Chapter 25: Odin’s Lance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You got that right,” Dearka said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submarine carrier Ballard, briefing room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dearka Elsman, Buster taking off!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two remained. “X09A Justice, your turn.”

“Athrun Zala, Justice launching!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skies over Panama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panama Headquarters

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

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

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

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

Open sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Dagger lunged for him again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicol smiled sheepishly. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Creuset laughed again, raising his saber…

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

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

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

“Stay away from him,” Cagalli said coldly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valkyrie, Bridge

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

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

“Yes, ma’am!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, sue me,” Mu said genially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yzak, look out!” Mu yelled suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Earth Alliance was now trapped on Earth.

Valkyrie, infirmary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 24: Flight of the Magic Bullet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Defense Headquarters, Onogoro Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Lacus just tightened her grip, not speaking.

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

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

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

HQ lounge

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey! Over here!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other nodded, then drifted off to a table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morgenroete Hangar, 16 May, C.E. 71

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Athrun nodded. He had expected as much.

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

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

Miguel nodded, not speaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So how are you doing?”

Kira blinked. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

Kira nodded reluctantly. He still seemed troubled, though.

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

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

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morgenroete testing grounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She grinned. “Are you asking me out?”

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

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

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

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

“I hope I’m not bothering you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicol nodded. “What about the standard machines?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No kidding, Alex thought sourly.

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

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

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

Alex shrugged. “A parade.”

The meeting ended on that note.

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

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

Not that it had reduced his determination any.

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

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

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

Le Creuset saluted. “Understood, Your Excellency.”

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

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

Streets of Orb capital

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

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

Last in line were the various Gundams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, sure.”

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23: Spit Break

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

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

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

He nodded but did not speak.

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

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

“So, how’d it go?” Andrea asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The redhead smiled. “Sure, no problem.”

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

Natarle saluted. “I would be honored.”

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

Cousteau, Bridge

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

Rau Le Creuset nodded. “Excellent. Execute.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archangel, Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skies over Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m with you,” Mu acknowledged.

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

Archangel, Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOSH-A Base, interior

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

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

He shook himself. It does not matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mu swore viciously. “That could be it.”

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

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

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

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

“Well, that explains that” Rau said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open sky

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

“Worried about your boyfriend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Most likely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archangel, briefing room

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

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

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

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

“That’s something, at least.”

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

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

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

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

She shook her head. “Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

Flashback, Endymion Crater

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

“Mu La Flaga, do you read me?”

“What? Who is that?”

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

“Wait! Who are you?”

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

End flashback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 22: Hidden Agendas

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alaska?” Athrun finally whispered.

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

Yzak swallowed hard. “What about the Valkyrie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archangel, Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valkyrie, cafeteria

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

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

“You, okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kira nodded. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They moved on to the events in the desert…

Cousteau, briefing room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JOSH-A Base, conference room

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes narrowed. “Such as?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This board is adjourned,” Sutherland said.

Archangel, cafeteria

Murrue finished the briefing and waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 21: Aegis

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know, I know.”

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

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

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you ever met him?” Sai asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took his hand. “Right behind you.”

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

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

Cousteau, pilots’ locker room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

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

“Aren’t you finished yet?”

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

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

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

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

“So how does it feel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything will be just fine,” Kira whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian raised his eyebrows. “How come?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archangel, hangar

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

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

Kira nodded. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

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

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

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

“Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!”

Open sky

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

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

“Roger that.” Alex switched frequencies. “Here we go, Yzak. You ready?”

The Duel’s right hand reached up and drew a saber. “Let’s do it!”

Alex drew a saber of his own just as Yzak reached him. Two blades of red fire clashed, locking the mobile suits together. Then they pulled apart, the Stormbird’s superior mobility allowing it to dodge a missile barrage. The winged mobile suit returned fire with its rifle, a CIWS burst shredding the missiles as an afterthought.

Yzak, seeing that his cousin was pushing the pace, switched to his own rifle. Emerald darts of energy crisscrossed the sky, none even coming close to their mark. The Stormbird was far too maneuverable to hit, and while the Duel was restricted to its Guul subflight unit, Yzak was still good enough to make it dance.

A little way away, the scene was far different. Dearka Elsman’s Buster might have had the edge in firepower, but Mu’s Skygrasper, even hampered by the Launcher Striker pack, was flying rings around the ZAFT unit. So far, Dearka had not as much as scratched the paint on the nimble fighter.

I knew he was good, Dearka thought, but this is amazing! I guess Coordinators do not have as big an edge as we thought.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Mu said, having read Dearka’s mind. “You’re good; your machine just isn’t meant for this kind of high-mobility combat.” The friendly tone seemed incongruous with the red Agni blasts.

He has a point. Dearka shifted his attention to the Archangel, a bigger target. Snapping his main weapons together, he fired in shotgun mode, blowing one of the Valiant linear cannons clean off. A secondary explosion vaporized an Igelstellung, and then he got distracted by another pass from Mu.

The Hawk shook his head, glad that the pilot he was fighting was really an ally. Slow though the Buster might have been, it was also heavily armed, and Dearka had proved to be an expert expert shooter. Unless the target was particularly agile, like the Strike or Mu’s fighter, he hit what he aimed at.

Five hundred meters distance from the other combatants, X105 Strike and X303 Aegis closed at high speed. Neither had opened fire yet; Kira and Athrun had agreed beforehand that melee combat was the best way to make it look real without killing each other by accident.

They would not, however, completely refrain from shooting, and Kira mentioned his shield just in time to intercept a green blast. He returned fire, grazing Athrun’s Guul but doing no real damage. Some shots sizzled between them, and then they were in melee range, the yellow saber in the Aegis’s right arm clashing with the Strike’s red one.

Then the Aegis jumped off its Guul, and Kira’s eyes widened as the machine transformed. Knowing what would happen next, he threw his machine back and to the side, just in time to avoid a blast from the Scylla. When he saw the Aegis land back on the subflight unit, Kira charged again, beam saber flashing.

“Almost there, Kira,” Athrun grunted.

“Roger that,” Kira said, then swept his saber low, cutting off the Guul’s port wing and engine.

Athrun forcefully stifled a yelp; it was all part of the plan, but that did not mean dropping out of the sky was fun. Especially not when a mobile suit that could fly was diving after him. A precisely aimed shot destroyed the Strike’s beam rifle, and then a saber slash destroyed his in turn.

The next few minutes felt like an eternity. A red blade cut off the Aegis’s right arm. A yellow blade took the Strike’s left. The Aegis’s head pierced through the eye, just as the Strike’s torso was gashed. By now both combatants were running low on power.

“It’s time!” Athrun yelled. He transformed his machine again and pinned the Strike in its claws. “Kira, now!” He opened his hatch and leapt out; behind him, Kira did the same.

And then the bombs went off.

High above, Alex and Yzak paused in their pseudo-dueling. The explosives Alex’s people had planted were by necessity of a much higher yield than the ones used to conceal the Blitz; they had to fake the destruction of two mobile suits instead of one.

Yzak stared worriedly into the smoke. The last vestiges of his rivalry with Athrun had burned away when his cousin reappeared. Now all he felt was concern for his comrade. “Athrun, Kira, you guys, okay?”

There was a long silence. “I think so,” Kira said, coughing on the smoke. “The explosion cracked my helmet visor, and I think I blacked out for a minute, but I’m okay now.”

“What about Athrun?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know.”

More coughing, from another source. “I’m here,” Athrun managed. “Tolle launched about when Kira took out my Guul; I think he deliberately crashed near the Valkyrie.”

“He did,” Cagalli confirmed. “We just brought him onboard.” She chuckled. “I don’t think Mir’s happy with him, though.”

There was a general round of laughter at that. No one doubted Mir’s love for Tolle, but she could be counted on to hand him his head whenever he did something crazy.

“All right, then,” Alex said. “Let us get things moving. Kira, the Valkyrie is on its way; you can come aboard with the Strike and the Aegis. Athrun, you’d best stick around too, so you can pick up the Justice.” Both pilots acknowledged.

Alex switched frequencies. “Murrue, we’re done except for the cleanup. What about you?”

“The Buster is badly damaged; Mu shot him down,” Murrue said. “Though not before he was able to damage our levitators. That should be enough to convince the Alaska brass.”

“I’d have to agree,” Alex said with a snort. “They’re well aware of what the stolen machines are capable of.” He clicked off.

The smoke cleared within a few minutes, and it was soon obvious why Kira and Athrun were so banged up. X105 Strike looked like someone had gone berserk on it with a giant sword (not too far from the truth), and Athrun’s X303 Aegis was barely recognizable as a mobile suit.

Alex sighed. It is gonna take a while to pick up the pieces. No help for it, I guess.

With the Buster irreparably damaged and Alex’s other machines on sentry duty, only the Duel was available to help in recovery. Yzak came along willingly enough; he did not much like it, but he understood the necessity.

Then, with no warning at all, “We’ve got an Earth Forces fleet incoming!”

Alex whirled, cursing. Of all the times… He stared hard at his visual and radar displays; his cold blue eyes narrow.

And swore again. The enemy fleet consisted of two aircraft carriers, four battleships, and at least a dozen destroyers. He knew that even with him and Yzak tied down, they had more than enough firepower to take them; that was not what worried him. If even one gets away, this mission is over.

He keyed his comm. “Yzak and I are still tied down her. Andrea, with the Archangel in the shape it is in right now, this one is up to you. Don’t let any of them get away!”

“Roger that, Alex,” Andrea said. “Andrea Strassmeier, Specter launching!”

To her right, Devastator, Shinobi, and Inferno rode on Guuls borrowed from the Cousteau. Coming up behind them were the hastily repaired Scorpion and the ORB-01 Akatsuki; with both her brother and her boyfriend pinned down on the island, Cagalli had no intention of sitting this one out.

Andrea smiled to herself. She and Cagalli had become close over the past month. Lia’s right, those two are a perfect match. “Like Alex said, don’t let them get away. We can’t afford having our cover blown.” Matching action to words, she brought up her Trikeros, locked on to an F-7D, and fired. The Earth Forces fighter exploded in a rain of debris.

Kyle Perry ignored the fighters completely; his machine was unsuited for attacking such targets. Instead, he snapped his guns together in sniper mode, took careful aim at one of the destroyers, and fired.


“Burn, baby, burn!” Slipping back into his pyromaniac persona, Chris Madsen unleashed his flamer on a quartet of fighters maneuvering for a strafing run on the Duel and the Stormbird. Polymers and metal alloys melted, and then the flames reached the fuel tanks.

Hiro shook his head, seeing the sleek fighters turn into fireballs. Even though he now knew much of what he had seen was a facade, he still considered Chris a lunatic. Pushing those thoughts aside, he dropped several mines on the flight deck of one of the carriers. Two even fell down an elevator shaft, with spectacular results.

“Die, space monster!” A trio of beam-equipped fighters closed on the Shinobi. They had him bracketed…

And then they vanished in a flash of green light. “Take that, you bastards!” Cagalli snarled.

The machine Nicol had dubbed the Golden Gundam spun in midair, rifle and back-mounted cannons spitting emerald death. One fighter tried to ram; Cagalli responded by snatching out a saber and slicing down its long axis.

In the few minutes since battle had begun, things had gone badly for the Earth Forces, and now it was about to get worse. The Alliance pilots stared in disbelief as an FX-550 Skygrasper, one of their own designs, joined the fray. Mu La Flaga, once a hero of the Earth Forces (though he never thought of himself as such), slashed through the enemy formation like a thunderbolt. Six fighters blew apart in the first pass.

Andrea grinned at the carnage. She did not enjoy killing, but her ordeals had left her with a deep hatred for the Earth Forces. Time to teach them a lesson. Energizing the Specter’s beam saber, Andrea cut a long gash in the hull of one of the destroyers, just above the waterline.

Judging by the sudden explosion, she hit the ship’s magazine.

“Nice trick, Andrea.” Brian’s Scorpion appeared next to her in mobile armor mode. The Stinger flashed, and another destroyer sank beneath the waves.

“I try,” she said wryly. “How are we doing?”

“Still got a few destroyers left, plus one carrier and all four battleships… or not,” he added as a blast from the Valkyrie’s Gottfrieds reduced the capital ship to scrap.

“I’ve got the carrier,” Chris said. He grinned nastily. “Jet fuel burns really hot, remember.”

Andrea shook her head. Hiro’s right, that guy is a lunatic. There was no denying his skill, though; two fighters were being spotted for launch were suddenly engulfed in flames as the aptly named Inferno Gundam torched the fuel lines. The fire quickly spread to the superstructure.

That one is a write-off.

Then she caught sight of something else. The still-disabled Buster had surrounded by several attack helicopters, and it looked like they were not interested in giving Dearka a chance to surrender.

Not that he would anyway, Andrea thought furiously. So, you bastards think you are going to kill him, do you? Over my dead body!

It was entirely possible that the Alliance pilots never knew what hit them. The weather had turned dark and rainy, so there was no real sunlight to gleam on the Specter’s white form. Not that it would have mattered if she had spotted the pilots; none of the choppers had beam weapons, which meant they had no way to defeat the Specter’s Phase-shift.

In any case, it took Andrea thirty seconds to annihilate them.

“You okay, Dearka?” she asked anxiously.

Dearka stared at the white mobile suit that had just saved his life. “Yeah, thanks. I owe you one.”

“No problem!”

“I think the others have dealt with the rest of the fleet,” Alex cut in. “As far as we can tell, no survivors.” To those who knew him, he sounded regretful.

Which he was. Willing though he was to fight, Alex did not like killing, and he would have preferred to take prisoners. He had known from the start that it was impossible, though; if even a fraction of the enemy crews had survived, the Valkyrie and the Cousteau would have been unable to manage them, and they did not dare put any on the Archangel.

“I know how you feel, Alex,” Andrea said gently. “We had no choice.”

Her brother shook himself. “I know. Let us get this finished and get out of here.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

It was a somber group that gathered in the small cabin. Alex and Cagalli sat together on his bunk, Andrea sprawled in a chair with her feet on Alex’s desk, while Kira stood at the window, gazing out at the sea.

“Do you think… we did the right thing?” Kira asked softly.

Andrea slid her booted feet off the desk. “You mean about that Earth Forces fleet that turned up?” Kira nodded. “I know you don’t like what happened, Kira, but it’s like I told Alex. We had no choice. If any of them got away, it would have blown the whole operation wide open.”

Kira clenched his fists. “I know, but so many deaths…” He shook his head.

Flay may not have been there, but that did not mean Kira was alone. “Don’t beat yourself up,” Cagalli said, coming forward to embrace her brother. “It’s not your fault. All we can do is end it as quickly as possible.”

“It’ll be bloody,” Alex agreed, “but I don’t see any way to avoid it. In any case, you personally had nothing to do with this one.” He glanced at his friend sidelong. “And even if you did, you’d have no reason to feel guilty. Not with that bunch.”

Kira blinked in surprise. The last sentence dripped vitriol, and while that was not unusual coming from Alex, it sounded strong even for him. “What do you mean?”

“I had Hiro check up on that task force,” Alex explained. “It was chock full of hardliners, people who see us as inhuman monsters. I have nothing against Naturals, as you well know, but I’m not shedding any tears for the people we just wiped out, either.”

Kira was of two minds about his friend’s words. On the one hand, he appalled by Alex’s apparent callousness; on the other, he understood why Alex felt that way. He would have to more than human not to, after what he and his sister went through.

He looked at Andrea. Not difficult to do; Sai’s jaw had dropped when he first saw Andrea Strassmeier. At 170 centimeters, she was taller than most of the Heliopolis gang, including Kira himself. Slender, with a disposition that made her seem like a perky, black-haired version of Cagalli. Outside of battle, at least; in the cockpit, she acted disturbingly like Natarle Badgiruel.

“I’m not saying you’re wrong,” Kira said at last. “I just don’t like it.”

“Kira,” Alex said gently, “if you did like it, you’d be a danger to yourself and others. You have done nothing in this war that you need to be ashamed of. Yes, you have killed, but only in defense of the people who meant the most to you.” He laid a hand on Kira’s shoulder. “A soldier and a murderer are two different things.”

Kira nodded. When put in those terms, it made perfect sense. Kira Yamato was a protector, someone who would give his life for those he loved.

Of course, I hope it does not come to that, he thought wryly. Not that he was afraid for his own life; now, the only machine that could match the Freedom was his friend Athrun’s Justice. For that matter, even if he had still limit the Strike, there were few pilots who really approached his level, and most of them were on his side.

He moved to the hatch. “I’d better get down to the hangar. The mechanics will need help getting the Strike squared away.”

“I’ll go with you,” Cagalli said, joining him. She smiled at Alex and Andrea. “I think those two need to talk anyway.”

She is right, Andrea thought. It has been a month since we reunited, but we have not really had a chance to talk. Now, looking at her brother, she saw a hardness to his features that had not been there before. The past three years had been difficult for him, she knew, more than even Lia realized.

She turned to look at the photo over Alex’s bunk, smiling a little at the reminder of happier times. Alex, then just shy of his fifteenth birthday, had one arm around her. Their parents, Klaus, and Elena stood behind them. Yzak Joule stood on Alex’s other side, and behind him was Representative Ezalia Joule, his mother and Elena’s sister, holding her adopted daughter, two-year-old Cassandra.

“A lot has changed,” Alex said, as if he had read his sister’s mind. “Mom and Dad are gone, you were put through a living hell, and I-“

“Don’t you start feeling guilty on me, Alex,” Andrea interrupted. “You did the only thing you could do. It is not your fault that you could not find me, or that you had to fight Yzak. Blaming yourself for that is just as stupid as Kira getting all worked up over being a soldier. Things like this happen, brother.”

He started to reply, paused, then shook his head. “You’re right,” he said, smiling in the way she knew so well. He poured himself some coffee, then sat at his desk. “It turned out all right in the end. I don’t have to fight Yzak anymore, and I’m a ZAFT soldier at last.”

“And you’ve got yourself a girlfriend, too… finally.” Andrea laughed at his expression. “Oh, come on, Alex. Even Yzak and Lia do not know you like I do, and I have talked to the others. Yes, you were upset because I was missing, but it wasn’t just that.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “What else was there?”

“You were lonely,” his sister said simply. “Cagalli fit you in a way not even Lia could manage. Oh,” she waved a hand, “I am not criticizing Lia at all; you know as well as I do that, she has never had that kind of interest in you. You need…” Andrea fumbled for a moment. You needed a partner, and Cagalli was perfect for it.”

Alex frowned. Now that he thought of it, his sister had a point. He had been feeling increasingly lonely, and after Cagalli had stopped thinking he was a ZAFT spy, they had grown close very quickly. For that matter, the princess had learned to read him more quickly than anyone else, including Lia Ramius.

“You’re right,” he said slowly. “It was Cagalli who kept me going while we were fighting ZAFT. She promised to help in my quest to find Hibiki’s offspring.” They both laughed at that; Cagalli had never expected that she had promised to help find herself. “After that one confrontation -among other unpleasantness, I called her a pampered aristocrat- I don’t think I ever once made her mad. That’s not easy.”

Andrea smiled. “Exactly. It is not one-sided, Alex. She needed someone like you, too. Everyone else, except her father and Colonel Kisaka, drove her nuts. Half the time you don’t even remember she’s a princess.”

“That’s because she seldom, if ever, acts like one.” Alex sipped his coffee. “But enough about my love life, or recent lack thereof. What about you?”

She blinked. “What about me?”

He smirked. “I’ve seen how Dearka Elsman looks at you, and one way in which you differ from me is that you’re almost incapable of hiding your feelings. Are you going to tell me the interest isn’t reciprocated?”

Andrea blushed. “Wha… what are you talking about?”

“Oh, come on.” Alex nodded at the window. The Cousteau was visible outside. “I haven’t had much chance to talk to you, but Lia tells me you’ve been chattering about him like mad for at least two weeks. I know perfectly well what that means.”

She glared at him. “Alex, you’re reading too much into things here.”

“Then there’s what you did when those choppers attacked the Buster,” he continued, ignoring the retort. “Something like a dozen helicopters in thirty seconds flat. And I heard you over the comm, too. Sis, you were mad.”

“Alex, I’ve only known him for a month,” Andrea said, trying another tack.

He raised his eyebrows. “And that matters how? What about Cagalli and me, or Flay and Kira? Especially Flay and Kira; it took them all of three weeks.”

“Oh, you’re terrible!” They laughed together. Alex was feeling better and better about the current mission. He was looking forward to having it out with the Earth Forces brass. Assuming he could keep from punching the base commander in the face, at least.

Chapter 20: Illusory Combat

Valkyrie, gym, 13 April, C.E. 71

The black-haired young man grunted as the training mat rushed up and smacked him in the face. He lay there for a moment, gathering his strength, then rolled over and got to his feet. She’s gotten better, he thought. And I thought our first session was bruising.

The blonde girl who’d just tossed him halfway across the room laughed. “What’s the matter, Alex? Slowing down?”

“More like you’re speeding up,” Commander Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT forces, retorted. He felt his jaw and winced. “I’ll feel that one in the morning.”

Cagalli laughed again. “Don’t act so surprised. If I could nail you back in the desert, why wouldn’t I be even better after you and Kira spent weeks working with me?”

“Point.” Alex came over and gave her a quick hug. “And while I may be surprised, I’m not complaining. Anything that makes you harder to kill, I’m in favor of.”

“You’d better be.” She returned the embrace… and then flipped him over on his back.

Alex grunted again as he hit the floor, though at least this time it wasn’t as hard. The impact was enough to knock the wind out of him, but not enough to do any real damage. He wasn’t out of tricks, though, and Cagalli yelped in surprise as he swept her legs out from under her.

She landed on top of him.

“You know,” Alex said conversationally, “if Mu or Tolle could see us, they’d probably get the wrong idea.”

Cagalli blushed. “It’s your fault, Alex,” she said in a mock-severe tone. “If you hadn’t knocked me over-“

“Don’t tell me you thought I was down for the count,” Alex cut her off with a grin.

She grinned back. “Not really.” She kissed him quickly and helped him stand. “Think that’s enough?”

“Yeah.” Alex reached for his crimson jacket. “I wonder if I’ll ever get used to this.”

It had been barely twenty-four hours since he’d accepted Siegel Clyne’s offer, delivered by the Desert Tiger, to join ZAFT. His friends (and, inevitably, his sister) had followed suit, and the newly formed Strassmeier team had become the first ZAFT unit to be assigned to Orb.

Of course, they can’t admit they’re an ally until we’ve taken care of Zala.

“Come on, Alex, you only joined up yesterday,” Cagalli said. “Of course, you’ll get used to it. Besides,” she added with a sly smile, “you look good in red.”

“Thanks.” Alex smiled, then turned, hearing the intercom buzz. “Strassmeier here,” he said, accepting audio only.

“Alex, it’s Lia,” the other said. “We’ve got a priority signal from Colonel Kisaka.”

Alex blinked. Kisaka had been spending a lot of time on the Archangel of late. “Put him through.” He offered a salute when the Colonel appeared. “To what do we owe this, Colonel?”

“Greetings, Commander,” Kisaka said. “How is your team shaping up?”

The Coordinator shrugged. “The only practical change is that we’re wearing ZAFT uniforms now.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Somehow, though, I don’t think you called just for that.”

Kisaka chuckled. “Sharp as ever. Yes, I did have a more pressing reason. Lord Uzumi has a job for your team and the Archangel.”

Alex’s other eyebrow went up. “What sort of job?”

“A covert one.” Kisaka’s face was replaced by a map. “It is not yet known outside of Orb that the Archangel has defected, aside from a select few in ZAFT at least. What we intend to do is make use of that, and send Captain Ramius and her crew to Alaska, and there infiltrate the Earth Forces high command.”

Cagalli whistled. “That’s big. What if Alaska doesn’t believe them? They have been here for almost a month.”

Kisaka smiled grimly. “Simple. Kira and Alex will have to discuss it with the Zala team, but the general idea is to have the Archangel fight one or two mock battles with them. It will probably be necessary to fake the destruction of at least once of the G-weapons, possibly two. For that matter, Kira will likely have to fake his own death and the destruction of the Strike; he probably wouldn’t get a warm welcome at Alaska, after all.”

“Too true,” Alex murmured. “All right. The Akatsuki and the Specter have already been loaded. We’ll temporarily transfer the Freedom here; Kira can reclaim it once his part is done. As for the Zala team, I think they’ll be willing to help. I can’t order them to -Athrun Zala is senior to me- but it shouldn’t take much persuasion.”

Kisaka nodded. “Very well. Commander Waltfeld and Aisha will be joining you with a modified LaGOWE. Please hurry with your preparations; this is a rather spur-of-the-moment operation, and we hope to launch sometime in the next two days.”

“I understand. The Cousteau is still near Orb, so I’ll be able to get in touch with them easily enough.” Alex cut the circuit. “So it begins.” He looked at Cagalli. “You ready?”

She nodded. “It’s time we got moving again.”

“Very well.” He touched the intercom. “Communications, this is Commander Strassmeier. Signal the Cousteau and tell Commander Zala that I’d like to meet with him. Kira Yamato and my sister Andrea will also be along.” He paused, then smiled mischievously. “And don’t tell them that I’ve joined ZAFT. I’d like to give Yzak a little surprise.”

“Yes, sir.” Even with visual switched off, Alex could tell the comm officer was grinning.

As was Cagalli. “Anyone ever tell you have a sadistic streak?”

He laughed. “Hey, Yzak and I do this all the time.”

“Yeah, sure.” She punched his shoulder. “Get going, Alex.”

He grinned, saluted, and went on his way.

Cousteau, upper deck

Kira was right, Athrun Zala thought. Earth really is beautiful. From his position on the submarine’s top deck, he could see for several kilometers over the ocean. If he turned to the side, the coastline of Orb’s Onogoro Island came into view, the rocky terrain hiding the massive dock he knew was there.

Athrun leaned back, clasping his hands behind his head. Though he was devoutly grateful for the chance to relax, and even more grateful that he would no longer have to fight Kira, he found himself hungering for some action. According to Commander Le Creuset, it would still be some time before Spit Break was launched, and Athrun was almost at the point of wishing for an Earth Forces attack just to relieve the tedium.

“Hey, Athrun.” Nicol poked his head through the main hatch. “Wait till you hear what the Alliance is saying now.”

Athrun sat up, grateful for anything new. “Judging by your tone, it’s even crazier than usual.”

“Is it ever.” Nicol shook his head. “They’ve found out where Andrea Strassmeier is.” Athrun’s eyes narrowed, and his friend grimaced. “They’re demanding that Orb extradite her to stand trial for desertion.”

The Aegis’s pilot snorted derisively. “I’ll bet Lord Uzumi wasn’t happy.”

“You got that right,” Nicol agreed. “He told them that in light of Alliance policy toward Coordinators, he granted Andrea asylum in the Orb Union, and under no circumstances will she be given to the Earth Forces.”

“Glad to hear it.” Athrun had been impressed by Lord Uzumi at their first meeting, and it looked like he’d been right. “I’ll bet Yzak’s mad, though.”

“Yzak threw a screaming fit,” Nicol said, grimacing again. “Can’t say I blame him, either.”

“Neither do I,” Athrun agreed.

Nicol nodded, then looked out to sea. Like his companion, he was awed by what he’d seen on Earth. Oh, he still thought the PLANTs were beautiful, but nothing in the giant space colonies compared to Earth. The best description he could come up with was to say that the PLANTs were like a mirror of Earth. Odd thoughts for a soldier, perhaps, but Nicol Amalfi had always had a poetic streak.

The beep of Athrun’s comm broke the silence. “Athrun Zala here.”

“Commander, we have a signal from the Valkyrie,” the comm officer said. “Alex Strassmeier is requesting a meeting with you. He say he will be accompanied by his sister and Kira Yamato.”

Athrun’s eyebrows went up. Alex and Kira want to talk to me? “Of course. They’ll be coming in their mobile suits?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then give them permission to land. We’ll talk in the main briefing room.” Athrun clicked off his comm. “I wonder what this is about. If it was just Kira, I’d think this was just a social call, but with the Strassmeier’s involved, there must be more to it.”

Nicol got to his feet. “I guess we’ll find out when they get here.”

“Yeah.” Athrun rose and led the way down the hatch.

Briefing room

I wonder what this is about, Yzak thought. Not that I mind getting a chance to see Alex and Andrea, but it’s kind of weird. He snorted. Schemer that Alex was, there was no doubt something big was up. Yzak knew him well enough to realize that.

“Any idea what’s going on?” Dearka asked.

Athrun shrugged. “All I know is that Kira and Alex want to talk to us.”

“You can bet it’ll be something big,” Yzak said. “Alex wouldn’t be coming way out here for the fun of it.”

They turned as the hatch opened, and more than one jaw dropped in sheer astonishment. Kira Yamato wore the silver-white of the Orb Union with lieutenant’s insignia. That was to be expected; all four of them were aware of Kira’s enlistment in the Orb military. What none of them had expected was the sight of Alex and Andrea Strassmeier in the same red uniform they themselves wore.

“A-Alex?” Yzak whispered.

His cousin grinned. “Surprised, Yzak?”

“Kira, just what is going on?” Athrun demanded.

“Commander Waltfeld turned up in Orb yesterday,” Kira said. He proceeded to explain what the Tiger had said at their meeting.

When he had finished, the atmosphere in the briefing room was very somber indeed. “I never thought my father would go this far,” Athrun said quietly. “I didn’t want to believe it, but I don’t have a choice anymore. If Siegel Clyne, who was once his closest ally, has resorted to this, then something is very wrong.” He looked at his teammates, got nods from them, and met Kira’s gaze. “We’re with you.”

Kira seemed to sag in relief. “Thanks, Athrun.” He gestured to Alex. “Alex will explain the plan.”

“What we’re up to right now will require some subterfuge,” Alex said. He activated the wall screen, bringing up a map. “In two days, the Archangel and the Valkyrie will be leaving Orb on a covert mission to Alaska.”

“What kind of covert mission?” Nicol asked.

“In essence, Murrue and her crew will pretend that they are still with the Earth Forces,” Alex said. He highlighted a point just outside Orb territory. “We need your assistance on this, but it will mean that you guys will get somewhat banged up.”

Athrun raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“We need you to stage two mock battles with the Archangel,” Alex explained. “Unfortunately, it will mean inflicting real damage on your machines; that’s what I meant by banged up. Kira will temporarily resume control of the Strike. In each battle, we will simulate the destruction of one of your G-weapons, probably with judicious use of explosives.”

“Makes sense so far,” Athrun agreed.

“In the second battle, Kira will fake his own death, and will remain onboard the Valkyrie until the Archangel is finished at Alaska. The Natural OS will be reinstalled in the Strike, and Kira will launch in the Freedom.” Alex nodded at his sister. “Since Lia and I will be accompanying Murrue into the JOSH-A base, Andrea will be in acting command of my team.”

Athrun thought for a moment, then nodded. “All right. We’ll do it.”

“We can take the Blitz out first,” Nicol offered. “It’s easy to hide.”

Athrun nodded. “I’ll be switching to the Justice anyway, so we’ll fake the Aegis’s destruction in the second battle.” He cocked his head at the visitors. “Who will pilot it after that?”

“Tolle Koenig,” Alex said promptly. “He’s a natural pilot, pardon the pun, and it’ll make Miriallia a little less nervous about him being in combat.”

There was a general round of chuckles at that. Athrun and his teammates had only met Tolle and Mir once, but Tolle’s carefree attitude and Mir’s constant worry for him had been impossible to miss. Athrun himself had taken a liking to the young Natural, probably because of Tolle’s close friendship with Kira.

“All right,” Athrun said. “Anything else?”

“We’ll be escorted out by an Orb fleet,” Kira said. “It’ll make it hard to tell where the Archangel is until the other ships break off.”

Athrun nodded. If they wanted to make this look real, they had to make sure his team didn’t find the “legged ship” too easily.

“The Valkyrie will hang back,” Alex said. “As Admiral Halberton proved when I first met him, my family connections to ZAFT are well known. The Earth Forces’ high command will have no trouble believing that I was reluctant to engage you.”

“All right,” Athrun said again. “Two days. We’ll be ready.” He caught Kira’s eye as the others filed out. “Kira, could you stay for a few minutes?”

He’s changed, Athrun thought, regarding his old friend. The energetic, sometimes forgetful student he’d known in Copernicus was gone. No, not gone exactly, but almost hidden beneath the confident young warrior who stood before him. Kira still had the old gleam in his eye, but at the same time he had visibly matured.

It was, Athrun decided, a good thing.

“Athrun, I…” Kira hesitated. “I’m sorry.”

Athrun shook his head. “It’s not your fault, Kira. I… I’d already decided that my father had to be opposed. It’s hard, and it hurts, but I have no choice.”

“Athrun.” Kira laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “If there’s anything I can do…”

“You’re already doing it.” Athrun managed a smile at Kira’s confused look. “My father, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have family.” He gripped Kira’s arm. “You’re the closest I’ve ever had to a sibling, and I have Lacus and Nicol, too.”

Kira smiled back. Even though they were in the middle of a war, it suddenly felt like old times. “And now we’re on the same side. We don’t have to fight each other anymore.”

That was a great relief to them both. Even though their respective commanders had granted them permission to use disabling attacks, having to fight each other had hurt on a very deep level. Now that Orb was allied with the PLANTs, albeit unofficially, that was behind them.

“I’d better get going,” Kira said. “We have a lot to do, and not much time to do it.”

Athrun watched him go, again struck by the changes in his friend. The Kira Yamato of three years past hadn’t had such confidence, but it seemed he’d grown a lot since Heliopolis. It wasn’t surprising that he’d been changed by the war, but it was clear he’d come through. Thanks to people like Cagalli and Flay.


Alex leaned against a bulkhead; arms crossed. “To be honest, I was hesitant about accepting Clyne’s offer. You know as well as anyone what I’ve done to ZAFT since Heliopolis.”

“Yeah, well, you’re wearing a ZAFT uniform, so somebody must have gotten to you,” Yzak observed.

“Yeah, like Cagalli,” Andrea said.

Alex gave his sister a sour look. “Yes, Cagalli insisted that I pursue my dream, and her father pointed out that I’m a son of the PLANTs regardless of whether I joined ZAFT, so here I am.”

Yzak laughed. “Figures it’d take someone like her to get through that thick skull of yours. No offense, Alex, but you’ve always been hardheaded.”

“Look who’s talking,” Alex shot back, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a grin. “This from a guy who went nuts over a facial scar.”

The white-haired pilot looked away briefly. “I was an idiot,” he said, and admission he wouldn’t have made to anyone else save his mother.

“No, you were just your usual hotheaded self,” Alex said, shaking his head ruefully. He pushed away from the bulkhead. “Well, gotta go. Places to be and people to see and all that.”

Yzak grinned and punched his shoulder. “Say hi to your princess for me.”

Alex just snorted.

Carpentaria Base, 4 April, C.E. 71

Well. This is very interesting indeed. Alex Strassmeier has joined ZAFT but remains in opposition to Chairman Zala. No surprise.

Rau Le Creuset glanced out his office window. He had quickly approved Athrun’s decision to assist the Archangel in their little mission. It could only make things that much easier when Spit Break struck its true target. And Alex Strassmeier’s almost fanatical patriotism would play its part as well.

And then the next stage will begin.

Archangel, Bridge, 15 April, C.E. 71

It was finally time. After nearly a month of rest, the Archangel was ready to move again. This time, though, it was in the service of the Orb Union, and the midnight-black warship trailing it was now attached to ZAFT, though it remained privately owned.

Since the mission required them to pretend, they were still with the Earth Forces, Murrue and her crew had redonned Atlantic Federation uniform. Several of them, most notably Mu La Flaga, found the necessity distasteful, but none questioned it.

Kuzzey Buskirk’s departure had posed a problem at first, but Kira’s programming skills had provided a solution. He’d found it almost trivially simple to purge all trace of his friend’s presence from the Archangel’s computers, and since Admiral Halberton had never reported the enlistment of Kira and his friends, no one at Alaska would have any reason to question it.

“Signal from the flagship, Captain,” Flay said; she’d replaced Kuzzey at communications. ” ‘This is where we leave you. Good luck on your mission and come back safe.’ “

Murrue nodded. “Send our thanks.” She investigated CIC. “Mister Tonomura, any sign of the Zala team yet?”

Tonomura shook his head. “Not yet ma’am. I’m not picking up any submarines or mobile suits.”

“Athrun probably hasn’t launched yet,” Kira put in from the Strike’s cockpit. “His ship will be running silent, almost certainly close by.”

“Any idea when he’ll make his move?”

Kira shrugged. “An hour from now at most. He won’t be able to wait any longer than that, not if he wants to make it believable.”

“Kira’s right,” Mu said from his Skygrasper. “Remember, Athrun’s been with the Le Creuset team since the day he graduated from the ZAFT academy. That means he learned most of his strategies from Rau Le Creuset, and I know from experience how that guy operates.”

“Understood,” Murrue said. She looked at Kira. “Which of his machines is to be ‘destroyed’?”

“The Blitz,” Kira responded. “Nicol mentioned that his machine would be the easiest to hide.”

“I agree,” Natarle said. “It’s Mirage Colloid system will work to our advantage.”

“Very well.”

As it turned out, Athrun had no intention of waiting if Kira suggested he might. Less than fifteen minutes later, four unpleasantly familiar blips appeared on Jackie Tonomura’s radar scope. At the same time, their sonar rig picked up the distinctive acoustical signature of a Vosgulov-class submarine.

“We have incoming,” Tonomura said. “One Vosgulov-class submarine, and four mobile suits. Checking profiles…” He looked over his shoulder. “Aegis, Buster, Blitz, and Duel. It’s the Zala team, Captain, right on schedule.”

“We’re being hailed, Captain,” Flay said. “It’s Athrun.”

Murrue nodded. “Put him on.”

Athrun’s helmeted visage appeared on the main screen. “Captain Ramius,” he greeted. “Are you ready?”

“As ready as we can be,” Murrue said. “What about your end?”

“We’ve planted some explosives on an island northwest of here,” Athrun said. “Guide the battle that way.” He smiled wryly. “Our machines are going to get banged up, but it’s all for a good cause.” He tossed her a salute. “Whenever you’re ready, let’s go.”

Natarle straightened in her chair. “Activate Igelstellungs, prepare Gottfrieds and Valiants. Deploy smoke dischargers.”

Battle was about to be joined once again, a battle that any neutral observer would assume to be a fight to the death. But, of course, nothing was further from the truth.

Open sky

As they had in their previous battle, the four ZAFT Gundams rode Guul subflight platforms to increase mobility. They wouldn’t be as nimble as the Stormbird or Aile Strike, but it was still a major leg up, especially for the notoriously slow-moving Buster.

Dearka raised his eyebrows at the sudden haze. “A smokescreen. Wonder whose idea that was.”

“Probably Commander Badgiruel’s,” Yzak said. He had a lively respect for the black-haired XO’s deviousness. “It’s just the sort of thing she’d try.”

It was soon apparent that smoke wasn’t the only trick their new allies had. An argent beam of red light stabbed out of the smoke, narrowly missing the Blitz’s Guul.

“Everyone scatter!” Athrun snapped. Nice trick, Kira.

Two Skygraspers dove out of the clouds, beam turrets spitting green death. Mu’s carried the Aile pack, while Tolle had the Sword; the latter might have seemed useless on a fighter, but Cagalli had proved otherwise during the Talbadiya battle.

Then the Strike itself joined the fray, hyper-impulse cannon blazing. One shot missed, but the second scored a direct hit on the Buster’s Guul. Dearka grunted in surprise, firing his gun launcher in a futile attempt at retaliation. Seconds later, he was in the drink.

Man, I’m glad that guy’s on our side.

“Where’s the Stormbird?” Yzak wondered, dodging a missile attack from Tolle.

A chuckle sounded over the comm. “You called, Yzak?” Alex swooped in from the side, a beam saber already drawn.

Yzak grinned, clashing his saber against his cousin’s. “This is more like it!”

“Yeah,” Alex agreed. His sister hadn’t launched; it had been agreed beforehand that having Andrea involved in the false combat was a bad idea.

Kira, meanwhile, had landed back on the Archangel’s forward deck. The Launcher pack fell from the Strike, and the Phase-shift faded from its body.

“Strike, stand by to convert to Aile mode,” Mir said.

Mu came to a near hover. “Don’t drop my presents.”

Kira hit his boosters just as Mu released the Aile pack. In a perfect display of coordination, he caught the rifle and shield, while the subflight unit with its sabers and extra thrusters clamped onto the Strike’s back. Color flowed over the Strike once again as the PSA reactivated.

Nicol whistled in admiration. “He changed his equipment in midair.” He snapped the Trikeros up. “Here we go!”

Kira took a deep breath and drew a saber. Seeing that his beam rifle wasn’t doing much good, Nicol launched the Gleipnir, then yelped in surprise as Kira slashed a saber clean through it. The Blitz’s saber ignited in turn, and the two machines fell into a deadlock.

A deadlock that broke abruptly when Tolle dive-bombed the Blitz, scoring several hits with a missile salvo. Kira took advantage of the sudden opening, slicing the Blitz’s right arm off and kicking it off its Guul. He then appropriated the unit for his own use.

Valkyrie, Bridge

“Can you project the Blitz’s landing point?” Lia Ramius asked, looking anxiously at her radar operator.

“Easily, ma’am.” He tapped a few keys. “He should land fairly close to where this fight is supposed to end.”

“Very well.” She touched an intercom control. “Kyle, your turn.”

Kyle didn’t respond verbally, but then he didn’t need to. The Devastator’s beam rifle and gun launcher erupted simultaneously, nearly blowing the Aegis’s head off.

So far, so good, Lia thought. Even though the current battle was staged, she couldn’t help worrying. Accidents could still happen, and Alex Strassmeier had been her best friend for a very long time. If something were to go wrong… No, don’t think about that.

At her old station on the port side, Cagalli bit her lip. Like her friend Lia, she was worried about the possibility of an accident. True, it was unlikely, but even a slight mistake with the kind of firepower a Gundam had could be catastrophic.

“Captain, the Blitz has gone under Mirage Colloid,” the radar operator said.

“Signal from the Cousteau,” the comm officer added. “Dearka splashed down about half a kilometer away. He’s going to try to get to land.”

Lia nodded. “Let’s make things a little more interesting. Fire Gottfrieds; try for a near miss on the Aegis.”

The Archangel fired at the same time, forcing Athrun to dodge wildly. Lia found herself grinning; even though he knew perfectly well that the miss was intentional, Athrun had to have been more than a little rattled by the sudden beam attack.

Open sky

Only two of the ZAFT Gundams were in the air now, and Yzak was exchanging saber blows with Alex. That left Athrun’s Aegis to face the Strike, and it was clear that he was at a disadvantage. Even hampered by the “borrowed” Guul, Kira’s Strike was far more maneuverable, and he was making the most of it.

Here goes nothing, Athrun thought. The two mobile suits closed at high speed, firing all the way. Soon they were forced into a turning battle, exchanging laser blasts at point-blank range. It couldn’t last, as both knew; within moments, one of Kira’s shots damaged Athrun’s Guul. Athrun leapt off, and the unit slammed into Kira’s, forcing the Strike off as well.

Athrun landed hard, raising his shield in time to ward off a barrage from the Archangel’s Igelstellungs. He was also running low on power.


He looked up, and his eyes widened. The Strike, now equipped with the Sword pack, dropped out of the sky, Schwerht Gewehr held high. Athrun jumped back at the last instant, though he wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid having his rifle sliced in half.

“Athrun, you think that’s enough?”

Athrun checked his readouts. “Not quite. Nicol needs a little more time.”

“Roger that.” Kira swung his sword again, impacting on the Aegis’s shield. When Athrun jumped again, he lowered the giant weapon and slammed the Strike’s fist into the Aegis’s head. Pieces of red armor flew everywhere, the Aegis landed on its back, and the PSA faded.

“Here I come!”

Kira and Athrun both jumped, startled, as GAT-X207 Blitz charged from the side, a lancer dart gripped in its remaining arm. Everything seemed to slow; Kira sidestepped and swung his sword, Nicol thrust the dart forward, and then the Blitz disappeared in a titanic explosion.

The Stormbird and the Duel alighted nearby, joined by the Buster. The three pilots strained their eyes, trying to see through the smoke.

“Nicol?” Dearka whispered.

The smoke cleared, revealing the Blitz sprawled on the ground. Nicol was just pulling himself out of the cockpit, looking dazed but otherwise unhurt.

“I’m okay.” The young pilot’s voice came through the comm clearly. “I’ll probably have a few bruises, but nothing worse than that.”

Athrun sighed with relief. “All right. Alex, you’d better pick up the Blitz.”

“Got it.” Alex moved to the fallen mobile suit, accompanied by Kyle’s Devastator. “Ah, where’d the right arm land?”

Nicol pointed off to the north. “About half a klick that way.”

Kyle went off to collect the part, while Alex carefully lifted what was left of the Blitz’s main body. There was no question that it would need extensive repairs, but it wouldn’t be outside the Valkyrie’s resources. Hiro Nakamura’s MBF-X208 Shinobi was a modification of the same design, after all.

That left the question of what it looked like from the Archangel. They didn’t want to do any more hacking than they had to; Kira’s subterfuge regarding his friend Kuzzey was one thing, battle records were something else entirely.

Archangel, Bridge

Jackie Tonomura studied his readouts. “I think that was convincing enough, ma’am. Kira nearly caught the Blitz’s cockpit with that last attack, and the explosives did the rest.”

“Good,” Murrue said. “How’s Nicol?”

“He’s fine, Captain,” Mir said, listening intently to her earpiece. “Nothing worse than a few bruises; apparently he had a hard landing.”

“As expected,” Natarle pointed out.

“Alex is taking the Blitz to the Valkyrie,” Mir continued. “Nicol’s going with him.”

Murrue nodded. “Very well. Send our thanks to Commander Zala and resume our original course.”

Valkyrie, hangar

Alex released the zip line and almost collapsed on the deck. Even though the entire fight had been staged, it had still taken a lot out of him. In some respects, acting was a whole lot harder than genuine combat; at least in a real battle, you didn’t have to worry about convincing someone that an “enemy” had been destroyed when he hadn’t been.

Give me a straight-up fight any day, he thought sourly.

Nicol was guiding several mechanics as they swarmed over the Blitz; the explosives had done so much damage that the cockpit was the only component recognizable as part of a mobile suit.

“Are you okay?”

Alex looked up. It was, predictably, Cagalli. “Just tired. You may find this hard to believe, but what happened out there today was a lot more difficult than an actual engagement.”

She helped him to his feet. “Of course, it was. You had to make it look real without injuring anyone. That can’t be easy.”

“The toughest part was faking the Blitz’s destruction.” He let her guide him out of the hangar. “However, carful we were, it was still a near thing for Nicol. He’s lucky to be just bruised.”

Cagalli nodded. She’d seen the explosion on the Bridge monitor.

“In any case,” Alex said as they stopped at his quarters, “the first step is complete. One more of these fake battles, and then we move on to Alaska.”

He dropped onto his bunk. “That will probably be the trickiest part of all. Lia and I will have to go in, assuming the brass will let is we did play a major role in this mess, after all.”

Cagalli sat on the edge of the bunk. “Do you think they’ll accept the cover story?”

“They should. What worries me is my own part.” Alex grimaced. “They want Andrea extradited, and they’ll know she and I are related. Odds are, whoever’s in charge will accuse me of aiding and abetting desertion. Not that they can do much.”

She squeezed his hand, not speaking.

“Once Spit Break is launched, the Earth Forces will have more important things than one Coordinator to worry about,” Alex said softly.

Maius Military Industries R&D facility, Maius City, PLANTs, 16 April, C.E. 71

Just about ready, the blonde pilot thought, tweaking the program one last time. There!

Troy Cadwallader pulled a disc from the terminal. With that, the operating system for the new weapon he’d been working on was at last finished. The official designation for it struck him as a little odd, though. Detached Rapid Armament Group Overlook Observation Network was quite the mouthful, though the acronym, DRAGOON, sounded menacing enough.

Makes more sense than the G-weapons, he thought wryly. General Unilateral Neuro-link Dispersive Autonomic Maneuver Synthesis System, what is that supposed to mean?

Troy shrugged it off. He was mildly curious as to how this new DRAGOON system was going to be powered; given the number of individual beam emitters, it would drain a mobile suit’s energy battery in short order. Of course, there were persistent rumors of a new device called a Neutron-jammer Canceler, but they’d never been confirmed.

The door opened, and Patrick Zala himself stepped through. “Ah, Mister Cadwallader. How is the new system coming?”

Troy saluted, not missing the hint of distaste in the Chairman’s voice and expression. “I’ve just finished the OS for it, Your Excellency. The hardware, of course, is another matter.”

Zala waved that away. “The actual units were the easy part. What we needed was an operating system to control them properly, and I have no doubt that you succeeded.” His tone indicated that Troy had better have, or else.

“Of course, Your Excellency.” Troy inserted the disc. “As you can see…”

Zala listened carefully as the young Natural walked him through the system. Even as he explained his work, Troy made a mental note to get in touch with Shiho. Something about the Chairman was bothering him; even though his record was spotless, Zala seemed to hold him in disfavor.

If the reason was what Troy was beginning to think it was, then things were going very wrong indeed.

Chapter 19: The Lady and the Tiger

Morgenroete testing facility, 4 April, C.E. 71

It was always noisy at Morgenroete’s main testing facility. Vehicles of one kind or another were always being maintained or worked up, which meant quiet was very hard to find. However, while there was a pair of mobile suits in the huge expanse, neither was being worked up.

MBF-X108 Stormbird clashed its saber against an anti-beam shield. The machine bearing it, a main-line MBF-M1 Astray, pushed back, drawing a saber of its own. Neither pilot gave ground, at least not willingly. Eventually, though, the Stormbird pushed its mass-produced opponent back.

“You’re getting better,” Alex Strassmeier said approvingly. “You almost had me that time.”

“Almost doesn’t count,” Cagalli Yula Athha shot back. “You still won. Again.”

Alex sighed. He wouldn’t give Cagalli up for anything, but she could be tiresome at times. “Cagalli, it’s been less than a month since you learned you were a Coordinator, and maybe a week since Kira and I started training you in mobile suit combat. You’re progressing at a remarkably rapid pace.”

“I know, I know,” she grumbled irritably.

“Why don’t we call it a day,” Alex suggested. He marched his machine to its place and powered down.

The only reason it had taken so long to start her training in the first place was the need to get her accustomed to her Coordinator abilities. Alex had taken care of that himself; his martial arts training had made him a natural choice for the role. As with mobile suit operations, Cagalli had progressed at an astounding rate.

They found Kira and Flay in the lounge, side by side on a couch. “So, how’d it go?” Flay asked.

“Don’t ask,” Cagalli grumbled, pouring herself a cup of coffee. “Alex took me apart, as usual.”

Alex snorted. “Don’t listen to her, Flay. When you bear in mind the fact that she’s been training for approximately one week, her progress is nothing short of incredible.” He smiled. “The only person I know of who took to this faster is Kira, and he has an edge.”

The princess shook her head, then smiled wryly and kissed him on the cheek. “If I’m getting better, it’s because I have a couple of good teachers,” she said, nodding at her brother.

Alex collapsed into a chair. “In any case, it’s a good thing. I give it two months at the most before Orb is drawn into this war, whether your father likes it or not.”

“Do you think we’ll have to fight ZAFT?” Kira asked anxiously, thinking of Athrun.

“We’ll probably have to fight some of it,” Alex replied. “Athrun has already reported Lord Uzumi’s assurance that Orb will never join the Earth Forces, so if Zala does order an attack on us,” he looked grim for a moment; they’d heard of Patrick Zala’s election two days before, “it will prove that I was right all along about his goal. That, in turn, will swing a good-sized chunk of ZAFT over to us.”

Flay took Kira’s arm. “What about Athrun and his team?”

Alex pursed his lips. “I spoke with Aunt Ezalia when I heard about the election results,” he said. “She didn’t say much, probably because it wasn’t a secure channel, but I got the impression that she, along with Tad Elsman and Yuri Amalfi, the fathers of Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi, respectively,” he added for Flay’s benefit, “are with Clyne.”

Kira swallowed. “What about Athrun?”

“I think he’d side with us,” the other said slowly. “It wouldn’t be easy -this is his father we’re talking about, after all- but I think he’d do it.” Alex shrugged. “You know him better than I do.”

Kira considered that. “I think you’re right. If it comes to that, it won’t be easy for him, but he’ll do it. And he won’t be alone, either. I’ll help him if I can, and there’s Lacus and Nicol.”

“Which is very fortunate,” Alex said. “If it hadn’t been for Lia and Yzak, I would likely have gone mad after the Mandelbrot Incident.”

Flay nodded. “I know what you mean.” She briefly looked glum. “I’ve had nightmares about what might have happened if Kira hadn’t been there when my father was killed. What I could have done…” She trailed off, shuddering.

Kira wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. “What’s important is that it didn’t happen.”

“Still, you gotta wonder,” Cagalli said softly. “Will we be ready, if we’re drawn into the war?”

“We’ll be ready,” Alex said, standing. He nodded at the silent mobile suits visible through the window. “We’ll be ready,” he repeated. “We have no choice.”

There was a long silence. Natarle had informed them that very morning of increased activity at Carpentaria Base. From what she’d heard, they were gearing up for a new operation, codenamed Spit Break; the target was rumored to be Panama. It was logical enough; with the loss of Kaohsiung and Victoria, Porta Panama was the only mass driver the Earth Forces had left. If it was destroyed, the door to space was closed.

And that would make Orb, with its mass driver at Kaguya, a prime target for the Earth Forces.

“We shouldn’t be worrying about that right now,” Cagalli said. “Alex is right, we will be ready. For now, though…” She shrugged. “After everything that’s happened since Heliopolis, we all need a break. Which reminds me…” She smiled at her boyfriend. “Happy birthday, Alex.”

He blinked. “Thanks, but how did you know? I know I’ve never mentioned it.”

“I told her,” Andrea said from the doorway.

Alex rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised. Are you here for a reason, Sis?”

Andrea exchanged cheerful greetings with Flay, then looked back at her brother. “Lord Sahaku asked for my input on modifications to his mobile suit.”

“He has one of the Astray prototypes, doesn’t he?” Kira asked.

She nodded. “MBF-P01 Astray Gold Frame. While the Zala team was here, he was talking to Nicol about the Blitz; apparently he wants to use data from that machine.”

From what Alex had seen, the Gold Frame needed repairs more than it needed upgrades. If he remembered right, it had taken damage during the Le Creuset team’s attack on Heliopolis, lost an arm or some such. Alex did know it had plugs that allowed it to use both Orb and Earth Forces weapons, which could be quite an advantage.

He looked at Kira. “You said prototypes, plural?” Kira nodded. “How many are there?”

“Three, I think,” Kira said slowly. “The MBF-P02 Red Frame belongs to that Junker your cousin mentioned, Lowe Guele. It has a Natural-compatible OS, and sword with an anti-beam coating.”

“That would be the Gerbera Straight,” Alex said. “And the third?”

Cagalli took that one. “I heard the P03 Blue Frame was taken by Gai Murakumo. I’ll bet it was the machine Waltfeld ran into when we landed on Earth.”

“Sounds logical,” Alex agreed. He chuckled ruefully. “Speaking of Murakumo, it seems I’m not the only person around here who has a facade. My friend Chris Madsen is ex-Serpent Tail.”

Flay’s jaw dropped. “So, he knows Murakumo?”

“He does indeed, and the battle-frenzy/pyromaniac part of his personality is every bit as much of a mask as my poker face,” Alex confirmed.

“You shouldn’t be surprised, Flay,” Andrea advised. “Alex and I know Lowe Guele, thanks to Lia. Anyway, back to the original topic, Lord Sahaku is interested in the Specter’s energy-draining claw.”

That made sense. Such a weapon had obvious applications in the capture of new enemy machines. If you drained the target’s battery, you could capture or destroy it at your leisure.

Alex stood. “I have to talk to Sahaku myself,” he said. “I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he cares about Orb in the least, but at least he has a grip on reality. Which is more than can be said for certain other individuals here.” There was a soft chuckle at his thinly veiled reference to the Seirans.

Cagalli gave him a quick kiss. “I don’t trust him either, but you shouldn’t have much trouble. You are nobility, after all, even if you’re not from Orb.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Cousteau, crew lounge

“So how long do you think we’ll be here?” Dearka wondered idly.

Yzak looked up from a magazine. “Who knows? It’s not like they’re ready to launch Spit Break yet, and if there’s nothing to do anyway, making sure the Earth Forces don’t try anything with Orb is fine by me.”

“You’re just saying that because your cousins are there,” Nicol said with a grin.

The Duel’s pilot shot him a dirty look but didn’t deny it. “Of course, I am. Andrea was already kidnapped once; there’s no way I’m letting it happen again.”

“For once, Yzak, I’m with you all the way,” Athrun said. “Kira’s there, too, remember. I’m not losing anyone else.”

Yzak snorted, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Now that he’d met Kira Yamato, he understood why Athrun was so loyal to him. There’s something about that guy. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. There was no denying his skill, either.

“I wonder if Orb will be pulled into the war,” Nicol said. “Uzumi said they’ll never join the Earth Alliance, but will that be enough?”

“That’s why we’re here, Nicol,” Athrun reminded him. “Once Panama is taken out, the only mass driver not in ZAFT hands will be Kaguya; I don’t think the Equatorial Union has one.”

Nicol winced. “So, the Earth Forces will demand that Orb join their cause.”

“And Uzumi will tell them to go take a flying leap, so they’ll try to take it by force,” Dearka said, his voice dripping contempt. “The question is, can they, do it?”

Yzak laughed. “Dearka, Orb has Alex, Kira Yamato, and the Hawk of Endymion. Those three could wipe out a bunch of our forces all by themselves, let alone the stuff the Earth Forces have.”

Athrun shook his head. “Don’t be so sure, Yzak. Sure, Alex, Kira, and Commander La Flaga are some of the best pilots around; we know that from experience. That doesn’t mean the Alliance doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve. Remember Andrea’s machine.”

Yzak grimaced. Delighted though he was by the appearance of GAT-X210 Specter, once he found out who the pilot was, its existence was still a bad sign. Unless the war ended soon, something none of them were optimistic about, the Earth Forces would inevitably overcome the OS problem that had hamstrung their mobile suit program. When that happened, things would get a whole lot bloodier.

That was why Operation Spit Break was so important. If ZAFT could at least take out the last Earth Forces mass driver, it would at least buy them some time; the loss of Panama wouldn’t completely trap the Alliance on Earth, but they wouldn’t be able to send any significant force into space.

“My father’s election as Chairman of the Supreme Council may make things more difficult,” Athrun said softly.

His teammates looked at him. “You, okay?” Nicol asked.

Athrun sighed. “I… don’t think he’s himself anymore. He hasn’t been since the Bloody Valentine, really.” He hesitated. “I’m starting to think Alex might be right, that… my father really does want the Naturals extinct.”

“What are you going to do?” Yzak asked gently; he knew from painful experience what a family split was like.

Athrun swallowed. “If it comes down to it, I can’t support him.” The admission came hard, but it was firm all the same. “Saying that all Naturals are the enemy is just as wrong as the Earth Forces’ claim that we’re all monsters. I know Kira’s parents, and I certainly don’t want them dead.”

Nicol laid a hand on his shoulder. “You can count on me, Athrun.”

“I’m with you, too,” Dearka said.

“Count me in,” Yzak added. He smiled at his nominal commander’s look of surprise. “Hey, maybe we’ve never liked each other, but teammates stick together no matter what. Besides, I know what it’s like to have that kind of breach in your family.”

Athrun smiled gratefully. “Thanks, guys.”

Streets of Orb capital, 5 April, C.E. 71

After more than an hour of coaxing, Kira finally agreed to get out of the Morgenroete facility for a while. Flay had pointed out that the Natural OS was ready, the M1s were moving along nicely, and Alex was handling the rest of Cagalli’s training, so he could afford to take a break.

“Hey, Kira, you awake there?” Flay nudged him.

He jumped. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

She laughed. “I thought you were sleepwalking for a minute.”

Kira shrugged. “I guess you were right that I needed a break. That work for Morgenroete isn’t as hard as piloting in combat, but it’s not easy, either.”

Inevitably, Flay dragged him to a clothing store. Kira, feeling out of his depth, waited while his girlfriend chatted with a couple of her friends from Heliopolis, who had somehow made it to Orb. He knew one of them slightly, having met her a couple of times at the college.

He suddenly realized the girl was talking to him. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

She smiled. “Thanks for taking care of Flay.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, you’re welcome.”

The girl laughed. “No need to be embarrassed.”

After a few more minutes, Kira and Flay said their goodbyes and left. They had no destination in mind; Flay just insisted that they not return to Morgenroete before sundown. That was fine with Kira; as he’d said, he needed the break.

Eventually, the two teens found themselves on the waterfront. Taking a seat on a nearby bench, Kira gazed out over the ocean. It’s been so long. I can’t even remember what it was like to live in the homeland. After the better part of a decade in Copernicus, followed by a couple of years on Heliopolis, staying in Orb itself was disorienting.

Flay sat down beside him. “What a beautiful view.”

He smiled. “Yeah. Things have been so hectic since we landed, we haven’t had a chance to just look around. Now though…” He trailed off as something in the distance caught his eye. Pulling a set of electronic binoculars from a belt pouch, he found himself grinning.

“What is it?”

Kira handed her the binoculars. “Take a look.”

Flay did as she was told. “A Vosgulov?”

“Not just any Vosgulov,” Kira said. “That’s the Cousteau. Athrun’s ship.”

She blinked. “What’s he doing out there?”

Kira shrugged. “He told me that his team would be stationed near Orb for a while, to make sure the Earth Forces don’t try anything. Sure, they don’t know we’ve deserted, but they know about Admiral Halberton, not to mention Andrea’s escape.”

Flay nodded her understanding. Even with Patrick Zala now Chairman of the Supreme Council, it made sense that ZAFT would want to ensure the Alliance kept its hands off Orb. Combining the Earth Forces’ manpower with Orb’s technology would be a recipe for disaster.

She rested her head on Kira’s shoulder. “Then we’re safe.” Even she knew there was no way the Earth Forces could have built something that could take on all four stolen Gundams at once.

Kira leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, then leaned back. Thanks, Athrun.


Alex gazed thoughtfully at the black-and-gold mobile suit. Originally, the MBF-P01 Astray Gold Frame had borne a pronounced resemblance to Kira’s GAT-X105 Strike. Now, though, it had been severely modified. It had an entirely new head, one with three eyes: two Gundam-style, and a monoeye above them. The right arm had been replaced and equipped with a modified version of the Trikeros shield system used by the Blitz and the Specter.

There were other, nastier features…

“Evil-looking,” he commented.

The dark-haired, crimson-eyed man next to him laughed. “By design, Commander,” Rondo Ghina Sahaku said. “A menacing image can be just as deadly as a beam rifle, as I am sure you know.”

“Psychological warfare,” Alex agreed. “No doubt its looks do not deceive.”

Rondo laughed again. “Not at all. Your sister was very helpful. Thanks to her, the Gold Frame can now drain a target’s energy battery, though by means of colloid gas instead of a claw. The Trikeros is quite functional, and it also carries three spears tipped with Phase-shift armor.”

“Thus, allowing it to penetrate PSA with a physical weapon,” Alex said, nodding. He glanced at his companion sidelong. “I wanted to thank you, by the way. For taking my part with the Seirans.”

Rondo’s lip curled. “Those fools. I admit I don’t exactly like you, and I know perfectly well you don’t like me, but you are nobility of a sort, and you have long since demonstrated your courage and ability. Unlike the Seirans.”

Rondo Ghina Sahaku may have been arrogant, convinced of the superiority of his own birth, and other cliches to that effect, but no one would dream of questioning either his courage or his skill on the battlefield. More importantly for someone like Alex, his contempt for the Seirans was legendary; he had once been heard to say he wouldn’t wish either Unato Ema Seiran or his worthless son Yuna Roma on a cockroach.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Alex said in a dust-dry voice. He looked back up at the silent mobile suit. “The AMATU. I look forward to seeing it in action.”

Rondo smiled thinly. “That may happen much sooner than you think.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Alex said. “ZAFT is going to attack Panama, and if that attack succeeds, I guarantee you the Earth Forces will come here.”

The thin smile grew thinner. “They are welcome to try.”

Alex nodded, then stiffened imperceptibly. He’d just felt something, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was subliminal, almost as though something was calling him. That, of course, was absurd, but it was the only description he could think of.

“Whew! Had me nervous there for a second.”

The two Coordinators turned. “Mu? Something up?” Alex asked.

Mu waved a hand. “Erica Simmons asked me to come, something about a new AI program. Don’t know why she wants me; Kira’s the master programmer.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I came in here and got the same feeling that hits me when Rau Le Creuset’s in the neighborhood.”

“Rau Le Creuset…” Alex trailed off. “Of course!”

Rondo raised an eyebrow. “Le Creuset?”

“What do Mu, Le Creuset, and I all have in common?” Alex answered his own question. “We all have enhanced spatial awareness. I remember reading somewhere that people with our abilities can sense each other.”

Mu blinked in surprise. “How come we haven’t been able to sense each other before now?”

“Abilities like ours don’t usually surface until late adolescence,” Alex explained. “As you may or may not know, I turned eighteen yesterday. The time frame is about right.”

The Hawk nodded slowly. “Makes sense.”

“So, Commander, what sort of AI does the chief desire?” Rondo asked.

Mu shrugged. “Something about remote weapons; I saw a bunch of Morgenroete techs crawling over the Zero. She’ll probably want Kira’s help, too; like I said, he’s the master programmer.”

Alex nodded, then looked back up at the AMATU. Even in the Land of Peace, people were preparing for war. The military with the Strike and their M1s, nobles like Rondo Ghina Sahaku, and independents like Alex himself, all of them were preparing for the coming fight.

I just hope it’s enough. Enough to stop Zala, and the Earth Forces.

Siegel Clyne’s office, Aprilius One, 9 April, C.E. 71

Siegel Clyne rubbed his temples, groaning softly. Patrick Zala’s election as Chairman had galvanized the radicals, as he had unfortunately expected. He still had Canaver, Joule, Elsman, and Amalfi, but the other five representatives had all lined up behind Zala.

There is no longer any alternative. We have no choice if Patrick’s madness is to be stopped. Siegel sighed, then activated a secure comm. “This is Clyne.”

A brown-haired man appeared on the screen. “Waltfeld here.” The Tiger had lost an eye, and his left arm had been replaced by a prosthesis much like Alex Strassmeier’s, but he was in good shape otherwise.

“It’s time, Commander,” Siegel said. “We no longer have a choice. Proceed as we discussed.”

“Understood. What about the Songstress?”

Siegel gave a half-amused grunt. “I had intended to keep Lacus out of this entirely, but she insisted on helping.” He shrugged. “Perhaps her presence will help persuade Lord Uzumi of our sincerity.”

“Maybe it will,” Waltfeld agreed. “I know she likes that Yamato kid. Then again, so do I.” He chuckled. “How do I handle Strassmeier? Sure, he’s wanted to be a ZAFT soldier ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, but the fact that he’s killed our people might make him hesitate.”

“I’m sure you can persuade him,” Siegel said. “Tell him that the deaths of ZAFT soldiers at his hand will not be held against him, in light of the situations he found himself in. If that fails, talk to his cousin; the Cousteau should still be near Orb.”

Waltfeld saluted. “Understood. I’ll have them load the Justice and the Freedom. We should be ready by the time the Songstress gets here.” He cut the circuit.

Siegel sat back in his chair. With that short conversation, there was no turning back. He and his allies were now committed to their course. He only hoped that it wouldn’t end in disaster.

Archangel, cafeteria, 10 April, C.E. 71

Tolle Koenig took a long gulp of his drink. “Man, I needed that,” he said, setting the glass of milk aside.

Alex cocked an eyebrow. “Been busy?”

“Yeah. Since I’m a pilot, the Captain figured I should get some mobile suit training.” Tolle smiled at a very nervous Mir. “Lucky those M1s are better than anything short of a Gundam, or Mir would kill me.”

Alex snorted. “She might kill you anyway.”

“Nah. I talked it over with her, and she thinks it’s better than sticking me in a Skygrasper, which was the original plan.”

“Only after Kira and Commander La Flaga talked to her about it,” Sai put in, setting his tray next to Tolle’s. “She’s still scared, Tolle, you know that.”

Tolle sighed. “I know,” he said quietly. “But… it’s something I have to do. Lieutenant Neumann is better at the Archangel’s helm than I’ll ever be, so it’s not like I’m indispensable there.”

Sai nodded. The recently promoted helmsman was quiet and professional, and he knew the Archangel’s flight systems backwards and forwards.

“There are some things you should keep in mind, Tolle,” Alex said. “First of all, and I’m sure you already know this one, piloting a mobile suit is nothing like handling a battleship’s helm. It’s a lot more maneuverable, so you’ll be a much harder target.”

“I’m following you,” Tolle said.

Alex leaned forward. “The second one is more important. Remember, up till now you’ve only been responsible for the ship’s course. It’ll be a lot different in a mobile suit. Once you’re out there, there will be enough firepower to take out a capital ship at your fingertips. That is not something to take lightly.”

Tolle nodded slowly. “Kira’s told me about that before.”

“He’s told you, but that’s all.” Alex nodded out the viewport, where the Strike was visible. “Nothing can truly prepare you for the moment you first take someone’s life.”

“Your first was Miguel Aiman, wasn’t it?”

Alex shook his head. “No. It was well before that.” He closed his eyes. “It was when Andrea was kidnapped by the Earth Forces. I was able to take out the first guy who broke into our house. He tried to grab me, but I caught him in the temple with my right hand. It shattered his skull.” He met Tolle’s gaze. “I wasn’t affected at first, and I’m sure you know why. Once things had settled down, though, I had a major panic attack.”

He stood. “I’m not saying that I don’t think you can handle it, far from it. I think you’ll make an excellent mobile suit pilot. I’m just warning you that it’s not all about your skill in the cockpit.”

Tolle watched him go. Knowing Alex as he did, the talk hadn’t surprised him in the least, and he had to admit it made a lot of sense. He resolved to remember what his cold-blooded friend had said.

The next couple of days were uneventful. Kira divided his time between assisting the new mobile suit corps and helping Murdoch’s people with the Strike, catching some time with Flay when he could. Alex and Cagalli were almost always found together, save for when one or the other had some pressing business to attend to.

Murrue and Natarle concentrated on getting their new Orb crewmates up to speed on the Archangel. Command hadn’t bothered to assign extra pilots; Kira, Mu, and Tolle were more than sufficient for their current needs. They were, however, badly in need of other crew, particularly mechanics, so a mixture of Morgenroete techs and Orb military personnel were brought on board.

Unbeknownst to any of them, a new group of allies was nearing Orb. Soon enough, Kira would find himself face to face with the Tiger once again, this time as a friend.

Morgenroete lounge, 12 April, C.E. 71

Alex looked up as the black-haired officer stepped in. “Commander Badgiruel? What brings you here?”

“I have some news I felt should be brought to your attention,” Natarle said, sitting near the window. “Apparently, the Earth Alliance has finally learned where your sister found refuge.” The Coordinator’s eyes narrowed, and she nodded. “They’re demanding that she be extradited to stand trial for ‘desertion’.”

Alex clenched his fists. “Even for them, this takes some nerve. They kidnap her, try to brainwash her, and now they have the gall to demand that she be extradited after she escaped?”

“Lord Uzumi refused,” Natarle said. “He told them that, in light of Earth Alliance policy toward Coordinators, he granted Andrea political asylum, and she will not be turned over to them under any circumstances.” She grimaced. “They threatened military action.”

Alex snorted. “It’s a bluff. They’re too focused on the impending ZAFT attack on Panama to bother with Orb now. They’ll swallow their pride, at least for now.”

“That was my assessment,” Natarle agreed. She looked out the window, watching Kira and Cagalli spar. “Commander, I owe you an apology. You were right about the Earth Forces, but I was blinded by my own loyalty, and couldn’t see it.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I never blamed you for being loyal to your people.”

Natarle started to reply, but a comm unit beeped before she could speak. She touched a control. “Commander Badgiruel here.”

Murrue’s face appeared on the screen. “Something just came up that none of us were expecting,” she said without preamble. “Is Alex with you?”

“Right here, Murrue,” Alex said, stepping to the visual pickup. “What’s going on?”

“An unmarked transport just arrived from the PLANTs,” Murrue said in the tone of someone who isn’t sure she isn’t hallucinating. “The… passengers requested a meeting with Lord Uzumi, and asked that all of the Archangel’s officers, as well as you and Cagalli, be present.”

Alex frowned and glanced at Natarle, who shrugged; she knew as little as he. “All right, we’ll be there.” He cut the circuit and looked at the ex-Earth Forces officer again. “I wonder what has Murrue so frazzled. I don’t know about you, but the only other time I’ve seen her like this was when she learned Admiral Halberton was in Orb service.”

“I suppose we’ll find out,” Natarle said.

Conference room, Athha residence

Murrue, Mu, and Neumann were already there when the quartet arrived. Uzumi sat at the table, as usual, with Kisaka flanking him. Also, present were Admiral Halberton, Rondo Ghina Sahaku, Andrea, and both Seirans, Unato and his son Yuna.

And their PLANT guests were… Andrew Waltfeld, Aisha, and Lacus Clyne? Alex sat at Cagalli’s left, wondering what on Earth was going on.

“You are undoubtedly wondering what someone like Commander Waltfeld would be doing here,” Uzumi said. “He arrived one hour ago, with a rather interesting proposal.” He nodded at the Tiger. “Commander?”

Waltfeld stood. “Basically, what I was sent here for is to offer an alliance, both against the Earth Forces and Chairman Zala.”

Murrue’s jaw dropped. “I can understand wanting to fight the Earth Forces, but Zala?”

“I think I know what’s going on,” Alex said quietly. “Siegel Clyne has become suspicious of Chairman Zala.” He cocked an eyebrow at the ZAFT officer. “Am I right?”

Waltfeld nodded. “That’s it exactly. The truth about what happened to Heliopolis was the last straw. It proved that Le Creuset lied to the Council with Zala’s approval, and that was enough to bring your aunt on board.”

“Who else is supporting Clyne?” Murrue asked. “Surely it’s not just him and Joule.”

“He’s got Eileen Canaver, Tad Elsman, and Yuri Amalfi in his camp,” Waltfeld said. “Unfortunately, that means Zala commands a majority of the Council, so we have to be careful.”

Uzumi stood. “In light of what have learned over the past month, both regarding Zala and the Earth Alliance, I feel we have no alternative. Cooperation with the PLANTs’ Clyne Faction is in my opinion our only hope.”

“Cooperate with them?” Yuna burst out. “We’d bring the Earth Forces down on our heads.” He glared at Alex; he’d been furious when he heard of the young Coordinator’s relationship with Cagalli. “And with him involved-“

“Strassmeier has already proved his courage and skill on the battlefield,” Rondo cut him off, gazing at the younger Seiran as if he was a particularly disgusting bacterium. “Unlike you.”

“Enough.” Uzumi shot Yuna a cold look. “Such bickering is pointless. Commander Waltfeld, we will assist in any way we can.”

Waltfeld saluted. “Thanks. We have a couple things to… sweeten the deal, you might say. One is a new mobile suit for the kid.” He nodded at Kira, who looked, to put it mildly, shocked. “Based on data from the machines Le Creuset stole, only a whole lot better. You’ll see it in a few minutes.”

Kira forced his mouth to close. “Uh…”

“Save it till you’ve tried out your new machine,” Waltfeld advised. “Anyway, the Songstress here has our other gift.”

Lacus walked over to Alex. “Please take this, Alex.” She held out a narrow box.

Alex accepted it with a puzzled frown. There was something about Waltfeld’s expression; the man seemed to by trying not to grin. Lacus herself was visibly restraining a giggle, as if she knew something he didn’t. Which was true enough, Alex reminded himself. Pushing those thoughts aside, he opened the box… and his jaw dropped.

A red uniform. The red uniform of a ZAFT Elite.

He looked at Waltfeld in disbelief, unable for one of the few times in his life to maintain his poker face. “Commander?”

“From Siegel Clyne,” the Tiger explained. “He’s offering you a position in ZAFT, assuming we can get Zala out of the way.”

Alex took a moment to slow his heart. “But I killed so many…”

“He also says the deaths of ZAFT soldiers at the hands of you and your people won’t be held against you,” Waltfeld said. “Like I told DaCosta the first time we fought you guys, there are such things as mitigating circumstances.”

“But I-“

Cagalli took his hand. “Go for it, Alex.”

He looked at her. “Cagalli?”

“You told me you’ve wanted to join ZAFT since the Mandelbrot Incident, but you couldn’t because of Zala,” she said. “Now you have a chance. Take it.”

Eager, yet still indecisive, Alex turned to Uzumi. “Sir? Do you have any problem with this? If I accept the offer…”

“You’re wondering if I would have a problem with Cagalli seeing a ZAFT soldier,” Uzumi said. “I don’t blame you for being nervous, but I assure you your fears are groundless. Whether you join ZAFT or not, you are still a son of the PLANTs.”

Alex nodded slowly. “Thank you.” He turned back to Waltfeld. “In that case, I accept.”

Waltfeld tossed him a salute. “Congratulations, Commander Strassmeier of the ZAFT forces. Naturally, you and your friends will retain possession of your ship and mobile suits.”

“Speaking of mobile suits,” Mu put in, “we should probably get Kira’s new machine secured.”

“Agreed,” Uzumi said. “We will adjourn to Morgenroete’s Onogoro facility.”

Morgenroete facility, Onogoro Island

Kira stared at his new mobile suit, feeling a sense of awe. He could see its resemblance to the original Gundams, but it looked cleaner, somehow, more streamlined. I thought the Strike was impressive, but this machine blows it away.

“ZGMF-X10A Freedom,” Waltfeld said. “One of ZAFT’s two newest machines; the other, X09A Justice, is for your friend Athrun Zala.”

“Heavily armed,” Natarle commented, her trained eye noting the beam rifle, sabers, railguns, and plasma cannons. “You must have had to develop a whole new generation of energy batteries to pull it off.”

“We did,” Waltfeld acknowledged, “but the Freedom and the Justice don’t have them.”

The black-haired commander frowned at him. “Then how are they powered?”

Waltfeld smiled. “The Freedom and the Justice are equipped with Neutron-jammer Cancelers.”

There was a collective gasp from the Orb contingent. A Neutron-jammer Canceler, if such a device truly existed, would nullify the effects of the N-jammers, thus allowing the use of nuclear power. (Or, more than one person thought, nuclear weapons.)

Mu La Flaga found his voice first. “You mean, that thing is nuclear powered?”

“Yep,” Waltfeld said simply. He cocked an eyebrow at Kira. “Think you can handle it, youngster?”

Kira nodded mutely, still in shock. N-jammer Canceler… four times the power of the Strike… amazing.

“Lord Uzumi.” Erica Simmons walked up to them. “It’s ready.”

He nodded approvingly. “Good.”

Alex, now dressed in ZAFT red, raised an eyebrow. “It?”

Uzumi smiled. “Just after the collapse of Heliopolis, Rondo Sahaku turned over the data he had acquired on the Earth Forces’ new weapons, probably to buy his way out of trouble. In any case, Morgenroete combined that with data from the Strike when you and your friends arrived.” He gestured toward the main gate. “And that was the result.

Another mobile suit was rolled in, and more than one of the groups inhaled sharply in surprise. Gold in color, the machine looked like it was glowing. It was clearly based at least in part on the Strike’s design; hardpoints were visible on the back and shoulders. The right hand held a rifle, a double-ended beam saber was clipped to the left hip, and a shield was mounted on the left arm.

“I am very glad the modifications to my genotype give me high tolerance for bright lights,” Alex said dryly. Several people chuckled.

“This is the ORB-01 Akatsuki,” Simmons said. “At first glance, it seems like just another G-type mobile suit, but it has some features no other machine possesses.”

“Like that weird glow?” Mu said.

Simmons nodded. “That is a special coating we recently came up with. Instead of dissipating beam attacks, it actually reflects them.”

Alex’s head whipped around. “A beam reflector?” he repeated in disbelief.

“That’s right,” Simmons said. “Combine that with PSA, and it’s very hard to damage. It’s far from invulnerable; a close-range attack like a beam saber will damage it, but it’s still very tough.” She nodded at Cagalli. “The Akatsuki was intended to be the princess’s personal machine.”

Cagalli’s eyes widened. “My machine?”

“I felt that if you are to be in combat, you should be piloting something more powerful than an M1,” her father explained.

“We’re working on a mobile turret system for it,” Simmons said. “That’s why we needed Commander La Flaga’s input, so that someone without his special abilities could handle it. Unfortunately, it’s not ready, so you’ll have to make do with conventional weapons.” She smiled. “Care to take it for a spin?”

Cagalli was practically rubbing her hands. “Just try and stop me.” She was itching to get into the cockpit and see what her new machine could do.

“That still leaves the question of what to do with the Strike,” Natarle said. “I suggest the new Natural OS be installed, and the machine be turned over to Commander La Flaga.”

“I agree,” Murrue said. She looked at the Hawk. “Can you handle it?”

He snorted. “I’m the guy who makes the impossible possible,” he said. “With the right OS, you bet.”

Alex stared at the gold mobile suit across from his Stormbird, watching the Strike and the Freedom in the corner of his eye. Now, he was the only one who was completely confident; Kira, Cagalli, and Mu were all getting used to new machines.

“You ready for this?” he asked carefully.

“I’ve been ready!” Cagalli shot back, and the Akatsuki charged. Beam sabers clashed, and the two Gundams stood in a deadlock.

The Strike and the Freedom were in a similar position; if they’d been outside, any observers would have assumed a pair of death-duels. Then both pairs sprang apart, clashing again and again.

“Quite a sight, eh, Aisha?” Waltfeld commented; he and Aisha were watching from a control booth.

She nodded. “Kira’s only gotten better, and the other three aren’t that far behind him.”

Which was fortunate. They’d need every pilot they could get in the coming battles. Spit Break was slated to begin in less than a month, and there was no telling what would happen then, regardless of whether it succeeded or failed. All they knew for sure was that the war was far from over.

Chapter 18: The Land of Peace

Ezalia Joule’s residence, PLANTs, 23 March, C.E. 71

“Representative Joule? There’s a call coming in for you, ma’am.” The receptionist frowned. “It’s from Orb.”

Ezalia raised her eyebrows. “From Orb?” She thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Put it through.”

Her screen displayed only a pause symbol for a few seconds, then cleared, and Ezalia felt her breath catch in her throat at the sight. Her son Yzak looked out at her, and beside him were Alex Strassmeier, and his sister Andrea.

“Hi, Aunt Ezalia,” Andrea said cheerfully. “Sorry I took so long.”

“Andrea,” Ezalia whispered. “You’re… you’re really alive?”

Her niece smiled. “Yep, it’s me. Kind of a long story, but I am back. I managed to escape the Earth Forces while the Archangel was in the desert, and Lord Uzumi was kind enough to take me in. Alex was headed here anyway, so it all worked out.”

“She was kidnapped for some sort of top-secret Alliance program,” Yzak said darkly.

Andrea elbowed him. “But no one on the Archangel had anything to do with it. In fact, they defected to Orb after they heard my story. Well, mine and Admiral Halberton’s; apparently the Earth Forces were going to purge him, so he deserted, and took his flagship with him.”

“Fools,” Ezalia said. “Lewis Halberton is -or was- the best space commander they had; even among our forces, his only equal is Rau Le Creuset.” She looked at her nephew. “And where do you fit into all this?”

Alex shrugged. “As you know, we were helping the ‘legged ship’ on its journey, since one of my closest friends is the niece of its CO. Anyway, Yzak and I were about to go at it yet again when Andrea’s machine appeared out of nowhere. Things went a little crazy from there.”

“I’ll say it’s crazy!” his sister said, beaming. “He gave Mom’s necklace to the Chief Representative’s daughter!”

“You just had to blurt that out, didn’t you?” Alex grumbled, giving her a sour look.

Ezalia laughed delightedly. “You and the Princess of Orb. Well, from what I’ve heard about her, you two are a good match.”

“That’s what Lia said,” Alex agreed. “Much to my surprise, Uzumi didn’t voice any objections.” He smiled wryly. “On the contrary, he was delighted to see us together.”

“I wonder if Lord Uzumi has considered all the implications,” Ezalia murmured. Her nephew looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “I don’t mean to embarrass you, but you and Miss Athha will almost certainly get married eventually. With your background, that would effectively bind Orb to the PLANTs.”

All three of the youngsters suddenly looked thoughtful. “She has a point, Alex,” Yzak said. “Since Cagalli is a member of one of the Five Noble Families, if you marry her, that will bring Orb into our camp.”

“I’ll grant your point, though I think this talk of marriage is a bit premature,” Alex said, ignoring Yzak’s mocking smile. He turned back to his aunt. “It’s not as big a surprise as you might think, Aunt Ezalia. Lord Uzumi told me that his personal sympathies lie with the PLANTs; the main reason he can’t support them openly is because he shares some of my suspicions regarding Patrick Zala.”

Ezalia sighed. “Much as I would like to, I can’t really blame him, given the tone of Committee Chairman Zala’s recent speeches.”

Alex nodded. “In light of that, he secretly aided my own efforts, since I oppose Zala but at the same time have no intention of harming the PLANTs.” He shook his head as though trying to clear it. “He also knew my father and promised to look out for me if anything happened.”

Ezalia blinked in surprise. “Your father knew Lord Uzumi? He never mentioned that, though I suppose he would not have. He was always a quiet sort.”

“He was at that,” Alex agreed. “Anyway, Athrun will be officially informing the Council of this shortly, but I might as well tell you in advance. Lord Uzumi has given his personal assurance that Orb will never align itself with the Earth Forces. As has already been explained, he cannot go beyond that right now, but every little bit helps.”

“It does indeed,” Ezalia said. She cocked her head. “And how has your search been going?”

Alex grinned sheepishly. “It’s finished. Kira Yamato, pilot of GAT-X105 Strike, is the Ultimate Coordinator. That much I have suspected since before we reached Earth. What I had not expected, and which took everyone by surprise, is that his sister, who underwent the ‘standard’ Coordinator treatments, is none other than Cagalli Yula Athha.”

Ezalia’s eyes widened. “The princess? Well, I suppose it makes sense; if Lord Uzumi knew your father, then he had to have known about Hibiki’s work.”

“Exactly. Haruna and Caridad Yamato adopted Kira, and Lord Uzumi took Cagalli in himself.” Alex grimaced. “Caridad was, shall we say, less than pleased when it all came out, though I’m confident she’ll get over it soon enough.”

“I see.” Ezalia nodded. “What are your plans now?”

“For now, Lord Uzumi has asked me to assist in the development of Orb’s new mobile suits,” Alex said. “Before that, though, we’re all just going to go out and relax for a while. The Zala team has been given permission to stay for a few days if they keep a low profile. Can’t have four ZAFT Elites wandering around in uniform, after all.”

“That would be counterproductive right now,” Ezalia agreed. “One more thing, Alex. I know you can’t come home yet, but I want you to introduce me to this princess sometime.”

Alex grinned. “You got it. Give Cassandra our love.”

“See you!” Andrea said with a smile.

Ezalia sat back when the image vanished. Nothing could bring her sister or brother-in-law back from the dead but seeing Andrea alive had lifted a great weight from her mind. Even the knowledge that her niece and nephew would not be returning to the PLANTs anytime soon could not dim that.

And Alex has finally found someone to love. That princess must be something special if she was able to penetrate that shell of his.

Outdoor restaurant, Orb capital

Anyone who did not know exactly whom they were looking at would have assumed it was just a group of teenagers. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Kira Yamato, Flay Allster, Tolle Koenig, Miriallia Haw, and Sai Argyle were newly minted Orb soldiers. Their friend Kuzzey Buskirk had decided not to join the Orb military, realizing that he was not cut out to be a soldier. None of them held it against him.

Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Athrun Zala normally wore the red uniform of ZAFT elites, but that was a bad idea in Orb, which still had a tenuous relationship with both sides.

Lia Ramius, Alex, and Andrea Strassmeier, and Cagalli Yula Athha (who did not look anything like a princess in street clothes) completed the group.

“So, Uncle Klaus went to school with Lord Uzumi, huh?” Yzak said, shaking his head in wonder. “Man, talk about weird.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Alex told him, spearing his inevitable seafood lunch with a fork. “He actually suggested arranging a match between Cagalli and me after that business with the Seirans flopped. Dad, however, warned him that it would be a bad idea.”

Flay laughed. “I sure hope so!” She remembered Alex forcefully expressing his opinion of arranged marriages just before the Eighth Fleet battle. “But it happened anyway,” she added with a sly grin.

Alex shot her a dirty look. “Sheesh, you’re starting to sound like Yzak. For your information, talk of marriage is premature, to put it mildly. We’ve only really known each other for about two months.”

“Yeah, and it’s felt like two years,” Mir put in. “Wars have that effect.”

The hawk-faced Coordinator quirked an eyebrow. “Are you saying that the fact that it’s only been two months since Heliopolis means nothing?”

Mir nodded. “Look at Kira. I know he doesn’t like being a soldier, but he’s gotten used to it.”

“If he hadn’t, he’d already be dead,” Athrun agreed. He looked at his friend. “Why’d you move there, anyway? When I left, you seemed happy in Copernicus.”

Kira sighed. “With the increasing tensions between the PLANTs and the sponsor nations, Mom and Dad decided that the Moon wasn’t safe anymore.”

“They were right about that,” Dearka said. “Commander Le Creuset told us a little about the battles on the Grimaldi Front. Sure, they were nowhere near Copernicus, but that bombing was something else.”

“Something barbaric,” Alex said darkly. He took a sip of coffee. “It was what convinced me that the Earth Forces were controlled by Blue Cosmos.”

Yzak, seeming to sense the darkening mood, turned to Kira. “By the way, Kira, I thought you’d like to know Commander Waltfeld and Aisha survived.”

Kira seemed to sag with relief. “Thank goodness for that. How did they get out?”

“DaCosta and a Junker named Lowe Guele pulled them out of the wreckage,” Yzak said. “Last I heard they were in pretty bad shape; I think they were put into some kind of suspended animation.”

“But they’ll make it, right?” Kira pressed. Yzak nodded. “Thanks.”

Alex chuckled softly, causing his cousin to glare at him. “What’s so funny?”

“You. You were so hot to make Kira pay for giving you that scar, and now you’re chatting with him like you don’t have a care in the world.”

Yzak glared a moment longer, then shook his head in resignation. “If you weren’t my cousin… Fine. I figured that if he’s your friend, he can’t be all bad.”

And is not that a mouthful of nothing, Alex thought, knowing that Yzak had taken a liking to Kira, but did not want to admit it. “So, Kira, Cagalli. How are you two holding up?”

Kira shrugged. “It came as a big shock, but it really doesn’t affect much. I mean, it is nice that I have a sister,” here he and Cagalli smiled at each other, “but when you think about it, it does not change our lives much. We are who we are, and that’s it.” He tucked an arm possessively around Flay’s shoulders. “And the people we care about still accept us.”

“You’d better believe it!” Flay said.

Athrun clapped him on the shoulder. “She’s right. You’ve always been like a brother to me; learning how you were created doesn’t change that.”

Kira smiled. “Thanks, Athrun.”

Alex looked at his girlfriend (and it still felt weird thinking of her like that). “How about you?”

“I agree with Kira. I mean, sure, I’ve had problems with my father.” She grimaced, remembering Heliopolis. “But I’ve never doubted that he loved me.”

The conversation soon turned to lighter matters. Kira and Athrun reminisced about their time in Copernicus, with Nicol listening intently. Tolle and Mir found themselves swapping stories with Yzak; the white-haired pilot had gotten curious about his cousin’s classmates.

Sai and Flay, still good friends despite their explosive breakup a month earlier, chatted with Lia Ramius. Dearka, fascinated by the younger Strassmeier, paid more attention to her than to anything else. Alex was unsure whether to wish him luck; he had nothing against the ZAFT pilot, but after the events of three years past he was wary of anyone paying such close attention to his sister.

It is her decision to make, he reminded himself firmly.

“Say, Alex,” Sai said. “How long were you working on your project? You don’t get a warship and five mobile suits overnight.”

Alex took a bite of fish as he formulated his response. “We started just after arriving at Heliopolis, so I’d say a little less than a year.” He snorted. “I actually wasn’t ready when we left, but Le Creuset forced my hand.”

“I remember you only had one mobile suit ready, and not many of the ship’s weapons,” Cagalli said.

“The ship’s weapons didn’t matter right then,” Alex reminded her. “I wasn’t inclined to use laser cannons -or worse yet, positron cannons- inside the colony.” He looked at Athrun. “I’m sorry about Miguel, Athrun. I understand he was a friend of yours.”

Athrun sighed. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I disagree with what you’re doing, but it’s not like you had a choice right then.” A courteous nod at Cagalli. “Especially since you had her along.”

“Since I intended from the beginning to make for Orb, letting her die would have caused problems,” Alex agreed. He waved a hand. “But there’s no point in rehashing the Heliopolis raid. It happened, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”

“He’s right,” Yzak said, and grinned.

Alex felt his stomach sink. I know that look.

“So, Alex, you two have any plans?” Yzak said, confirming his suspicions.

Cagalli blushed, and Alex gave his cousin an almost-glare. “Will you give it a rest already? I have said everything there is to say on that subject, all right? Of course, we’ll be seeing each other a lot; that’s a given.”

Yzak laughed, feeling better than he had in years. “I know, I know. I’m just yanking your chain.”

“He’s one of the few who can get away with it, too,” Andrea put in.

No one was surprised by that. Everyone save Dearka, Nicol, and Athrun knew Alex well by now, and even they could tell that taking liberties with him was a bad idea.

Mir raised her eyebrows. “And how many people are there who can say that?”

“Yzak, Aunt Ezalia, Lia, Cagalli, and me,” Andrea said. “Anybody else is playing with fire.”

“No kidding,” Tolle said. “I’ve seen how he reacts to that.”

Alex buried his face in his hands. “Are you guys done needling me?”

“For now,” Andrea said slyly.

“Whatever.” Alex sighed, then turned to Yzak. “So how long are you going to be here?”

Yzak shrugged. “A couple of days, at least. Athrun?”

“When I gave my report, I got a message direct from Chairman Clyne,” Athrun said. “We’re to provide Morgenroete with battle data from our mobile suits. Reading between the lines, I think the Chairman is trying to get Orb to see the PLANTs in a favorable light.”

“It won’t take much to do that,” Cagalli said. “Even though he’s insisted that Orb remain neutral, my father has personally favored the PLANTs ever since the Supreme Council was bombed.”

Alex snorted. “Ah, yes, the eternal divide between personal opinions and public policy. I understand he does not like the Seirans very much, either. Which reminds me, do either Unato or his son know of our…relationship?”

Cagalli grimaced. “My father told them. They were not happy, but there was not much they could do. Especially since Rondo Ghina Sahaku supported him.”

Alex frowned. “Ghina did? Mina I could understand; she’s ambitious, but she doesn’t have her brother’s oversized ego.”

“Hey, your family is the closest thing the PLANTs have to nobility,” the princess pointed out. “Besides, he doesn’t like the Seirans either.”

“So, we actually agree on something. Amazing.” Alex finished his lunch and stood. “Much as I hate to break this off, the next couple of days are going to be busy, and I need to prepare.”

“That goes for all of us, I think,” Athrun agreed. “We’re going to bring the Cousteau into the Morgenroete dock, that way no one will see us bringing our mobile suits in.”

With that, the gathering broke up, leaving in pairs and singletons. Flay and Kira went off shopping, accompanied by Andrea Strassmeier; as Alex had predicted, the two got along to an almost disturbing degree. Sai left by himself, saying something about getting his watch fixed.

Minutes later, they were gone.

Onogoro Island, 25 March, C.E. 71

A brown-haired woman in the orange and white of Morgenroete Inc. sat at a computer terminal. Recorded images of five different mobile suits flashed across it, one blue, one green and tan, one blue and white, one black and red, and one red overall.

Duel, Buster, Strike, Blitz, and Aegis, the woman thought. Who would have thought they would turn out so well? Now if only we could get that kind of performance with Natural pilots. That, of course, was the object of her current assignment.

An aide stepped in. “Chief, I have Athrun Zala of the Le Creuset team, Alex Strassmeier, and Lieutenant Kira Yamato of the Archangel here.”

The woman nodded. “Send them in.”

It was a curious trio that arrived, one in the silver-white of Orb’s forces, one in the red of a ZAFT elite, and one in a black suit of military styling.

She rose, smiling. “Welcome, all of you. I’m Erica Simmons, Chief Engineer of the M1 Astray project.” Simmons nodded at Kira. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, thanks.”

“I understand you need data from the G-weapons,” Athrun said.

Simmons nodded. “That, and a Coordinator with both a technical education and combat experience in one of those machines, which is where the Lieutenant comes in.”

“Colonel Kisaka said something about needing a new OS,” Kira said,

Another nod. “We have one pilot who doesn’t need such an OS, but that doesn’t help us much.”

Alex’s gaze sharpened. “A Coordinator?”

Simmons shook her head. “No, he’s a Natural.” She punched up an image of the youngster in question. He was on the short side, with reddish-blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pale complexion. “This is Max Labatt, younger brother of one of our test pilots. A bit of an oddball, he can pilot a mobile suit without much in the way of computer support, though we don’t have the slightest idea how he manages it.”

“It’s inevitable that there would be at least a handful of Naturals who could pilot mobile suits,” Alex said with a shrug. “Lucky for us none appear to have joined the Earth Forces.”

“Lucky indeed,” Simmons agreed. “Commander Zala, how long until your machines are brought in?”

“They should be here in an hour or so,” Athrun said. “In the meantime, could we see these new mobile suits of yours?”

“Certainly.” Simmons stood and gestured for them to follow her. “This way.”

She led them to a control room overlooking a cavernous facility. Three mobile suits were visible through the large window. Mostly white, with black torsos and red trim, they bore an unmistakable resemblance to Kira’s X105 Strike. More streamlined than anything ZAFT had, save for the four stolen Gundams, they had a certain malevolent look to them.

“These are the first three units of our mobile suit line, the MBF-M1 Astray.” Simmons lifted a comm unit. “Asagi, Juri, Mayura, power up. Show them what you can do.”

It was soon apparent why Kira’s programming talents were needed. The girls did their best, but they were barely able to get their machines to move. Athrun winced more than once, seeing how slow and clumsy they were. Still, the M1’s design was basically sound; all it needed was an OS that Naturals could use.

“I see why you need my help,” Kira said. “This reminds me of when the Captain and I were facing Miguel Aiman at Heliopolis.”

Athrun glanced at him. “I saw some of that. You had to rewrite the OS mid-battle, right?”

“That’s what happened,” Kira confirmed. “I had to hurry, too; Miguel knocked us over at least once, and Sai, Tolle, Kuzzey, and Mir were there, so I was afraid the Strike would crush them.”

Alex grimaced. “I was injured there myself; when Miguel’s GINN exploded, a piece of shrapnel caught me in the shoulder.”

“I remember that” Cagalli said, walking in.

Kira smiled. “Hi, Cagalli.”

She gave her brother a quick hug. “Sorry I’m late.” She looked out at the Astrays. “What do you think?”

“I should be able to come up with an OS the pilots can use,” Kira said. “It’ll probably take a while, but like Kisaka pointed out when we arrived, it’s not like Orb is at war with anyone right now. There’s plenty of time to work it out.”

“That’s great.” Cagalli quirked an eyebrow at Alex. “And what about you?”

He shrugged. “I’m more likely to be involved in the training side of things. While I am no slouch at programming, obviously, this is more Kira’s area than mine.”

“A new OS is pretty much all these things need,” Athrun said. “According to the specs I’ve seen, an M1 could give even a G-weapon a nasty fight.”

“That reminds me,” Simmons said. “How did your father respond to the notion of giving Orb even this much aid?”

Athrun sighed. “He didn’t like it, but Chairman Clyne pointed out that anything bad for the Earth Forces is good for the PLANTs.” He nodded at the Astrays. “These are definitely bad for the Earth Forces.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Simmons moved closer to the window. “I apologize if I offended you, Commander.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It is natural for you to want to be certain of something like that. I don’t blame you.”

The quartet then proceeded to an elevator and went down a level, joining Murrue, Mu, Kojiro Murdoch, and Athrun’s teammates. Asagi Caldwell, Juri Wu Nien, and Mayura Labatt arrived moments later, still in-flight gear. Max Labatt promptly appeared seemingly out of nowhere, moving to stand with his sister.

Alex studied the pilots with carefully hidden interest. Except for the younger Labatt, none of them really looked like soldiers. Then again, neither did Kira Yamato and Nicol Amalfi, and they had more than proven their skill on the battlefield.

“All right,” Simmons said. “These three Coordinators will be assisting us in the M1 project. Athrun Zala, of ZAFT’s Le Creuset team, will only be here for a short while, long enough to give us some data from the Duel, Buster, Blitz, and Aegis. Lieutenant Kira Yamato, pilot of X105 Strike, will oversee programming a Natural-compatible operating system.”

She nodded at Alex. “Alex Strassmeier, the Valkyrie’s lead pilot, will be helping to train our mobile suit corps once the new OS is ready.”

“Nice to meet you,” Asagi said, speaking for all of them.

A series of impacts briefly cut off conversation. They turned to see X102 Duel, X103 Buster, and X207 Blitz marching into the hangar. Though all three were a dull gray, indicating that the PSA was off, they still radiated an air of menace.

“The Strike and the Aegis are already here, along with our machines,” Alex said, then stepped forward to greet his cousin. “Any trouble?”

Yzak shook his head. “Nothing. I heard a couple of Laurasia-class ships blew away some Earth Forces spy satellites, but that is nothing new. I don’t think the Alliance will be suspicious.”

“Good to hear.” Alex waved at Kira. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”

An hour later, Athrun found himself back in the control room. His team’s role was limited (fortunately, given the delicate political situation), so he did not have to be involved much. He had helped Kira with data extraction from the Aegis, then watched the others until he was sure things were well underway.

Athrun sighed. What he had not told anyone, even Kira, was that his father was growing increasingly extreme. He did not think his father was at the point of genocide, but at the same time it would not have surprised him if the elder Zala did cross that line.

What is going on? he thought almost despairingly. What if Alex is right, and Father does want to wipe out the Naturals? What am I supposed to do?

“I hope I’m not intruding.”

Athrun turned, eyes widening in surprise. “Captain Ramius? No, not at all.” He offered a salute, wondering just what was going on.

Murrue returned the salute, smiling. “I was curious,” she said, answering the unasked question. “About the young soldier who nearly stabbed me to death.”

He winced. “Sorry about that.”

She waved that away. “There’s nothing to apologize for. You are ZAFT, I was Earth Forces. We both had our duty.” She looked past him at the five Gundams. “After Heliopolis, I never thought I’d see all five of those in the same place again.”

“Yeah,” Athrun agreed. “I… wanted to thank you. For how you’ve treated Kira.”

“Well, I couldn’t mistreat him and expect him to pilot the Strike for us, now, could I?” Murrue moved to stand next to him. “He means a lot to you, doesn’t he?” It was not a question.

Athrun nodded. “We’ve been close, ever since we were little. He’s like a brother to me and learning the truth about his origins doesn’t change that.” He sighed. “You know, there aren’t many people I’m close to anymore. Kira, Lacus, and Nicol, really.”

“Not even your father?” Murrue said, then blushed a little. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Athrun shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s true, after all.” He sighed again. “After my mom was killed, my father became obsessed with defeating the Earth Alliance. I guess I did, too; it’s why I joined ZAFT, and why I was so shocked when I realized Kira was piloting the Strike.”

“I don’t blame you,” Murrue said, chuckling ruefully. “Alex, if anything, is even worse. If my niece was not his best friend, he might well have attacked us at Heliopolis.” She smiled, seeing the black-haired youth talking animatedly with Mu La Flaga. “He’s changed since we got here.”

Athrun shrugged. “I don’t know him very well. You’d have to ask Yzak.”

“I did. He said the same thing.” Murrue laughed softly. “I think Natarle is glad of the change; it means he’s less likely to shoot her. He almost did once.”

“Cagalli told me about that,” Athrun said.

Murrue glanced at her watch. “I’d best get going. There’s a lot that I need to get straightened out.” She departed, leaving Athrun alone again with his thoughts.

“Well, that was interesting,” Alex muttered. He glanced at the nondescript youth next to him. “What do you make of it, Kyle?”

The other shrugged. “Not my area. Far as I know, Orb is not building artillery support machines. Makes sense, really.”

“You’re a big help.” Alex’s tone did not match his words, though. As it happened, he agreed with Kyle. What Orb needed was a good general purpose mobile suit, and the M1 Astray fit that bill nicely.

“Chris is having more success than I am,” Kyle went on.

Alex grunted, but did not reply. He had always doubted Chris Madsen’s sanity.

“Hey, Alex,” Brian said, walking up. “Lord Uzumi has a little request for you.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “And that is?”

“Since it turns out your girlfriend,” Brian grinned at the other’s pained expression, “is a Coordinator, she doesn’t need a Natural-compatible OS. Bearing that in mind, Uzumi wants you to teach her to pilot a mobile suit.”

Alex nodded. “I was thinking of making the offer anyway. If Lord Uzumi did not mind Cagalli flying a fighter in combat, I figured he’d be fine with her learning to pilot something more lethal and better defended.”

“That’s about right,” Brian agreed.

Alex gazed up at the Stormbird, mulling over the events that had brought him to Orb. It had all started with the abduction of his sister by Atlantic Federation soldiers. Three years later had come the Bloody Valentine, which had sparked him into almost joining ZAFT, only to be stopped by Kyle.

The news of Zala’s evil plans had sent Alex, along with Kyle, Brian, Chris, Hiro, and Lia, to the neutral resource satellite Heliopolis, where they had secretly built five mobile suits and a special warship to carry them. Originally, their purpose was as much against the Earth Forces as against Patrick Zala, but the Le Creuset team’s attack had changed that.

During the events that followed, Alex and his friends had fought alongside the Earth Forces warship Archangel, commanded by Lia’s aunt, and briefly with the Eighth Fleet. On a personal level, Alex had forged friendships with Murrue Ramius and Mu La Flaga, and near the end of their journey, had managed to fall in love with a princess.

Of course, she hates it when anyone calls her a princess, let alone me.


He started. “Huh? Oh, sorry. I guess I drifted off for a minute there.”

Brian waved that away. “Don’t worry about it. I need to go anyway; the Scorpion needs some tweaking.” He looked past Alex’s shoulder. “And I think you have other matters to attend to yourself.”

Kyle rose. “He’s right. See you.”

Alex frowned, wondering what they were talking about, then turned, hearing someone approaching. After his friends’ abrupt departure, he was not surprised to see who it was. “Hi, Cagalli. What brings you here?”

She gave him a quick hug-and-kiss greeting. “I was thinking you’d be pushing yourself too hard, and it looks like I was right.”

“This has to get done-“

Cagalli snorted. “But not all at once. Come on, Alex, there’s plenty of time, and it won’t get done at all if you burn out.” She nodded at the main entrance. Kira was leaving, Flay on his arm. “Look, even Kira’s calling it a day, and you know how he is when he gets into a good bit of programming.”

Alex sighed, then managed a smile. “Okay, you win. Where to?”

“Anywhere but here,” she said firmly. “Someplace you can relax.”

“All right, all right.” He shook his head. You knew what you were getting yourself into. “Would the lounge here at Morgenroete be good enough? The Valkyrie is being overhauled, and I really do need to be available if something goes wrong.”

“Fine, as long as you promise not to do anything with mobile suits unless it’s an emergency.” Not waiting for a response, Cagalli tugged him toward the door.

Workers’ lounge, Morgenroete

Kira was not having any trouble putting work out of his mind. He was done for the day, and besides, he had promised Flay that he would introduce her to his parents. Since, like his friend Alex, he could not actually leave the facility just then, they had come to see him there.

Caridad came forward to hug her son. “Kira, we came as soon as we could.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Kira hugged her back, then drew Flay over. “I wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend. Mom, Dad, this is Flay Allster.”

Haruna smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Flay. We’re both grateful for how you’ve stood by Kira through everything that’s happened.”

Flay smiled back, though she was a little nervous. “I was afraid of him at first,” she said, looking away briefly. “I didn’t know much about Coordinators, and I thought they were monsters. It wasn’t until I really got to know him that I realized how wrong I was.”

“However, it happened, I’m glad,” Caridad said. “Even though he no longer must fight Athrun, this is still hard on him. He hasn’t said much, but it’s clear that he would have given in to despair without you.” She laid a hand on Flay’s shoulder. “And I’m glad learning the truth about his origins hasn’t pushed you away.”

“I don’t care how he was created,” Flay said firmly. “Kira is Kira, and I love him. The fact that he’s the product of an experiment doesn’t change that.” She jerked her head at the other end of the lounge, where Alex sat with Kira’s sister. “Besides, Alex was a byproduct of that, too, and I don’t hate him. He scares me sometimes,” she admitted, “but I’ve never hated him.”

“That’s good to hear,” Haruna said. “Please stay close to Kira.”

Flay smiled. “You got it.”

Across the lounge, Alex smiled slightly. “I was wondering when they’d meet. Mrs. Yamato is right, too. Kira would likely have lost it without Flay.”

Cagalli nodded. She had noticed that, too. “She fits right in.” She chuckled softly. “How do you think it’ll be before Kira proposes?”

“I give it two to three months,” Alex said. “You know, this could shake things up in Orb.”

“What do you mean?”

He waved at Kira. “Regardless of his upbringing, the fact that he’s your brother makes Kira a de facto member of one of the Five Noble Families, and I don’t think the secret can be kept forever.”

“You’ve got a point there,” Cagalli admitted. It had somehow never occurred to her that such a match would make Flay her sister-in-law. She put it down to not being used to having a sibling.

“Aunt Ezalia made a similar point about us that I hadn’t considered,” Alex went on. “I still say talk of marriage is premature, but if it were to happen, it would bind Orb to the PLANTs. You are, after all, a princess, even if you do not like to think about it. And I, of course, am the nephew of a Supreme Council member.”

She froze. That had not occurred to her either. “I wonder if this could be partly politics,” she murmured. Alex looked at her questioningly. “I know the main reason my father is encouraging our relationship is because he wants me to be happy, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he saw an opportunity as well.”

Alex lifted an eyebrow. “An opportunity?”

“The only reason I was ever engaged to Yuna Seiran in the first place was politics,” Cagalli explained. “I’m thinking that he sees our being together as a way to bring Orb closer to the PLANTs that even Unato Ema Seiran couldn’t object to.”

He nodded. “You have a point.” He looked at the other group again and sighed.

Cagalli looked up at him, concerned. “What’s wrong?”

Alex sighed again. “Look at them. Kira, Flay, and Kira’s parents. All chatting together, not a care in the world. I… I wish I could take you to meet my parents, but it will never be possible. I guess I envy them. Maybe it is stupid, but…”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s not stupid, Alex. You miss your parents, that’s only natural.” She chuckled briefly at the notion of applying the word “natural” to a Coordinator in any context. “And remember you still have family. There’s Andrea, and that lunatic Yzak.”

Alex smiled, not taking offense at the way she referred to his cousin as a lunatic. “Thanks,” he said, tucking an arm around her waist.

She is right, he thought. Life goes on. Mom and Dad are gone, but there’s still Andrea, Yzak, Cassandra, Aunt Ezalia; my family is still there. And there are others. Cagalli, Lia, Kira, Flay, Mu, plenty of others. It is not like I am all alone.

Flay, who had been talking with Kira’s mother, paused, and looked back. She could not help smiling at what she saw. Cagalli sat next to Alex, her head resting against his shoulder. Alex looked more at peace than Flay had ever seen him.

It is like a huge weight has been lifted from his shoulders. Ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, he has not been able to relax, even when he slept.

“You were right, Flay,” Kira murmured. “Those two belong together.”

Flay nodded. “Alex needs someone to keep him going, and Cagalli needs someone who’ll treat her like a normal person.” She smiled at her boyfriend. “Well, there’s you; you are her brother, after all.”

“Yeah.” Kira shook his head ruefully. “We started to feel like siblings, and then we found out we are siblings. I can’t be with her all the time, though.”

“You should still spend some time with her, to make up for the years you spent apart,” Flay said.

Kira blinked. “You won’t complain that I’m not spending time with you?”

She punched his shoulder. “Kira, you just found out you had a sister and didn’t know it. Why should I complain about that? Besides, sometimes I will be there, too.”

He smiled. “You’re right.”

After another few minutes of conversation, the Yamatos departed, leaving just the four youngsters. Sitting next to Flay, Kira found himself reflecting on how, even deep in a facility meant for the development and testing of weapons, it was easy to tell why Orb was known as the Land of Peace. He sat with someone he had loved since the day they first met, while his sister was with a young man whose cold exterior belied the fiery soul within.

None of them had any illusions that their peace would last, but they enjoyed it while they had it.

Chairman Clyne’s office, Aprilius One, 28, March, C.E. 71

Ezalia Joule stepped into the office. “You wanted to see me, Chairman?”

Siegel Clyne grunted softly. “I likely won’t be Chairman much longer, but yes.” He waved her to a chair. “You recall Commander Le Creuset’s report on the Heliopolis attack?”

“Of course, I do,” Ezalia said, wondering where he was going with this. “It is true that Committee Chairman Zala was less than forthcoming about the identity of the Earth Forces mobile suit pilot, but with the Archangel’s defection to Orb, that situation is resolved.”

Siegel shook his head. “Not entirely. I am in receipt of a report Commander Waltfeld made shortly before his defeat at Talbadiya. According to that report, he received a version of the Heliopolis event -from your nephew, I might add- that is quite different from Commander Le Creuset’s report.”

Ezalia frowned. “Different how? I spoke with Alex earlier this week, but the subject never came up.”

“Different in what caused the colony’s collapse,” Siegel said. “It was not the Earth Forces; the Strike was equipped with the Sword pack. Rather, it was Commander Le Creuset’s use of D-package weaponry.”

Her jaw dropped. “D-equipment?”

“Two of the GINNs carried heavy missile launchers, the third had an ion cannon,” Siegel confirmed. “It was those missiles, none of which actually struck their target, and Miguel Aiman’s reckless firing at the Strike, that caused the collapse.” He met her astounded gaze. “In other words, Rau Le Creuset lied to the Council with Patrick’s full knowledge. What does that tell you?”

Ezalia swallowed hard. “That even if Alex is wrong about Committee Chairman Zala’s ultimate goal, he is correct in saying Zala cannot be trusted.” She clenched a fist. “What do you want of me?”

“Your support, if and when the time comes.” Siegel sighed. “I dislike having to take this road, but if any of what your nephew has said is true, then I have no choice.”

“You have it,” Ezalia said firmly. “What of Commander Waltfeld?”

“He and Aisha have almost recovered,” Siegel said. “You know of the new mobile suits Patrick has had built?” Ezalia nodded. “Commander Waltfeld is assigned to that project. Once those new machines are completed, I will send him to the Orb Union, with instructions to, if possible, conclude an alliance with Orb, and to present the new ZGMF-X10A Freedom to the Strike pilot, Kira Yamato.”

She nodded again. “From what Alex has said, Lord Uzumi will likely be amenable to such an alliance, so long as we make our goals clear, and make sure he knows we are not working with Zala.”

“I agree. As for the other machine, ZGMF-X09A Justice, it will be given to Athrun Zala, if he agrees to support us.” Siegel grimaced. “I deeply hate the notion of turning a son against his father, but Patrick has been growing increasingly unstable. If Athrun refuses, I will not blame him at all, but I hope it won’t come to that.”

“He is engaged to your daughter,” Ezalia pointed out. “And the Strike pilot also happens to be his closest friend. If Zala does go as far as you suggest, his son will probably turn against him. It won’t be easy -from what I know of him, Athrun has a strong sense of loyalty- but he will probably do it.”

Siegel nodded. “Your son will undoubtedly support us, and Tad and Yuri have been in my camp, so to speak, for quite some time, so Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi will be with us as well.”

“That still leaves their commander,” Ezalia murmured. “Rau Le Creuset will almost certainly throw in his lot with Zala, and he is the best space commander we have.”

“That’s true,” Siegel said,” but Orb does have Halberton now.” He lifted a box. “And Commander Waltfeld will also bring this.” He pulled the lid up. Inside was the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite. “If your nephew is willing, he has more than earned the right to this uniform.”

Ezalia closed her eyes for a moment, seeing in her mind’s eye the image of Alex Strassmeier in ZAFT red. “It’s been his dream since the Mandelbrot Incident. I think he’ll go along.” She got up to leave, then paused. “Oh, and Clyne, Alex may in fact help get Orb on our side, assuming we can pull this off.”

Siegel raised his eyebrows. “How so?”

She smiled. “He’s romantically involved with Lord Uzumi’s daughter, hard though that may be to believe. I think it likely that they will eventually marry, and that will bind Orb to the PLANTs.”

“It would indeed.”

Ezalia departed, leaving Siegel to his thoughts. I pray that it will not come to such lengths. If Patrick were to learn of it, he might well brand us as traitors. Unfortunately, he was more certain with every day that such measures would be necessary, and soon.

And may God be with us all.

Chapter 17: Reunions

Pacific Ocean, near Orb Union, 23 March, C.E. 71

It really was a shame, Alex decided, that the drubbing they had given those submarines at the Strait of Malacca eight days earlier had not given the Zala team pause. True, he had not held out much hope, but it would have been nice if Athrun had taken the warning and spared them the annoyance.

Annoyance is right. They were facing four Gundams on Guul subflight platforms with three Gundams of their own. Kyle, Chris, and Hiro were on the Valkyrie’s forward deck playing armored gun turret, leaving Alex, Brian, and Kira to take the fight to the enemy with their flight-capable machines.

At least they are pretty much ignoring our ship, Alex thought grimly. With their proximity to Orb, Athrun had apparently decided that attacking the Valkyrie was a waste of effort and power, so his team was focused on the Archangel.

“Time to change that,” Alex muttered. Predictably, Yzak was concentrating on the Strike; though he hated to admit it, the white-haired pilot’s facility for carrying a grudge was very nearly equal to Daniel Bartlett’s. “Brian, cover me.”

“Roger that.”

Smiling grimly, Alex angled his machine toward the Duel. See how you like this, Cousin.

From Athrun’s perspective, the battle was going well. The black ship’s machines had done little so far, and the Strike was for the moment pinned to the legged ship’s deck.

The Duel’s movements caught his eye. “Yzak, don’t be reckless!”

“Shut up!”

“Try to aim for the engines,” Athrun continued, ignoring Yzak’s insolence. “Nicol, flank them on the port side!”


Athrun followed his own directive, targeting the legged ship’s port Igelstellungs. If it goes down, he thought, then cursed as the Scorpion flashed past, throwing off his aim. Knowing that a Gundam was far more of a threat than some machine cannons that could not hurt him anyway, he shifted his aim, or tried to. The transformable machine was maddeningly agile.

“What’s with this guy?” A hurried series of laser blasts missed completely; Kilgore repeatedly paused for a split second in front of the Aegis’s optics, seemingly as a taunt.

“Nice try!” Forgoing his weapons completely, Kilgore slammed his machine into Athrun’s, throwing the Aegis off balance, then darted away again.

“Blast it!” Athrun fired a burst from his thrusters, stabilizing his machine, then looked warily for his opponent. The old fighter pilot adage, “Lose sight, lose the fight,” held true for mobile suits as well, and Athrun had no intention of losing.

Archangel/Valkyrie, Bridge

Murrue gripped the arms of her command chair as the Archangel shook wildly. “Damage report!”

“Igelstellungs Four and Five are hit, ma’am!” Sai responded. “Sealing bulkheads!” The ship shook again as he spoke.

“Direct hit on the starboard levitator,” Chandra reported. “It was the Blitz’s lancer darts.”

“Buster approaching from above!” Tonomura sang out.

Dearka’s attack was considerably nastier than Nicol’s. The Buster’s anti-armor shotgun, orders of magnitude more powerful than lancer darts, struck the Archangel’s port side, taking out a good-sized chunk of their CIWS.

“We can’t take much more of this,” Murrue said grimly. “Lia, what about you?”

“They’re ignoring us for the most part,” Lia said. “Since we’re so close to Orb, Zala probably decided we were a pointless target.”

“I agree, Captain,” Natarle said. “Commander Strassmeier has made no secret of his intentions, so they’d have to know that the Valkyrie will no longer be a threat when it reaches Orb.”

Which did not help them very much. “Is there anything you can do?” Murrue asked.

“Some. Brian’s keeping the Aegis busy, and Alex is going after his cousin.” Lia grimaced. “That’s all, I’m afraid.”

“It’ll have to do,” Murrue said, looking down into CIC.

Natarle nodded agreement, then turned to Mir. “Tell Ensign Yamato to target the Guuls,” she ordered. “He is to ignore the Duel; it’s clear Strassmeier will be taking Joule personally.”

Lia overheard, and acted of her own. “Target Lokies on those Guuls,” she said crisply. “Focus on the Buster; if we can take it out, their only ranged attack that could really threaten either ship will be the Aegis’s Scylla.” Then to her helmsman, “Increase speed to flank.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Open sky

“Hey there, Yzak,” Alex called. “Looks like you’re in trouble. Again.”

The Duel immediately stopped its attack on the Strike. “Buzz off, Alex. It’s time for him to pay!”

Alex shook his head sorrowfully. “You take things way too personally, Yzak.” His machine slammed into the Duel, knocking it away from the Archangel.

“You’re one to talk!” Yzak shot back, sending an ineffective railgun slug at the Stormbird.

“For your information, cousin mine, there is a qualitative difference between a war wound and an abduction.” Alex dodged his cousin’s fire almost effortlessly. “For you to even consider such a comparison tells me that you are perilously close to losing your wits.”

“Shut up!” Forgetting Kira entirely, Yzak drew a beam saber and charged the Stormbird, snarling all the way. He drew back for an overhand strike…

And then everything changed.

A mobile suit appeared seemingly out of thin air between the two combatants. Pure white, it bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Blitz, although its profile was narrower. It had the distinctive Trikeros system, and the way it had popped out of nowhere proved that it had Mirage Colloid.

The biggest surprise came when the mystery suit’s pilot spoke. “Stop it, Yzak!”

Alex and Yzak both froze in their tracks. They knew that voice. It was a voice neither had heard in years, though they had always believed its owner still lived. The speaker was someone dear to both, someone who had vanished three years before.

“Yzak, what’s wrong?” Athrun asked; it was, to put it mildly, unusual for Yzak to suddenly stop in the middle of an attack.

“Alex, what’s going on?” Murrue and Kira asked simultaneously.

Neither was able to answer.

The white mobile suit turned to face the Archangel. “Sorry,” the pilot said. A visual appeared on the bridge’s main monitor, a girl of about sixteen, with space-black hair and ice-blue eyes. “I guess my arrival caught everyone by surprise.” She smiled. “My name’s Andrea Strassmeier.”

Murrue Ramius felt her jaw drop. “You…you’re Alex’s sister?”

“It’s her, Aunt Murrue,” Lia said, more than a little shocked herself.

“Hi, Lia,” Andrea said cheerfully, then looked at her brother’s machine. “Come on, Alex. Aren’t you happy to see me?”

Alex finally found his voice. “Y-Yeah, of course I am. Andrea…” Even now, with the evidence right in front of him, he was having trouble believing. Is it really you, Sis?

Andrea laughed. “I don’t blame you for being shocked.” She then turned to the Duel. “And you, Yzak, need to calm down,” she said in a remarkably astringent tone. “So that Kira guy gave you a scar. So what? Alex lost his arm to a shark; did he go bonkers when he recovered?”

“I…” Yzak was not sure how to respond to that. “I’m glad…you’re alive.”

She laughed again. “We’ll have plenty of time to catch up.” She returned her attention to Murrue. “Lord Uzumi sent me out when he heard who was approaching Orb waters. He wants both ships to dock at Onogoro Island, along with the ZAFT mobile suits. He knows his daughter is on the Valkyrie,” she added.

“Of course, we’ll come right in,” Murrue said, feeling like she was in another world.

“We’re coming, too,” Athrun said. “There’s a lot that needs to be cleared up.” He smiled. “Besides, there’s no way I’d try to keep Yzak from something like this. He’d probably kill me.”

“You’d better believe it,” Yzak said, though he was not sure he meant it.

Andrea grinned. “Follow me, then. I’ll guide you in.”

Docking facility, Onogoro Island

Alex had returned to his ship before they entered Orb waters, and now he sat in his usual place on the bridge, staring fixedly out the forward viewport. Even though he had heard the voice, he still could not quite believe it was his sister in the white mobile suit.

No, that was not quite right. He did believe it; it was just that he was afraid of being wrong. If this turned out to be a hoax…

Stop it, Alex told himself firmly. You have always known she was still alive.

“So, you’ve finally found her.”

He looked up. With her normal post superfluous (since they had no mobile suits deployed), Cagalli stood next to Alex’s chair. “And where I least expected to,” he agreed. “I should have expected it, though; Andrea’s not the kind of person to just sit there and wait to be rescued.”

She smiled. “You think she stole that mobile suit?”

He snorted. “I do not for an instant believe its resemblance to the Blitz is a coincidence, so yes, it seems likely. Which lends credence to my original story.”

“Come on. I believed you the first time.”

Alex waved that away. “I know that; I was talking about Lieutenant Badgiruel.”

She bent down and gave him a quick kiss, ignoring the huge man behind her. Cagalli had been a little nervous when Kisaka caught her holding Alex’s hand, but the bodyguard had merely smiled knowingly. She still wondered just what was behind that smile, but it was not a major concern now.

“I know,” she said.

“Docking now,” the helmsman interrupted.

Alex stood. This was something he had been waiting for a long time. “All right,” he said, his voice noticeably less steady than usual. “Let’s go.”

He never had any memory of going from the bridge to one of the external hatches. All he ever knew was that he was suddenly outside the ship, and a girl in a white flight suit was running toward him. Andrea Strassmeier practically tackled her brother, wrapping her arms around him in a fierce embrace.

Alex hugged her back, tears running freely down his face. “It’s really you,” he whispered. “I was afraid it was somehow a trick.”

“I know,” she whispered back. She looked up at him. “But I’m back.”

He pulled away slightly, just enough to get a good look at her. Andrea had grown at least fifteen centimeters since he has last seen her. Her hair was longer than he remembered, running down to midback, and the way she moved suggested that she had at least kept in shape.

Or the bastards who kidnapped her forced her to stay in shape, a corner of his mind added, but he ignored it.

Anyone who looked at Andrea Strassmeier could see that she was closely related to Alex, but there was one major difference. No one except Cagalli would have called Alex handsome; his angular face had been compared by more than one person to a bird of prey. His sister, though… While there was a pronounced resemblance, Andrea’s face was not quite as angular. In simple terms, she had gone from merely pretty to stunningly beautiful.

Whoever wins her heart is either the craziest man alive, or the smartest, and the luckiest. He looked up at the sound of footsteps “Hey, Yzak!”

Yzak did not care what else was going on. He did not care that he was within shouting distance of the Earth Forces’ newest warship. It did not matter that he had just been interrupted to take down the Strike. He did not even care that he was in tears, and that not only his teammates but the Earth Forces soldiers, including Kira Yamato, could see it.

He had his family back, and that was all that mattered.

Andrea broke away from her brother to embrace their cousin in turn. “Great to see you, Yzak. Miss me?”

Yzak returned the embrace, thinking in the back of his mind that they looked ridiculous. “Too much. When we heard what happened…”

“Say no more, Cousin,” Andrea said. She looked back over her shoulder, spotting Lia, Kisaka, and Cagalli. “And there’s the princess-” She broke off, staring, then burst out laughing. “I don’t believe it! You gave her Mom’s necklace?”

Alex blushed. “Uh, yeah. You remember, Mom said I should give it to whomever I thought would wear it best…”

Yzak laughed. “So, you gave it to the princess of Orb.” He punched his cousin’s shoulder. “And you told me there was nothing romantic going on!”

“There was nothing romantic then,” Alex retorted in a pained tone. “At least not consciously; it wasn’t until she briefly vanished that I was able to sort out my own feelings.”

“Yeah, sure.” Alex winced, hearing that tone. Yzak was having an “I told you so” moment, and he was guaranteed to milk it for all it was worth. “So, you’re the princess,” Yzak went on, apparently deciding to spare his cousin any further embarrassment…for now.

“Don’t call me a princess,” Cagalli snapped, but then she smiled and shook Yzak’s hand firmly. “Alex’s told me a lot about you.”

“I’ll bet he has.” Yzak nodded to the other girl present. “And you’re Alex’s Junk Guild friend?”

Lia smiled. “That’s me. Lia Ramius, Captain of the Valkyrie.” She started to say more, but then she looked past Andrea’s shoulder, and her face lit up. “Mom! Dad!”

Yzak watched her go. “You have weird friends, Alex.”

“Tell me about it.”

Kira almost collapsed from sheer exhaustion when he released the Strike’s zip line. The battle outside Orb had been short but fierce; if Alex’s sister had not intervened, it could have gotten a lot nastier.

“Kira!” Predictably, Flay had appeared at his side. “Are you all, right?”

He smiled at her. “Just tired. I’ll be fine.”

“That’s good to hear.” Athrun Zala came up to them, his friend Nicol Amalfi in tow.

Kira let Flay help him to his feet. “Athrun. It’s… it’s good to see you again.” He looked away. “I wish…”

Athrun held up a hand, stopping him. “It’s all right, Kira. I understand why you did it.” He looked over at the other dock, where Yzak was talking with his cousins. “Maybe Strassmeier’s sister can get your Earth Forces friends to see the error of their ways.”

Kira blinked. “I thought you’d just want them dead.”

“I did, at first.” Athrun shrugged. “But then I heard from two different people, Lacus and that princess, that you were being treated well. That kind of…gave me hope that maybe they weren’t like the rest of the Earth Forces.”

“They aren’t,” Kira assured him. “Captain Ramius held us at gunpoint at first, but it was because we’d been exposed to classified Earth Forces technology.” Athrun nodded; even though they were on opposite sides, he could not blame her for that. “Anyway, when she learned that you and I were friends, she let me use disabling attacks on your machine.”

“Lacus told me that,” Athrun said. “It’s not the sort of thing a Blue Cosmos fanatic would do.” He frowned. “But why did that XO go along with it? I’ve heard she’s pretty by-the-book.”

Kira shrugged. “She said it would be to their advantage if we recaptured the Aegis.”

“That makes sense,” Athrun agreed. He blushed suddenly, remembering that they were not alone, and turned to Flay. “I apologize for my rudeness; I shouldn’t have ignored you.” He held out his hand. “I’m Athrun Zala of the Le Creuset team. This is Nicol Amalfi, same team.”

She smiled. “Flay Allster, and don’t worry. You and Kira haven’t seen each other in years except on the battlefield.”

Cagalli was right, she is no Blue Cosmos operative. “That’s no excuse, but I’m glad you understand anyway.” Athrun glanced again at Andrea. “I have a feeling that she’s going to drop a major bombshell.”

“Yeah,” Nicol agreed. “That machine of hers looks a little too much like my Blitz to be a coincidence.”

Kira nodded soberly. I think even Lieutenant Badgiruel will have to question the Earth Forces’ motives. “So, how have you been, Athrun?” he asked, changing the subject. “Last time I saw you; your father had recalled you to the PLANTs.”

Athrun shrugged. “Not much happened until January of last year. It was about then that I got engaged to Lacus.” He nodded at the robotic bird that landed on Kira’s shoulder. “It’s also when I gave her that first Haro.”

“Yeah,” Kira agreed. “She told me you built those.”

“I joined ZAFT about a month after the Bloody Valentine,” Athrun went on. “I was assigned to the Le Creuset team right after I graduated, last September. There wasn’t much going on though, not until Heliopolis, and you know as well as I do what happened after that.”

Kira nodded again. “It probably won’t matter,” he said. “If that girl confirms Alex’s story, and I think she will, then I don’t think we’ll be with the Earth Forces for much longer.”

“If even half of what he’s said is true, it’s a whole lot worse than anything ZAFT has done,” Flay agreed.

Athrun sighed. “I hope you’re right. I really hope you’re right.”

“Man, what a crowd,” Mu muttered.

More to the point, it was several crowds. Alex, Cagalli, and Colonel Kisaka were talking with Yzak Joule; as Mu watched, they were joined by Yzak’s teammate Dearka Elsman. Kira and Flay had met up with the other two Le Creuset team pilots, Athrun Zala and Nicol Amalfi; Kira’s expression as he finally had a chance to talk with his old friend spoke volumes.

Mu, Murrue, and Natarle had been left alone at first, and then who should show up but the Captain’s brother.

“It’s good to see you again, Murrue,” Michael Ramius was saying. “When I heard about Heliopolis, well…”

“I know what you mean, Mike,” Murrue said. “Admiral Halberton said the same thing when we met the Eighth Fleet.” She hugged her brother, then waved at her two companions. “Two of the Archangel’s officers, Lieutenant Natarle Badgiruel, XO, and Lieutenant Commander Mu La Flaga.”

Michael shook their hands, smiling. “It’s an honor to meet the Hawk of Endymion.” He nodded to the brown-haired woman at his side. “This is my wife, Naomi.”

“Mom! Dad!”

The three officers stepped back almost in unison as Lia Ramius seemed to explode into their midst, trapping each of her parents in a brief but enthusiastic hug.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” her mother whispered. “I knew you could take care of yourself, especially with Alex out there, but I couldn’t help worrying.”

“Mom, you always worry,” Lia said, giving her another hug.

Natarle stepped forward. “You knew about Strassmeier’s sister, correct?” Both Junkers nodded. “Forgive me, but I have to ask: Is his story true? Was his sister abducted by our forces?”

Michael Ramius sighed. “Andrea and Lord Uzumi will explain in greater detail, but for now…” Another sigh. “It’s true. There is a great deal about the Earth Forces that you do not know. Some of it…” He trailed off, shaking his head, then looked at his sister. “Murrue, if I’d known then what I know now, I would have done everything I could to stop you from enlisting.”

Murrue stiffened. He did not say that sort of thing lightly.

“You don’t have to take my word for it, either” he continued. “There is someone else here, whom I believe you know well.” Michael looked toward a far door. “And if I’m not greatly mistaken, there he is.”

None of the officers could conceal their shock. They knew who it was, all right. They had met with him barely a month before, only then he had worn the uniform of an Earth Forces rear admiral.

Murrue could not help staring. “Admiral… Admiral Halberton?” She could not believe it.

“It’s been a while,” Halberton said, coming over to them. “Surprised to see me?”

Natarle moistened suddenly dry lips. “Admiral, with all due respect…” She took a deep breath. “What is going on here?”

“All in good time, Lieutenant.” Halberton raised his voice, making sure all present could hear him. “Chief Representative Athha would like to meet with all of you, to explain the highly unusual situation.” He met Athrun’s gaze. “Including you and your teammates, Commander Zala.”

Athrun nodded sharply. “We’ll be there.”

“Good.” Gesturing for those assembled to follow him, Halberton led the way out of the docks.

Athha residence

This should be interesting, Alex thought. Cagalli’s father wants to meet with a gaggle of Earth Forces soldiers, independents, and four ZAFT pilots. Unusual, to put it mildly.

Andrea caught his eye and smiled reassuringly. “It’ll be fine, Alex.”

“She’s right,” Cagalli said softly, squeezing his hand.

He squeezed back. “Thanks, both of you.”

Given the size of the group, they met with the Chief Representative in a large conference room on the ground floor. A long table dominated the center of the room, with small computer terminals inset directly in front of each chair. One wall featured a large viewscreen.

Lewis Halberton and Andrea Strassmeier moved to flank the tall, dark-haired man at the table. “Welcome, all of you,” Uzumi Nara Athha said, standing to greet his guests. “I apologize for any confusion this may have caused, but as I am sure you will agree, the situation is unique.”

As he spoke, Uzumi assessed the somewhat ragtag assembly. The Archangel officers (who had been joined by Ensign Arnold Neumann) looked understandably confused. Kira Yamato, the youngest (whom Uzumi knew a great deal about indeed), was less nervous than he might have been, probably because of his close friendship with Uzumi’s daughter.

The ZAFT pilots were more of a puzzle. Athrun Zala, as befitted a team commander, had no expression beyond polite interest. Nicol Amalfi seemed fascinated by his surroundings, while Yzak Joule was naturally focused on his cousin almost to the exclusion of all else. So was Dearka Elsman, though clearly for different reasons.

And then there were the two from the Valkyrie. Lia Ramius, of course, stayed near her aunt. Alex Strassmeier, though, was another matter entirely. Uzumi suppressed a smile at the sight; Alex might have been hard to read, but Cagalli was not, and she was not even trying to disguise her possessive attitude toward him.

Besides, she is wearing Elena Strassmeier’s necklace, Uzumi thought. Klaus, you may have been right about how your son would have reacted, but they fell in love anyway.

“Unique is right, sir,” Murrue said. “First Alex’s sister appears out of nowhere, literally,” she added, recalling the Mirage Colloid effect. “Then we find Admiral Halberton here, in Orb uniform. That tells me that something was going on within the Alliance.”

Uzumi nodded. “Correct.” He nodded at the girl next to his chair. “And Ms. Strassmeier’s story is where it begins.”

Andrea took the floor. “As some of you know,” she said, sounding oddly like Natarle Badgiruel, “three years ago, I was kidnapped by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit.” She gestured to her brother. “Alex was also a target, but he was able to escape.”

“So, he was right,” Natarle said softly.

The girl nodded. “I was taken to a secret base in the Aleutian Islands. When I woke up -they’d hit me with a stun gun- they told me I was to be part of something called the ‘Combat Coordinator’ project.”

Neumann frowned. “Combat Coordinator?” he repeated.

“It was a project to counter ZAFT’s mobile suit corps,” Andrea explained. “Since, with a very few exceptions, Naturals can’t pilot mobile suits without a special OS. So, we were brought in. Basically, it involved a combination of psychotherapy and drug treatments, to make us ‘obedient.’ “

“Bastards!” Yzak hissed.

Andrea gave him a stern look. “Yzak, remember that no one on the Archangel had anything to do with what happened.” She smiled at his expression, a mixture of anger and chagrin. “Anyway, unfortunately for them, it didn’t work, so what they had was a bunch of angry Coordinators.” She smiled like a shark. “While it took me a lot longer to escape, I did quite a bit of damage on my way out.”

“I’ll say you did,” Mu said. “What is that thing, anyway?”

She brought up an image on the wall screen. “GAT-X210, the Specter. Like the Blitz, it’s designed as a special ops unit. Its equipment is identical, except for this.” She indicated the left arm. “Instead of the Gleipnir, it has an energy-draining claw, intended for capturing enemy machines.”

Uzumi gestured to Admiral Halberton as Andrea moved to join her brother and cousin. “This is where the admiral’s story begins.”

Halberton cleared his throat. “Last month, while you people were still mucking about in the desert, I did some digging of my own. Commander Strassmeier’s story about his sister dovetailed all too well with some other things I had heard. So, naturally, I made some quiet inquiries.” He shook his head. “I found more than I ever wanted to know.”

“What was it, Admiral?” Murrue asked softly.

The admiral clenched a fist. “That the Earth Alliance…is nothing more than a front for the terrorist organization Blue Cosmos.”

There was a collective gasp from the Archangel’s people, but the ZAFT pilots were anything but surprised. “That explains how they were able to get that nuke onto the Roosevelt,” Athrun said bitterly.

“It does indeed, Commander,” Halberton agreed. “At any rate, I found out exactly what happened after the Mandelbrot Incident. It wasn’t pretty, to put it mildly.”

“So that’s why you chose to desert?” Murrue asked softly.

Halberton snorted. “I would likely have done so eventually, but I wasn’t given time to consider; I was looking into things that were none of my business, you see. To make a long story short, the high command tried to purge me, only to find that the entire crew of the Menelaos was on my side. We sought refuge with Orb, and Lord Uzumi was kind enough to help us out.”

“Where’s the Menelaos now?” Mu asked.

“Docked at Ame-no-Mihashira. As you know, Orb does not have much of a space fleet, so an Agamemnon-class battleship is an unbelievably asset.”

For a long moment, there was nothing but silence as those assembled mulled over what they had just heard. The Zala team, of course, were in no way surprised, except perhaps at the news that the Alliance had tried to purge its best space commander.

The Archangel officers, on the other hand, found themselves faced with a serious dilemma. What they had just learned made even Natarle Badgiruel sick, but at the same time they were Earth Forces soldiers. They had all given their loyalty; desertion, even though it was starting to look like the only choice, came extremely hard.

Kira finally spoke. “I agreed to pilot the Strike so that I could protect my friends,” he said, giving Athrun an apologetic glance. “I enlisted when they did so that I could continue to protect them, but this…” He shook his head, then turned to his fellow officers. “If the Earth Forces are just a front for Blue Cosmos, then I can’t remain with them. Maybe they had let me go on for a while, but the moment I outlived my usefulness, they would kill me. I won’t give them that chance.”

“Kira,” Murrue said softly.

The Coordinator turned back to Uzumi. “Sir, I don’t like to fight, but if Orb could use a mobile suit pilot, I’m available. If I must fight, then I want it to be for something I believe in.”

Mu La Flaga stood. “I’m with the kid. There’s no way I can continue to fight for the Earth Forces, not if it helps a bunch of slimeballs like Blue Cosmos.”

“I have to agree with Commander La Flaga,” Murrue said. “If the truth about the Alliance was enough to get the Admiral to desert, then I shall follow.”

“I agree as well,” Natarle said. “In light of what I have learned here, I cannot in good conscience continue to serve the Earth Alliance.”

“I’m in, too,” Neumann said.

Uzumi nodded gravely. After what he had heard from Halberton and Kisaka about these people, their reactions were about what he had expected. “I realize that this is exceedingly difficult for all of you. Turning your back on your homeland is never easy. Indeed, if you had found it easy, I would not be able to trust you.” He raised an eyebrow. “What of the rest of your crew?”

“They’ll likely go along,” Murrue said. “The student volunteers for sure; with the exception of Flay Allster, they’re all from Orb anyway.”

The Chief Representative frowned. “George Allster’s daughter?”

“She’s also Kira’s girlfriend,” Cagalli said. “She’ll go wherever he goes. Bet on it.”

Uzumi nodded, satisfied. “Very well, then.”

Kisaka stood. “Those of you who chose to join Orb’s military will be promoted, and we will assign additional crew to the Archangel,” he said. “Your current crew will remain with you unless they specifically request reassignment.” He looked at Kira. “We do, however, have another job for you. Since Orb is not at war with anyone at present, your first assignment will be to help in the development of our new mobile suits, and in the training of their pilots.”

Kira nodded. “I can handle that. What do you need?”

“Thanks in part to the G-weapon project, we have the technology to produce mobile suits superior to anything short of those original prototypes,” Kisaka explained. “Unfortunately, we haven’t yet been able to produce an OS that our people can use.”

“So, you need me to come up with an OS that will let Naturals pilot mobile suits,” Kira said, nodding again. “I’ll do what I can.”

“That is all we could ask.” Kisaka looked over at Alex. “We would like your assistance, as well.”

Alex shrugged. “We have to earn our keep somehow.”

“Speaking of Alex’s operation,” Yzak said, “just how did they get the kind of resources they needed to build a warship and five mobile suits?” He quirked an eyebrow at Alex.

The other shrugged again. “Well, the Junk Guild helped some since Lia’s parents are members. Still, I admit to being a little puzzled at how some parts appeared right when we needed them. It happened too many times to be a coincidence.”

“That would be my doing,” Uzumi said.

All eyes turned to the Orb noble in shock. “Say what?” Yzak blurted.

“Father, are you saying-” Cagalli could not finish.

Uzumi smiled at his daughter. “Come now, Cagalli. Your attachment to Commander Strassmeier is obvious to all but the willfully blind. I don’t think you have any reason to complain.” Cagalli blushed, and the Chief Representative nodded at Yzak. “You heard correctly, Mister Joule. I arranged for much of the resources he needed, though I do not know how he obtained the PSA technology. Orb has to date been unable to duplicate it.”

Alex looked uncharacteristically sheepish. “No, we stole that ourselves.”

“That’s my brother!” Andrea chirped.

Athrun frowned. “But why? Why would you lend covert assistance to a group like that?”

Uzumi sighed. “Though my personal sympathies lie with the PLANTs, particularly in light of recent revelations about the Earth Forces, I must confess that I share many of Strassmeier’s suspicions about your father, Commander.”

The ZAFT soldier closed his eyes briefly. “I wish I could blame you, sir, but I can’t. My father is not exactly known for moderation. I do not think he wants all Naturals dead, but I can understand why someone would think otherwise. And since I’m aware that Alex has no intention of harming the PLANTs…”

Uzumi nodded. “You see the position I find myself in. While I still live, Orb will never align itself with the Earth Forces, but we cannot at this point lend our support to the PLANTs, either. Giving aid, however covert, to someone like Alex Strassmeier, was the best we could do.”

“I understand, and I will so inform the Supreme Council,” Athrun said.

Uzumi stood. “I believe that concludes any official business. Commander Zala, you may make use of our own comm facilities to file your report; I understand a Vosgulov-class submarine lacks the needed equipment, and this would be faster than returning to Carpentaria.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You may also rest here for a time, so long as you maintain a low profile.” Uzumi smiled. “If nothing else, I believe some of you have some catching up to do.”

The now-former Earth Forces officers started to file out, followed by the ZAFT pilots, Andrea Strassmeier, and Lia Ramius. Alex moved to follow, but Uzumi’s upraised hand stopped him.

He turned. “Sir?”

“I have some additional matters to discuss with you, Commander,” Uzumi said. “Cagalli, if you and Kira would remain as well.” The two exchanged puzzled looks but complied.

They did not start right away. Uzumi had called for a couple more people, and Alex’s eyes narrowed when they arrived. He recognized them instantly: Haruna and Caridad Yamato, Kira’s parents. What is going on here? Alex had known they were Orb citizens, but it was odd that the Chief Representative would know them.

Haruna’s expression was difficult to read, but his wife was another matter. The instant she saw Kira and Cagalli sitting side by side, she looked almost dismayed, as though this was something she had hoped would never happen.

Kira’s eyes widened. “Mom? Dad?”

“Lord Uzumi, what is going on?” Caridad asked, sounding afraid of the answer.

Uzumi seemed to hesitate. “We can no longer hide the truth,” he said softly. “As you can see, the children have met.”

Alex’s eyes, already narrow, shrank to icy crescents. ” ‘The children have met’?” he repeated softly. “Is this about what it sounds like?”

Uzumi nodded. “Kisaka told me of your quest, and how you hoped to receive help in Orb.”

“Yes,” Alex said slowly. “I take it you have some information?”

Another nod. “I know exactly what happened to the twins you seek.”

“And they are?” Alex said when the Chief Representative paused.

Uzumi shot a glance at Haruna Yamato, got a resigned look in return, and finally answered. “Kira Yamato is the Ultimate Coordinator, and Cagalli is his sister.”

The resulting silence was profound. Alex had been convinced for a while that Kira was the Ultimate Coordinator, but it had never occurred to him that Cagalli might be the other twin. Now, though, as he looked at them, he was struck by the resemblance. Allowing for the obvious gender differences, they are almost identical. Why didn’t I see it sooner?

The twins themselves were in shock. Kira and Cagalli had felt connected since they had first met, but they had never thought they might be related.

Kira finally looked at his parents. “Mom? Dad? Is it… is it true?” They nodded mutely. “Why… why didn’t you tell me?”

Uzumi answered for them; Haruna seemed unable to speak, and his wife was in tears. “There was a great deal going on at the time,” he said. “Your birth parents had just been killed in a Blue Cosmos attack. To my knowledge, only two of Ulen Hibiki’s colleagues survived, Mikhail Coast, and Alex’s father, Klaus Strassmeier.”

Alex’s lip twisted. “I spoke with Coast when I began my search, three years ago. He’s a ZAFT pilot now; we ran into him at Junius Seven.”

“It was decided that the twins would be separated, in order to keep them safe,” Uzumi continued. “Accordingly, Kira was adopted by the Yamato’s, while I took Cagalli in myself.”

Haruna finally spoke. “We had hoped to keep these events secret, though Lord Uzumi said that we wouldn’t be able to forever.”

“But why didn’t you tell us?” Cagalli burst out. “Why did we have to be kept in the dark?”

Alex took her hand. “Cagalli, would you tell a little kid he’s the product of some insane medical experiment?”

“It would have been better if the secret had never been revealed,” Caridad Yamato said suddenly. She glared at Alex through her tears. “If you hadn’t gotten involved, this would never have happened.”

He exploded out of his chair. “How dare you!” he hissed. “I can understand keeping it from them temporarily; as I said, telling that story to a little kid would be crazy. Ultimately, though, they had an absolute right to know, and you were obligated to explain it the moment they were capable of understanding.” When all three Yamato’s flinched, he forcefully reigned his voice in. “Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that you love Kira just as you would if he had been your son by birth. Still, that does not change the fact that he needed to know, eventually.”

“Alex is right,” Uzumi said. He laid a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I intended from the beginning to tell you when you were old enough. Your friend’s quest merely accelerated that.” He looked at Kira’s parents. “And even if Alex hadn’t gotten involved, it would have gotten out eventually.”

Haruna squeezed his wife’s shoulder. “He’s right, Caridad, And so is Strassmeier. Kira and Cagalli have a right to know the truth.” He looked at Kira. “I won’t blame you if you’re angry, Kira. Just remember what your friend said. We love you just as if you were our son by birth.”

Kira nodded slowly. “I know.” He rose and embraced his parents. “It’s hard, but I understand.”

His sister agreed. “When Alex told me about his search, I never thought I was one of the people he was looking for.” She froze briefly as another thought occurred to her. “Father, if Kira and I are siblings… what am I?”

Uzumi smiled. “You, like your brother, are a Coordinator. While you were not removed from your mother’s womb, as he was, you did undergo the more standard treatments.”

“Though whether the word ‘standard’ can be applied to Coordinator technology in the first place is an open question,” Alex said wryly. He looked up at Uzumi. “Sir, one more thing. Why were you so ready to help?”

“It’s quite simple, though few are aware of it,” Uzumi replied. “Did your father ever tell you about his time as an exchange student in Orb?”

Alex frowned. “He mentioned it, but not very often…” He trailed off, an arrested expression on his face.

Uzumi nodded. “Exactly. I knew your father well. Indeed, one reason I covertly aided you was because of a promise I made, long ago. Klaus asked me to look out for you, should anything happen to him.”

“That explains some things,” Alex said slowly.

“More than you realize,” Uzumi said dryly. “When the engagement with Yuna Seiran fell through, I actually suggested a match between you and Cagalli.” The princess blushed at that. “Your father, however, warned me that you would not react well to something like that.”

Alex snorted. “My father was undoubtedly exaggerating. My opinion of arranged marriages is no secret and never has been.”

“That is precisely what he told me,” Uzumi agreed. “In any case, it appears to be a moot point.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “So, you’re not objecting to my relationship with Cagalli?”

“On the contrary, I was delighted when I saw you together.” Uzumi smiled. “I recognized your mother’s necklace.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.”

Haruna stood, Caridad and Kira with him. “If you’ll excuse us, My Lord.”

“Of course.”

Cagalli followed her brother out. Alex started to move, then paused and looked back at Uzumi. “Just one more thing.” He hesitated. “I want to thank you, for taking care of Andrea. That is a debt I can never repay.”

“There is nothing to repay,” Uzumi said. “I could not leave anyone in such a state, let alone the daughter of an old friend.”

“Still, if there’s anything you need…”

Uzumi smiled. “Make Cagalli happy. That is all I ask.”

Alex grinned, came to attention, and saluted in the ZAFT manner. “You got it,” he said, and departed.

Chapter 16: Fateful Encounters

Indian Ocean, 7 March, C.E. 71

Alex stared at the red CGUE in disbelief. His laser blast had caught the thing dead center, and it should have been gutted, but the beam had splashed off harmlessly. That is impossible. Nothing can survive that! He frowned, a sudden suspicion forming in his mind. Unless…

Bartlett smirked. “That’s right, Strassmeier. My CGUE now has an anti-beam coating. Even that plasma cannon of yours is useless.”

“For now, perhaps,” Alex said coldly. “But it can still be worn down.” He fired again, missing this time as Bartlett dodged.

“You don’t have what it takes, Strassmeier!” The CGUE leveled its rifle and shield cannon at the Stormbird. “You’re going down!”

Alex cursed, twisting madly to avoid the hail of beams. Just what I do not need. He stabilized briefly, fired, missed again, and dove, hoping to throw off his opponent’s aim. The effort was successful, but just barely; a green flash nearly struck his plasma cannon.

Kira, meanwhile, ignored the GINNs and DINNs bearing down on him completely. He got a lock on one of the GINNs attacking the Archangel, fired, and shifted to its partner even as the first exploded. The second GINN followed into oblivion.

“Bastard!” One of the DINNs fired all its weaponry at once, peppering the Strike with missiles and solid slugs.

Kira was unimpressed. Bartlett’s made one mistake. None of those DINNs have energy weapons, and there is no way they can wear down my armor before I get them. Suppressing a sigh, he fired three precise shots, reducing the DINNs to junk.

“Great shooting, kid!” Mu called, then swore as a DINN came at him, firing madly. He threw the Skygrasper into a violent spin, narrowly missing the mobile suit with an Agni burst.

Alex would have gone to the Hawk’s aid, but he had his own problems. Bartlett was not letting up, and the way he was firing suggested that the CGUE had a new high-density energy battery. Not exactly good news, since PSA was useless against beam weapons.

This is really getting on my nerves, he thought, then cursed as a beam grazed his left leg. He spun around and returned fire, managing through sheer luck to vaporize the hilt of the CGUE’s sword, then dove again to avoid another hail of beams.

“You can’t run forever, Strassmeier!” Bartlett called. “Sooner or later, you’re going down!”

Alex ignored him. If you let him get you angry, it will cloud your thinking, and if that happens, he is won. Gritting his teeth, he unlimbered the Stormbird’s plasma cannon and took aim at Bartlett’s Guul. He fired once, missed, and a laser blast struck his weapon before he could get off another shot. The resultant explosion knocked him back, almost slamming him into the Archangel’s superstructure.

“Alex!” Kira shouted. He tried to bring his own rifle to bear but was immediately distracted by the last GINNs. While their deceased fellows had used heavy missile launchers, these two bore ion cannons like the one Miguel Aiman had used.

“You’re dead, traitor!” the lead GINN pilot snarled. He fired three times; the shots barely blocked by the Strike’s shield.

Kira hissed through clenched teeth, then took off, trusting the mobility advantage the Aile pack gave him over Guul-equipped GINNs. It worked; the Strike flew rings around its opponents. None of them could touch him, whereas he could attack at will. Two precise shots lanced out, destroying the last GINNs without an era of wasted power.

I hate this, he thought to himself as he dropped back to the Archangel’s forward deck. But I have no choice. There are some things you cannot protect without fighting, and if Alex is right about Athrun’s father, then ZAFT must be stopped.

The only major fight left was Alex’s duel with Bartlett; Brian had destroyed the underwater mobile suits and sunk the trailing Vosgulov. Unfortunately, he had also nearly run out of power, and a freak hit had damaged his verniers, so the Scorpion had temporarily lost its flight capability.

“Having fun yet?” Bartlett taunted.

Alex did not dignify that with a reply. He knew enough about psychological warfare to know what his old nemesis was up to. Knowing did not help him, though, and he swore again as a beam struck his machine’s left leg, shearing it off at the knee. Simply great; all I need is for him to reduce me to a basket case! As if to punctuate the thought, another blast vaporized his right wing. No!

Behind his eyes, a blue seed burst.

Using his remaining thrusters, Alex spun his machine in midair, aiming his rifle not at Bartlett’s CGUE, but at the Guul it rode. The precise shot split the lifter in half, and the CGUE dropped like a rock.

“You’ll pay for that, Strassmeier!” Bartlett shouted as he fell.

Kira’s Strike caught the damaged Stormbird. “You okay in there, Alex?”

Alex doffed his helmet and wearily rubbed his temples. “Yeah, I’m fine. Bit of a headache, maybe, but nothing worse than that.”

“Glad to hear it,” Mu said, coming in for a landing. “Did the princess make it back all right?”

Alex and Kira exchanged puzzled looks. “Make it back?” Kira echoed.

“She took out that DINN, but it hit her at the same time,” Mu said. “What, you didn’t see her?”

“No, we didn’t.” Alex added a few choices German curses under his breath. “This is bad, Mu. Cagalli is a close friend, as well as the daughter of a major figure. For both reasons, we need to find her.” And if she dies, I will skin her killer alive. Slowly.

“You’re right,” Mu agreed, unaware of his young friend’s thoughts. “Kira, you’d better get Alex back to his own ship, then resupply.”

“Roger that.”

Cagalli forcefully restrained herself from cursing. The DINN had taken out her navigational systems, and now she was reduced to flying by eye. Which would be fine, if there were any landmarks, or any land for there to be landmarks.

Simply great. The one hit I take knocks out every nav system I have, including the compass. Could this get any worse?

She had her answer soon enough. A spec appeared in the sky ahead of her. It quickly resolved into the unmistakable shape of a ZAFT mobile suit transport. With a maximum capacity of three mobile suits, it was a big, lumbering vehicle, though it did have adequate defensive weaponry.

Cagalli thought for a moment, then made her decision. It was a ZAFT transport, and it was clearly carrying at least on ZAFT mobile suit. Ergo, it was a threat to her friends on the Archangel and the Valkyrie. She tightened her hands on the joystick.

Judging by the transport’s motions, her attack came as a complete surprise. She managed to graze the plane with a shot from her beam turret, forcing at to jettison its cargo to stay aloft.

Cagalli blinked, recognizing the mobile suit as it fell. That is the Aegis. She felt a jolt as the significance of that knowledge hit her. I… I almost killed Kira’s friend.

And then she had no time to worry. The transport’s crew returned fire, hitting her Skygrasper’s right wing. A secondary explosion shredded her starboard engine, and then she was falling toward a nearby island. Cagalli closed her eyes, bracing herself for the crash.

At least I will be on land, she thought, and then the world went black.

Archangel, Bridge

Murrue sighed and closed her eyes. “Any word?”

Kuzzey shook his head. “Nothing, ma’am. Commander La Flaga hasn’t found anything, and neither has Kira.”

If only the Scorpion and the Stormbird were not still in for repairs! Not that she blamed Brian or Alex; underwater combat was difficult and fighting Daniel Bartlett one on one was even worse. In any case, Alex was even more agitated than Murrue was, and she knew he was beating himself up over the damage to his mobile suit.

“Get me the Valkyrie,” she said suddenly.

Lia appeared within moments. “What is it?”

She was no more cheerful than Alex was, Murrue noted. Not a surprise, really; Lia and Cagalli had become close friends. “You should probably have a talk with Alex,” she said. “He’s blaming himself for the damage the Stormbird sustained in that last fight, and…” She trailed off, shrugging.

Lia grimaced. “Say no more, Aunt Murrue. I know exactly what you mean. He was just like this when his sister was kidnapped. Don’t worry, I’ll straighten him out.”

“Good.” Lia’s image vanished, and Murrue looked down into CIC. “Natarle, I want a constant communications watch.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Natarle was already turning to her own intercom.

Sai and Mir looked at each other, more worried than wanted to admit. “I hope she’s okay,” Mir said softly.

“Me, too.” Sai was not as close to the princess as Kira and Alex were, but he still liked her.

“What if she ran into some more ZAFT units?” Tolle wondered. “Would she have made it?”

Murrue sighed again. “She wouldn’t have gone down without a fight. I wish I could say more, but we simply don’t know.”

The Archangel’s captain hated these situations at the best of times. The fact that it was Cagalli made it worse; Murrue had come to see her as almost a kid sister (and was not that a fine attitude to have about the daughter of a foreign leader!). It was worrying her almost as much as Alex and Kira.

Cagalli, please be safe.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Though no one who did not know him could tell, Alex was more agitated than he had been in years. Outwardly, the only sign was a slight tightening of his face, and a barely noticeable shortness to his words. Very few people were capable of noticing, and only one of them was on the same ship.

If only I had taken Bartlett out faster! he snarled to himself. Then she would not have gone missing!

“I thought this would happen.”

Alex turned. Lia Ramius had come in without him noticing. Getting sloppy, Alex. “You thought what would happen?”

“That you’d be blaming yourself for something that wasn’t your fault,” Lia said.

“And how, pray tell, is this not my fault?” Alex demanded irritably. “If I hadn’t let Bartlett take me by surprise, the Stormbird wouldn’t be so badly damaged, and at the very least I’d be able to help search for Cagalli.”

“Oh, come on!” Lia rolled her eyes. “You had no way of knowing he’d have anti-beam coating on his CGUE, and even if you had known, how would that have helped?”

“I’d have known from the start to aim for his Guul,” Alex shot back.

She snorted. “Maybe, maybe not. Cagalli’s a good pilot, too; you had no reason to expect her to take a freak hit. That sort of thing happens in battle; no one is to blame, least of all you.”

Alex took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I… guess you’re right. It’s just that…”

“It’s just that this reminds you of what happened to your sister.”

“Doesn’t everything?” Alex said sardonically.

Lia came over and gave him a sisterly hug. “I didn’t mean it that way, and I don’t blame you for feeling like this, but you can’t let it paralyze you.” She pulled back and looked him in the eye. “And this differs from what happened to Andrea in one important respect: Cagalli isn’t helpless.” Alex winced, but did not dispute it. “She’s a fighter. I can’t see her going down that easily.” She grinned. “She’s a perfect match for you.”

Alex gave her an Et tu? look but said nothing.

Lia laughed. “Sorry, Alex. I know you’re tired of hearing this -especially from Mu La Flaga- but it’s true, and the only people you two are fooling are yourselves.”

“Whatever.” Alex shook his head. “Did you come here for any reason other than to berate me?”

She gave him her best innocent look. “Aunt Murrue asked me to talk to you. You know me; would I be here otherwise?”

Alex snorted. “I do know you, and yes, you would be here, even if your aunt hadn’t put you up to it.” He smiled, feeling at least a little better. “Thanks, Lia. Where would I be without you?”

“Probably dead,” Lia said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. “Anyway, I’m not saying you shouldn’t worry -anyone who doesn’t worry about a close friend in a situation like this isn’t human- but it still isn’t your fault.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.” Alex sat in front of his desk. “I’d still like to expedite repairs to the Stormbird, though. If another ZAFT team comes calling, I’d really like to be able to fight back.”

“Point,” Lia said. She stepped to the hatch. “I’ll see you later.” A pause. “And Alex. When Cagalli gets back, don’t let this one slip away.”

Alex went over the crew chief’s report on his machine with only half his mind. The other half was with a certain blond-haired girl, wherever she had gotten herself to. Soon it was more than half, and he eventually gave up in disgust, cursing himself for not including a couple of vestals in the Valkyrie’s inventory.

What is with me? Even after Andrea was kidnapped, I did not have this much trouble concentrating. With a half-angry shake of his head, he moved to the window, gazing out at the endless ocean.

Part of his mind seemed to chuckle. Do not fool yourself. You are in love.

Shut up, Alex thought, wondering if he was finally starting to lose it. It would certainly explain why his brain seemed to be talking to him independently. He shook his head again, dismissing the notion as his fatigue talking, then collapsed on his bunk. He was asleep within moments.

Deserted island, 8 March, C.E. 71

The first thing Cagalli noticed was that she had a splitting headache, most likely due to landing impact. Moaning softly, she forced her eyes to focus, wondering where on Earth she was. Her last memory was of the stolen X303 Aegis dropping from a transport she had just attacked.

They hit my wing, and then something went wrong in an engine. She grimaced, surveying the damage. I might have gotten down alive, but the plane’s sure not in good shape. At least I hurt that transport.

In any case, there was no point in just sitting there. Making sure to check her sidearm, Cagalli popped the canopy, wincing as sore muscles complained about being strained. She leapt lightly to the ground, landing in a crouch. Pistol in hand, she carefully assessed her surroundings.

No one’s here. Still, no sense in taking chances. Especially since it is not just ZAFT I must worry about. Cagalli remembered her survival training, and she had no intention of becoming a snack for the local wildlife. The tropics were home to some particularly nasty (and poisonous) creatures.

There was still the chance that she would run into another person. If X303 Aegis was there, that meant she had a good chance of coming face to face with Athrun Zala. And if that did happen, it could be awkward. Cagalli had no intention of killing Athrun, but there was no way to know how he would react to her.

“I guess I’ll just have to find out,” she said, and set off into the island’s interior.

Of all the things to run into, it had to be an Earth Forces fighter. Athrun had recognized the design from intelligence reports; an FX-550 Skygrasper, a new design intended specifically to support the Strike. From what he had heard, it could use the weapons from all three Striker Packs; Dearka had described one of the fighters using the Sword pack to slice through a land battleship’s turrets.

“At least it was shot down.” And at least it did not mean Kira had been hurt or killed; there was no way he would be in a fighter instead of the Strike.

He had already activated the Aegis’s distress beacon, so ZAFT would be coming for him sooner or later. In the meantime, the best course of action was to simply have a look around. Drawing his machine pistol in case of unfriendly strangers, be they animal or human, Athrun cautiously started forward.

An hour’s worth of searching turned up little. He found some food, along with fresh water, but nothing else. Well, there was also a cave that would probably come in handy…

Footsteps sounded, causing Athrun to spin around, his gun snapping up into a ready position. “Who’s there?”

“I thought I might run into you.”

Athrun frowned. It was a female voice, and young, too. “Show yourself.”

A blond-haired girl stepped out of the brush. She, too, held a pistol, but the muzzle was pointed at the ground. “You’re Athrun Zala, right?”

He frowned harder. What exactly is going on here? “What if I am?”

“If you are, then I’m not going to shoot you,” the girl said bluntly. “Kira’s been through enough; I’m not killing his best friend.”

“Kira?” Athrun did not lower his gun, but if the girl did not intend to threaten him… “Then you were on the legged ship?”

“Actually, I’ve spent most of my time on the Valkyrie, but yeah, I’ve been on the Archangel, too.” She shrugged. “Since they’ve been traveling together, it’s not too hard.” She looked away. “I was the one who attacked your transport.”

Athrun tightened his grip. “If you don’t want Kira to hurt any more, then why did you attack if I was on that plane?”

“I didn’t know it was you until I saw your mobile suit drop out,” the girl countered.

She had a point, Athrun conceded. There was no way she could have known who was on the transport she had attacked. “All right,” he said, slowly lowering his weapon. “What do you want?”

“I don’t think either of us wants to stay on this island forever,” was the reply. “If we work together, we should be able to get out of here alive.”

Athrun gave a slow nod. “You’re right. I’ve already activated the Aegis’s distress beacon, but it’ll take time for any rescue party to get here, assuming they pick up the signal in the first place.” He started to turn, then paused. “Uh, I didn’t catch your name.”

She blushed slightly. “Oh, yeah. I’m Cagalli Yula.”

The ZAFT pilot smiled. “Nice to meet you.” He gestured for her to follow him. “I found a cave that should provide some shelter. Good thing, too,” he added, gazing speculatively at the sky. “I think we might be in for some rain.”

Carpentaria Base

Nicol stared moodily out the lounge’s window, watching the mechanics swarm over the damaged transport. The pilot had reported being attacked by an Earth Forces fighter and had been forced to jettison the Aegis -and Athrun Zala- to stay aloft.

He cursed the Alliance under his breath. If Athrun does not make it, those Earth Forces bastards are going to pay.

The hatch slid open behind him. “No sign of Athrun,” Yzak said.

Nicol turned. “Then why aren’t we searching for him?” he demanded. “If the Earth Forces-“

“It’s too dark for a search,” Dearka pointed out. “It’s already past nightfall where the transport was attacked, and the weather’s getting nasty. We’ll have to wait till morning.”

“Dearka’s right,” Yzak said. “Besides, there’s no reason to worry; no way Athrun’s going to let something like this take him down.”

“But we don’t know that for sure!” Nicol protested. “He might be hurt, or worse!”

Yzak snorted. “Maybe. We still cannot head out tonight. It’d be a waste of time.”

Nicol looked rebellious for a moment, then visibly reigned himself in. “All right, then.” He turned to leave. “But I’m going after him first thing tomorrow.”

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira slammed a fist into his pillow. Hours of searching had proved fruitless; he had not even picked up a beacon. Cagalli had vanished, seemingly without a trace. Why? Why did this have to happen? Why did she have to go missing?

A pair of arms wrapped around him from behind. “Kira?”

He felt himself relaxing a little despite the situation. Flay had a gift for that. “I couldn’t find her. I looked for hours, but there was nothing. Nothing at all!”

Flay moved around in front of him. It did not even occur to her to be jealous, not anymore. “She’ll be all right; she isn’t some brain-dead spoiled brat who can’t take care of herself.”

“I know, but…” Kira shook his head. “What if she ran into ZAFT?”

Flay, too, had been worried about that, so she had checked with Mu. “I asked Commander La Flaga; he said that a Skygrasper can take anything short of one of the stolen mobile suits. Cagalli would know not to fight one of those.”

“And a Skygrasper can outrun something like that,” Kira added. “I’m still worried, though.”

“Of course, you are. She’s your friend.”

Kira blinked at her tone. “You’re not jealous?”

Flay laughed softly. “Kira, I’m not going to be jealous just because your friends with another girl. What about Miriallia, or the Captain’s niece? I know you like them, too.”

Good point. “You’re right.” He smiled. “Thanks, Flay. Without you, I don’t think I’d have made it this far.”

Flay smiled back and stroked his face. “And without you, I’d never have realized that Coordinators are people, too.” She leaned close and kissed him.

He held her tight, stroking her hair. She is right. Everything is going to be fine.

Deserted island

Athrun was proved right with a vengeance. Rain poured outside the cave in almost a solid sheet, or at least that was what it looked like. Every so often, there was a flash of lightning, followed by a loud boom. Fortunately for them, the cave went nice and far back, so they were able to stay dry.

“I’ve never seen it rain like this,” Athrun murmured, settling in front of the fire.

Cagalli snorted. “This is your first time on-planet; when have you ever seen rain?”

“It rains in the PLANTs,” he said mock-defensively. “But not this hard, and only when the people in charge of life support tell it to.”

She could not help smiling. Once he came out of his shell, Athrun had proved to be an easygoing sort; it was easy to see how he and Kira could be so close. It was hard not to trust him, and Cagalli had to forcefully remind herself that he was still the enemy…sort of.

Sure, he’s ZAFT, but so’s Alex’s cousin. Besides, he’s Kira’s best friend; that must mean something.

“So, uh, Cagalli,” Athrun broke into her thoughts. “You said you know Kira?” She nodded. “How is he doing?”

She gazed into the fire. “He’s doing all right, considering the pressure he’s under, but it’s hard on him.” She sighed. “He doesn’t want to fight, but it’s the only way to protect his friends.”

“Those Earth Forces bastards,” Athrun growled. “They’re just using him, but he can’t see it!”

Cagalli bristled. “That’s not true, Athrun. The people on the Archangel aren’t like that.” She shook her head. “They’re too good for the Earth Forces.” She glared at the ZAFT pilot. “And the only reason Kira joined them in the first place was to protect his friends, and he only had to do that because ZAFT attacked his home.”

“Because Orb was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces!” Athrun shot back.

“Alex proved that the government wasn’t involved,” Cagalli retorted. “And what about the collapse of the colony, huh? Kira was using the Sword pack, while that bastard Le Creuset sent GINNs in with heavy weapons.”

Athrun winced; much as he wanted to, he could not dispute that one. He was there, after all.

“I’m not saying I like the Earth Forces, because I don’t,” Cagalli went on. “Especially not after what happened to Alex’s sister. Still, I do not like what ZAFT is doing, either.” She nodded at Athrun’s flight suit. “Alex was on his way to a recruiting center when his friend Kyle Perry stopped him.”

Athrun snorted derisively. “You mean with the news of my father’s supposed plan to ‘exterminate’ the Naturals?” He rolled his eyes. “My father doesn’t like Naturals, but that doesn’t mean he wants to wipe them out.”

“Then why does he keep denouncing Naturals?” Cagalli countered. “Why not the sponsor nations? Not all Naturals hate Coordinators; Kira’s friends are proof of that. I don’t care what someone’s genes look like, either.”

Athrun frowned. She had a point about Patrick Zala’s rhetoric, but still… “I don’t hate Naturals, myself,” he admitted. “I’ve met Kira’s parents, and I don’t want to see them hurt.” He looked at her sharply. “Still, there are Naturals in ZAFT; if my father wanted all Natural’s dead, why would they be allowed in?”

“Probably because he can’t do anything about it…yet.” Cagalli shrugged. “That won’t last forever. Alex told me a while ago that he thinks your father will replace Chairman Clyne.”

“You have a lot of faith in his judgement,” Athrun observed. Not that he disagreed with Alex’s prediction of the next election’s outcome.

Cagalli chuckled ruefully. “I didn’t at first. I thought he was a ZAFT spy. He predicted the attack, after all.”

“Not to mention the fact that he’s the nephew of a Supreme Council member, and is almost obsessively patriotic,” Athrun agreed. “I’ll bet that was interesting.”

“It was.” She chuckled again. “It only took me a couple of days to get over it; he got mad, spilled his guts about his sister, then apologized. Lieutenant Badgiruel -that’s the Archangel’s XO- took a while longer. Till we got to the desert, in fact.”

Athrun frowned. “I think I remember the name from some intelligence reports; Commander Le Creuset makes sure we know about potential adversaries. She’s from a military family, right?”

“That’s right,” Cagalli confirmed. She sobered. “She was the one who made that broadcast after the advance force was destroyed. The one about Lacus Clyne.”

He clenched his fists. “So, she’s the one who-” He could not finish.

“Who took Lacus hostage,” Cagalli said with a nod. “Alex was angrier than I’d seen him up to then. He went so far as to pull a gun on her.”

“I believe that” Athrun conceded. “I’ve met Strassmeier before, and that’s exactly the sort of thing he’d do. Still, what happened to Lacus proves that Strassmeier is making a mistake!”

Cagalli shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. Badgiruel was acting on her own, and Alex is only helping the Earth Forces because it helps him. Well, and because he has friends on the Archangel,” she amended. “Anyway, once we get to Orb, we’re through with the Earth Forces. What’s wrong with that?”

How can someone so smart be so naive? Athrun wondered. “What’s wrong is that it brings the legged ship that much closer to Alaska. It’s a risk we can’t afford to take.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “If only Kira would just leave…”

“It’s not going to happen,” Cagalli said firmly. “Someone he loves is on that ship; if it’s destroyed, she’ll die.”

Athrun looked up, surprised. “Kira has a girlfriend?”

She nodded. “A girl named Flay Allster.”

“Allster? As in George Allster?”

Cagalli frowned. “She’s, his daughter. Why, is there a problem?”

Athrun hammered a fist into the ground. “George Allster was a high-ranking member of Blue Cosmos; that proves that Kira is being manipulated, and in the worst way possible! If she-“

He did not get any father. Cagalli got up, walked around the fire, and slapped him. “Don’t you dare talk about her like that! She’s the only reason Kira hasn’t lost his mind!” She glared at him. “Sure, Flay used to hate Coordinators, but she changed her mind when she Kira repeatedly risk his life to protect everyone on that ship!”

Athrun rubbed the side of his face, feeling more than a little stunned. Whoever this girl was, she was fiercely protective of Kira, in much the same way Athrun himself was. It clearly was not romantic, judging by how defensive she was about Kira’s girlfriend.

“I’m not surprised her father was a member of Blue Cosmos,” Cagalli went on. “When we met up with the advance force, he was really angry when he found out we had Coordinators with us.” She waved a hand. “But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Flay is not like that, and she loves Kira more than anything. He’s all she has left.”

The ZAFT pilot sighed. “Maybe we should drop the subject, or we’ll probably kill each other.”

“Yeah.” She dropped to the cave floor again, stifling a yawn. “Look, I really don’t think you’re a bad guy. You and Kira are best friends; that must mean something. I just think you’re too blind to see what’s really going on.”

Athrun shrugged. It did not matter, anyway. Their respective comrades would find them soon enough, and then they would be on their way back to civilization. In the meantime, he really needed to get some rest. We will see what happens later.

Indian Ocean, near land, 9 March, C.E. 71

Kira was deeply grateful for the Aile Striker pack. Without it, his search would have been far more difficult, since the only alternative would be to see how well the Strike could swim. In Aile mode, by contrast, he could cover a great deal of territory in a relatively short time.

Now if only I could find something, he thought, then glanced down as his display beeped at him. Huh? A distress call. He adjusted the gain, and a grin spread across his face. It is Cagalli! I have found her! Twisting the Strike around, he soared toward a nearby island. Hang on, Cagalli.

Deserted island

Athrun was not sure at first what had awakened him, but then the beep repeated, and he recognized it. It was the Aegis’s comm unit. Jumping to his feet, he ran to the mobile suit, leaping lightly into the kneeling machine’s cockpit. “This is Athrun Zala.”

“Great to hear you, Athrun,” Nicol said. “I’m on my way in.” A pause. “The Strike is on its way, too.”

“Don’t worry about it; Kira won’t be here for you or me.” Athrun smiled ruefully, though his friend could not see it. “I’m not the only one stuck here.”

“Roger that.”

Athrun dropped to the ground just in time to see Cagalli coming toward him. “That was my teammate, Nicol. He’s coming to pick me up.” He nodded in the general direction of her crashed Skygrasper. “He also says the Strike is on its way in. Kira will probably head for your fighter, so you’d better get going.”

She smiled and waved. “Got it. See you.” She took off at a run, glancing briefly over her shoulder. “Maybe we’ll meet again, someplace that isn’t a war zone.”

Athrun shook his head. That girl was a strange one, no doubt about it. She shot his transport out of the sky, and then when they met face to face, had offered to cooperate so they could both get out alive. To top it off, she had turned out to be a close friend of Kira Yamato.

An Agile-class attack helicopter landed nearby, and Nicol Amalfi hopped out. “We’ve got a transport coming to retrieve the Aegis. Ready to go?”

“Yeah, I’m ready.” Pushing his thoughts aside, Athrun climbed into the chopper’s rear seat. “Thanks, Nicol.”

“No problem.” Nicol looked over his shoulder as they took off. “Say, you said you weren’t the only one there. Who else was stuck?”

“Hmm?” Athrun had been lost in thought again. “Oh, yeah. It was the person who attacked my transport. Turns out she’s a friend of Kira’s.”

Nicol nodded. That explained why Athrun was still alive. “She Earth Forces?”

“No, she’s a civilian.” Athrun shrugged. “Actually, she’s been traveling on the black ship. Anyway, it does not really matter. We need to get back to base before something else goes wrong.”

Cagalli skidded to a stop in front of her fighter, gasping for breath, then looked skyward. Soon enough, she spotted the unmistakable shape of the Strike in Aile mode. “The Strike!” she shouted, waving frantically. “Kira!”

It was unclear at first if Kira noticed, and then the Strike began to descend, its heavy-duty thrusters scattering loose debris for a hundred meters in every direction. It landed and knelt, the hatch in its torso opening. Cagalli immediately jumped in, giving Kira a brief but fierce hug.

Kira hugged her back, a little startled by her enthusiasm. “I’m so glad you’re safe. Everyone was worried.”

She moved to the side, out of his way. “Sorry. That one hit took out my nav gear, and then I ran into a ZAFT transport.” She paused. “It was carrying the Aegis.”

Kira stiffened. “Did you meet…Athrun?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry, he’s fine.” Cagalli squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. “We agreed that trying to kill each other made no sense, so we cooperated until someone came for us.”

“Did anything happen?”

She shook her head. “We argued some, but nothing worse than that.”

“Good.” Kira heaved a sigh of relief.

Archangel, hangar deck

A large reception awaited them on their return. Murrue and her niece were both there, along with Mu and all of Kira’s classmates. Ledonir Kisaka and Alex Strassmeier stood with the two captains, the former looking relieved, the latter expressionless as usual.

Or is he? Cagalli had learned to read Alex to a certain extent, and to her he looked like he had just been hit by a truck.

Murrue stepped forward, a broad smile on her face. “Cagalli, thank goodness you’re safe.”

The princess grinned. “It’s good to be back.” She nodded to Kira’s friends, then moved over to Alex and Kisaka. “Sorry I worried you.”

“As long as you made it back safely,” Kisaka said. “I’d hate to have to explain things to your father.”

That was an understatement. The only thing worse than having to explain to Uzumi Nara Athha that something bad had happened to his daughter was to be the person who made it happen in the first place. He was not called the “Lion of Orb” for nothing.

Alex said nothing, but the look in his cold blue eyes spoke volumes to someone who knew what to look for. Cagalli was one of the few who did, but she was not sure what to make of it. Relief, certainly, and perhaps something more? She was not sure.

Though she did not know it, she would find out soon enough.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters, 10 March, C.E. 71

Alex sprawled on his bunk, his thoughts in turmoil. It had been less than a day since Kira had rescued Cagalli from that island, and his reaction still surprised him. His worry over her disappearance was natural, as they had become close friends, but seeing her safe had affected him in ways he had not thought possible.

The young Coordinator sighed. He had not been that upset over someone going missing since his sister’s abduction three years before. Cagalli’s appearance on the hangar deck had jolted him, and he had been forced to reexamine his own feelings for the first time in years.

The hatch slid open, and Cagalli herself stepped through. “Hi, Alex.” She blinked at his expression; it was the same one he had had when Kira brought her back. What is with him? “You, okay?”

He swung his legs off the bunk. “Sorry. Yeah, I am fine. The last couple of days have been a little rough, that’s all.” He shook his head. “Stupid thing to say. You’re the one who’s had it rough.”

Cagalli laughed softly. “It wasn’t that bad. Athrun and I got along. Maybe it’s because we’re both friends with Kira.”

“Perhaps.” Alex shrugged, then seemed to come to a decision. Standing, he reached into his cabinet and drew out what looked like some sort of jewelry.

Cagalli watched curiously. She knew at once that the necklace (at least that is what she thought it was) was an heirloom; Alex did not normally collect that sort of thing. “What’s that?”

He held it up. It was indeed a necklace, a gold chain, with a spherical gem of the same shade of blue as his eyes. “This belonged to my mother, originally.” His eyes closed. “My father paid for college by working as a miner, up in orbit. During that he found a gem, this gem.” He smiled almost wistfully. “Fittingly, it came from the resource satellite that would later become the space fortress known as Jachin Due.” He opened his eyes and met her gaze. “He gave it to my mother when they started dating. She originally intended that my sister have it, but Andrea refused. She’s almost as big a tomboy as you are, and that sort of thing didn’t interest her.”

Cagalli chuckled. She remembered that much about Andrea Strassmeier. “So, you wound up with it instead.”

“Mom told me to give it to the person I thought would wear it best.” He visibly braced himself, then, to Cagalli’s astonishment, held it out to her. “And that would be you.”

Her eyes widened. It took almost a minute before she trusted herself to speak. “Me? But…why?”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “It’s not because you’re a princess; I know perfectly well how you’d react to that. No, it is just…I cannot think of anyone else. For that matter, I’m not sure I’d want to.”

Cagalli accepted it, wondering just what he was getting at. “Thank you.” Something this important, why? Then it clicked. Is he saying what it sounds like? Is that why he looked so relieved to see me yesterday? “Alex?” she said, giving him a suspicious (but not hostile) look.

Alex looked away briefly. “You’re not making this easy, are you?” He blushed at the smirk she gave him. “All right. It took what happened over the past two days to get it through my thick skull, but…I… I love you.” He looked at her challengingly. “There. Are you satisfied?”

The smirk became a genuine smile. “Definitely.” Before Alex could respond, Cagalli stepped forward, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him firmly on the lips. His eyes went wide for a moment at her unexpected reaction, and then slowly closed as he held on tight.

She pulled back, not extremely far. “So, do I need my head examined?”

Alex groaned, though his heart was not in it. “Who told you that one?”

Cagalli laughed. “Kyle told Kira and the others, and Kira told me.”

“Figures.” He shook his head ruefully, then smiled. “I guess I was wrong. Anyone who calls you crazy has no sense of self-preservation.”

“Good.” She kissed him again, then rested her head on his shoulder.

“It’s about time!”

They started to pull apart, then relaxed when they saw who had spoken. Kira Yamato stood in the doorway, with Flay Allster on his arm.

The only people who are not going to embarrass us. “How long have you been there?” Alex asked.

“Long enough,” Kira said with a grin.

Flay punched Alex’s arm. “You two have been dancing around about it since we left Heliopolis. It’s about time that stopped.”

“Yeah, sure.” Cagalli snorted. “And it was the day after; before that, I thought Alex was a ZAFT spy.”

“Because his aunts on the Supreme Council, and his cousins with the Le Creuset team,” Kira agreed. He nudged his girlfriend. “Come on, let’s leave them alone a while longer.”


Cagalli watched them go. “Those two…” She shook her head fondly.

“Yeah.” Alex smiled, and drew her close.

Soon enough, they would reach Orb, though there would be more battles on the way. But for now, all was at peace.