Chapter 11: Duel Over the Desert

Sahara Desert, African Community, 15 February, C.E. 71

If someone with no knowledge of the present war had happened upon the Archangel and the Valkyrie, all they would have seen were a pair of odd-looking ships, quiescent for the moment. Such an impression was deceptive; as they were in enemy territory, both ships were at a constant state of alert. They knew that they would soon come up against the best ZAFT’s ground forces had to offer.

Not that they would be alone.

As it happened, a third party had stumbled across the two warships. The Desert Dawn, the most active of the local resistance groups, had spotted them coming in. While they had no love for the Earth Forces, they had even less for ZAFT, and were now trying to decide on their next move.

“What do you make of it, Kisaka?” Sahib Ashman, the leader of the group asked.

Ledonir Kisaka, who only Ashman knew was a Colonel in the Orb Ground Forces, squinted at the ships through his binoculars. “The white one is definitely the new Earth Forces ship, the Archangel,” he said. “I don’t recognize the black ship.”

“I heard rumors about it,” a young fighter named Ahmed offered. “They say it’s an independent ship that gave the Le Creuset team fits. I hear they’ve got at least a couple of prototype mobile suits.”

Sahib turned to look at him. Ahmed was somewhat naive, but he had a knack for picking up trivia. “Did you hear anything else?”

Ahmed shrugged. “Their lead pilot is supposed to be related to someone on the Supreme Council; a renegade, I guess.”

“Probably Strassmeier,” Kisaka murmured, so quietly that only Sahib could hear. “Ezalia Joule’s nephew. He disappeared last year, just after the Bloody Valentine.”

The resistance leader frowned. “Why would he be fighting ZAFT? Joule’s a hardliner; I can’t see one of her relations turning against the PLANTs.”

“I don’t know.” The bigger man -Ledonir Kisaka was an imposing figure- shrugged. “It doesn’t matter right now. We have more immediate things to worry about.”

And you want to find your runaway princess, Sahib added mentally. Cagalli Yula Athha had vanished when Heliopolis collapsed, and there had been no news of her since. Her father was worried sick, and Kisaka, her longtime bodyguard, was not much better off.

They were interrupted by a buzz from a radio in their jeep. Ahmed picked up a handset. “Yes, what is it?”

“The Tiger has left the Lesseps,” the other said. “He’s heading toward those ships with an undetermined number of BuCUEs.”

There were muttered curses all around. None of them had any illusions of the coming fight; Andrew Waltfeld was a dangerous man. If he was planning to attack the newly arrived warships, then he clearly believed he could win.

“What do we do, Sahib?” Kisaka asked.

Sahib sighed. “It goes against the grain to help the Earth Forces, but I don’t think we have a choice. Enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.”

“So, we’re going to help the Archangel?” Ahmed asked.

Sahib nodded. “We don’t have enough firepower to fight BuCUEs directly, so we’ll lay a trap.” He waved another resistance fighter over. “Find a good spot and plant some mines. We’ll make a pit for the Tiger to fall into.”

Archangel, bridge

Natarle Badgiruel stretched out in the command chair, stifling a yawn. The night watch had only a skeleton crew due to the loss of the replacements when the advance fleet was destroyed. Now, there were only four people on the bridge: Natarle herself, Arnold Neumann, Romero Pal, and Sai Argyle. All in all, it had been very boring thus far.

Neumann abruptly provided some welcome amusement. He sipped from a cup of water, then, forgetting that they were now on Earth, absently released the cup in midair. Gravity then had its way, with predictable -and messy- results.

Natarle could not help chuckling. “Ensign Neumann, please remember that we’re under gravity now. I’d hate to have to explain to the Captain why we needed a mop on the bridge.”

The newly commissioned officer smiled sheepishly. “I’ll try, ma’am.”

“Good.” Natarle sat back, throwing a surreptitious glance around the bridge. Despite the late hour, the bridge watch performed flawlessly. That included Sai, to the surprise of some. Natarle was not among them; if nothing else, the sort of school Sai and his friends had attended before Rau Le Creuset had brought them into the war had probably prepared them for all-nighters.

Truth be told, she had taken a liking to the students, though she would never admit it. Even though, except for Flay, they had no previous connection to the Earth Forces, they had cheerfully lent their abilities to the Archangel, with remarkable results.

Especially Kira Yamato. His was a particularly difficult situation. Not only did he not have any prior connection to the Earth Forces, but volunteering had also meant he had to face his best friend in combat. Her desire to keep Kira with them aside, Natarle had nothing but sympathy for the youngster, which was why she supported the dispensation allowing him to avoid using lethal force against the Aegis.

Captain Ramius was right about one thing, she admitted to herself. I cannot imagine what Ensign Yamato must be going through.

“Lieutenant, I’m picking up several heat sources,” Pal said abruptly. “Definitely mobile suits,”

“Confirmed,” Sai said; in addition to his EW duties, he was filling in for Tonomura. “Checking profiles…TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, at least five, possibly more.”

Natarle cursed. “It must be Waltfeld; just what we need.” She punched an intercom button. “All hands, Level One Battlestations! Captain Ramius, to the bridge, on the double!” She looked up at Pal. “Get me the Valkyrie,”

“Yes, ma’am!”

Alex Strassmeier and Lia Ramius appeared on the screen side-by-side, the former already in-flight gear. “I take it you’ve picked up on our uninvited guests?” he said bluntly.

Natarle nodded. “At least five BuCUEs, possibly more. What’s your status?”

“Only two of our mobile suits are ready, Brian’s Scorpion and my Stormbird,” Alex said. “The other three aren’t ready for desert combat.” His lip twisted. “To be honest, I don’t think the others will ever really be ready; we’ll have to use them as fire support.”

“Understood. What about your ship?”

Lia consulted her board, then nodded. “We’re good to go. Like you, we cannot make high altitudes -three hundred meters, max- but everything else is fine.”

“Good,” Murrue said, stepping onto the bridge with the rest of the regulars in tow. Natarle quickly vacated the command chair. “Kira’s already in the Strike, but I don’t think we can send him out; he hasn’t fully recovered yet.”

Alex shrugged. “His recuperative powers might surprise you, but I see your point. What about Mu?”

“Chief Murdoch’s people are getting Commander La Flaga’s Skygrasper prepped now,” Mir said. “It might take some time, though; apparently they’ve run into a few bugs.”

The Coordinator nodded grimly. “I understand. We’ll do what we can.”

Skies over the desert

“No rest for the weary,” Alex muttered, fastening his restraints.

A quiet laugh sounded over the comm. “I think that’s no rest for the wicked,” Cagalli said with a smile.

“You do so much for my ego,” Alex said, shaking his head. “Anything more on the situation?”

She nodded. “We’ve got eight BuCUEs, about a dozen Agile helicopters, and six of another mobile suit type.” The princess frowned. “The catalogue is calling them TAF-2 ZuOOTs.”

Alex snorted derisively. “Ignore them; ZuOOTs are little more than heavily armed targets. The BuCUEs are the real threat.” He pressed his head firmly against the seat back. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

“Brian Kilgore, Scorpion launching!” the younger pilot echoed. Once clear, he immediately shifted to mobile armor mode and dove beneath the sand.

Alex spared him a glance, then boosted sideways, cursing as a BuCUE lunged at him. He triggered a beam shot, cursing again when he missed to the side. What is going on here? Two more shots missed, then he finally connected, blowing off a missile pod.

Okay, a partial victory. Electing to try something a little less subtle, Alex unlimbered his plasma cannon and fired directly at the ground, blasting sand everywhere and clogging up an Agile’s air intakes. The ZAFT chopper spun out of control and slammed into the ground, exploding with a roar.

A BuCUE tried to retaliate, but soon had another problem. “You think BuCUEs rule the desert? Think again!” Brian shouted, bursting out of the sand. His Stinger beam cannon flashed twice, blowing the BuCUE cleanly in half.

Alex smiled grimly. One down. Almost casually, his Igelstellungs reduced another Agile to scrap. Ignoring the remaining choppers, he took careful aim at a ZuOOT. The ZAFT pilot unloaded his entire arsenal, and then Alex pulled the trigger.

Boom. Apparently, he had hit the machine’s energy battery.

His ESM (electronic surveillance measures) unit beeped. Alex looked down at the board, frowning. Encrypted radio chatter? What is the point? We already know the BuCUEs are here. It was possible that this was a diversion, but Alex thought that unlikely. They were fighting the Desert Tiger and using meaningless radio signals -especially encrypted radio signals- was not Waltfeld’s style.

He keyed his comm. “Archangel, Valkyrie, watch out. I’m picking up encrypted radio signals, and they’re not directed at the BuCUEs.”

“Commander La Flaga launched about five minutes ago,” Mir responded. “He says there’s a land battleship somewhere over the horizon.”

“Probably the Lesseps, Waltfeld’s flagship,” Alex said, grimacing. “But I don’t think that’s the source.”

He was right. The real source was close at hand.

“Well, this is interesting,” Andrew Waltfeld said, sipping his coffee. “No sign of the Strike, but that black ship’s machines are putting up quite a fight.”

Martin DaCosta, his aide-de-camp and protégé, looked up at him. “Is it true that their lead pilot is Representative Joule’s nephew?”

Waltfeld nodded. “Yep. I met the kid once, after a certain martial arts tournament. Cold on the outside, but do not let that fool you. He’s a PLANT patriot to the core, never mind that he’s helping an Earth Forces ship.”

“So, we’re not shooting to kill?”

The Commander gave his aide a sardonic look. “I don’t know about you, DaCosta, but I don’t want to have to explain to Ezalia Joule why we blew up her nephew. He and his people are killing our people, but there are such things as mitigating circumstances.”

DaCosta nodded thoughtfully. “And Commander Bartlett?”

Waltfeld laughed. “Don’t fool yourself, DaCosta, Dan Bartlett is no match for Strassmeier.” He winced slightly as another Agile fell to the Stormbird’s guns. “Bartlett’s problem is that he can’t see past his own grudges. Strassmeier has a computer in his head; sure, he has his own grudges, mainly against the Atlantic Federation, but they do not affect his thinking. They just make him more determined.”

“What do we do?”

The Tiger studied the two ships closely. “The Lesseps will be in firing range in about ten minutes. If we can keep those two mobile suits occupied, the legged ship will be in for a world of hurt.”

DaCosta followed his commander’s gaze. “And if they launch the Strike?”

“That depends on which equipment module they use.” Waltfeld took another sip of coffee. “If they’re smart, they’ll use the Aile pack; from what I remember of that Zala kid’s report, that’s the best one for combat within a gravity well.”

“I see.” The younger man nodded thoughtfully. “And if they use one of the other packs…”

“Then we show them why BuCUEs rule the desert.” Waltfeld smiled grimly.

Unfortunately, like the Le Creuset team before them, they were underestimating Kira Yamato. By the time they realized their mistake, it would be far too late.

This is getting annoying, Alex thought, dodging a persistent BuCUE. A shot from his rifle disposed of the problem, allowing him to take stock of the battle.

It was not encouraging. There were still Agiles flitting around, not to mention several more BuCUEs. The ZuOOTs were inconsequential; as Alex had said, they were little more than heavily armed targets. However, the land battleship Lesseps had finally gotten into firing range and was busy lobbing missiles at the Archangel.

Alex watched a ZuOOT detonate under his fire. “Murrue, you need to launch the Strike. This is our first fight under gravity; even with the Stormbird and the Scorpion, there’s a limit to what we can do.”

Murrue shook her head. “I’d love to, but it’s not possible. Kira’s not ready to fight.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Alex countered, his CIWS downing a missile barrage. “His recuperative powers exceed even Coordinator norm. Even if he has not recovered fully, if you do not send him out now, it’ll be too late.”

The captain started to reply but was interrupted by her intercom. “This is crazy!” Kira Yamato said. “Alex is right, I have to launch! If this is really Waltfeld…”

Murrue sighed. “Very well.”

Archangel, hangar/ Libyan desert

Kira was almost shaking with impatience as the deck crew guided his Strike to the catapult. He had dashed to the hangar almost before the alarms went off, knowing that he would be needed soon. Murrue’s initial refusal to authorize a launch had frustrated him; with the Desert Tiger out there, they needed every machine that could be launched.

Come on, come on, hurry up

“Connected to catapult,” Mir said. “Attach Launcher Striker.” As she spoke, the hangar’s robotic arms attached the shoulder unit and hyper-impulse cannon. “System all green.”

Kira set himself. “Kira Yamato, Strike heading out!”

He encountered his first problem the instant he left the ship. The Strike landed on the desert sand…and promptly sank. Stifling an incredulous curse, Kira hit his thrusters, getting about two hundred meters from the ship before sinking again.

He knew he could resolve the problem if given enough time, but ZAFT had no intention of letting that happen. A BuCUE came seemingly out of nowhere, knocking the Strike on its back. Kira was able to fight it off, but he knew it would be but a momentary reprieve.

“Well, well, well. I guess they didn’t want to be smart.”

DaCosta looked up at his CO’s comment. “Sir?”

Waltfeld smirked. “They launched the Strike with its heavy weapons package. Sure, that hyper-impulse cannon could be nasty, but that assumes the pilot can aim it, and I do not think our BuCUEs are going to let him. If he had launched with the Aile, maybe he would have a chance, but as it is…”

DaCosta nodded. A hyper-impulse cannon was of little use if the machine it was mounted on could not maneuver to aim it.

The enemy apparently realized that as well; as they watched, the yellow X300 frame moved to assist the Strike, scattering the BuCUEs with a hail of laser fire.

“There’s only so much that guy can do,” Waltfeld said, as if he had read DaCosta’s thoughts. “Unless they get their act together, it’s only a matter of time.”

“Kira, you need to adjust your OS!” Brian called. “Adjust the weight distribution to account for the granularity of the sand!”

Of course. “Roger that. Thanks, Brian.” Cursing his own idiocy, Kira halted his machine, trusting the phase-shift to keep him safe, and began rapidly typing.

Less than a minute later, the Strike was moving smoothly on the desert sand. “That’s better,” Kira murmured. “I hate feeling helpless.”

A BuCUE pilot, not realizing that the Strike had adapted to the new conditions, lunged at him from behind. Kira, not impressed in the slightest, slammed the Agni’s stock into the ZAFT machine, knocking it back. The BuCUE landed on its back and tried to rise, only to be pinned by the Strike’s foot.

Kira glared at his opponent, leveling the Agni. “Here, have some of this!”

A blast from a hyper-impulse cannon at point-blank range produced spectacular results.

Seconds later, the remaining ZuOOTs fell to the Stormbird’s beam rifle. Another BuCUE detonated when Brian hammered it with his Stinger, followed by the last of the Agiles, courtesy of Mu La Flaga.

They were not safe yet. There were still four BuCUEs, and the Lesseps was still sending missiles at the Archangel. Even worse for the Earth Forces, the mobile suits were running low on power. Alex’s shield was useless, as the enemy did not have any beam weapons, and Kira had fired the Agni more than he should have.

Then Kira saw two missile salvos heading for the Archangel. No! An amethyst seed burst behind his eyes and, his mind suddenly noticeably clear, he snapped off a shot from the Agni, vaporizing the first salvo. Knowing that he did not have enough energy for another shot, he took care of the rest by grabbing the nearest BuCUE and throwing it into the path of the swarm.

BOOM.

Alex watched approvingly, then cursed. “I’m out of power. Nothing else I can do here.”

“Roger that,” Cagalli said. “Brian’s returning, too. Can Kira handle the BuCUEs on his own?”

Alex started to reply, then caught himself. “He won’t have to,” he said, eyes narrowed at the new data on his display. “I think that resistance group you mentioned just arrived.”

He was right. After receiving a message telling him to lure the BuCUEs into a trap, Kira took off, conserving his power as much as possible. As soon as the BuCUEs caught up with him, he jumped away, leaving the enemy machines to their doom.

One very messy explosion later, it was all over.

Andrew Waltfeld took his defeat philosophically. “I guess they were better than I thought,” he said, shrugging. “That X300 frame was obviously meant to counter our BuCUEs, and the Strike’s pilot compensated for the sand faster than I expected.” He drained his coffee mug. “Of course, he’s a Coordinator, so it’s really no surprise.”

DaCosta blinked. “Why would a Coordinator fight us?” It made no sense. Everyone knew that the Earth Forces high command detested Coordinators.

Waltfeld shrugged. “Seems the kid’s got some Natural friends on that ship; that’s why he stayed on.”

That did make sense, DaCosta conceded. He himself had no use for the hatred of Naturals some in ZAFT indulged in. “Sir, how do you know about this? According to the official report, the Strike’s pilot is a Natural.”

Waltfeld snorted. “I’ve got some sources, and it just so happens that not only is the Strike pilot a Coordinator, but he also happens to be Athrun Zala’s best friend.”

DaCosta went rigid. “Sir?”

“You heard right. Committee Chairman Zala tried to keep it quiet, but the kid told the rest of his team. Yzak Joule told his mother, and she saw to it that I found out.” Waltfeld shrugged again. “I don’t know why she did it, unless it’s because the kid -his name’s Kira Yamato, or something like that- is friends with her nephew.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter right now. We’re pulling back.”

“Yes, sir.”

Sahara Desert, African Community, 16 February, C.E. 71

Murrue gazed thoughtfully at the screen. The intervention by resistance fighters had come as a welcome surprise, but now that the battle was over, they had to decide what to do next. Though the locals had been helpful, it remained to be seen how they would react to the Earth Forces.

“We should be safe,” Cagalli said over the comm.

Natarle looked up. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve spotted at least two people I know personally,” the princess explained. “The leader is Sahib Ashman, which means this is the Desert Dawn group. He’s a friend of my family.”

The lieutenant nodded. That made sense. “And the other one?”

“The big guy next to Sahib is Colonel Ledonir Kisaka, Orb Ground Forces,” Cagalli said. “He often acts as my bodyguard.”

That one caught everyone by surprise. “What would an Orb officer, a Colonel, no less, be doing out here?” Tolle wondered.

Cagalli shrugged. “He was born in Tassil, a town not far from here. He probably wanted to help his people.”

“What matters is that we can trust them,” Murrue said. “Will you be joining us outside?”

“I should,” Cagalli said. “Kisaka will probably try to drag me home, but when he finds out the Valkyrie is heading for Orb anyway, I think he’ll just insist on coming along when we leave.”

Murrue stood. “All right, then. Commander La Flaga will join us outside. I would like Lia and Alex to come along, as well; Brian and Kira can stand by in case ZAFT returns.” She nodded at Natarle. “Hold the fort while we’re gone.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This should be interesting. Alex had recognized Ledonir Kisaka instantly; anyone who had seen a picture of him would remember his face and build. There were quite a few people around him, but the only one who concerned their own group was the man standing next to Kisaka, Desert Dawn leader Sahib Ashman.

“I’ll have to talk to Kisaka privately,” Cagalli murmured. “He’s not going to be pleased that you guys know who I am.”

Lia rolled her eyes. “What, was Alex supposed to pretend he didn’t recognize you?”

The other girl shrugged. “He’s still not going to be happy.”

Murrue nodded a greeting as the three youngsters joined her and Mu. Cagalli stayed close to Alex, eying Kisaka nervously, while Lia moved to flank her aunt.

“Well,” the Archangel’s captain said at last. “I suppose we should thank you. You’re the Desert Dawn resistance group, correct?”

Sahib shot a glance at Cagalli. How much did she tell them? Kisaka’s reaction at the princess’s sudden appearance was not lost on him. “Correct. I go by the name of Sahib Ashman. You are the crew of the Earth Forces’ new warship, the Archangel, yes?”

Murrue nodded. “Some of us are. I am Murrue Ramius, Captain of the Archangel. I’m with the Eighth Fleet.”

“How’s that?” a younger guerrilla said skeptically. “Wasn’t the Eighth Fleet completely wiped out?”

“Admiral Halberton’s flagship survived, but the others were destroyed,” Murrue conceded. She gestured at Mu. “Lieutenant Commander Mu La Flaga, formerly of the Seventh Fleet.”

Sahib looked at Mu through narrowed eyes. “Ah, the Hawk of Endymion. It is an honor. Now, I believe you said only some of you were with the Earth Forces?”

“Correct.” Murrue laid a hand on her niece’s shoulder. “My niece Lia, Captain of the independent ship Valkyrie. Next to her is her friend Alex Strassmeier, their lead mobile suit pilot.”

“I see.” So Kisaka was right. “And the other girl?”

Murrue’s face twitched, just noticeably. “Cagalli Yula, a civilian Alex rescued at Heliopolis. She initially thought he was a ZAFT spy -he’s related to a Supreme Council member and has a cousin with the Le Creuset team- but that was smoothed over fairly quickly.”

“Indeed,” Kisaka said, speaking for the first time. These people clearly know who she is, but at least they have the good sense not to blurt out her identity.

Sahib grunted. “In any case, it is good that you know who we are, and we know who you are. You need not thank us; we fought against ZAFT because they are our enemy as well.”

“Perhaps we can discuss this further,” Murrue suggested.

The resistance leader considered that. “If you’re serious about talking, you should lower your guns first.” A nod at the quiescent mobile suits. ‘They should disarm, as well.”

Murrue nodded. “Very well.” She turned to the Strike. “Ensign Yamato, come down here!” She looked back at Sahib as Kira descended. “Ensign Kira Yamato, pilot of the Strike.” Her eyes narrowed. “He’s a first-generation Coordinator; if you really want to talk, please treat him with respect. He has gone through a lot for us.”

Sahib waved a hand. “You need not worry. We have Coordinators in our own group; the boy has nothing to fear.” He glanced at Cagalli. “I think some of us will have more to talk about than others.”

The princess winced as Kisaka gave her a stern look.

Desert Dawn base

It had taken lees than an hour to reach the Desert Dawn’s main camp. While Sahib conferred with the Archangel’s officers, Kira and Alex covered the ships with camo netting. The other mobile suits stayed in the hangars; they would have drawn too much attention.

Meanwhile, as the two groups mingled, Kisaka cornered his wayward charge.

“There was no way I could keep my identity secret,” Cagalli said testily. “Alex and I had met before; what was he supposed to do, pretend he didn’t recognize me?”

Kisaka shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. You’re a princess of Orb-“

“That’s why they let me onboard,” Cagalli shot back. “I had nowhere else to go; all the escape pods were full. They couldn’t afford to antagonize my father.”

The big man growled low in his throat. “So, you boarded a ship controlled by the nephew of a Supreme Council member.”

Cagalli bristled angrily. “Alex is my friend,” she half-snarled. “Besides, they’re heading for Orb anyway, and their ship is much better defended than anything you’d have access to here.”

Kisaka conceded the point. “All right,” he said at last. “However, I shall be joining you on the Valkyrie when it leaves the desert.”

The princess knew better than to argue. “Alex won’t mind. Just do not complain about how he treats me,” she added.

“Don’t worry.” Kisaka smiled. “It’s his ship; he makes the rules.”

“Actually, it’s Lia’s ship,” Alex corrected, joining them. “She’s the captain; I’m just the lead pilot.”

Kisaka snorted. “You’re more than that; Cagalli has made that abundantly clear. I must ask, though: why are you fighting against ZAFT? It seems an odd thing for someone with your connections.”

The Coordinator wearily massaged his temples. “Do you have any idea how tired I am of that question?” He did not wait for an answer. “Patrick Zala is a homicidal madman whose goal is nothing more and nothing less than the extinction of the Naturals. Is that a good enough reason?”

Kisaka nodded. “Again, I am sorry to ask you, but I had to be sure. I take my responsibilities seriously,” here he gave Cagalli an almost humorous look, “and given how headstrong our princess can be, I needed to be certain she was safe with you.”

Alex waved a hand. “I accept the apology, but it isn’t necessary. However, annoying it might be, you had no choice but to make sure of my own actions and -perhaps more importantly- my motives.” He saluted in the ZAFT manner. “Colonel Kisaka, you’re more than welcome to join us on the Valkyrie.”

Kisaka smiled and returned the salute. “Thank you for allowing me aboard, and for taking care of Cagalli.”

“No problem. Leaving aside the fact that getting on her father’s bad side is an extraordinarily stupid thing to do, I consider Cagalli a friend.” Alex’s expression hardened. “I never desert my friends.”

“This is getting weirder every day,” Kira said, shaking his head in wonder. “Less than a month ago, we were all going to school, not a care in the world. Now though…” He trailed off.

Flay squeezed his arm. “Now we’re all soldiers in a war we thought couldn’t touch us.”

“Yeah.” Kira glanced around their new ally’s base. “None of us wanted anything to do with the war, but after Le Creuset attacked our home, we didn’t have a choice. I just wish…” He swallowed hard. “I just wish Athrun could see that.”

Flay moved a little closer. The pain in Kira’s voice struck her to the heart.

“But that doesn’t matter right now,” he went on. “The Valkyrie intercepted some communications from Gibraltar; apparently the Vesalius was recalled to the PLANTs, so I won’t have to fight Athrun, at least not for a while.” He smiled humorlessly. “Instead, we get to fight the Desert Tiger.”

Tolle and Mir came up. “Lieutenant Badgiruel showed us some of the after-action reports on the Battle of Suez just after we landed; she said it would be better if we knew what we were up against. This guy is good,” Tolle said.

Kira nodded. “I saw those reports, too. He’s got a custom BuCUE that’s even more dangerous than the standard model.”

“It’s even worse than that,” Mu La Flaga put in.

The youngsters saluted him, surprised. “Commander?” Kira said.

Never big on formality, Mu waved away the salutes. “The resistance fighters spotted a new mobile suit just before we landed, and that Ahmed kid snapped a picture.” He held it up. “Take a look.”

They complied, joined by Sai and Kuzzey. The evil-looking machine bore a definite resemblance to the BuCUE, but anyone who saw it could tell that it was more dangerous in every way imaginable. It was bright orange, with a beam saber in the “mouth” and a double-barreled beam cannon where a BuCUE would have a railgun or missile pod.

“What is it?” Kira whispered.

“Waltfeld’s new machine, a TMF/A-803 LaGOWE,” Mu said grimly. “It’s based on his custom BuCUE, which tells you something.”

“Yeah, something really bad,” Tolle agreed sourly. “How’d the Desert Dawn get this photo?”

Mu shrugged. “Apparently, he had a run-in with an unidentified mobile suit; we think the pilot was a mercenary named Gai Murakumo.” He grimaced. “Anyway, we figured you guys should know. Especially you, Kira, since you might have to fight the thing somewhere down the line.”

It was Kira’s turn to grimace. BuCUEs were bad enough; this LaGOWE model was the stuff of nightmares. “How many are there?”

“As far as we know, just the one, at least here,” Mu said. “We think ZAFT’s been having trouble developing them, so Waltfeld just got one of the preproduction units.”

Small comfort, since Andrew Waltfeld’s skill in a BuCUE rivaled Rau Le Creuset’s in a GINN or CGUE. The thought of having to face the Desert Tiger in a brand-new mobile suit was not one Kira cared to contemplate. “I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

Mu grinned. “Hey, cheer up. You might not have to face it; we know it took some hits in that last fight.” He turned away. “Just relax for now.”

Surprisingly, none of them had any real trouble relaxing. Kira and Flay as well as Tolle and Mir slipped off as couples, while Sai regaled Kuzzey, who had spent his entire life in the ill-fated Heliopolis colony, with tales of life planet side.

Alex turned up about an hour later, Cagalli and Colonel Kisaka in tow. Lia Ramius met them, and the four chatted away, occasionally greeting one or another of their comrades. Kyle, who in addition to being completely nondescript had a fiendishly effective poker face, had engaged three of the resistance fighters in a card game.

Afterward, Kira and Alex both felt it was too good to last.

A piercing yell from one of the Desert Dawn sentries split the air. “The sky is burning!” he shouted. “It’s in the direction of Tassil!”

Instantly, the hideout was buzzing with activity. People ran every which way, loading jeeps and artillery trucks. Not that they expected to be able to do much; they knew perfectly well that the Desert Tiger had plenty of BuCUEs left.

Kira leapt to his feet. “I’d better get to the Strike.”

Flay gave him a quick kiss. “Be careful, Kira.”

“I will.”

The men and women of the Archangel were going to earn their pay with a vengeance.

Near-Earth orbit, Lagrange point 1

Another Moebius exploded under fire from the GINN’s assault rifle. Cursing under her breath, the pilot took a moment to survey the battlefield. It was not pretty; their one warship, the Laurasia-class Galvani, had been set upon by no fewer than four Earth Forces ships.

In short, their small team had been neatly mousetrapped.

This is insane, Shiho Hahnenfuss thought. No ZAFT team should have fallen prey to this kind of ambush. Yet it had happened, and Shiho suddenly found herself facing a trio of beam-equipped mobile armors. She raised her rifle, hoping desperately that she could get off the first shot…

And then an orange blur flashed past, spitting laser fire, and twisting around in a truly insane evasive maneuver. The Moebius units, caught flat-footed, vanished into flaming dust.

“You okay, mate?” Troy called, reeling in his newly upgraded gun barrels.

Shiho sighed with relief. “Thanks, Troy. I owe you one.”

“Don’t mention it- what the?”

A sinister-looking black mobile suit had appeared, seemingly out of the ether, in front of the bridge section of one of the Earth Forces ships. There was a flash of green light, a massive explosion, and then nothing but a debris field. An instant later, a brilliant red beam cored through the remaining three ships, one after the other.

Shiho new instantly who their rescuers had to be. “Those are two of the Earth Forces machines we captured,” she breathed. “The Blitz and the Aegis.” Deep inside, she wished the Duel had been there, too, but she knew it was impossible.

“I see them, mate,” Troy said.

“This is Commander Rau Le Creuset,” a new voice cut in. “We were passing through the area when we saw you in trouble. I trust the rescue was well-timed?”

Shiho heard Galvani’s captain expressing his thanks. After a moment, she keyed her own comm. “This is Shiho Hahnenfuss. Please allow me to express my gratitude for your support.”

“Ah, yes.” A masked face appeared on her screen. “As it happens, we’ve received orders regarding you. If you and your friend in the Zero would be so kind as to board the Vesalius, I will explain in person.”

Shiho felt her pulse quicken. Orders about her? “Yes, sir,” she said aloud.

“Good. Athrun and Nicol will escort you in.”

Vesalius, Le Creuset’s office

Athrun stood with Nicol as the two redcoats were ushered into the Commander’s office. The male, Troy Cadwallader, stood with confidence, as would be expected from the son of Oceania’s Prime Minister. Despite having just gotten out of a combat zone, his blond hair was perfectly combed, his blue eyes clear.

His female companion was another matter. Shiho Hahnenfuss was a striking young woman, with amethyst eyes and chocolate-brown hair that fell to midback, presumably tied when she wore a helmet. Like her Natural friend, she was extremely self-possessed, showing extraordinarily little sign of the excitement she had to be feeling.

“I suppose you’re wondering what’s going on,” Le Creuset said. He did not wait for an answer. “Put simply, your achievements have brought both of you to the attention of the Defense Committee itself.”

Both pilots straightened. “The Defense Committee?” Troy repeated.

“Correct.” Le Creuset handed each of them a sealed folder. “You two will be returning to the PLANTs with us; I want you to read those documents very carefully on the way.”

Shiho finally found her voice. “Sir, what is it the Committee wants us for?”

The masked man smiled. “You will be assigned to assist MMI in designing two new weapons systems. Troy, your rare sense of spatial awareness has earned you a spot on the team developing a variation of the Zero’s wired gun barrels.”

He looked at Shiho again. “You, on the other hand, are to assist in the development of a new variety of CGUE, based on data from the captured Earth Forces mobile suits. The details are in those folders.”

“Sir!” The two youngsters saluted in unison. They did not know precisely what was in store for them, but they did know it would not be boring.