a protectorate of the Atlantic Federation. It was inevitable, you know.” He shook his head. “Lord Uzumi should never have adopted one of Hibiki’s progeny; all it did was put Orb in greater danger.”

“You’re really losing it,” Mu said with a snort. “There’s no way the Earth Forces know what she is.”

“Even if they don’t know, there’s the trivial matter of her engagement to Commander Strassmeier here,” Le Creuset said. “It’s common knowledge that he is related to Ezalia Joule; hardly something to make the Alliance feel at ease.”

Alex’s eyes flashed. “Uzumi has never cared about making the Alliance feel at ease.”

“But you are a byproduct of the same project that produced Kira, are you not?” Le Creuset smiled at his brief look of surprise. “Oh, yes, I know all about your father’s participation. So, how does it feel to know that he used you in an experiment?”

Alex gritted his teeth, though his aim never wavered. “That’s none of your business.”

“As you wish.” Le Creuset’s smile turned faintly mocking. “People try to play god, and the result is chaos. Nothing ever changes.”

He is rambling, Alex thought in amazement. Rau Le Creuset is rambling. Never thought I would see that happen.

Dominion, bridge

“It seems things are tougher than we thought,” Muruta Azrael commented.

Captain Sutherland grimaced. “That’s putting it mildly, Director. The Spider of Artemis, the traitorous Hawk of Endymion, and Rau Le Creuset in one place. A recipe for disaster if there ever was one.”

“Not to mention Yamato and Zala did a number on our new GAT-X models,” Azrael agreed. “A pity about La Flaga, though; he really was the hero of the hour at Endymion. Maybe we’d have kept his loyalty if we’d promoted him a little faster.”

Sutherland shook his head. “He doesn’t care about rank, Director, and he positively hates being called a hero. We got all the use out of him that we could.”

“And he was always too kindly disposed towards Coordinators in any case,” Azrael agreed. “I guess it was inevitable.”

“As for Murrue Ramius, she’s a protégé of Admiral Halberton, another traitor,” Sutherland went on. “The real surprise is Badgiruel.” At his superior’s questioning look, he tapped his screen. “She comes from an old military family, Director. I find it hard to believe someone like that would turn traitor.”

Azrael raised an eyebrow. “You think maybe she’s just pretending to be loyal to them, trying to take them from within?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Sutherland shook his head again. “Not everything they said at Alaska was a lie, Director; I could tell that her support for that space monster Yamato was completely genuine.”

“Oh, well.” Azrael shrugged. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and if victory means losing someone with Badgiruel’s ability, old military family or not, so be it.”

Sutherland nodded. “In any case, I believe we should make Strassmeier a priority target, as well.”

Azrael looked at him questioningly. “Why him? I’m not criticizing, simply curious about your reasoning.”

The captain began ticking off points. “First of all, he is without a doubt one of ZAFT’s best strategists; rumor has it he is being called the next Rau Le Creuset, and the Artemis fiasco certainly bears that out. Secondly, his mobile suit is vastly superior to anything we have, and he is fiendishly good with it; there is a reason our people are calling him the Silver Death. And finally, his engagement to the princess,” here he grimaced in obvious distaste, “has given both ZAFT and the Orb exiles a considerable morale boost; neutralize him, and there should be a corresponding drop.”

“Not to mention hurting the princess herself, and thus degrading her skill,” Azrael said thoughtfully. Not an insignificant point; the Akatsuki was an enormously powerful unit, and Cagalli Yula Athha fought like a demon. “All right. We’ll probably have to swarm him with mobile suits; few of our pilots are up to his level, or so I judge by the way he took the Moonlight Mad Dog apart.”

Sutherland grunted. “Unfortunately, I will not be at all surprised if Chevalier turns his coat. He was never comfortable with Alliance policy.”

“Um.” Azrael winced. “Good point. We’ll have to make sure he doesn’t come back alive, then.” He turned to look out the forward viewport. “Just a little longer…”

Valkyrie, cafeteria

Cagalli chewed her food without really tasting it. The pitched battle outside the Mendel colony had been rough, but generally successful; both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT had been forced to pull back. Nevertheless, they were not yet out of danger, particularly since their top pilots had gone chasing Rau Le Creuset.

She swallowed, looking out at the abandoned colony. It looked so peaceful, but Cagalli knew it was anything but. Her fiancé and her beloved brother had gone in there in pursuit of a madman. And that’s where Kira and I were born, she thought.

“Worried about Alex?” Lia asked, sitting down opposite the princess.

Cagalli sighed. “Yeah. I mean, I know he’s good at what he does, but there’s so much about that place that we don’t know…”

Lia smiled. “Cagalli, I’ve known Alex Strassmeier nearly all my life. Trust me, there’s nothing in GARM that would faze him in the least.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right…” Cagalli sighed.

Lia just watched her for a moment. She loves him so much that she cannot help worrying, even when he has the upper hand.

“So,” she said at last, deciding a change of subject was in order. “You two set a date yet?”

Cagalli smiled, grateful for the change. “We’re thinking next year, late May or early June. Assuming we get out alive, of course.”

“Cagalli, you’re both too stubborn to die for the Earth Forces’ convenience,” Lia said. “You’ll make it.” She sipped her drink. “Have you decided anything else?”

The princess shook her head, smiling. “I see why Alex is so fond of you.” She shrugged. “We’ll actually have two homes, Alex’s in the PLANTs, and the Athha residence in Orb, so it’ll be a little crazy.”

Lia laughed. “Yeah, I can imagine.” She looked her friend in the eye. “Do you have any regrets about this?”

Cagalli shook her head again, firmly this time. “None. I don’t even care that our engagement was timed in order to beef up morale; like my father said, it would have happened eventually anyway.”

“That’s what I thought.” Lia nodded. “Don’t worry, your husband-to-be will come back alive.”

Cagalli nodded. “I know.”

GARM facility

“I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” Alex said, glaring at Le Creuset over the sights of his weapon. “Ulen Hibiki is dead, Al Da Flaga is dead, my father is dead, Mikhail Coast is now with ZAFT –I’m amazed he didn’t join Zala’s faction- it’s all long over.”

“Are you sure, Commander?” Le Creuset asked. “You yourself spent years searching for Kira and his sister, ever since your father died. How do you know it isn’t over?”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “Now that I’ve found them, the matter has been brought to a close.”

“Not quite,” the other said, looking at Mu. “Aren’t you curious as to why your father would have funded Hibiki’s research?”

“Who cares!?” Mu snarled. “My father always thought I was a weakling; why should I care who he was funding?”

Le Creuset laughed. “Exactly the point! We met once before, Mu, long, long ago, before we ever met on the battlefield.”

“Just what are you saying!?” Kira snapped, having regained his equilibrium.

“You and I have much in common, Kira,” Le Creuset told him. “Both created to serve another’s selfish ends, both accomplished warriors…both feared by others.”

“Shut up!” Kira yelled, shaking. “I’m nothing like you! Sure, I’ve fought, but only to protect people important to me!”

“Like your Natural lover?” The masked man chuckled at Kira’s expression. “Oh, yes, I know all about that. Difficult to conceal, given whose daughter she is.”

Athrun’s gun snapped into position. “That was a low blow, Commander,” he hissed angrily. “Kira’s been through enough; he doesn’t need you adding to it.”

Le Creuset ignored him. “Al Da Flaga hated the thought of Mu as his heir; the thought of someone like that inheriting all that wealth turned his stomach. That is why he turned to Doctor Hibiki, quite possibly the most brilliant geneticist of our time.”

“Or the most insane,” Alex countered. “Anyone who would use his own son in an experiment like that.”

“Insanity and brilliance are frequently two sides of the same coin,” Le Creuset said. “I have no doubt that in his own twisted way he had Kira’s best interests in mind, and Kira does seem to have turned out well, given the circumstances. How long that lasts remains to be seen.”

Despite being artificial, Alex’s knuckles were white as he gripped his pistol. “Why don’t you get to the point,” he suggested, “before I decide to do what I swore to do after Heliopolis.”

“All in good time.” Le Creuset gestured once again at their surroundings. “It was here that Al Da Flaga made his attempt to cheat that which he most feared.” He was starting to sound more than a little unstable. Suddenly, he grinned. “I am he, that arrogant fool, who thought he could thwart death itself with his money. Al Da Flaga, your father, but I am merely that man’s defective clone!”

Mu stared in disbelief. “My dad’s clone!? Do you really expect anyone to believe that fairy tale!?”

“I don’t want to believe it either! Unfortunately, it’s true!” Le Creuset was definitely sounding mad now.

Alex had been watching him closely, so he knew exactly when and where to dive when his opponent started shooting. “You’re even crazier than Bartlett, and that’s saying a lot,” he said, returning fire and missing.

“With each step, humanity moves farther along the road to oblivion!” Le Creuset said, firing repeatedly. “No matter what we do, no matter what we learn, nothing ever changes! People are amazing that way!” His voice was actually starting to quaver.

“Bastard! What gives you the right to sound so superior!?” Mu demanded, then grunted in pain as a bullet grazed his shoulder.

“I am the only one who’s earned that right!” Le Creuset cried. “In all the universe, I alone have the right to judge all humanity!”

Alex cursed as his gun jammed. Unfortunately, Lugers were notorious for that. “Now who’s playing god?” he muttered.

Kira abruptly sprinted from cover, firing as he came. “No! It will not happen! I won’t let you!” Le Creuset fired back, gashing Kira’s flight suit, and knocking him off balance but doing no real damage. Kira missed all but one shot, grazing the side of Le Creuset’s head and tearing the mask from his face.

The four of them froze, staring in disbelief. Rau Le Creuset’s face was indeed that of a young Al Da Flaga, a blue-eyed face, framed by his long blonde hair. After seeing the photo of Mu riding his father’s shoulders, though, the crazed look seemed very out of place.

“Commander,” Athrun whispered.

“Do you really think you can stop this!?” Le Creuset demanded. “No one can do anything about it, for the whirlpool of hatred is engulfing the universe!” He turned and sprinted away; Alex, the only one with a clear line of fire, was unable to intervene with his jammed gun.

Kira moved to Mu’s side. “Can you stand?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Mu said. “He just grazed me.” He looked at Athrun. “You, okay?”

Athrun nodded. “Just startled. I knew there was something strange about him, but this is unexpectedly.”

“Save it for later,” Alex said. “We have to get back to the fleet.” He gave the room one last look. “There’s nothing for us here.”

Together, the four left GARM behind them.

Archangel, bridge

“Captain, it looks like at least some of the Earth Forces ships have effected repairs,” Tonomura said. “They’re closing; Neo ZAFT also appears to be moving in.”

“Captain, I have the Strike, Freedom, Justice, and Anubis on scanners,” Mir said. “All machines undamaged.”

Murrue sighed with relief. “That’s good to hear. Any word from them?”

The answer came from the bridge speakers. “We had Le Creuset cornered, but he got away,” Mu said. “He grazed me, but it’s nothing major. I’m still in action.”

Murrue swallowed. “Please, Mu, be careful.”

Though all she could see were his eyes, she could tell he was smiling. “Don’t worry, Murrue. I’ll be fine.”

Izumo, bridge

Rondo Mina Sahaku sat in the chair once occupied by her late brother. His death at the hands of Cagalli Yula Athha, though upsetting, had also forced her to reexamine her own actions and beliefs, and that had led her to certain decisions.

I do not know if I can ever forgive her, she thought, but we do not dare act as enemies now. Too much is at stake.

“Lady Sahaku, both the Earth Forces and Neo ZAFT are moving to engage the Orb and ZAFT units,” her XO said. “What are your orders?”

Mina sighed. “We have no choice. The Earth Alliance will suck Orb dry if we do not do something, and Patrick Zala is a threat to everyone. We assist our countrymen.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She looked at her private screen. “You know what to do.”

A man in a jade green flight suit, his helmet visor opaque, nodded. “I know, Mina. You can count on me. Besides,” here there was a note of humor, “it’ll be funny to see how they react afterwards.”

Mina could not help grinning. “I’m sure it will.” The image winked out, and she turned back to the main viewer. “Engage the enemy.”

Mendel nearspace

Alex blasted another Strike Dagger to pieces, then swung his Shirasaya through an unfortunate 105. “Come into my web!”

He was joined by the Golden Gundam, its beam rifle flashing. “Take that!” Cagalli snarled.

The return of the four Gundams had provided a much-needed morale boost. With both of their adversaries moving in, both ZAFT and the Orb exiles knew they were in for a nasty fight. Freedom and Justice were an especially welcome sight.

“Alex, you, okay?” Yzak asked, bringing the Duel up alongside the Anubis.

Alex blasted an enemy GuAIZ before replying. “I’m fine. Get this: It seems your old CO is a clone of Mu’s father.”

“WHAT!?” Stunned, Yzak almost missed the Duel Dagger bearing down on him. He sliced it in half. “Are you SERIOUS!?”

“You heard right, Yzak,” Athrun put in, stabbing a CGUE with his saber. “We even saw him without his mask. He looks younger, but there’s no doubt about it.”

“A defective clone,” Mu added, his gunbarrels spitting emerald death. “He ages too quickly, shortened telomeres. It drove him insane.”

Yzak shook his head, trying to clear it. “So, what does he want?”

“To bring the entire world down with him,” Mu said simply.

Then they hit the main enemy force, and there was no more time for talk. The Earth Forces reached them first, led by the three new GAT-X machines. Kira and Athrun squared off against Forbidden and Raider, while Dearka found himself exchanging fire with the Calamity.

“Annihilate!” Clotho Buer shouted, swinging the Mjollnir at the Freedom.

Kira grimaced, dodging at the last instant. “What is wrong with this freak anyway?” he wondered. Drawing a saber, he chopped down on the Raider’s shield.

Nearby, Athrun dueled with the Forbidden, his double saber against Shani’s scythe. To the Alliance pilot’s fury, Athrun was pushing the pace, wheeling, and dodging the clumsy scythe strokes while at the same time forcing the Forbidden back.

Alex and Yzak fought as a team, combining Yzak’s ferocity with Alex’s coldly precise marksmanship. Like with Kira and Athrun, anything one missed the other was likely to hit; a Strike Dagger somehow evaded the Anubis’s DRAGOON spiderweb, only to receive a railgun slug dead center.

“Die, Earth scum!” Yzak snarled, firing all his ranged weapons at once. The hurricane of beams, missiles, and solid slugs reduced an entire squad of Daggers to useless junk.

Alex sighed, watching a Duel Dagger evaporate under his DRAGOON assault. “Idiots. What can you hope to gain from this?” He prepared to fire again, but his machine was struck from the side. “What the!?” Then he saw what had collided with him. “You again.”

The blood red Deathdealer Gundam hung in space before him. “Ready for a rematch, Strassmeier?” Bartlett taunted.

Alex’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Get out of the way, Bartlett. I don’t have time for you.”

“But it’ll be fun,” the other protested. He was definitely sounding unstable, though not to the same extent as Le Creuset. “Come on, traitor!”

“So be it,” Alex said, snapping his sabers together.

“I’m with you, Alex!” Yzak called. He glared at the Deathdealer. “I’ve had it with you, Bartlett!”

Bartlett laughed. “I can tell where your loyalties lie, Joule. You were always an idiot.” With that, he fired a blast from his beam cannons.

Which promptly bounced off the Akatsuki, Cagalli having gotten in the way at the last instant. “Not this time, bastard!”

That gave the Neo ZAFT pilot pause. He was well aware of the Akatsuki’s mirror coating, and while he also knew its weaknesses, exploiting them against a pilot of Cagalli’s skill would be difficult. Far from impossible, though.

I will teach this spoiled brat a lesson, he thought viciously.

Eternal, bridge

“So, Bartlett’s back,” Waltfeld said.

DaCosta nodded. “We’ve identified his machine as ZGMF-X15A Deathdealer, a unit that was in the planning stages, but never actually built.”

The Tiger grunted. “Looks like Zala’s people decided to build it,” he said. “Well, with Alex, Yzak, and Cagalli so close, there’s not much we can do.” He looked over his shoulder. “Sound okay to you?”

Lacus Clyne nodded. “Yes. Alex in particular is an exceptional pilot; with Yzak and Cagalli backing him, he should be all right.” She looked at Aisha. “What about Kira and Athrun?”

“They’re fighting two of the Earth Forces’ GAT-X machines,” the older woman said. “Kira’s fighting the Raider, and Athrun is battling the Forbidden.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” Waltfeld said. “Kira and Athrun are the best we have, and those thugs make Bartlett look calm and collected. They’ll be fine.” He turned his attention to Aisha. “What about the Calamity?”

“Dearka’s handling that,” she said. “The Calamity might be a superior machine, but Dearka is definitely a better pilot.”

DaCosta, meanwhile, was frowning at his monitor. There was something very odd, but he was not sure what. A heat signature was barely visible, far away from the combat zone. What is that? he wondered. It looked like a ship, but it was too far away to be sure.

Then it hit him. “Commander, I have the Izumo on thermal.”

Waltfeld straightened. “The Izumo? What is Sahaku doing here?” He knew that with Ghina dead, his twin sister Mina was in charge. Since it had been Cagalli who killed Ghina, Mina’s reaction was unpredictable.

“Commander, we’re being hailed by the Izumo,” the comm officer said. “It’s Lady Sahaku.”

Waltfeld shrugged. “Put her on.”

A dark-haired woman appeared on the main viewer. “Greetings, Commander Waltfeld,” she said. “And Miss Clyne.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but what exactly are you doing here?” Waltfeld said bluntly. “Your family supports the Earth Forces, and everyone knows about your rivalry with the Athhas.”

Sahaku shrugged. “We were using the Earth Alliance for our own ends, as you probably deduced. However, after my brother’s death I found myself reexamining our goals, and I did not like what I saw. As for the Athhas, rivalries have no place here. The Earth Alliance and Neo ZAFT threaten us all, so we are here to offer our assistance.”

Waltfeld thought for a moment, then nodded. “All right. You are from Orb, so you are more Uzumi’s problem; I will make sure your people are tagged as friendly. Watch out for Alex, though; he’s not an enthusiastic fan of your family.”

Sahaku smiled. “Thank you. As for Commander Strassmeier, let us just say I have a way of cooling him down.” She saluted, and the image winked out.

“A way to cool Alex down, huh?” Aisha commented. “It’ll have to be a doozy, given his opinion of the Sahakus.”

“Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it,” Waltfeld said.

Mendel nearspace

Alex gasped for breath. Even with him, Cagalli, and Yzak together, Bartlett had proved more of a handful than he had expected. The three of them had just barely been able to drive him off, and he had been laughing all the while.

“Man, what’s with that guy?” Yzak wondered. “Talk about going off the deep end.”

“I wish I knew, Yzak,” Alex said. “He’s always been vindictive, but this is over the top even for him.”

“You guys are about to get some help,” Waltfeld’s voice cut in.

The three exchanged puzzled glances. “What kind of help?” Alex asked. “Neo ZAFT is pulling back; all that’s left are some Earth Forces cannon fodder.”

“And those three G-weapons,” Waltfeld pointed out. “Anyway, Rondo Mina Sahaku offered to lend a hand.”

“Sahaku!?” Cagalli demanded incredulously. Alex and Yzak both winced at the volume. “Since when does she care!?”

Waltfeld chuckled humorlessly. “She says that she reexamined her goals after you killed her brother and didn’t like what she saw.”

Cagalli did not answer right away. “All right,” she said at last. “I’ll let it go for now. What kind of help is she sending?”

Another chuckle. “A single M1.”

“A single M1!?” Yzak repeated. “Is Sahaku insane!?”

“No, Yzak,” Alex said softly. “She isn’t.”

Yzak and Cagalli turned and spotted what Alex had already seen. A single MBF-M1 Astray, jade green in color, was tearing into a group of Earth Forces mobile suits. Despite the fact that at least three of them were the more advanced 105 Daggers, the mysterious Astray pilot went through them like a buzz saw. Pieces of mobile suits flew everywhere; at least one Buster Dagger was actually liquefied.

The Earth Forces pilots were not taking it lying down, of course. After the initial shock, they managed to at least start returning fire. Unfortunately for them, the Astray always managed to be elsewhere, sometimes at the last instant. More debris spewed in all directions.

Who is this guy, anyway!? Alex thought in disbelief. The only person I know of who can pull those stunts in an M1 is…well, me.

Yzak whistled in admiration. “This guy’s good.”

“You can say that again,” Cagalli agreed. “Whoever this guy is, he’s no rookie.”

Even the druggies were jolted. “Who is this guy!?” Orga demanded.

“He’s not human!” Clotho said in shock. “Nobody can do that in a grunt suit!” Shani, a man of few words, just stared.

Then, though it had not seemed possible, it got even worse. The stranger was no Kira Yamato or Athrun Zala, but he was still an extremely dangerous individual. Yet more pieces of Daggers exploded in many directions, along with half of a hapless Neo ZAFT CGUE.

“Thorough, isn’t he?” Alex commented a few minutes later.

Orbital dock, December City, PLANTs, 14 July, C.E. 71

Following the Battle of Mendel, the Izumo was escorted to the PLANTs by the Archangel and the Valkyrie. Though they were grateful for Mina’s assistance, they were also wary. The Sahaku family had a well-earned reputation for scheming, so the allies could not afford to take everything at face value.

A fairly large group watched the Sahaku ship slide into the dock. Lord Uzumi stood flanked by Alex and Cagalli, the former expressionless as usual, the latter visibly tense. Also present were Siegel Clyne and his daughter Lacus, both Captains Ramius and Natarle Badgiruel, Lewis Halberton, Kira Yamato, and Athrun Zala, as well as Ezalia and Yzak Joule. Alex’s sister Andrea stood with Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi. Andrew Waltfeld and Aisha completed the gathering.

The hatch opened, and Rondo Mina Sahaku stepped out, a man in a jade green flight suit a half step behind her.

That has to be the Astray pilot, Alex thought.

“Lady Sahaku,” Clyne greeted. “I’m sure you realize that this is very unexpected.”

The rogue Orb noble smiled. “Think nothing of it, Your Excellency. It’s unexpected for me, as well.” She looked at Alex. “And for him, I’m sure. Tell me, Commander, did you ever expect to receive aid from a Sahaku?”

In one smooth motion, Alex took a long step forward, drew his Luger, and leveled it at the bridge of her nose. “Aid from someone who betrayed her country. Hardly. You seem to be a compulsive turncoat, Lady Sahaku.”

To his considerable surprise, Mina did not even twitch. “Do you think so, Commander?”

Alex snorted. “You allied with the Earth Forces, and I have no doubt the same motive holds true for your actions at Mendel.” He gave her a brief nod. “I am impressed, though. Most people who found themselves looking down the barrel of my pistol would be shaking about now.”

Mina merely smiled and gestured down and to Alex’s left.

Alex frowned slightly, followed her gaze, and froze. While they had been speaking, the M1 pilot had somehow gotten around without anyone noticing and was now holding a knife bare millimeters from Alex’s carotid artery.

“Why the fear in your eyes, Cousin?” the stranger asked, ignoring the stares from just about everyone else in the room. “That’s not like you.”

“Congratulations,” Alex said. “Not many have ever gotten the drop on me like that.” He raised an eyebrow, noting the other’s opaque visor. “Now, why did you just call me cousin?”

The stranger stepped back. “I’m surprised you of all people had to ask that,” he said, removing his helmet.

Alex went rigid, eyes widening in shock. The pilot had silver hair, cut shorter than Yzak’s but unmistakably similar, and ice-blue eyes. His face bore a strong resemblance to Yzak, though less angular than Alex.

“Samorei,” Yzak breathed.

Cagalli’s eyes widened. “Alex, that’s your older cousin? But you said he died at Junius Seven.”

“I thought he had,” Alex said, regaining his composure. “Come to think of it, his machine was never found, so he was declared MIA.” He holstered his pistol. “Presumably, it underwent an uncontrolled atmospheric reentry, and wound up in Orb. Am I right, Cousin?”

Samorei nodded. “That’s right. Mina took me in,” he said, nodding at her. “So, you can see why I didn’t appreciate you pointing a gun at her.”

“Yes. Yes, I can.” Alex stepped forward, and his left hand moved like a striking snake, catching Sam in the jaw, and laying him out flat.

“Samorei!” Mina called.

Sam held up a hand. “It’s all right! I deserved that.” He got to his feet. “I can tell why he did it.”

Alex shot Mina a brief glance. More to that relationship than meets the eye. “That’s right,” he said aloud, gesturing at Ezalia and Yzak. “You let your family believe you dead, Sam. Can you even imagine the kind of pain you put them through?”

His cousin winced. Alex had not raised his voice, but Sam knew him well enough to hear the considerable anger. “It’s a long story, and this really isn’t the place for it,” he said.

“So, you never told them!?” Andrea said incredulously. “Even after I saw you in Orb!?”

Alex wheeled on his sister. “You knew!?”

She nodded. “I met up with him just after Lord Uzumi took me in,” she said. “I thought you already knew he was alive; that’s why I didn’t say anything. Although,” she added thoughtfully, “I did wonder why he started wearing some freaky disguise.”

“Indeed.” Alex nodded slowly. “I suggest we take this home, so to speak.”

“I agree,” Uzumi said, speaking for the first time. “Lady Sahaku, though your actions were treacherous, I am willing to accept your renewed allegiance…provided you behave yourself.”

Mina bowed. “Of course, Lord Uzumi. I quite understand. And since Sam’s cousin is engaged to your daughter, I have some, call it added incentive.”

The Joules were already moving toward the exit; as this was a family matter, Cagalli had discretely stayed behind, chatting with her brother. She was glad to stay in any case; much as she loved Alex, she knew perfectly well that this particular family reunion was not going to be all sweetness and light.

Chapter 31: Kira’s Birthplace

Dominion, bridge, 10 July, C.E. 71

The captain of the Earth Alliance’s newest warship leaned back in his command chair. Dominion, one of three newly constructed Archangel-class warships, had just completed its final tests. Soon they would be going to the front, taking this war to ZAFT’s home ground.

“Captain Sutherland, we’re receiving a message from Command,” the comm officer said. “It’s Director Azrael.”

Sutherland nodded. “Put him on.”

Muruta Azrael smiled from the screen. “Well, hello, Captain. Congratulations on your new command.”

“Thank you, Director,” Sutherland said. He cocked his head. “Is something up, sir?”

“We’ve heard reports of suspicious activity at L4,” Azrael told him. “Dominion, along with Cherubim and Seraphim, will be sent to investigate. Think of it as a bit of a shakedown before you head to the front lines.”

Sutherland nodded. He was still puzzled, though. “Why would there be suspicious activity at L4? The area was abandoned after the Battle of Yggdrasil.”

Azrael shrugged. “Best guess is Neo ZAFT; Clyne isn’t crazy enough to send people to the middle of nowhere.” He waved a hand. “Anyway, the Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider are being assigned to your ship, and I’ll be going along to see how they perform in space. Is that all right with you, Captain?”

“Of course, sir,” Sutherland said firmly. As a high-ranking member of Blue Cosmos, he had no problem with the idea of sharing his bridge with the group’s leader. “Those new machines will be of help, after what happened at Artemis.”

“Yes, I heard about that,” Azrael said. “Rumor has it that Strassmeier kid was behind it.”

Sutherland snorted. “No rumor, Director. I’ve met him, and I can tell you from personal experience that he’s very devious.” He shook his head. “Not that I’m shedding any tears for Sahaku; that man was more trouble than he was worth. And Garcia is just a fool.”

“He’s Eurasian, what do you expect?” Azrael shrugged again. “So many of them defected after Alaska, after all.” He glanced at something off-screen. “Speaking of Alaska, you might have a chance to get back at the Archangel –and the Spider- for tricking you. If Neo ZAFT is poking around L4, you can bet those space monsters will make an appearance.”

“I look forward to it, sir,” Sutherland said. “Dominion out.”

Yes, I will look forward to it, he thought savagely. You humiliated me –us- at Alaska, Strassmeier. And you, Murrue Ramius. You will pay for your treason with your life, “Captain”.

Thunderbird, pilots’ lounge

Shiho Hahnenfuss had always found the starscape soothing. Lounging in a chair facing the viewport, a drink container in hand, she frequently gazed out for hours on end. It allowed her to forget the war, however briefly.

“Watching the stars again, mate?”

Shiho smiled, recognizing the voice. “Hi, Troy.”

“I always preferred the wet blue yonder, myself,” Troy said, taking a seat next to her.

She knew what he was talking about. Back in their Academy days, he had told her a lot about his scuba diving trips along the Great Barrier Reef. “I’m amazed you didn’t wind up like Commander Strassmeier,” she said with a grin.

The Aussie laughed. “Nah, I’m too good for that,” he said. It was not bravado, either; before joining ZAFT, Troy had been a legend in his native Sydney for his shark encounters. Unlike the Spider of Artemis, he was never even scratched.

“Anyway,” Troy went on, “I thought you’d be on the Archangel about now, since we’re not in combat.”

Shiho blushed. “For your information, Troy Cadwallader, Yzak Joule is not my boyfriend.”

“Yet.” Troy was unfazed by her glare. “Come on, Shiho, you’re too much like Commander Strassmeier’s fiancée: you’ve never been good at hiding your feelings. I think Yzak is the only person who hasn’t noticed.”

He had a point…blast it. Not that Shiho had any intention of admitting it.

“He’s right, Shiho,” Mayura Labatt put in, adding fuel to the fire. “I know it’s not like Nicol and me, but there’s definitely something there.”

“Got it really bad,” Asagi Caldwell agreed.

“No doubt about it,” Juri Wu Nien added.

Shiho sputtered for about thirty seconds. Then, “So what!?” she demanded hotly. She glared at the bespectacled Astray Strike pilot. “And you are one to talk, Juri! What about that Junker, what is his name, Guele?” With an effort, Shiho kept the distaste out of her voice; she had never liked the Junk Guild.

Juri flushed crimson. “What…I…it’s not like that!”

Troy laughed. “Not quite,” he conceded. “I’m pretty sure Lowe’s not interested, anyway.”

“Now, why don’t we stop arguing about everyone’s love life,” Mayura said.

“Yes, why don’t we,” Shiho said with a grimace.

Despite her irritation, she actually liked the Astray girls. Especially Mayura, who had more than a little tomboy in her. Though they lacked Shiho’s experience, they made up for it with solid teamwork and raw courage.

Their new MBF-M1S Astray Strikes probably helped, too.

“So, any idea where we’re going?” Mayura asked Troy. “You’re the Special Forces agent.”

He shrugged. “I hear Admiral Halberton got a message from the Homeland this morning, but I have no idea what it said.”

Asagi raised her eyebrows. “A Special Forces agent doesn’t know?”

“Hey, mate, I’m not the fleet commander,” Troy protested. “Or a team leader, for that matter; you can bet Strassmeier got the same message, or at least a similar one.” He rolled his eyes. “I just fly around in the Dreadnought blowing things up.”

Shiho sighed, shaking her head. “You’ll never change, Troy.”

He looked mildly affronted. “Well, why should I change? I’m fine the way I am.”

Shiho buried her face in her hands. “Oh, brother.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex read the message from the Homeland yet a fifth time. Mendel. What would Neo ZAFT want at Mendel? While it was true Zala’s top lieutenant, Rau Le Creuset, knew that Kira and Cagalli had been born at Mendel, that did not explain the breakaway faction’s interest. The colony had been hit with a bioweapon, then sterilized with X-rays and abandoned. As far as Alex knew, there was nothing of interest left.

A hatch slid open, prompting him to smile. “Hi, Cagalli.”

She came over and gave him a quick kiss, then sat opposite him. “Hi, Alex.”

“I was just looking over a message from the Homeland,” Alex said. “We’re being sent to L4. Specifically, the Mendel colony.”

That got a reaction, as he had known it would. Cagalli’s eyes went wide. “The place where Kira and I were born,” she murmured.

“Exactly. Apparently, Neo ZAFT has been poking around there.” Alex sipped from a coffee cup. “I don’t know what they’re after; as far as I know, there’s nothing there.”

“Except the GARM facility,” Cagalli said softly. “Le Creuset knows about Kira and me.”

Alex’s expression darkened. “That would make sense. I was planning to check it out myself while I was searching for the Ultimate Coordinator. If there is anything of interest left in the Mendel colony, it’ll be at GARM.”

He stood, moving to gaze out the viewport. “In any case, you can bet the Earth Forces are going to be sending a task force. We have received reports of three new Archangel-class ships at Ptolemaeus Base. The lead ship, Dominion, is said to be commanded by my old ‘friend’ William Sutherland.”

Cagalli winced. “With three of those ships, it’ll be a lot harder than Artemis.”

“And that’s not even considering whatever Zala throws at us,” Alex agreed. He looked at her, concerned. “Are you okay with this? Going to Mendel, I mean.”

She joined him by the viewport. “Alex, I don’t care how I was created,” she said, taking his hand. “What matters is who I am now.”

He smiled. “I always knew you were strong-willed,” he said, gently pulling her close. A shadow crossed his face. “I wonder what Sam would think…”

Cagalli looked up at him. “Sam?”

Alex sighed. “It’s not commonly known –not now, anyway- but Cassandra wasn’t always Yzak’s only sibling. He had a brother, Samorei, about a year or so older than he was. The reason he’s not in the family photo is because he was elsewhere at the time, not sure why.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Sam joined ZAFT in late sixty-nine. He…he died at Junius Seven.”

“Alex.” Cagalli caressed his cheek.

“It was just after I learned of his death that I pulled my little vanishing act,” Alex said. “Admittedly, I did not disappear completely; I left a message with Aunt Ezalia, though I didn’t say where I was going. I just wanted to make sure she and Yzak knew I was still alive.”

“I’m sorry.” Cagalli felt a brief spike of fury. Yet another crime for the Earth Forces to answer for.

Alex shrugged. “We don’t talk about it much, but I do know it’s one of the reasons Yzak joined ZAFT.”

“So why tell me?”

He quirked an eyebrow. “And why shouldn’t I tell my wife-to-be? You’d have eventually found out in any case.”

“Point,” she conceded. “Andrea would have told me sometime.”

“I’m not sure,” Alex said slowly. “Come to think of it, I don’t know if she knows what happened. She disappeared before the Bloody Valentine.”

“Maybe you should ask her,” Cagalli suggested.

Alex shook his head. “Not now. This isn’t the time; if she does know, I’ll just be mentioning painful memories, and if she doesn’t know, the shock would be rather poorly timed.”

She nodded. Andrea was the more emotional of the family (though that was not saying much), and the last thing they needed was to give her that kind of a jolt.

“No matter what happens,” Alex said softly, “Samorei’s death will be avenged…”

Mendel nearspace

As both the Earth Forces and ZAFT suspected, units of Patrick Zala’s Neo ZAFT were investigating the abandoned Mendel colony. Three Nazca- and five Laurasia-class ships hovered outside the colony, screened by a swarm of mobile suits. Most of those machines were GuAIZs, but two Gundams were among their number, Rau Le Creuset’s ZGMF-X13A Providence and Daniel Bartlett’s new ZGMF-X15A Deathdealer.

“Hurry up,” Bartlett snapped. His temper had frayed noticeably in the months since the spectacular end of Operation Spit Break. “We never know when the Earth Forces –or those ZAFT traitors- might show up.”

“Yes, sir!”

Le Creuset shook his head. “You might want to consider dealing more gently with your subordinates, Bartlett,” he said.

“What’s it to you, Metal Mask!?” the other snapped. “I run my team my way.”

“People work better when they’re led, not screamed at,” Le Creuset countered. “I thought you knew that.” He raised an eyebrow behind his mask. “Or has Strassmeier gotten to you?”

Bartlett snarled wordlessly. “Mind your own business, Le Creuset!”

I seem to have struck a nerve. “You’re playing right into his hands with that kind of attitude,” Le Creuset warned. “You know even better than I do that Strassmeier is cold as ice. He’ll use your anger to his advantage.”

He ignored the incoherent sputtering that passed for a response.

Archangel, Kira’s quarters, 11 July, C.E. 71

Kira sat on his bunk, staring at nothing. Murrue had told him about their latest assignment, and he was not sure what to think. On the one hand, Lord Uzumi had told him of his origins months earlier, yet that was different from actually seeing his birthplace with his own eyes, and he was more than a little afraid of what he would find.

He scolded himself. What happened at Mendel almost twenty years prior did not matter? He was who he was, and he was not alone. Flay, Cagalli, Athrun, Lacus, and others, all of them had promised to stand by him.

“Kira?”

Kira looked up. Flay had come in while he brooded. “Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

She sat beside him. “Are you worried about our next mission?”

He did not bother to ask how she knew about it; she was the communications officer, after all. “Sort of. I mean, I know all about how I was created, but I can’t help being a little afraid of what we might find.”

“It’ll be all right,” Flay whispered, gently embracing him. “You already know how you were created; the worst we’ll find is some of the technical stuff. None of that matters.” She settled her chin on his right shoulder. “Of course, some good came out of it, too.”

Kira smiled, sensing the dual meaning. His extraordinary abilities were important to all of them, and his very existence was important to her personally. And to a few other people as well, most notably Athrun Zala.

“You’re right,” he said, returning the embrace.

“All hands, Level One Battlestations!” Murrue’s voice said suddenly. “Both Neo ZAFT and Earth Forces units have been spotted near Mendel! Mobile suits, prepare for launch!”

Kira and Flay knock on the door running.

Mendel nearspace

“All right, guys,” Athrun said, maneuvering the Justice into position. “Looks like we’ve got company.”

Yzak blew a Strike Dagger into flaming dust. “What do these guys want at Mendel, anyway? There’s nothing here but junk.”

“I don’t know why the Earth Forces would be here, but I can make a good guess about Neo ZAFT,” Kira said, frying an enemy GuAIZ. He was reluctant to kill, but since Neo ZAFT’s goal was the extinction of the Naturals, he realized that they could not be allowed to live. “Cagalli and I were born here, and Le Creuset knows about us.”

Dearka swore. “That would explain it,” he growled. “And it would explain why the Earth Forces are here: they’re after Neo ZAFT.”

“Makes sense,” Athrun agreed. Father, why?

It was quite possibly the most chaotic battle to date. Neo ZAFT’s intervention in Panama aside, there had not yet been a true tree-way engagement. The Earth Forces had superior numbers (including three Archangel-class warships), while the ZAFT/Orb alliance had qualitative superiority.

Counting out Neo ZAFT would have been a mistake, though. Though fanatics, their pilots were highly skilled. Few of them were redcoats, but they were far better than most Earth Forces pilots. And, of course, they had two Gundams, both superior to the new GAT-X models.

At least Father’s machines have special markings, so we can tell them apart from our own people, Athrun thought grimly. Each Neo ZAFT mobile suit (save for the Gundams, which did not need it) had the ZAFT emblem emblazoned on both shoulders.

One such machine, a GuAIZ, charged from the side. “You traitor!” the pilot shouted, firing his beam rifle.

Athrun sighed. “I’m sorry, but I have no choice.” He raised his own weapon and blew the GuAIZ away with a single shot.

“How could you turn on your own father!?” another Neo ZAFT pilot demanded. “Why are you siding with the Naturals!?”

“It’s not a matter of Natural versus Coordinator,” Athrun retorted, wincing. He remembered asking Kira the same thing at Heliopolis. “Not all Naturals hate us.”

“You idiot!” the other screamed. “Of course, they hate us! Why else would they have nuked Junius Seven!?”

Athrun slashed with his saber, removing the other machine’s left arm. “Not all the Naturals supported that,” he said coldly. “My best friend is a first-generation Coordinator; there’s no way his parents would have harmed our people.” He pulled back for another slash when something slammed into him from behind. “What the!?”

A second machine, this one a beam equipped CGUE, hovered behind him. “So much for the Chairman’s wayward son,” the pilot sneered. He took aim…

And died when a bright red line cut his machine in half. “I won’t let you!” Kira snarled.

“Thanks, Kira,” Athrun said, feeling relieved.

“No problem.”

Together the two friends waded into the Neo ZAFT forces; aside from a few Daggers, the Earth Forces had not gotten into the act as yet. It was only a matter of time before that changed, of course, but for the moment all the had to deal with were assorted GINNs, CGUEs, and GuAIZs.

ZGMF-X14A Anubis had changed slightly since its initial battle. After the Second Battle of Artemis, the Valkyrie’s mechanics had added an extra marking. The shield now bore the image of a silver spiderweb, with a black spider at the center.

It scared the Earth Forces newcomers out of their wits. Neo ZAFT, of course, was an entirely different proposition.

Alex soon found himself swarmed with mobile suits. The Neo ZAFT pilots, completely unimpressed by his reputation, seemed to think they could take him out with numbers alone. It was not that easy, of course; three GINNs were destroyed by a spiderweb of laser fire before they even knew what was happening.

“You’ll pay for that, traitor!” one of the survivors screamed.

“The weaker they are, the louder they bark,” Alex said, bisecting a CGUE with his saber. “And for your information, I am a loyal son of the PLANTs. The traitor is your leader, Patrick Zala.”

A harsh laugh sounded over the radio. “Glib as ever, eh, Strassmeier?” an all-too-familiar voice said.

Alex spun around. A blood red Gundam was bearing down on him, one that was visibly armed to the teeth. It bore a certain resemblance to the Calamity but had a different weapons loadout; Alex’s trained eye picked out a beam rifle, back-mounted dual beam cannon, a heavy missile launcher on the right shoulder, what looked like a beam javelin on its left shoulder, and two beam sabers mounted in the hips.

Daniel Bartlett laughed again. “So how do you like my new machine, Strassmeier?” he asked mockingly.

“I think it’s remarkably ugly,” Alex said mildly. “And I think you have gone off the deep end, Bartlett. What happened to the suave, sophisticated ZAFT Elite?”

Bartlett fired once, striking the Anubis’s shield. “You’ve really got it made; you know that? ZAFT Commander, people calling you the next Rau Le Creuset, engaged to the Chief Representative’s daughter…”

Alex deployed his DRAGOONs, creating a protective barrier. “If you are suggesting I got all that by cheating, don’t bother. Admittedly, I sometimes feel unworthy of Cagalli, but that is irrational, and she’d probably hit me if I said so.” His own rifle came up. “But that doesn’t matter. You were always petty, Bartlett, and I see that hasn’t changed.”

The Deathdealer’s beam cannons flashed then, narrowly missing. “You don’t know what it’s like, Strassmeier,” Bartlett said. “Always being second best, always getting edged out, and by a guy who doesn’t care about anything. He wins all those awards, and they mean nothing to him.”

Alex sighed. “You have well and utterly lost it. Do you think I would be engaged to the Lioness of Orb if I didn’t care about her?”

“You don’t have feelings,” Bartlett snapped. “You’re just a machine that looks like a person.”

Hopeless. Not bothering to respond, Alex recalled his DRAGOONs and drew a saber. Bartlett responded with his beam lance, forcing the Anubis to approach with more caution than would have been the case otherwise.

Thunderbird/Archangel, bridge

“Have any Earth Forces units engaged besides those Daggers?” Natarle asked, looking down into her CIC.

Commander Morris shook his head. “No, ma’am. Those ships seem to be just sitting there.”

Natarle frowned. What are they up to? “Murrue, do you have any ideas?”

Her old CO shook her head. “None, I’m afraid. Odd, considering that this ship has to be a prime target, since we deserted from the Earth Forces.”

Randall Tucker, Murrue’s ZAFT exec, spoke up. “Maybe they’re just letting us fight it out with Neo ZAFT, then they’ll take whoever’s left.”

“I concur, Captain,” Morris said.

“We’re being hailed by one of the Earth Forces ships,” the comm officer said. “IFF tags it as the Dominion.”

Natarle growled under her breath. “Put them on.”

She recognized one of the two people who appeared on the comm screen; William Sutherland’s craggy face was unmistakable. “Lieutenant Badgiruel, Captain Ramius. I assume you remember me.”

“Of course, I remember,” Natarle snarled, in no mood for pleasantries. “And in case you haven’t noticed, I am a captain as well.”

Sutherland snorted derisively. “A captain among the Orb rabble. Very well. I am calling upon you to surrender.”

“And just why do you think we’d do that?” Murrue demanded.

“Try self-preservation,” the other man said. He smiled thinly. “I’m Muruta Azrael, Director of the Defense Industries Association.”

Murrue looked like she wanted to spit. “And the leader of Blue Cosmos,” she said, visibly disgusted. “There are some things worse than death, Azrael, and I refuse to submit to a group that thinks Coordinators are monsters. My loyalty –our loyalty,” she amended, flashing Natarle a brief smile, “is to the Orb Union.”

Azrael sighed theatrically. “Well, don’t say I didn’t give you a chance. If you want to throw in with those space monsters and their toadies –like Athha- that’s your problem.” He touched a switch. “Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider, launch! Today we destroy the indestructible Archangel.”

The comm officer cut the circuit at a gesture from Natarle. “Why the Archangel?” he wondered.

“We’re a symbol,” Murrue explained. “First of the Earth Forces’ fight against ZAFT, and now of Orb’s struggle against the Alliance.” She looked over her shoulder. “Mir, warn Kira and Athrun. Those three machines are bound to target them.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Natarle glanced back at Morris. “Do we have any IDs on the other Archangel-class vessels?”

“Affirmative,” the XO said. “IFF tags them as Cherubim and Seraphim.”

Natarle shook her head. “Angelic names for an evil nation… All right. Let Yzak know; he has been craving a ‘legged ship’ kill ever since Heliopolis. Meanwhile, target Fafnirs on the Dominion.” She sat back.

I do not know what could bring the leader of Blue Cosmos here, but I am not letting him out alive if I can help it.

Mendel nearspace

“Roger that, Mir,” Kira said. He glanced at the Justice. “You get that, Athrun?”

His friend nodded. “Looks like things are going to get interesting.” Athrun smiled reassuringly. “Let’s go get them, Kira!”

As Mir had said, three unpleasantly familiar Gundams were heading their way. The Calamity was performing noticeably better than it had at Orb; hardly surprising, since it did not have to worry about gravity in space.

Orga Sabnak was loving it. “Yeah, let’s go!”

“They want these guys intact,” Clotho pointed out.

“How about just one of them?” Shani suggested.

Kira frowned. What do they want with us? he wondered, then shrugged it off. What mattered was the fact that the Earth Forces wanted Freedom and Justice, not why they wanted them. Thus, he could not allow himself to be captured.

Not that I would allow it anyway, he thought grimly, firing his rifle at the Forbidden. As he had unfortunately expected, the beam was deflected by the Geschmeidig Panzer system.

“I won’t be that easy!” Shani yelled, cutting loose with his plasma cannon.

Kira swore, dodging; a difficult feat, since the Forbidden’s plasma shots could be guided via magnetic fields. He returned fire with his own plasma cannons, this time missing completely. Growling incoherently, Shani closed the distance, clashing his scythe against the Freedom’s shield.

The Raider tried to swoop in but was cut off by the Justice. “Bastard!” Clotho snarled.

Athrun snapped his sabers together. “If you want Kira, you’ll have to get through me first.”

Clotho opened up with the Zorn, only to see it blocked. Swearing viciously, he swung the Mjollnir, which Athrun nimbly dodged. “Stand still!”

“I don’t think so.” The Fatum-00 detached, slamming into the Raider’s head. When Clotho’s vision cleared, it was too late; Athrun slammed the Justice’s knee into the Raider’s chest. “Back off or else!”

“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t forget about me!” Orga called. Forgetting him would have been difficult; a Scylla blast tends to stick in one’s mind.

Athrun shook his head, avoiding the blast. “These guys are crazy.”

Kira’s duel with the Forbidden had taken him close to the Vesalius. Looking over his shoulder at the destroyer, a nasty idea occurred to him. “Captain Ades, when I give the word, fire the main guns.”

“Understood, Commander Yamato.” If Ades was puzzled, he did not show it.

“Now!” Kira hit his thrusters, “diving”…

And the Vesalius’s main cannons erupted, nearly vaporizing the Forbidden, which barely got its shields up in time.

“Bastard,” Shani hissed.

Kira fired all his ranged weapons at once. “I’m not letting someone like you defeat me!”

A three-on-two might seem to give the advantage to the Earth Forces pilots, but nothing was farther from the truth. Orga, Shani, and Clotho were piloting machines not much advanced over the Heliopolis Gundams, against two nuclear-powered mobile suits piloted by Kira Yamato and Athrun Zala, the best pilots the Orb/ZAFT alliance had to offer.

As Andrew Waltfeld had noted before they left the PLANTs, Kira and Athrun were a fearsome combination.

The three biological CPUs had regrouped, but Kira and Athrun were still pushing the pace. A burst from the Raider’s shield cannon bounced off the Freedom’s PSA, and then Clotho was forced to dodge a return shot from Kira’s rifle. Athrun reduced the Calamity’s Scylla to useless junk, easily dodging a retaliatory ram cannon shot.

“They won’t quit!” Orga complained. “It’s even worse than Orb!”

“Of course, they won’t!” Cagalli snarled, joining the fight. Then, “Aaahhh!”

A projectile from the Seraphim’s starboard Valiant had blown a small chunk out of the Akatsuki’s side.

“Cagalli!” Kira screamed, seeing his sister in danger. An amethyst seed burst in his mind, and he moved.

None of the Allied ship’s crew knew what they had unleashed. The Earth Forces were largely ignorant of the SEED Factor, and what its bearers could do. Battering Forbidden and Raider out of the way, Kira charged the offending ship. Two Strike Daggers exploded when they tried to stop him, and then he was in range. Igelstellungs, Gottfrieds, Valiants, and missile tubes exploded under his fire. He seemed almost unstoppable.

Until the Cherubim came up and fired both Gottfrieds at him.

Eternal, bridge

Lacus stared worriedly at the Golden Gundam, shielded by the Justice while they tried to figure out what had just happened. “Cagalli, are you all, right?”

“I think so,” the princess responded, sounding more than a little frazzled. “No real damage; just shook me up.” She forcibly stabilized her machine. “What was that, anyway?”

“Checking that now,” Martin DaCosta told her. He frowned. “It looks like some kind of superdense projectile.”

“That makes sense,” Aisha put in. “Since the Akatsuki has both Phase-shift and that reflector coating, the Earth Forces must have been searching for a way around it.”

“And it looks like they’ve found one,” Waltfeld said grimly. “Cagalli, can you still fight?”

She nodded firmly. “Like I said, no real damage.”

“Status change!” DaCosta barked. “The Freedom is under attack by one of the new Archangel-class ships, looks like the Cherubim.”

More than one person stared in horror as the Earth Forces ship fired its Gottfrieds, grazing the Freedom and sending it out of control.

Mendel nearspace

No, Athrun thought, staring in mingled disbelief and horror at the tumbling Freedom. Kira, no!

Behind his eyes, an emerald seed burst.

If the druggie trio (as one Allied prisoner had described them) had been startled by Kira’s attack, they were completely blindsided by Athrun’s. The Justice physically grabbed the Calamity, slamming it into the other machines. Athrun then sped off; when they tried to chase him, they did not get far.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Cagalli snarled, mobile turrets slowly orbiting her machine. “I won’t let you stop him from rescuing my brother.”

“KIRA!” Athrun reached his friend just in time to ward off another Gottfried blast. “Leave him alone!” He fired his Fortis beam cannons, slagging both of the Cherubim’s Gottfrieds. He ignored the CIWS fire entirely –it could not hurt him- and opened up on the enemy’s Lohengrins.

Then the Freedom recovered, unleashing its multibeam attack on a swarm of Daggers that tried to interfere.

Athrun gazed anxiously at the Freedom. “Kira, are you all, right?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Kira winced. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have gone off like that.”

“Kira, they tried to kill your sister, and with a new weapon at that,” Athrun said. “It was only natural, and you weren’t being reckless anyway.”

Kira shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Kira, Athrun, the Earth Forces are pulling back,” Nicol said, the Blitz moving to join them. “That just leaves Neo ZAFT for now.”

Athrun looked to where the Anubis was battling Bartlett’s Deathdealer. “That’s bad enough,” he said.

“I will never understand your motives, Bartlett,” Alex said conversationally. “You’ve never struck me as the kind of guy who’d want every Natural dead, yet here you are, one of Patrick Zala’s thugs.”

The other snorted. “Thug? Hardly. I’m doing this for the glory of my people.”

“You’re doing it for the glory of yourself,” Alex countered. He clashed his combined saber against Bartlett’s lance. “All you cared about was that pointless rivalry.”

Bartlett dodged to the side, launching a missile salvo that was immediately shredded by Alex’s CIWS. A subsequent volley of laser fire splashed against the Anubis’s shield. He fired again, cursing as Alex deployed his DRAGOON beam shield. “You’ve always been two-faced, you know. Offering life in one hand and delivering death with the other.”

“And just what is that supposed to mean?” Alex flipped upside down relative to the Deathdealer, firing his rifle. “Never mind; you’re obviously too far gone to make any sense.” He paused, a familiar sensation filling his mind. “So, he’s here, too.”

Bartlett laughed, breaking off his attack. “Yes, he is, and it would appear you’re not the only one to have noticed.” Indeed, Mu’s Strike was visible heading for the colony. “Perhaps you’d better follow your hero, see what the Man with the Mask is up to.”

Alex hesitated. He knew better than to trust Bartlett, yet the other had a point about Le Creuset, who was a far greater threat. Not to mention whatever secrets the GARM facility might still contain. “We’ll finish this later, Bartlett,” he said, turning. “I’ve no doubt you’ll be looking forward to it.”

What could Le Creuset want? he wondered, ignoring Bartlett’s mocking laughter. Does it have anything to do with the Ultimate Coordinator project?

He had a feeling he was not going to like the answer.

Archangel, bridge

“Captain, the Earth Forces are pulling back,” Tonomura said. “Looks like Kira and Athrun gave them a bit of a scare.”

Murrue nodded. It would not last, she knew, even with the damage to Cherubim and Seraphim. They had not come this far just to turn back at their first setback. Still, it gave the First Fleet some breathing space. They had to make the most of it.

“Commander La Flaga reports he’s going into the colony,” Mir said suddenly. “Alex, Kira, and Athrun are going with him.”

Murrue frowned. “Into the colony?” she repeated.

Mir nodded. “Apparently, the Providence was spotting approaching the harbor. Commander La Flaga is investigating.”

The captain felt the blood drain from her face. Le Creuset. She looked at the comm screen. “Captain Ades, do you have any idea what Le Creuset could be after?”

Ades shrugged. “The only logical destination is the GARM facility. I don’t know what he’d want there, though, unless there’s something about Lady Cagalli and Commander Yamato that we haven’t heard.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much, Murrue,” Natarle put in. “Le Creuset is good, but it’s highly unlikely he could defeat the Strike, the Justice, the Freedom, and the Anubis together.”

“I don’t think he intends to try,” Ades said. “There has to be something more.”

Murrue sighed. “I only hope they’ll come out all right.” Mu, please be careful. I cannot bear to lose you. And you, Kira. Take care of yourself…little brother.

Mendel, colony interior

The four Gundams landed near the old GARM facility. Like Ades, they knew that it was the only place Le Creuset was likely to head for.

“No sign of the Providence, but that’s hardly a surprise,” Alex commented, his heirloom Luger clutched in his artificial hand. “Le Creuset is anything but stupid; he knows we’d blow it up, given the chance.”

“Yeah,” Mu agreed. “It’ll be hidden.”

They cautiously moved into the facility, sidearms ready. It was dark, and more than a little spooky; nothing moved save the four of them. From all appearances –scattered papers, overturned tables, long-dead embryos in large tubes- the place had not been touched since Blue Cosmos ransacked it, years earlier.

So, this is where Cagalli and I were born, Kira thought. Though he had known about it for months, he was still unnerved. He clutched his weapon hard.

Athrun laid a hand on his shoulder. “Kira, are you all, right?”

Kira took a deep, steadying breath. “This place…I knew about it, but it’s still getting to me,” he admitted.

“I understand.” Athrun smiled at his friend. “Don’t worry, Kira. You can count on me, no matter what.”

Kira smiled back, some of his nervousness dissipating. “I know. Thanks, Athrun.”

Alex, of course, was completely unaffected by their surroundings. Leaving aside the fact that he had a surfeit of sangfroid, he had had far more time than Kira to prepare himself. At the moment, he was focused on finding the enemy; the place appeared empty, but he could feel Le Creuset’s presence.

So could Mu. “Your old CO’s definitely here, Athrun,” he said quietly. “I just wish I could tell where.”

His question was shortly answered. A shot rang out, striking a nearby railing. Alex returned fire, but he knew there was no way he could hit.

“So, you’ve finally come!” Rau Le Creuset said, laughing.

“Commander, why are you doing this?” Athrun called. “What’s the point?”

Le Creuset laughed again. “Well, hello, Athrun! I suppose it isn’t surprising that you’d be here, not when Kira Yamato is involved.”

“Kira is my friend,” Athrun shot back. “I don’t care how he was created.”

“Maybe so,” the masked man conceded. “And what of you, Strassmeier? How does it feel to come to the place that made you what you are?”

Alex did not even twitch. “It’s nothing more than a curiosity to me, Le Creuset,” he said coolly. “I full intended to come here during my search for the Ultimate Coordinator. Such a place has no hold on my emotions.”

More laughter. “Oh, of course, you’ve always had cold-space lubricants for blood,” Le Creuset said. “But you, Mu, you have a connection of your own to this place, even if you don’t realize it.”

“Why should I believe you!?” the Hawk demanded, firing his pistol.

Rau Le Creuset finally stepped out of the shadows; his own weapon held at the ready. “There are more secrets here than even Strassmeier knows, and he is undoubtedly the best-informed of you. Secrets that Blue Cosmos never suspected.”

Alex took a step forward, raising his Luger. “I have no doubt that Blue Cosmos never cared,” he said. “So long as this facility was taken out, they were satisfied.”

“That may be true,” Le Creuset agreed. He knew had had their attention, but he was careful not to go too far. Alex Strassmeier’s marksmanship was legendary. “Nevertheless, there is much more here than meets the eye.”

Mu snorted. “Like what!?” he demanded. “We know all about the Ultimate Coordinator project, you psycho.”

“This predated the twins’ birth by several years,” Le Creuset told him. “Doctor Hibiki wasn’t pleased, but he knew he had no choice.”

“No choice in what!?” Mu demanded, annoyed at the masked man’s mind games.

“No choice but to do the bidding of a wealthy, arrogant man in order to obtain the funding he needed,” Le Creuset said. “A man who deeply feared death and wished for immortality by any means necessary.” He tossed a binder at the four pilots.

It opened when it hit the floor. Several photos were visible, including one of the infant Kira and Cagalli in the arms of their biological mother, Via Hibiki…and one of Al Da Flaga, Mu’s father.