Chapter 10: Endless Sands

Skies over the Libyan desert, 14 February, C.E. 71

Time to see if these reentry cocoons work as advertised, Alex thought grimly.

While it had the same purpose as the ablative gel that some warships had, the reentry cocoon worked differently. Instead of a fluid that burned off, it covered the mobile suit in a semisolid sheath which was shed upon landing. The cocoon left the optics uncovered, allowing the machine’s pilot to see what he was doing. So far, it was working.

The Strike, lacking such a cocoon, was not so fortunate. Alex had tried to contact Kira several times in the past few minutes, but he had not gotten a response.

This is not good. Alex keyed his comm. “Archangel, I can’t reach Kira. Have you had any luck?”

Mir’s face appeared on his screen. “No good, Alex. He’s not answering.” She looked away briefly. “Since the Strike can’t get to us, we’re going to get him.”

“That means you’ll miss your descent point.”

“We know,” Murrue put in, “but we have no choice. We cannot afford to lose the Strike.”

Alex wanted to disagree, but he knew they were right. “Understood. There’s nothing more I can do at this point, so I’ll head back to my ship.”

“Understood. Be careful.”

Even as he guided his machine back to the Valkyrie, Alex kept an eye on the Strike. Though he was not responding to his friends’ attempts to communicate, Kira was clearly conscious enough to maneuver his mobile suit. As the Archangel moved to catch him, Kira flipped the Strike end-for-end, bringing his shield into position, and landed on the ship’s forward deck.

He will be all right. Knowing that his people could not open the catapults, Alex mirrored Kira’s maneuvers, landing on his own ship’s deck.

Archangel, Murrue’s office

“This is Alaska,” Mu La Flaga said, pointing at a blue area on the wall map. “And this is where we are: right smack in the middle of ZAFT-controlled territory. We couldn’t have picked a worse place to land.”

Murrue sighed. “We didn’t have much choice. If had not done it, we would have lost the Strike, and that was something we couldn’t afford.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “Do we know who the local ZAFT commander is?”

Mu grimaced. “Alex tells me that Andrew Waltfeld is in charge.”

The captain winced. “From what I’ve heard, Waltfeld is to land combat what Le Creuset is to space.”

“That’s about right,” Mu agreed. “Alex met him once, about a year ago. Apparently, he is a decent guy, unlike Le Creuset.” He grimaced again. “Not that it’ll help us much; we are a warship, after all.” Sighing, he sat across from Murre. “So, is everything all right?”

She nodded. “Kira’s in the Infirmary; the heat got to him, apparently.”

“Good to hear, but I was talking about the deputy commander.”

Murrue knew exactly what he was talking about: her exchange with Natarle Badgiruel just before the Strike and Zero launched. “Everything’s all right.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Mu stood and headed for the door. “I’m going to go check on Kira, then get some sleep.” He turned back and wagged his finger. “You should get some shuteye, too; a commanding officer mustn’t let herself get burned out, not good.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex leaned back in his chair, stifling a groan. He and his friends had made it down safely, and reports from the Archangel suggested that Kira would be fine. Plus, Mu La Flaga would be back in action once Murdoch’s people got the pair of FX-550 Skygraspers they had received from Eighth Fleet up and running.

All that was fine, but there was some bad to go with the good. They had landed in a desert, which only Brian Kilgore was happy about. Only two of their machines, Brian’s desert-adapted Scorpion and Alex’s flight-capable Stormbird, were ready for action. And, to top it off, the desert they had landed in was at the center of Andrew Waltfeld’s sphere of operation.

Besides which, Alex was plain tired.

“All right,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t see what else we can do tonight. Kira almost died of heatstroke, so the Strike is out of action for the time being. As for us, until we can rework the other machines’ OS’s, all we have are the Stormbird and the Scorpion.”

“You’re right,” Lia agreed, decidedly unhappy. “It shouldn’t take more than a couple of days to get the other three machines operable again.”

“We may not have a couple of days,” Alex said sourly. “We’re up against the Desert Tiger, people. You think Rau Le Creuset was bad, Waltfeld’s worse. Trust me; I have met him, and I can tell you that he is every bit as ruthless as old metal mask. The only difference is that he tries to minimize collateral damage.”

Cagalli grimaced. “That’s not going to help us much. One of Orb’s top ground forces officers, Colonel Ledonir Kisaka -he often acts as my bodyguard- was born not too far from here. His hometown of Tassil and the city of Banadiya are the only settlements within a hundred kilometers.”

Kyle Perry snorted. “You have a gift for understatement, Cagalli. We are not going to pull the sort of stunt Ensign -excuse me, Lieutenant- Badgiruel did with Lacus Clyne and use civilians as a shield. I don’t see what-” He paused suddenly with an arrested expression, then turned to Cagalli. “Aren’t there a couple of resistance groups out here?”

She straightened, seeing immediately where he was going and chagrined that she had not thought of it. “There’s at least one, the Desert Dawn. The leader, Sahib Ashman, is an old friend of my family.”

“That could be helpful.” Alex rubbed his eyes again. “Anything else?” General headshakes. “Then I guess we’re finished for now.”

Lia and Kyle got up to leave, exchanging knowing smiles when the princess remained where she was. Cagalli noticed but ignored them; she did not care what they thought. She had had few enough friends, given her upbringing, and Alex’s attitude was a breath of fresh air. He and Kira always treated her like a normal person instead of some stuck-up princess.

Alex seldom remembered that she was a princess. Not that he ever forgot, exactly, it simply was not at the forefront of his attention. When he looked at her, he saw a friend, not an Orb noble or an officer (despite her youth, Cagalli held the rank of commodore in the Orb forces).

“How are you feeling?” Cagalli asked suddenly, breaking into his thoughts.

He tried to give her a sardonic look, but somehow could not manage it. “Aside from being more exhausted than I’ve been in three years, fine.” He stood and retrieved a large thermos from his cabinet. “That battle was a far cry from our previous engagements,” Alex went on, pouring two cups of coffee and handing one to her. “I knew Le Creuset would be out for blood, so I wasn’t surprised.”

Cagalli sipped appreciatively. While not much of a coffee drinker, she had not been able to completely avoid it, as most military forces, Orb’s included, seemed to run almost exclusively on caffeine. “Your cousin’s injuries must not have been too bad, since the Duel was right in the thick of it.”

Alex snorted. “Never underestimate Yzak’s stubbornness,” he advised her. “I established visual communications with him twice during the battle, and I got a good look at him. He had bandages over a good chunk of his face; if I had to guess, I would say Kira’s attack made something in the Duel’s cockpit explode, probably an instrument panel. Whatever it was, it shattered Yzak’s faceplate, gashing his face pretty bad.”

She winced. “No wonder he was yelling.”

“It also means he’s going to be going all out on the Strike from now on,” Alex said darkly. “Yzak’s nowhere near as vindictive as Bartlett, but Kira humiliated him in that fight. That is something he can’t live with.” He shook his head. “I pray that doesn’t get him killed.”

Cagalli stared at him. “Are you saying-“

“I’m not suggesting Kira would kill him,” Alex said, waving his hand. “No, what worries me is his temper. Yzak’s good at what he does -he does not wear the red uniform for nothing- but he tends to let his emotions run wild. That could all too easily make him do something very stupid.”

She saw his point. Strong emotion of any kind was a weakness in combat.

“In any case, it’s not going to matter for a while yet,” Alex said. “Judging by the trajectories, he and Dearka Elsman landed at or near Gibraltar, and I don’t see them letting him out until his wounds have healed.”

“Unless he does the same thing he did before the last battle,” Cagalli said.

Alex shook his head. “Unlikely. Rau Le Creuset tends to be permissive with his subordinates; recall that he gave Athrun permission to try to get Kira to defect. The command staff at Gibraltar won’t be so easy to deal with, and they’ve got better medical facilities than a warship could possibly have.”

There was no denying that. Cagalli did not know all that much about ZAFT, but she had a hard time believing that there were very many doctors in their forces who would permit a repeat of Yzak’s last action. Even Coordinators, with their greater resiliency, had their limits, and Yzak Joule had very nearly exceeded them.

Of course, talk of medical facilities reminded Cagalli of her other favorite Coordinator. “How’s Kira doing?”

Alex shrugged. “Not too bad, considering what he just went through. He is unconscious with a high fever, courtesy of reentry conditions. Our ship’s doctor is over there right now, and he assures me that Kira is in no danger.” His lip twisted wryly. “Frankly, I’m amazed he was allowed in. Flay’s watching Kira like a hawk.”

Cagalli chuckled. “You think they’re together?”

Her friend snorted gently. “She had a fairly explosive breakup with Sai a couple of days ago, she’s changed her mind about Coordinators, and Kira’s been interested in her for the past year. I can’t think of any other reason for her to be watching him that closely.” He stood and moved to the window, gazing out at the Valkyrie’s almost-sister ship. “He needs someone like that.”

The princess agreed. She herself had no interest in Kira beyond friendship and Flay had always struck her as a nice girl, so it fit. “I’m gonna go check on him. If Flay will let me,” she added slyly.

Alex laughed softly. “Oh, she’ll let you. She knows perfectly well that you’re not interested in Kira in that way.” He returned to his desk and punched up a file on the terminal. “Go see Kira; I can hold the fort here.”

Seeing the look of intense concentration on his face, Cagalli did not bother saying goodbye. She stood and headed for the door, glancing at the picture of Alex’s family on the way out. Fourteen-year-old Alex stood near the center, one arm around his sister, Andrea. Yzak Joule stood on Alex’s other side, his broad grin a marked contrast to the attitude he had displayed since Heliopolis.

Cagalli shook her head. Now they are on opposite sides in a war. Suppressing a sigh, she stepped into the corridor, sealing the hatch behind her.

Archangel, infirmary

Even though there was only one patient, the infirmary was more crowded than usual. Kira’s classmates, worried after the events of reentry, had all come to check on him. Flay and Mir stood at his bedside, while Sai, Kuzzey, and Tolle gathered around the ship’s doctor.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” he was saying. “Your friend is in no danger at this point.”

“So, he’ll be okay?” Tolle pressed.

The doctor shrugged. “If he survived reentry, then I don’t see this fever getting him. Did you hear what sort of temperature extremes he was exposed to in that cockpit?”

“We hadn’t,” Sai said, puzzled.

“Well, I can assure you none of us would have survived it,” the doctor responded. “This fever is nothing compared to that.”

Vincent Lockwood, the doctor from Valkyrie, agreed. “We Coordinators are extremely resilient,” he said, checking the IV tube in Kira’s right arm. “For example, we don’t catch fatal infections; our immune systems are too powerful. We have greater physical strength and can absorb more punishment in a fight.” His lip twisted. “Some say that we can acquire more knowledge, as well. I’ve never believed it, personally; since we humans, Natural or Coordinator, use so little of our mental capacity, I don’t believe that there’s any way to tell.”

“I heard you’ve been trying to find a way to give Naturals Coordinator abilities,” Kuzzey commented.

Lockwood nodded. “Some people -notably Patrick Zala- claim that it’s impossible. Obviously, I do not buy that. Genetic engineering continues to advance.”

“But why are you doing it?” Mir asked. “And what about the Torino Protocol?”

Lockwood shrugged. “You might say I’m trying to level the playing field. Aside from psychopaths like Blue Cosmos, the Natural side of the genetics issue is based on a combination of jealousy and fear. Remove that, and you’ve just got the lunatics who wouldn’t be taken seriously at all were it not for their violent antics.”

“As for the Torino Protocol…” He snorted. “That was a dead letter from its inception. With something like genetic engineering technology, there is no way to keep it contained. It will spread and grow more sophisticated. The only thing you can do is make whatever use of it you can.”

Flay barely even heard. She was focused on the unconscious Coordinator on the bed before her. Kira’s temperature was still far higher than it should have been, though it was coming down, albeit too slowly for Flay’s comfort.

Of course, there might well have been more to the fever than just reentry heat. Judging by the way he was tossing and turning on the bed, Kira was in the grip of some nightmare.

Flay gently wiped the sweat from his forehead. If someone had told her just a month ago that she would fall in love with a Coordinator, she would have laughed (or slapped the speaker). Yet it had happened, and there was nothing Flay could do about it, even if she wanted to, which she did not.

Kira, hang in there, okay? I will be here, no matter what.

“How is he?”

Flay glanced up. It was the Orb princess, Cagalli. “His fever is coming down,” she said, suppressing a twinge of jealousy. She knew it was stupid; Kira and Cagalli were close, but everyone on both ships knew that it was more of a brother-sister relationship.

Besides, anyone with a brain can tell she is interested in Alex, even if neither of them realizes it.

Cagalli sat on a nearby stool. “You really care for him, don’t you.”? It was not a question.

Flay nodded. “Yeah.” She sighed. “I was engaged to Sai, but that was because of my father…”

Cagalli smiled wryly. “I know what you mean.” When the redhead gave her a surprised look, she chuckled. “I was briefly engaged to Yuuna Roma Seiran. My father broke it off when it became obvious that I hated the guy.”

“Oh. Him.” Flay shuddered.

Cagalli raised her eyebrows. “You’ve met him?”

“No, but I heard my father talk about his family. He said they’re all lowlifes.”

“That’s about right,” Cagalli agreed. “I remember the party where I first met Alex and his sister. Yuuna was there, and Alex didn’t enjoy the experience.”

Flay chuckled appreciatively. “I’ll bet Yuuna didn’t either.”

The princess shrugged. “As far as I could tell, Alex didn’t say a word; you know what he’s like. Andrea actually tried talking to Yuuna; when I asked her about it, she said the conversation made her feel like she was scuba diving in a septic tank.”

The image was disgusting, but appropriate. She did not dwell on it for long, though. “I never thought I’d fall for a Coordinator,” Flay said softly, gently stroking the pilot’s face. “My father told me they were monsters, that their existence went against what nature intended.”

“Did your father know any Coordinators?”

Flay shrugged. “I don’t know. Kira’s the first one I’ve really gotten to know; yeah, I knew about Alex first, but he’s kind of hard to figure out.” She touched Kira’s face again. “I realize now that not all Coordinators are evil. Sure, there’s Rau Le Creuset and Patrick Zala, but there’s also people like Kira and Alex, and the Captain’s niece.”

“Yeah.” Cagalli nodded. “I’ve never cared what someone’s genes look like.” She stood. “I’d better get back to the Valkyrie. Let me know when he wakes up, okay?”

Flay waved, not taking her eyes off Kira. “You got it.”

Vesalius, pilots’ ready room

The view of the hangar had changed. Vesalius had started the battle with the Aegis and four GINNs; now only the Aegis remained, the GINNs having fallen to the Valkyrie’s Gundams. With the destruction of the Gamow, Nicol had been forced to land his Blitz on the Vesalius.

Athrun sighed. There should have been one more, Kira Yamato’s Strike Gundam. Kira was a Coordinator; he should not have been fighting for the Earth Forces. And he had clearly joined the enemy for real now; there was no other reason for him to have been flying in the last fight.

He clenched his fists. Kira, why? Don’t you realize this means I have to kill you?

The hatch slid open. “Ah, so there you are,” Nicol said, coming to a stop next to Athrun. “I’ve got some good news,” he went on, smiling. “Yzak and Dearka landed on Earth safely.”

Athrun blew out a breath. “Good. At least something went right.”

“Yeah,” Nicol agreed. “No ETA on their return, though. From what I have been told, they’re going to be staying at Gibraltar for a while.”

“At least they’re safe.” Athrun raised an eyebrow at his friend. “Yzak’s wounded; it’s not still a problem for him, is it?”

Nicol shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry too much. Remember, even in the last round he was able to put up a good fight.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Athrun fell silent.

Nicol looked at his friend in concern. “You okay?” No response. “Athrun?”

The blue-haired pilot shook himself. “Huh? Yeah, I guess so.” He sighed. “I was thinking about Kira.”

Nicol nodded in understanding. Of all the surprises to come out of the Heliopolis operation, the biggest was that Athrun and Yzak both had close connections to the enemy. Alex Strassmeier was by far the more surprising of the two, since he was Yzak’s cousin and a well-known PLANT loyalist.

Kira, an Orb citizen, was more understandable. His only connection to the PLANTs was his friendship with Athrun, and the people he was trying to protect were also from Orb (aside from Flay Allster, who was unknown to ZAFT). After speaking briefly with him during the Artemis battle, Nicol was inclined to agree that Kira was an innocent dupe.

Not that I am going to kill him if I can help it. Any friend of Athrun’s is a friend of mine. “It must be hard,” Nicol said.

“Kira’s a Coordinator; why would he be fighting for the Earth Forces?” Athrun said, half to himself. “He must have officially joined up; he wouldn’t have been out there otherwise.”

“Maybe his friends decided to stay on, too,” Nicol suggested. He laid a hand on Athrun’s shoulder. “Hey, nobody’s saying you have to kill him. He’ll come around sooner or later.” A shrug. “Maybe his friends will, too.”

Athrun did not answer right away. “Maybe you’re right,” he said at last. “I’ve met Kira’s parents, you know. They don’t care what someone’s genes look like.”

“Why’d they make Kira a Coordinator?”

Athrun shrugged. “He’s never said. Actually, I don’t think he knows.” He closed his eyes briefly. “The only way I can see him or his friends coming over to us is if Orb declares for the PLANTs, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Nicol looked at him curiously. “Who’s that?”

Athrun grimaced. “Much as I hate to admit it, Strassmeier has a point. I do not think that my father wants to exterminate the Naturals, but that does not mean he likes them. And” he went on reluctantly, “he does not care if a Natural is connected to the Earth Forces or not. He hates them all.”

All too true, unfortunately. Zala might not have openly called for genocide, but that did not mean he pretended to like Naturals.

“Any idea what the recall order is for?” Nicol asked, changing the subject.

Athrun frowned. “I think it has something to do with some new operation. And since Commander Le Creuset is the best, we have right now…”

Nicol brightened. “That makes sense. I’ll go see how they’re doing with the Blitz; got to be ready.” He pushed off, “swimming” toward the hatch.

The Aegis’ pilot remained behind, once again absorbed in his own thoughts.

Valkyrie, exercise area

Some people, knowing that a warship did not have mass to waste, wondered why such a vessel would have a well-equipped gymnasium. The answer was simple: even though they were not expected to engage in close combat, naval officers and crew still needed to stay in shape. Besides, there was always the possibility that they would have to repel boarders.

I will bet Alex designed this part of the ship personally, Cagalli thought. You can see his obsession with efficiency all over it. It was not the largest gym she had ever been in, but it was better arranged than most. An exercise mat dominated the center of the floor. Weightlifting equipment was visible in one corner, with a couple of treadmills opposite them. All of it was, of course, useless in null-grav environments.

Naturally, the place was in use. Alex made a point of exercising regularly, and today was no exception. He had removed his boots and jacket, leaving him in black pants and a t-shirt. He was not particularly bulky (Alex despised the bodybuilder look) rather, he had more of a wiry look; still muscular but kept in check.

Catching sight of Cagalli, Alex stopped in the center of the mat. “What brings you here?”

“I was looking for you,” she said. “Thought you’d like to know that Kira’s doing okay.”

His expression did not change much -it seldom did- but Cagalli knew him well enough to spot his relief. “That’s good. I didn’t think he was likely to suffer any permanent harm, but you never know.”

Cagalli abruptly noticed that Alex was sweating. He must have been at this for a while. “You’re obsessed, you know that?” she said, gesturing to the room at large.

He shrugged. “I had to make sure I hadn’t lost anything in the past three weeks; it’s hard to practice martial arts in a null-grav environment.” He looked at her speculatively. “If you’ve had military training, I’ll bet it included hand-to-hand work.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yeah, why?”

Alex flexed his prosthetic arm. “Up for a bout? A kata is not the same as taking on a live opponent. Besides, I want to see just how good you are.”

Cagalli stepped onto the mat and slid into a half-crouch. “You’re on.” Without another word, she lunged at him, aiming a low sweep kick at his legs. (Dramatic though a kick to the head might have been, Cagalli knew as well as anyone that it would be a foolish move. It would be far too easy to grab her leg, thus turning the tables.)

Alex jumped over her leg, then slid forward, chopping his left hand at her right elbow. Cagalli, displaying incredibly fast reflexes for a Natural, dodged to her left, grabbed his arm at his wrist, and swept with her left foot, slamming his ankles together and dropping him to the mat.

He picked himself up. “You’re good,” he said, breathing heavily. “Better than anyone I’ve faced since Bartlett.”

Cagalli felt her eyes widen at the look on his face: he was grinning. Not the thin smile she had grown used to in the past three weeks, but a huge, genuine grin. It was as if all the trials he had gone through since 68 had not happened. She was seeing him the way Lia Ramius and Yzak Joule had before the Mandelbrot Incident.

“It’s been a while since I had this much fun,” Alex went on. “But it’s not over yet!” He spun around, aiming a kick at her stomach.

The princess, however, had not run out of tricks. She let the blow connect, then grabbed his ankle as she fell. He went down with a startled sounding yelp, landing flat on his back.

He slowly sat up. “I think that’s enough.” He pushed himself to his feet, then held out a hand. “Thanks. I needed that.”

Normally Cagalli would have ignored such a gesture, but not now. “You needed someone to try to beat you up?” she said dryly.

“I needed a release for my frustration that didn’t involve killing people,” he replied. “I hope you didn’t mind providing it.”

She grinned. “Don’t worry about it; it was fun.”

Alex toweled off his sweat-damp hair. “I guess you don’t often have a chance to just let go back home.”

“Not really,” Cagalli agreed with a grimace. “I’m actually glad I wound up here instead of in an escape pod. It’s been a while since a could just be myself.”

He snorted. “I can imagine; we don’t have nobility per se in the PLANTs, but the Supreme Council is the next best thing.”

“Hey, guys,” a new voice said.

The two looked at the hatch. Mu La Flaga stood watching them, an odd look on his face.

I am not sure I want to know what he is thinking. “Hello, Mu,” Alex said. “Something up?”

Mu nodded. “Captain Ramius wanted me to come fetches you; something about picking your brain.”

The Coordinator shook his head in resignation. “Sure, though I’m not sure how much use it’ll be. I have not been on-planet in four years, and all my previous trips have been to Orb. I don’t know squat about deserts,” he added with an air of distaste. “Sure, I met Andrew Waltfeld. Once.”

Mu did not reply. He liked Alex; the kid was just the sort of fan he wanted: someone who appreciated his skills, but without the sycophantic hero worship he encountered all too often in Earth Forces rookies. It helped that Alex was a skilled pilot in his own right; from what Mu had seen, there were not many pilots in ZAFT who could take him.

Alex sighed. “Lead on, Mu.”

Archangel, infirmary


Kira Yamato groaned softly, stirring on the bed. Where am I? He groaned again, forcing his eyes open. His first sight was a welcome one, a red-haired figure in a pink uniform. Flay. “Flay…where am I?”

She leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “You’re in the infirmary, Kira. We’ve landed on Earth safely.”

He sighed in relief. “That’s good to hear. Where did we land? And what about the Valkyrie?”

“We’re in the African Community, in the desert. And the Valkyrie is fine, too.” Flay giggled suddenly. “Alex and Cagalli tried to beat each other senseless a few minutes ago.”

Kira managed a weak chuckle. “Yeah, I can see that.” He tried to sit up and winced. Not a good idea. “Flay, what happened? The last thing I remember is the Duel aiming at the refugees’ shuttle…”

She caressed his cheek. “The refugees are safe; I heard Alex destroyed the Duel’s rifle before his cousin could fire.”

He sighed with relief. “Thanks. I… don’t think I could bear it if they were killed.” Flay handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down gratefully. “What about the ZAFT forces? Did any of them catch up?”

Mir appeared behind Flay. “The Duel and the Buster were forced into reentry, but they’re nowhere near us. The Valkyrie’s people projected their landing point as at or near the Gibraltar base.”

In other words, they were not in range to attack the Archangel, but they were still too close for comfort. Gibraltar was second only to Carpentaria as the most heavily defended ZAFT base on Earth. It had massive, fixed defenses, augmented with mobile suits. It was confirmed that Gibraltar Base had the airborne AMF-101 DINN, the underwater UMF-4A GhOON, and the land-based TMF/A-802 BuCUE.

That was bad enough, but there were rumors of more powerful units, the new UMF-5 ZnO, and the even newer TMF/A-803 LaGOWE. The LaGOWE was cause for concern, both because it was optimized for desert warfare, and because it was thought to be based on Andrew Waltfeld’s custom BuCUE.

“That’s enough for now,” Flay said, gently pushing Kira down onto the bed. “You need to rest.”

He did not resist. The Archangel and the Valkyrie had landed safely, albeit far from their original destination, the refugees were safe, and he was with the girl he had loved since the day they met. As far as Kira was concerned, for now, everything was fine.

Flay smiled. “You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

Gibraltar Base

This just gets better and better. First, I am humiliated by some rookie from Orb, then my own cousin stops me from taking out a bunch of Earth Forces troops.

Yzak snorted bitterly. The pain in his face was gone, but not the pain in his heart. He had been defeated by someone not even trained in warfare, and then his own cousin had stopped him from getting his revenge. He was not sure which was worse.

Alex, why in blazes did you stop me from taking out that troop transport? They had nothing to do with the legged ship, so why did you care?

He shook his head. Trying to puzzle out his cousin’s motives was pointless right now. He could do that later once they had taken out the legged ship. For now, much as Yzak hated to admit it, he had to rest and recover. He was no good to anyone injured.

Suddenly, he could not take it anymore. Standing, he reached up and tore the bandages off his face, then faced the mirror. The reflection had not changed much since he had last looked, back on the now-destroyed Gamow. There was only one difference: a wicked scar, running from his forehead down the right side of his face, ending under the corner of his eye.

Yzak felt his cheeks burn. Losing to a rookie was humiliating enough; the scar merely compounded it. “You’re going down, Yamato,” he snarled. “On my honor, I swear I’ll bring you down.”

Archangel, Murrue’s office

Alex followed Mu into the office, wishing vaguely that he were elsewhere. “You wanted to see me?”

Murrue nodded. “With your connections, you know more about ZAFT than we do. I thought I’d pick your brain.”

He snorted. “I’ll do what I can, but that won’t be much. Like I told Mu, I don’t know squat about deserts.”

“But you do know Andrew Waltfeld,” the newly promoted Lieutenant Badgiruel put in.

Alex gave her a cool look. “I met him once, just after that martial arts tournament,” he reminded her, then turned to Murrue. “What is it you want to know?”

“What can we expect from here on?” Badgiruel asked bluntly.

He regarded the XO through narrowed eyes. Now I see. You think I am intelligence gold mine. “How should I know?”

“You’re Ezalia Joule’s nephew,” she said. “You moved in the highest circles in the PLANTs.”

“Which means exactly nothing,” Alex shot back. “You’re assuming that nepotism is rampant in the homeland. Well, let me tell you: nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, all four of Le Creuset’s Gundam pilots are the offspring of Supreme Council members, but they do not owe their positions to that. He accepts only the best, and Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Athrun Zala all wear the red uniform. I think even you know what that means.”

Murrue decided that it was time to intervene before someone (most likely Badgiruel) exploded. “What can you tell us, then?”

With a not-quite-visible effort, Alex reigned in his temper. “For the most part, things you almost certainly already know. We are faced with a man who is very nearly Le Creuset’s equal, even if he isn’t quite as ruthless.” He traced a line on the map. “We dare not go north, lest we come within range of Gibraltar…”

For the next hour, the three officers discussed their strategy, Alex tossing in an occasional comment. More and more, he was wishing he were back on his own ship, or at least with Kira and company, people who understood him.

“One more thing,” Badgiruel said, breaking into his thoughts. “Why are you still with us? I understood that you would be heading directly for Orb.”

Alex did not even look at her. “That was the plan, but our schedule was altered when we learned you would be shorthanded. Since we have friends on this ship, we decided to accompany you as long as our courses coincided.” He tapped the map. “Your best course to Alaska would take you past Orb.”

“Convenient,” was all the XO said.

Alex gave one of his minimalist shrugs. “It was also a favor for Admiral Halberton. He’s the one noble wolf in that pack of hyenas.”

Badgiruel bristled. “And what about your Supreme Council?” she demanded. “The same people who scattered the Neutron-jammers all over the planet, causing an energy crisis and widespread famine. The same people who attacked Heliopolis, resulting in its collapse.”

Slowly, Alex turned to face her. “Patrick Zala is an anomaly,” he said icily. “My aunt is deluded. As for the N-jammers, they were needed to prevent a repeat of the Bloody Valentine.”

He took a step forward. “And when it comes to relative morals, let me straighten you out, Lieutenant. Chairman Clyne only wants freedom and security for the PLANTs. The Earth Forces’ high command, by contrast, is made up almost exclusively of murderous thugs the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of Adolf Hitler.”

Alex stalked to the door, then paused, turning slightly. “You should be grateful for Zala’s antics. Otherwise, I would be one of those trying to destroy you.” Then he was gone.

Badgiruel sat heavily in her chair. “What is wrong with him?”

Mu snorted. “He’s from the PLANTs, Lieutenant; did you really expect him to say nice things about the Earth Forces?”

“No, but I didn’t expect him to compare the high command to Nazis, either!”

“Then you haven’t been paying very close attention.” The Hawk of Endymion sipped from a coffee mug. “Everybody knows that Coordinators aren’t exactly welcome in our forces; we’ve been over that. Add stuff like the blockade and the Mandelbrot Incident, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.”

The lieutenant looked skeptical. “Are you saying he’ll attack us?”

“Of course not.” Mu shook his head emphatically. “His best friend is the Captain’s niece, remember. Besides, like he said, he has friends on this ship, people like Kira and Flay. He’s not going to turn against them.”

Murrue sighed. “Commander La Flaga is right. Alex won’t attack us.” She closed her eyes. “We just have to hope that extends to other Earth Forces units, as well.”

That gave the others pause. Alex Strassmeier was a man of his word; no one present doubted that. However, with his passionate hatred for the Earth Forces, there was no guarantee that other units would be safe once the two ships separated.

Even Badgiruel did not believe for an instant that Alex had anything against Naturals. He got along well with Kira’s friends, and he made no secret of his personal admiration for Mu. And, of course, everyone noticed how he got along with the Orb princess.

“We can only hope,” Murrue said at last.

No one argued with that.

Kira’s quarters

Kira set the photo on the table next to his bunk. Some nights have thought it odd, as the photo was of four young men in the red uniform of a ZAFT elite. No one on this ship so much as twitched, though, because of the connection Kira had to one of those young men.

“Which one is your friend?” Flay asked.

Kira pointed at the blue-haired figure on the far right. “That’s Athrun. He hasn’t changed much since I last saw him.”

The redhead nodded. “And the others are his teammates?”

“Right. The guy with green hair is Nicol Amalfi, pilot of the Blitz.” Kira sighed. “I actually spoke to him at Artemis. He asked me why I was fighting them; I said that I was just protecting my friends. I still am,” he added.

Flay nodded again. “That must be Alex’s cousin,” she said, looking closely at Yzak. “They look a lot alike.”

“Alex told me that both of their parents commented on that,” Kira agreed. “Their personalities aren’t the same though. You know how Alex is, cold and methodical.” Flay nodded. “Well, I can tell Yzak isn’t that way just by how he fights. The last couple of times I faced the Duel, he just went nuts. Nothing like Alex, or Athrun…” He trailed off.

Flay wrapped her arms around him. “This is hard for you, isn’t it?”

He sighed again. “We’ve been friends for so long, and now we have to fight each other. I hate it!”

She tightened her grip. “It’ll be all right,” she whispered. “You’ll see him again.”

Kira felt his tension slowly drain away. “I know. Thanks.”

“Any time.” Flay smiled and kissed him.

The Archangel and the Valkyrie had landed safely on Earth, and their people had nearly recovered from the battles in space. Even with the rough edges, they felt ready to take anything ZAFT’s ground forces could throw at them.

Hopefully, they were right, for not far away was Andrew Waltfeld, the famed Desert Tiger. Universally acknowledged as ZAFT’s best ground soldier (and famous for his obsession with coffee), he could easily be an even greater threat than Rau Le Creuset.

It remained to be seen if the two ships could tame the Tiger…