Libyan Desert, 16 February, C.E. 71
Murrue and Mu hastily jumped back, narrowly avoiding a trampling by Desert Dawn guerrillas. They had gone from cautiously affable to almost blind with rage in a matter of seconds, and no one needed to ask why. If there were fires visible from Tassil, then the whole town had to be on fire.
Kisaka, predictably, had joined Sahib in a jeep driven by the youngster named Ahmed; he trusted Alex to take care of Cagalli in the interim. The three guerrillas roared off, Ahmed showing extraordinarily little regard for the concept of safe driving.
“Something nasty must have happened,” Mu observed. “If we can see fires from Tassil all the way out here…” He did not have to finish.
Murrue sighed. “We can’t take the Archangel out there, not when we’re not sure if it’s a trap. Still, someone should go.” She smiled at the Hawk. “How about it, Commander?”
Mu blinked. “You’re asking me?”
“We need someone to keep an eye on things,” the captain pointed out. “I’m sure Alex will be going, but that may not be enough.”
“And he has his own priorities anyway,” Mu agreed. “Okay, I’m on it.” He took off running.
“I’ll send Lieutenant Badgiruel with the Doctor and some supplies,” Murrue called after him.
Alex dashed into the Valkyrie’s hangar as fast as his legs would carry him. “Is the Stormbird ready?”
The chief mechanic saluted. “You didn’t take any real damage in the last fight, and the battery is already recharged. It’s ready to go.”
“Thanks, Chief.” Alex stepped onto the elevator that would take him to the cockpit and reached for the control.
A hand on his arm stopped him. “Alex, wait.”
He turned and blinked despite himself. Cagalli stood beside him, dressed in a form-fitting red flight suit. Alex was grateful for his iron self-control; it was the only thing that kept him from staring at her. As it was, he just barely stopped himself from blushing at his own thoughts.
Not now, Alex. “What is it?”
She stepped onto the lift. “I’m going with you.”
“Cagalli, this really isn’t a good time-“
“I told you before, I’ve had training,” she interrupted. “I’ve never piloted a mobile suit before, but that doesn’t make me useless in the field.”
Alex frowned. That was true, but still… “Is there any reason you bring this up now?”
Cagalli shrugged. “My father kept saying that I don’t know anything about the outside world. Well, it’s time that I learned.”
He regarded her a moment longer, then shrugged. “All right.” He tapped the lift controls. “Hang on, though, there’s only the one set of straps.” She nodded. “And keep that gun ready. We don’t know what we’ll find out there.”
“Got it.” Cagalli checked the weapon, a ten-millimeter auto pistol.
Moments later, they were ready for launch. Both were grateful that no one could see into the cockpit, as the single seat forced them into an… awkward position for launch. It was embarrassing, but the alternative was for Cagalli to be smashed against the back of the cockpit, with unpleasant results.
“I am very glad Mu didn’t see that” Alex muttered as the princess moved to his right.
Cagalli raised an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”
A snort. “Just before we landed, he suggested that you and I go out for dinner when we reach Orb. Need I say more?”
She rolled her eyes, knowing exactly what Alex was talking about. Mu La Flaga had a gift for innuendo, prompting Murrue to jokingly accuse him of harassment. Cagalli herself had nothing against the Hawk of Endymion, but his idea of humor could be irritating.
“That’s what I thought.” Alex nodded to the left. “Speaking of Mu, there’s his Skygrasper.” The figure in the machine’s cockpit waved a gloved hand at the Stormbird.
One thing both teens could easily see: Good though Mu was in a mobile armor, he was downright magic in an air-breathing fighter. The Skygrasper had a lean grace which the Zero lacked, and the Hawk was making the most of it. His plane seemed to read his mind, responding precisely to the control inputs.
“He’s good,” Cagalli murmured.
Alex nodded. “Better than I am, in atmosphere at least. I could probably take him in a space battle, but down here I would be at his mercy. Especially if he used the Launcher; a half-second burst from the Agni would take out even the Stormbird’s shield.” He glanced at her sidelong. “You have any pilot training?”
She nodded. “My father insisted. He said it might be useful someday.” She laughed softly. “Not that I was complaining. It’s a lot of fun.”
“I know what you mean.”
Tassil (or what was left of it) was coming into sight. Alex guided the mobile suit in for a gentle landing next to Mu’s Skygrasper.
He unstrapped. “Let’s get moving.”
Refugee camp, outskirts of Tassil
What a mess, Mu thought, doffing his helmet. Waltfeld had been thorough; after warning the people and giving them a chance to evacuate, he had burned Tassil to the ground. Even now, hours after the event, some of the fires still smoldered.
One of the Archangel’s jeeps pulled up next to the Stormbird, Natarle Badgiruel at the wheel. She stepped out and surveyed the scene before them. “The Desert Tiger doesn’t believe in doing things by halves,” she commented.
“You got that right,” Mu said, shaking his head. “He’s not as bad as Le Creuset, though; that bastard wouldn’t have given the people any warning.”
Natarle agreed. Andrew Waltfeld was highly skilled and extremely ruthless, but he was also a fundamentally decent man. “Somehow, I don’t think these people will agree.”
“You’re probably right. Not that I blame them.” He looked up, hearing the distinctive sound of a mobile suit’s zip line. Alex and Cagalli descended together, much to Mu’s amusement, a feeling which only grew when he saw Cagalli’s flight suit.
If either of the youngsters noticed his amusement, they did not show it; Alex was unreadable as usual, and Cagalli was focused on the improvised tent city. She soon broke away, looking for Sahib and Kisaka.
Alex moved to stand with the officers, shaking his head. “No wonder we could see the fires all the way from the Desert Dawn camp. I doubt there’s enough left of Tassil to provide decent housing for a rat.”
“For once, I agree with you,” Natarle said softly. She frowned, gazing after the princess. “Why did she come along?”
The Coordinator shrugged, though it was hard to tell in the dimness. “She told me that her father kept saying that she didn’t know anything about the world.” He waved a hand. “She decided it was time to change that.”
“And you gave her a ride, huh?” Mu said, grinning slyly.
Alex shot him a brief glance, no more. “If you are implying what I think you are implying, forget it. I have no interest in romance; Cagalli Yula Athha is a friend, nothing more.” He walked off after Cagalli.
Mu chuckled to himself. “Just a friend, huh? Yeah, right.” He turned back to his fighter. “I’d better report to the Captain.”
Natarle nodded; she had her own duties. Gesturing for the ship’s doctor to accompany her, she eased carefully into the crowded camp. Despite the mass destruction, no one appeared to be seriously injured; evidently Waltfeld had given them more than enough time to evacuate.
Strangely, most of the civilians seemed to find her Earth Forces uniform reassuring; perhaps it was because their immediate enemy was ZAFT. The fact that Sahib Ashman, leader of the Desert Dawn, trusted the Archangel’s crew was likely a factor as well.
A medic came up to her and saluted. “No fatalities, ma’am, and only minor injuries.”
“Strange,” Natarle murmured. “Even with the advance warning, you’d think the situation would be worse. The whole town destroyed, but no one badly hurt, let alone killed? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s his nature,” a young voice said.
The XO turned. Brian Kilgore stood nearby, looking somehow even younger than he was. “What do you mean?”
“Andrew Waltfeld doesn’t kill without cause,” the Desert Rat replied. “He doesn’t like to, and besides, it would mean ZAFT is no better than the Earth Forces.”
Natarle frowned. “How do you know that?”
The youngster shrugged. “I read up on him after the Battle of Suez last year.”
She did not press him further. All five of the Valkyrie’s pilots were from the PLANTs, and though none had shown it, the current situation had to be eating at them. Natarle had no intention of adding to that unless she absolutely had to.
“…So that’s the situation, Captain,” Mu finished. “They can rebuild, but it’ll take a while.” He grimaced. “And in the meantime, we’ve got the Desert Tiger on our hands.”
Murrue closed her eyes briefly, suppressing a sigh. As they had unfortunately expected, Waltfeld had been very thorough. Almost all the Desert Dawn’s munitions stockpiles had been destroyed; now all they had left was a few artillery trucks and some small arms. The guerrillas would be helpless if Waltfeld attacked again.
“I suppose we don’t have a choice,” she said at last. “We can’t help these people or get out of the desert without first stopping Waltfeld.”
Mu nodded. “I think you’re right.” He glanced at something offscreen. “Talk to you later, ma’am.” He cut the circuit.
Murrue looked up at Kuzzey. “Connect me to the Valkyrie,” she ordered.
Lia was online moments later. “Hi, Aunt Murrue. What’s up?”
“It’s clear that we’ll need to fight our way past the Tiger if we are to get anywhere near Alaska,” the elder Ramius said. “In addition to that, with Tassil destroyed, the people are suffering greatly. We have to help them however we can.”
Lia nodded. “I’m already on it. Commander La Flaga gave us the coordinates of the refugee camp, so we will be sending supplies over. How are the Desert Dawn for weapons?”
“All they have left are a few artillery trucks and some small arms,” Flay Allster said; she had been assigned to logistics. “Nothing they have could handle ZuOOTs, let alone BuCUEs.”
“That’s what I thought,” Lia said with a sigh. “Alex and Cagalli went out in the Stormbird, and Brian followed them with the Scorpion. Unless we can get our other machines set up for desert warfare, there isn’t a whole lot we can do.”
Murrue drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. “I guess Alex, Brian, and Kira will have to take up most of the load,” she said reluctantly. “I hate to have to leave it to them, but as you said, there isn’t much we can do. Our ships can deal with the land battleships, but they will have to take care of the mobile suits.”
Lia nodded unhappily. “You’re right.”
Alex stretched wearily, stifling a groan. Tassil had been destroyed just after midnight, and he had arrived at the camp an hour later. Now it was nearly dawn, and only a combination of his martial arts training and Coordinator stamina kept him awake at all.
If only Yzak could see me now, he though sardonically. Seeing to the well-being of refugees after ZAFT reduces their town to rubble.
Cagalli appeared next to him. “Only minor injuries, but it’ll take a long time for them to rebuild.” She looked him over. “How are you doing?”
“I don’t think full gravity agrees with me,” Alex said, stretching again. “I haven’t been planet side in four years, and a couple of days isn’t enough time to get reacclimated.”
“I guess you’re right.” The princess took a breath and blew half of it out. “My father was right about me. I didn’t know much about the world outside Orb.”
Alex grunted softly. “You’re getting a crash course in it, now. First you get caught in an attack by the Le Creuset team, then spend three weeks running from them, and now you are in the middle of a fight with Le Creuset’s Earthbound counterpart. Fun.”
“Yeah.” She shook her head. “I’m still not sure Father wasn’t involved in the G-weapon project. I don’t see how it could have gotten this far otherwise.”
Her friend snorted. “Cagalli, let me remind you that we have identified one, and only one, person connected to the Orb government: Rondo Ghina Sahaku. Do you really think your father is going to cooperate with the Sahakus on something like this?”
Cagalli sighed. “You’re right. It’s just…I guess I was just shocked by what I saw at Heliopolis.” Her face took on a faraway look for a moment. “I still can’t figure out why the Sahaku twins would be helping the Earth Forces.”
Alex raised an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”
“They’re both Coordinators,” she replied. “You know even better than I do how the Alliance feels about that.”
An understatement, that. Alex knew more about the Alliance’s attitude towards Coordinators than he had ever wanted to learn. He had been mildly surprised that none of the Archangel’s crew had anything against his kind. It was to be expected that Murrue would be kindly disposed, but someone like Natarle Badgiruel, who came from an old military family, was another matter entirely.
Both turned at the sound of angry voices. “What’s that?” Cagalli wondered. She and Alex moved nearer. “Sahib?”
Alex frowned. “Sounds like he’s arguing with someone.” He checked his sidearm; with emotions running wild like this, it was all too possible that something would break.
Sahib was arguing with another guerrilla, a man with a bandana covering the lower half of his face. “It’s suicide!” the leader was saying.
“So, are we just supposed to be the Tiger’s lap dogs?” the other shot back.
Alex stepped to Sahib’s side. “Sahib is correct. If you intend to pursue Waltfeld, you are making a serious mistake.”
The masked guerrilla gave him an icy look. “We’ll see about that,” he spat.
Alex covered a sigh. “You have eight artillery trucks and some small arms against three top-of-the-line TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, commanded by Andrew Waltfeld.” He let his tone cool. “If you go after him, the only thing you will accomplish is a meaningless death.”
That visibly infuriated the man. “You little bastard,” he snarled. “Who do you think you are? Was it your home the Tiger destroyed? Is it your people he oppresses every day?” Without waiting for a response, he spun around and stalked off.
This is going to get ugly. Alex went for his machine, knowing that the guerrillas would need all the help they could get.
Cagalli paced him for a few steps. “Sahib’s going after them. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to save them from themselves,” he said darkly. He reached for the zip line. “Sorry I can’t take you along, but there’s only the one seat.”
Since flying in combat was a lot different their journey to the camp, she had no intention of arguing. “I understand.” She gave him a quick hug, much to his surprise. “Be careful.”
The Stormbird lifted off. Cagalli watched it go, feeling more than a little frustrated. She did not blame Alex, of course, but she was tired of sitting back while others did all the work. Her role on the Valkyrie helped some, keeping her occupied, but she did not want to be stuck in the rear echelon forever.
A gloved hand landed on her shoulder. “You okay?”
Cagalli looked up, surprised. “Commander La Flaga?”
The Hawk of Endymion smiled. “You look kind of down, kid.”
She frowned, not sure what he was getting at, then shrugged. “I’m just frustrated. I have had training, but I have always had to stay in the back. It’s not Alex’s fault -there’s no way I could help in something like the Stormbird- but still.”
“Hey, I know what you mean.” He looked at her speculatively. “You’ve had training, huh? Would that include pilot training?”
Cagalli blinked. What is this about? “Yeah, why?”
Mu smiled slyly. “If we are going up against the Tiger, we need every machine we’ve got. Think you can handle a Skygrasper?”
She gaped. “Y-Yeah, but…”
“Then let’s get going.” He waved her to his own machine’s rear seat. “Besides, you want to keep Alex out of trouble, don’t you?”
If he had not been an officer, Cagalli would have smacked him.
Murrue frowned. “Are you sure about this, Commander? What about the refugees?”
Mu waved his hand. “Lieutenant Badgiruel can handle that. In the meantime, we need everything out there. Alex has already left, and I’ll bet his buddy Kilgore will be going, too.”
She sighed. “You’re right.” She investigated CIC. “Crewman Haw, have Ensign Yamato launch at once.”
“We’ll have a little extra help,” Mu said. “It seems the princess has had some pilot training. I figure she can handle a Skygrasper.”
Murrue started to object, then closed her mouth and forced herself to consider more carefully. If Cagalli was trained in fighter operations, then it would be helpful, allowing them to get both Skygraspers in the air. And her experience with the Valkyrie had taught her not to turn down free help.
“All right, then,” she said at last. “You’re right, we can use the help. Cagalli, stay close to Commander La Flaga. You may be trained, but you don’t have any experience.”
The princess nodded. “I understand.”
Mu’s Skygrasper made a smooth landing on the starboard flight deck. Moments later, refueled and rearmed, it launched again, this time with another plane on his wing. While an occasional hesitation betrayed her inexperience, Cagalli clearly knew what she was doing.
A humanoid shape flashed past them, Kira’s X105 Strike. He had learned from the night’s battle and had insisted on the Aile pack for this mission. Mobility was far more important than raw firepower when fighting BuCUEs. Since the Aile pack allowed the Strike to fly, this time Kira would have the advantage.
Good luck, Murrue thought.
Cagalli felt a thrill as she took to the air. As far as she was concerned, nothing beat the feeling of atmospheric flight, though space travel came close. Though she had never flown a Skygrasper before, it was Cagalli had little trouble keeping pace with Mu’s fighter.
“You okay back there?” Mu called.
She grinned. “I’m fine. The controls are a little more sensitive than I’m used to, but I’ll be all right.”
Mu smiled to himself. Cagalli was clearly having the time of her life. He knew how she felt; his first solo flight had been the biggest thrill of his life. “Glad to hear it.” He glanced at his scope. “No sign of the BuCUEs yet, but there’s Alex. Wonder where his buddy is.”
“Probably under the sand; the Scorpion is meant for desert warfare, after all.”
“Makes sense,” Mu agreed. “As soon as we find Waltfeld, give Alex some backup. I know the Captain said to stay close to me, but I’m hard to keep up with in a fight.”
Alex had spotted the BuCUEs with his machine’s more capable scanners. There you are, Waltfeld. He powered up his weapons, not taking his eyes off the ZAFT mobile suits. BuCUEs had given him trouble in his first planet side engagement, but he had learned. This time, he and Kira would both be ready.
He looked back, seeing not one but two Skygraspers behind him. “Cagalli? What are you doing out here?”
“Commander La Flaga gave me a ride to the Archangel.” Her blue-and-white fighter settled in beside him. “When I told him I’d had pilot training, he figured I could be helpful.” She gave him a thumbs-up. “I’m your backup.”
Alex nodded. “Got it. Take them from a distance; you know as well as I do that taking a fighter in close against BuCUEs is a bad idea.”
“I see the Desert Dawn jeeps,” Kira put in. “They’re closing in on the BuCUEs.”
Alex’s eyes narrowed. “I see them. Let us see if we can save them from themselves.”
All in all, it had been a good day for the Waltfeld team. Sure, they had been stymied by the two warships, but they had dealt a severe blow to the local resistance fighters. From what they would hear, there was no way the guerrillas could have much in the way of weapons left.
“Couldn’t we go any faster?” DaCosta said plaintively.
Waltfeld gave him an amused glance. “What, are you afraid that those guerrillas will chase us?” He did not wait for an answer. “It would be suicide. Sure, there are those who say they’d rather be dead, but not many follow through on it.”
“Commander,” one of the BuCUE pilots said suddenly. “We have several small vehicles incoming. They appear to belong to the resistance.”
The Tiger sat upright. “Maybe they really would rather be dead.”
“They’ve spotted your friends, Cagalli,” Alex said tightly. “Kira?”
“I see it,” the other responded. “I don’t think they’ve noticed us, though.”
Alex shook his head. “That won’t last. Cagalli, get some altitude. Try to nail them with missiles. And don’t worry about hitting us; our Phase-shift will take care of that.”
“Roger.” Cagalli’s Skygrasper stood on its tail and screamed skyward.
“All right, guys,” Alex said. “Let’s go!”
The Strike and the Stormbird flew side by side, thus far unnoticed by the ZAFT pilots. Unfortunately, as Alex said, it was not going to last. What they had to do was get into firing range as quickly as possible, lest the Desert Dawn be wiped out.
For some, it was already too late. One jeep was run over by a BuCUE; two more narrowly avoided the same fate. Sahib was visible in another jeep, two rocket launchers in hand. They went off simultaneously, striking a BuCUE in a foreleg’s joint. Another ZAFT machine turned toward them; a leg came up…
And then the two Gundams were in range. A pinpoint shot from the Stormbird blew off the offending leg. The Strike followed suit, narrowly missing another BuCUE.
“I missed?” Kira said, startled.
“Adjust your targeting computer to compensate for the heat convection,” Alex advised him, dodging a missile barrage. Phase-shift would allow him to survive, but it could be worn down.
A double salvo of missiles struck from above; Mu had reformed with Cagalli, and now both Skygraspers were blasting away with everything they had. It was not enough to hurt the BuCUEs -yet- but it certainly gave them something else to think about.
“The new Earth Forces machine?” DaCosta said in surprise. “And the black ship’s lead unit?”
Waltfeld smiled thinly. “That kid’s good. He’s already compensated for the heat convection, and his current equipment gives him the advantage in mobility.”
“What now, sir?” the younger man asked.
“I test this guy myself.” Waltfeld brought up a radio handset. “Kirkwood!”
“Let me get in there and pilot that BuCUE.” Waltfeld looked down at DaCosta. “Some things you can’t understand without exchanging fire with one another.”
When the lead BuCUE abruptly changed its tactics, Kira, and Alex both knew something was up. It had been performing well before, but now it was going all out. Whoever was piloting it know, he was no ordinary ZAFT soldier.
Kira got it first. “Alex, I think Waltfeld himself is in that thing.”
Alex bit back a savage curse. “The two of us together might not be a match for that guy. The Skygraspers don’t count; no offence to Cagalli and Mu, but their machines are no match for BuCUEs.”
His friend sighed. “You’re right. It’s up to us.” He suddenly remembered another machine. “What about Brian?”
“He’s a wild card,” Alex said. “It’s best if he operates as he sees fit; he knows more about this kind of warfare than I do.”
Then there was no more time for talk. The BuCUEs came at them in unison, missiles tracing their path. Kira and Alex dodged to either side, downing some of the missiles with their CIWS. Alex even went to far as to destroy one with a beam saber. He was making a point to the ZAFT people: BuCUEs are good, but Gundams are better.
Waltfeld apparently did not get the point. He and his two cohorts assumed a three-pronged formation, focused entirely on the Strike, and Alex felt his lip twist as he realized why he was being largely ignored. Not many ZAFT commanders would be willing to risk angering Ezalia Joule by killing her nephew.
“Even if you only use regular missiles, the Phase-shift loses its effect after seventy-six hits,” Waltfeld said, grinning. “When that happens, the rifle simultaneously runs out of power.”
Give me a break! Two of the missiles impacted on the Strike’s face, temporarily blinding Kira. He hit his thrusters and jumped back, trying to get some breathing space.
“Now, you weird and wonderful pilot,” Waltfeld said, his grin widening, “how you gonna get out of this jam?”
Alex lined up his beam rifle, hoping he was in time to help. He squeezed the trigger…and something impacted hard on the Stormbird, causing the shot to go wide. “What the-!”
“Alex!” Cagalli called frantically. “More BuCUEs, five of them! Watch out!”
Alex swore savagely, turning to face the new threat. To make matters worse, the new arrivals were equipped with railguns, which were more dangerous because of their high-density projectiles. Combined with their high mobility, that made them a serious problem for a single mobile suit, Gundam or not.
And then it went from bad to worse, and Alex swore again as the BuCUEs sprouted beam sabers from their heads. Dodging a railgun shot, he managed to snap off a laser blast, striking a BuCUEs battery. The resultant explosion seemed to disorient the other pilots, but only briefly.
Kira, meanwhile, was once again proving that he was no ordinary pilot. The SEED had burst, and he was driving his enemies nuts. One missile salvo exploded against a wall of sand the Strike threw up, and a BuCUE took a laser blast dead center, destroying it.
Beset by four BuCUEs, Alex blocked another railgun shot, then dodged a saber slash. This is getting very annoying.
Behind his eyes, an ice-blue seed exploded.
His mind suddenly as cold and clear as the vacuum of space, Alex lunged up and forward, stabbing a saber into one BuCUEs head and dragging it along, slicing the ZAFT machine in half lengthwise. Another BuCUE tried to avenge his partner, only to receive a laser beam in the side.
Two to go. A plasma shot incinerated a third BuCUE, and Alex turned to the last one…which was no longer there. Brian Kilgore’s Scorpion Gundam has erupted from the sand, Stinger flashing, and the last BuCUE broke in half and exploded.
Alex sighed with relief. “Thanks, Brian. I owe you one.”
“What are friends for?” Still in mobile armor mode, the Scorpion waggled its wings and departed.
The other battle was going well. One of the BuCUEs had been incapacitated when Kira threw the Strike’s shield at it. Waltfeld himself was still in the game, but in a one-on-one fight, Kira Yamato had the advantage. He adroitly tossed the Strike around, dodging more than half of the Tiger’s attacks.
“Now you’ve taken this way too far!” Waltfeld snarled. Another missile salvo flashed out.
Kira was having none of it. His CIWS took out the missiles, and a saber slash neatly cut off the BuCUEs right foreleg.
Knowing he had lost, the Tiger turned away. “Hurry, DaCosta, we’re retreating!”
Waltfeld smiled to himself. ‘”Now that is my kind of guy. Been a while since I had this much fun.” He found himself hoping that he would have a chance to meet young Kira Yamato face to face.
Kira and Alex watched him go, both breathing heavily. “Come on, Kira,” Alex said. “Let’s get back to base.”
The two mobile suits spun in midair, flanked by a pair of Skygraspers. They had just won a battle, but the war was far from over.
Desert Dawn base camp
Kira released the zip line as his feet touched the desert floor and was immediately tackled by Flay. He returned the fierce embrace, more grateful than ever for her support.
“Kira, I was so scared,” Flay whispered into his shoulder. “When I heard Waltfeld was out there in person.”
He gently stroked her hair. “It was hard, but I managed it.” He frowned. “It was strange, though. Near the end of the battle, I suddenly felt almost serene. I don’t know how to describe it, except that my mind was incredibly clear.”
“It’s called the SEED,” Alex explained, walking over with Cagalli. “Superior Evolutionary Element Destined Factor. Those who possess it are capable of incredible feats when it activates.”
Flay looked from one Coordinator to the other. “Has it happened before?”
“Twice,” Kira said. “The first time was when the Blitz was attacking the Archangel’s Bridge, the second was the other night, when those missiles came in.” He looked at Alex. “How do you know about it?”
Alex shrugged. “My father was a geneticist, remember.”
Cagalli looked at him sharply. “Alex, when you faced those extra BuCUEs, you seemed to change. Was it…?”
“The SEED? Yes. I never thought I would have that ability, but…” Alex looked rueful for a moment. “Dad must have known, though. I can’t think of any other reason he would have spoken to me about it, since it’s only a theory…technically.”
Kira raised his eyebrows. “Technically?”
“Well, I think you and I have proved that it’s more than just a theory.” Alex flexed his prosthetic arm. “It saved both our lives today.” He took a water bottle a guerrilla offered him. “Me more than you; even without the SEED, your abilities are beyond belief.”
The other Coordinator looked at him incredulously. “Come on, I’m not that good.”
“Yes, you are,” Alex disagreed. “Kira, even though you had no combat experience whatsoever prior to Heliopolis, you have yet to lose a single engagement. I’ve had training, yet you are better than I could ever hope to be.”
Kira decided not to pursue the matter further. He stood, Flay’s arm tucked through his. “I’d better get some rest. We won today, but you can bet Waltfeld will be back.”
Flay watched over her shoulder as Alex and Cagalli made their way back to the Valkyrie. The hawk-faced Coordinator had been a textbook lesson in not judging by appearance. His cold exterior hid a great deal. There was pain at what had happened to his family, and an implacable hatred of the Earth Forces, but at the same time there was almost painfully intense compassion. Flay was one of the few outside his family who had seen it; as far as she knew, the only others were Kira, Lia, and Captain Ramius.
And Cagalli, of course. She nudged her boyfriend. “You think Cagalli needs her head examined?”
Kira blinked, not sure what she was talking about, then grinned. “Yeah, I think so. She’s almost like a shadow.”
He was not the only one to have noticed that. Mu La Flaga and Lia Ramius had both seen how close the two youngsters had become since the escape from Heliopolis. Cagalli’s short-lived belief that Alex was a ZAFT spy had meant little in the end.
“I think those two are perfect for each other,” Flay said, managing to sound both light and almost profoundly serious.
Kira glanced at her. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve seen how Alex has been hurting,” Flay began. Kira nodded; he had learned to read their cold-blooded friend to a limited extent. “His parents are dead, his sister’s missing, he has to fight his own cousin, and he can’t go home. He needs someone who can help him through it.”
The Strike pilot nodded again. “That makes sense. What about Cagalli?”
“She’s never had a chance to really be herself.” Flay shook her head, her long red hair swinging with the motion. “Alex is one of the few people who sees her just as another person, not a princess. It has to be a relief for her.” She shuddered. “She used to be engaged to Yuuna Seiran.”
Kira’s lip twisted. As an Orb national, he knew a little about the Five Noble Families, and the Seirans were not among his favorite people. “You think Alex is a better match for her?”
“I think Rau Le Creuset would be better than Yuuna Seiran, but yeah.” Flay grimaced, then shook herself. “But we shouldn’t be thinking about that right now.” Before Kira could react, she kissed him long and hard.
Bismarck, Daniel Bartlett’s quarters
Bartlett read the message from the homeland for the fourth time. He doubted that he had missed anything, but it always paid to be certain, especially with a mission of such importance. Success could mean glory and -more importantly, from Bartlett’s perspective- advancement. Failure could well mean a dishonorable discharge, or worse.
Not that I am going to fail. He keyed the intercom. “Michael, I’ll be temporarily leaving the ship.”
Harriman nodded. “So, the communique contained new orders?”
“Orders of the highest importance,” Bartlett confirmed. “Orders from Committee Chairman Zala himself.” He smiled at the captain’s expression. “I’ll be heading for Carpentaria to take part in the preliminaries for Operation Spit Break.”
Harriman frowned. “Spit Break? But that’s months away, and it hasn’t even been approved by the Council yet.”
“Yet.” Bartlett smiled thinly. “It will be, sooner or later. In any case, I will be assuming command of the submarine carrier Ballard. If the legged ship gets past Waltfeld, they’ll also get past Morassim; the man is an incompetent of the lowest order.” He snorted. “If they make it, I will be waiting.” The intercom clicked off.
Do get past Waltfeld and the submariner, Strassmeier. I so want to have a rematch.