Chapter 15: War at Sea

Desert Dawn Base Camp, 1 March, C.E. 71

“To a new Desert Dawn,” Sahib Ashman said, raising his glass. Those assembled drank, though Natarle had a small coughing fit.

Alex gazed at the amber liquid in his own glass. Will I ever see a new dawn?

Mu looked at his young friend curiously. “Aren’t you a little young for that?”

Alex shrugged. “Different cultures have different rules, Mu. Besides, I am a Coordinator. My liver is much better at filtering out impurities.” He tossed off his drink, then grimaced. “I don’t like it, though.”

The Hawk grinned. “Never had the urge to drown your sorrows in a strong drink?”

“I have never understood the attraction of deliberately altering one’s own consciousness, and ‘drowning your sorrows,’ as you put it, only makes things worse in the end.” Alex shook his head. “I’ve had enough problems in my life without adding alcoholism into the mix.”

Cagalli laid a hand on his arm, almost…protectively? Mu was not sure. “And getting drunk is inefficient, right?”

Alex did not visibly change expression, but he seemed to relax slightly. “Very,” he said in a deadpan voice. “I can’t be in top form if I’m drunk.”

Yep, Mu thought. She’s sweet on him, and the feeling’s mutual, even if Alex has cold-space lubricants for blood.” I do not think I have ever met a pilot who controls himself the way you do. Are you sure you’re human?”

Alex smiled thinly. “I’ve never denied having feelings, Mu. I just don’t believe in showing them much.”

They were interrupted when Ledonir Kisaka raised a glass. “To a day when Natural and Coordinator can live side by side,” he said, smiling at Kira Yamato and Flay Allster. As Flay was a Natural and Kira a Coordinator, no one doubted the Colonel’s meaning.

“Anyway,” Mu said, “how are you holding up? You fought your cousin again yesterday.”

The youngster twitched slightly. “I can hold on long enough to reach Orb. Then I won’t have to fight him anymore.”

He is hurting, even if he does not show it. “You’re dodging the question, kid. I’m sure you can make it to Orb; that’s not the point.”

Cagalli bristled -making Mu even more certain of her feelings- but Alex held up a hand. “I won’t deny that having to fight Yzak hurts, but you’re making it out to be a larger problem than it is. Neither of us intends to kill the other; even if we were not facing each other in battle, we would still be on opposite sides because of Zala. That is the central difficulty.”

Mu held up his hands. “Okay, okay.”

Sometime later, the guerrillas and people from both ships stood on a hill behind an elder. The old man spoke slowly, reciting the names of every person killed in the conflict between ZAFT and the people of the desert. It was long, too long for some, who broke down in tears.

That is why we must press on, Alex thought. So that the sacrifices of these people will not be in vain. We must stop Zala.

Archangel, Bridge, 3 March, C.E. 71

Two majestic ships, one brilliant white, one space black, crossed out over the Red Sea. With the desert behind them, they were entering a new stage in their journey. Though all concerned (except for Ledonir Kisaka) were happy about the change, they knew it was far from over. Now that they had reached the sea, ZAFT’s submarine forces would be waiting.

“Crossing over the coast now, Captain,” Arnold Neumann reported.

Murrue smiled. “Excellent.” She looked down into CIC. “For the time being, I will allow off-duty personnel out on the upper deck. Please inform the crew.”

There was general cheering at that. They had gotten air aplenty during their time in the desert, but “fresh” was not a word most of them would have used to describe it. Kuzzey Buskirk was relieved; born and raised in Heliopolis, he had not reacted well to the sandstorms.

Natarle keyed her intercom; crossing over the ocean had reminded her of something important. “Chief Murdoch, what’s the status on the sonar unit?”

“The kid’s working on it,” the mechanic replied. “Don’t know when it’ll be ready, though.”

“Tell him to expedite. And Chief,” here the XO’s voice turned uncharacteristically teasing, “I would be careful about calling a superior officer ‘kid’. It could wind up on your record.” Murdoch’s only response was a low groan.

Ledonir Kisaka gazed thoughtfully at a computer map. “The journey will be a difficult one,” he said. “We may have bypassed Gibraltar, but that still leaves Carpentaria all too close to our best course. Somehow, I don’t think ZAFT is going to ignore us.”

And with the two ships over the ocean, that meant submarines. Marco Morassim was known to operate in the Red Sea, and while he was not the best ZAFT had to offer, he was no pushover either. Worse, communication intercepts suggested that Alex’s old nemesis Daniel Bartlett had been transferred to Carpentaria. That was enough to give anyone pause.

“We still have time to relax, though,” Murrue said. “It’s a good thing, too; the battle with Waltfeld took a lot out of everyone.”

Especially Kira and Alex, the latter fighting his own cousin, the former dueling with someone he could have called friend. If anyone needed a rest, it was those two youngsters.

Archangel, upper deck port

Kira tossed his jacket aside and sat heavily on the deck, breathing hard. He had been under a lot of strain lately, both mentally and physically. Andrew Waltfeld had been an exceedingly difficult opponent, but his words were, if possible, worse.

“I have no idea what your reasons are for fighting against your own people. Especially since your best friend is with the Le Creuset team.”

“There’s no other way. I’m not giving up…until one of us is destroyed!”

He shook his head violently. Stop it!

A shadow fell over him. “Kira? Kira, what’s wrong?”

Kira looked up. “Flay? Sorry, I was kind of…” He shrugged helplessly. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

Flay sat down next to him. “Like what?”

He sighed. “You remember what Waltfeld said, about my reasons for fighting against my own people?” She nodded. “Well, I can’t help wondering. What if he was right? What if I am fighting against my own people when I shouldn’t be?”

She snuggled against him. “Don’t worry about that. Alex was right; this is not about fighting your own people. You’re just trying to protect your friends, no matter what their genes look like.”

“I know, but still-“

Flay pressed a finger to his lips, cutting him off. “It’s not your fault, Kira. No one is to blame except Rau Le Creuset. You did what you believed was right; that’s what’s important.”

Kira smiled and kissed her. “Thanks.”

They stayed like that for a while, not saying a word, taking comfort in each other’s presence. Kira, for all his hatred of the events that had brought him into the war, had to admit that it was not all bad. If he had not boarded the Strike, he would never have gotten to know people who were now particularly important to him. Murrue Ramius, who had treated him well despite their initial hostility; Mu La Flaga, who was like an older brother; even Natarle Badgiruel, despite her by-the-book exterior.

He smiled down at the redhead nestled against his side. If I had not gone to war, Flay and I would not be together. That must be worth something.

Two sets of footsteps sounded. “Are we intruding?”

Kira’s smiled widened, and Flay’s face lit up. “Hi Alex, Cagalli. No, you’re not intruding at all.”

“So, what brings you two here?” Flay asked.

Alex moved to stand near the railing, while Cagalli sat on the deck opposite Kira. “Visiting friends, mainly. Even I get lonely on occasion, believe it or not.” All four of them grinned. “Colonel Kisaka is meeting with the officers, trying to decide where we go from here.”

“We’re going to be facing ZAFT submarines sooner or later, right?” Kira said. “That’s why I had to work so hard on that sonar.”

Alex shrugged. “Most likely. Morassim does not worry me, the man’s an incompetent. Unfortunately, we have more than him to deal with.” His lip twisted. “According to some comm intercepts, my old friend,” his voice dripped sarcasm on the last word, “Bartlett was transferred to Carpentaria just after we landed.”

Kira groaned. “No offence, but I’m really glad he’ll be concentrating on you.”

The older pilot chuckled softly. “I don’t blame you at all. Andrew Waltfeld was one thing; he was a professional. He had fun taking you on, but it was never a matter of revenge. Bartlett, on the other hand…” Alex shook his head in disgust. “His facility for carrying a grudge is all but legendary. On the plus side, I can probably exploit that; if he is still mad about that tournament, as seems likely, he won’t be thinking as clearly as he should.”

“Hey, Cagalli,” Flay said suddenly. “What do you think of all this?”

The princess shrugged. “I don’t really like the Earth Forces, except for the people on this ship,” she said. “It was their project that provoked ZAFT into attacking Heliopolis, and I really don’t like how they treat Coordinators.” She smiled at Kira and Alex. “My feelings toward someone aren’t determined by what their genes look like.”

Flay grinned. “Same here.” She rested her head on Kira’s shoulder.

“But I don’t like what ZAFT is doing, either” Cagalli went on. “When it was formed, they actually did some good, but Zala’s been twisting it, even if most ZAFT soldiers don’t know it.”

“Exactly,” Alex said softly. He looked at Kira and Flay. “I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but I was literally on my way to a ZAFT recruiting center when I heard about Zala’s true goals.”

“That’s why I can’t stand what that bastard’s doing,” Cagalli said. “Alex is a patriot, but he can’t help defend his homeland because the head of ZAFT is a lunatic.”

“This is just wrong,” Kira said bitterly. “This war is splitting friends, even families apart.”

Alex sighed. “It isn’t enough to know what you’re fighting for. It is just as important to know what you are fighting against. I don’t think many on either side know what they’re fighting against.”

Flay looked at him. “What are you fighting against?”

“Patrick Zala’s dreams of genocide, and Blue Cosmos,” Alex replied. “And fighting the latter means being against virtually everyone in the Earth Forces, excluding, to my knowledge, only Admiral Halberton and the crew of this ship.”

He shook himself. “But that doesn’t matter right now,” he said, turning to gaze out at the ocean. “We’re out here to relax, so let’s just forget the war, if only for a little while.”

His friends nodded agreement. There was no point in trying to relax if all they were going to do was talk about the course of the war. To be able to perform to the fullest, it was occasionally necessary to forget about it entirely.

Alex sat next to Cagalli, resolutely ignoring the way Kira and Flay exchanged knowing grins. Maybe this war is splitting my family, but I will not let it be permanent. I will find my sister, and once Zala has been stopped, we will finally be able to go home.

Archangel, upper deck starboard

Kira’s friends had gathered on the other deck. The mood was far lighter; none of them had Kira’s deep-seated worries about the war. All they thought about was enjoying the sea breeze. Mir was especially delighted, immediately removing her pink jacket and dashing to the railing.

“Oh, that feels good,” she said, sighing contentedly. “It’s been so long.”

“Yeah,” Tolle agreed, moving to stand next to her. “Heliopolis had some nice spots, but nothing like this.”

Predictably, Kuzzey was less sanguine. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen this much water in one place.”

Tolle glanced over his shoulder. “That’s right, you were born and raised on Heliopolis. Have you ever been to Earth at all?”

“Never.” Kuzzey looked mistrustfully at the water far below them. “I’m getting dizzy.”

Mir grinned mischievously. “And there are monsters deep in the ocean,” she said.

The dark-haired student blanched. “There are?”

“Oh, stop teasing him, Mir,” Tolle said. “Kuzzey, the only monsters in the ocean are ZAFT mobile suits. That’s why Kira had to get that sonar working.”

Sai leaned against the railing. “You’re right, though, Mir. It has been too long. I mean, living in space is nice, but sometimes you just want solid ground under your feet.”

“Don’t let Alex hear you say that” she said. “He doesn’t like being under full gravity.”

Tolle waved a hand dismissively. “That’s because he’s from the PLANTs. He’ll get used to it if he’s going to spend much time in Orb.”

His girlfriend grinned. “I’ll bet he spends a lot of time there, even if he takes out Zala. You’ve seen how he and Cagalli act around each other.”

He laughed. “Remember what Kyle told us last month, about Alex saying that any girl who fell for him should have her head examined?”

“Oh, my!” Mir giggled. “Can you imagine anyone saying that about Cagalli Yula Athha?”

Sai tried. “Not to her face. That’d be suicide.”

Tolle laughed again. He had been around the princess enough to be able to imagine what would happen if anyone tried something like that. She was cheerful enough under normal circumstances, but it was well known that she had a short temper, as well.

The ship’s alarm cut through the laughter, freezing them in place. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!” Murrue Ramius’ voice said sharply.

The deck was suddenly empty.

Gulf of Aden

“I knew this was going to happen,” Alex muttered, strapping into his machine. “What’s the situation?”

“One submarine carrier, Vosgulov-class,” Cagalli responded; Skygrasper 2 was down for repairs, so she was filling her old role. “Four mobile suits; two AMF-101 DINNs, and what we think are a pair of UMF-4A GhOONs.”

Alex cursed. “Morassim, almost certainly. Fortunately for us, he’s nowhere near as good as Waltfeld or Le Creuset.” He looked at the Scorpion. “Brian, you’re the only one with any real underwater capabilities. Can you handle it?”

“No problem, Alex.” The younger pilot saluted. “Chief Murdoch managed to cobble together a makeshift phonon maser for me. Combine that with the Scorpion’s scale system, and I should be able to take the subs, no sweat.”

“Good.” Alex gripped his control bars. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

Marco Morassim spotted the launch. “So here comes the traitor!” Signaling his partner to deal with Mu’s fighter, he aimed his own machine at the approaching Gundam. “I’ll send you to the bottom of the Gulf!”

“Talk is cheap,” Alex said coldly. “If you think you have a prayer of defeating me, then you’re an even bigger incompetent than I thought.” He leveled his rifle at the DINN.

Morassim may not have been the smartest soldier around, but he was a good enough pilot to dodge Alex’s initial attack. He responded with his rifle and shotgun, trying to wear down the infernal machine’s phase-shift. Alex let him try; Stormbird had the advantage of armor and raw firepower, but a DINN was at least difficult to hit.

Alex’s next shot was a graze, melting some armor off the DINN’s right arm but not doing any major damage. “You’ll have to do better than that, boy!” He lined up for a shot at the Gundam’s optics, then found himself jolted by another beam, this one from below. “What the?”

“He’s not alone!” Kira shouted, beam rifle flashing.

Morassim cursed, dodging again. Even with his DINN’s mobility, he was having a hard time avoiding laser blasts from two different directions. Even worse, both mobile suits had PSA, which none of his weapons could penetrate. It was only a matter of time.

Beneath the waves, Brian Kilgore stared at the Vosgulov through narrowed eyes. The GhOONs had not noticed him yet, which was fine with him. If he could take out the submarine, the mobile suits would be at his mercy. The sooner, the better.

He looked at the readouts for his makeshift weapon. No telling how long it will last. I had better make my shots count. Brian knew it would not take very many hits; neither ZAFT submarines nor the mobile suits they carried were intended to dive more than a hundred meters or so.

Blow one good hole in that Vosgulov, and it crumples like a beer can.

A torpedo flashed past within meters of his cockpit, and he cursed. “The GhOONs. Simply great.” Not that he was very worried; he had just wanted to take out the mothership first.

“So, I kill the suits first instead. Fine.” Brian took careful aim with the maser, targeting the machine that had fired on him. One shot blew it in half.

The other one was on him in an instant, crashing into him. He cursed again; if his PSA went down this far underwater, he was dead. Forcing the GhOON away, he tried to bring his maser to bear, only to have the ZAFT unit vanish.

Brian shrugged it off. The escape was only temporary; once he sank the sub, that GhOON pilot was doomed. Nodding to himself, he brought up the maser again, aiming for the Vosgulov’s center section. Steady…steady…now! He pulled the trigger, wincing at the thought of what was about to happen.

He blinked. While his shot had connected, there had been two explosions, one halfway between the Scorpion and its target. He frowned in puzzlement, and then it hit him. That GhOON must have gotten in the way at the last instant. Confirming his thought, a piece of debris drifted past his suit’s optics, unmistakably the arm of a GhOON.

Brian started his ascent, keying his radio at the same time. “Alex, I’ve taken care of the GhOONs, and that sub. Mission accomplished.”

“Roger that, Brain,” Alex said. “We’ll finish the job.” He glared at the DINN ahead of him. “It’s over, Morassim. You’ve lost.”

“Not yet!” The ZAFT commander hit his thrusters, charging the Stormbird. “I’m taking you with me!”

What does he think he is doing? Alex supposed it was possible Morassim intended to ram him, forcing them both underwater, where neither machine would survive. Not that he intended to allow that to happen. Raising his rifle, he let the oncoming DINN grow in his sights for a few seconds, then fired.

The other DINN exploded at the same time, blown in half by a shot from Mu’s Agni.

“Hey, Alex,” Kira called. “Wasn’t that just a little too easy?”

“We had the advantage of numbers and firepower, Kira,” Alex said. “Besides, as I have said, Morassim was an incompetent. Don’t expect all our battles to be this easy.”

“I know.” Kira knew all too well. He had faced some of the best ZAFT had to offer and had no illusions that the worst was behind him.

Mu’s Skygrasper waggled its wings. “Come on, guys. Let us head back. You can bet we’re not done yet.”

He was right. Marco Morassim was only the beginning. There were other enemies beneath the glittering waves, enemies that would not fall as easily. And one enemy, who would stop at nothing to destroy them. As Alex had said, Daniel Bartlett was legendary for his ability to carry a grudge.

Vosgulov-class submarine carrier Ballard, 4 March, C.E. 71

A blond man in the gray uniform of a ZAFT ship captain scowled at the report. His new commander had predicted Morassim’s defeat, but this went beyond even Bartlett’s expectations. Morassim had been soundly trounced by the legged ship and its midnight-black consort.

He keyed his intercom. “Commander, this is Captain Styles,” he said.

Bartlett’s face appeared on the monitor. “Go ahead.”

“Sir, the Morassim team has been destroyed,” Styles said.

“As expected,” Bartlett said.

“According to our reports, they never even scratched either ship. It was a complete route,” Styles went on. “As far as we know, no survivors.”

Bartlett snorted. “I warned Morassim not to take Strassmeier and Yamato lightly. He chose to disregard that warning and paid with his life. We, of course, will be more circumspect.” He consulted something on his own terminal. “How long until we can intercept those two ships?”

Styles checked with his navigator. “If we get moving immediately, three days, sir.”

“Then do so.” Bartlett smiled thinly. “We will succeed where even Le Creuset and the Tiger failed.”

“As ordered, sir.”

Bartlett’s quarters

So now I get another crack at you, Strassmeier. Do you know I am coming? Probably, I know better than most that one thing you are not is stupid.

Bartlett clenched a fist. He did not want to fight an idiot -what was the fun in that? – but he could have wished Strassmeier was a little less of a warrior. As it was, Strassmeier kept beating him, and making it look easy. There were few things more maddening than competing with someone who was always just a little better.

This time, though…this time I will win. He had been able to bring his personal CGUE with him to Earth, and the techs at Carpentaria had given it even more extensive modifications. It had been fitted with a new, more efficient energy battery, one with four times the capacity of a standard model. In addition, the shield-mounted Gatling gun had been replaced with a mutli-barrel beam gun. As well as one new feature for the main body…

Bartlett sighed. He was painfully aware of his own weaknesses, of the way his facility for carrying a grudge often clouded his thinking. Such tendencies could prove fatal when dealing with someone like Strassmeier, but he just could not help himself.

“Stop it,” he told himself firmly. “Strassmeier is good, but he’s hardly invincible. If you do not stop dwelling on your defeats, you’ll never beat him.”

The problem was that he would not be facing the Stormbird alone. If he were to attack Strassmeier, it would also mean fighting the Strike, and while Bartlett was nearly the former’s equal, he did not even approach Kira Yamato’s skill.

Valkyrie, Bridge, 5 March, C.E. 71

Kisaka found that he was grateful for the tabletop display Lia and Alex had insisted on when their ship was built. It showed far more detail than the small screen on the Archangel, and it also had much greater image clarity. Not to mention larger maps.

“Almost home,” Cagalli said softly.

Kisaka glanced at his charge. “You sound disappointed.”

Cagalli jumped; she had not realized she had spoken aloud. “A little. You know how much I hate being a princess.”

The big Colonel smiled. “I don’t think you have much to worry about. Your friend Strassmeier seldom appears to remember your status, and I think it unlikely that your father would separate you.” Not with the connections that young man must Orb.

Of course, hard though Alex was to read, Kisaka could tell that he did not even know those connections existed. That could make their arrival…interesting.

The bridge hatch slid open, and Alex stepped through, accompanied by Mu La Flaga and both Captains Ramius. “As you’ve seen, our ship is only partly based on stolen blueprints,” the Coordinator was saying. “We didn’t have much trouble getting the parts we needed.” He frowned. “In fact, they seemed to keep appearing at precisely the right time.”

“Quite a coincidence,” Mu observed. “You ever figure it out?”

“I never did,” Lia said. “What about you, Alex?”

“My theory is that someone in Orb, probably highly placed, got wind of what we were up to, and approved of it.”

If you only knew, Kisaka thought, hiding a smile at the thought, and the way Cagalli’s face lit up when she saw Alex.

“So, Colonel,” Alex said. “How do you think Lord Uzumi will react when he finds out his daughter spent the past two months on an armed-to-the-teeth warship that answers to no one?”

Kisaka smiled wryly. “He probably won’t be pleased with Cagalli; our headstrong princess has a history of this sort of thing.” Cagalli gave her bodyguard a half-angry look. “I think, however, that he will be grateful to you for keeping her alive through all this.”

“Even though she flew in combat on two separate occasions?”

“She does have military training,” the Colonel pointed out. “Such experience could prove beneficial later.”

“That’s good to hear,” Alex said with a nod. “Despite our initial clashes,” he and Cagalli exchanged slightly sheepish grins, “I consider her a close friend, and I do not say that lightly.” He met the Colonel’s gaze. “I hope Lord Uzumi won’t object to that.” His tone was mild, but at the same time challenging.

On the contrary, it will almost certainly make things much easier. “You have nothing to worry about, Commander. Nor does your friend Kira.”

Alex nodded again. “I’ll make sure to tell him. It’s not the first time he’s befriended someone highborn -his best friend is Patrick Zala’s son- but it will still be a relief, I think.”

“I’m sure.” As it happened, Kisaka knew more about Kira than Kira himself did, and while he had meant it when he said the Strike pilot had nothing to worry about, it would still be complicated. Especially since Cagalli had mentioned Alex’s little quest.

Lord Uzumi will have to make the final decision, but even if he continues as he has thus far, it will only delay the inevitable. Alex is no fool; he will learn the truth sooner or later.

“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Alex said. “Getting to Orb will be tricky; the best course will take us closer to Carpentaria than I’m comfortable with, but I don’t see an alternative. Murrue?”

She nodded unhappily. “I agree. It’s fortunate that both of our ships are well defended.”

“That’s an understatement, ma’am,” Valkyrie’s comm officer put in. He indicated his board. “According to communications intercepts, Le Creuset’s G-pilots have reassembled at Gibraltar.”

Mu and Alex swore simultaneously, the former because of the trouble those pilots routinely caused, the latter because it meant he would fight his cousin yet again.

“This’ll be fun,” Alex muttered. “We haven’t fought all four Gundams since the Eighth Fleet was destroyed. And since only three of our machines can fly in atmosphere…”

“We won’t be able to fight them on even terms,” Mu said in disgust.

“That depends on how good they are in this environment,” Murrue pointed out. “You fought against Elsman and your cousin during the Talbadiya battle, Alex. What was your assessment?”

Alex rubbed his chin. “I only really confronted Yzak, but I can say that he was out of his depth. In fairness to him, it was his first planet-side battle. Most likely, Dearka was the same.”

“What about the other two?” Kisaka asked.

The Coordinator snorted. “Nicol had never been on-planet in his life before this operation. I doubt Athrun had been, either.”

Murrue shook her head. “I asked Kira about that. He says Athrun has never been on-planet before.”

“Which means that we’ll have at least some advantage until they’ve had a chance to work up,” Alex said. He tapped the screen. “It should be a while before we have to face them; there’s no way they can attack us now, so they’ll probably transfer to Carpentaria.”

“Makes sense,” Mu agreed. “It’s their only stronghold that’s anywhere near Alaska.”

Unfortunately, as they all knew, it was highly likely that they would face other attacks before Athrun, and his comrades became a problem. Marco Morassim had been defeated, but he was far from the only submariner in their path.

Gibraltar Base, 6 March, C.E. 71

For the first time in nearly a month, all four ZAFT Gundam pilots were once again gathered. Considering the nature of their mission, Rau Le Creuset had assigned them to a submarine carrier, the Cousteau, and placed Athrun in command. As Alex had surmised, the newly formed Zala team would soon be transferred to Carpentaria.

Predictably, Yzak was not pleased with the new arrangements.

“Why would Commander Le Creuset put Athrun in charge?” he grumbled. “Urgh! ‘Commander Zala,’ humiliating.”

“No use getting upset about it,” Dearka said, walking beside him. “Obviously, they think he’s cool under pressure. He has even made reports to the Council. But you know when he is out on the battlefield, he tends to be careless.”

Yzak stopped, glaring at his friend. “What are you trying to say, Dearka?”

“If anything goes wrong, it’s his responsibility.” Dearka looked back at Yzak. “It’s a Commander’s fault if he can’t control his subordinates.”

Yzak’s lip curled in a snarl. “Don’t be vulgar.” He stalked away.

Athrun watched the two pilots from an upper window, his emotions decidedly mixed. He was honored that Commander Le Creuset had picked him for command, but he could have wished for a different mission. Fighting against the legged ship meant another encounter with Kira’s X105 Strike.

“Athrun?” Nicol had come up behind him while he brooded. “You, okay?”

The Aegis’s pilot shook himself. “Yeah. I am just envying Yzak, I guess. The closer those ships get to Orb, the less likely it is he will have to fight his cousin again. I’m not so lucky.”

Nicol laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. He knew what Athrun meant; even if the Valkyrie stopped at Orb, the Archangel would continue to Alaska. “Look at it this way. All we must do is take out the legged ship’s engines, then run the Strike out of power. With four of us, we can do it.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Nicol suppressed a sigh. Athrun had been growing increasingly depressed since Heliopolis, and the Blitz’s pilot was starting to worry. No one could blame Athrun for not wanting to fight his best friend, but he could not let that paralyze him. They had more enemies than just the Strike, after all.

“Don’t worry, Nicol,” Athrun said, as if he had been reading the other’s mind. “I know we’ve got to do it, even if it means I have to fight Kira. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“You’d be crazy if you did,” Nicol said with a smile. He turned to look out at the bay. “Even though it is for war, I’m glad I came to Earth. There’s just something about it…”

Athrun smiled back, grateful for the change of subject. “I know what you mean. The PLANTs are beautiful, but they can’t compare to Earth.”

“Do you know anything about Orb?”

“Kira’s originally from a small town on Izanagi Island,” Athrun said. “He didn’t live there long -he was about six when we first met- but he spent some time there on school breaks, while I was in the PLANTs.” He smiled again, wistfully. “I promised him that I’d see it for myself someday.”

“Then you’d better make sure you take him alive,” Nicol said. “Then you can do it together when the war’s over.”

Athrun nodded. “You’re right. Thanks, Nicol.”

“What are friends for?” the other responded, grinning.

Indian Ocean, 7 March, C.E. 71

They had reached the Indian Ocean by the time the inevitable next ZAFT team found them. Unlike Morassim, though, their current opponent was no pushover. Even without the Ballard’s unique acoustical signature, the blood red CGUE told them who they were fighting.

“What is it with that guy and red mobile suits?” Mu wondered, gripping his Skygraspers control stick.

Alex snorted, keeping a wary eye on the CGUE. “He fancies himself a latter-day Manfred von Richtofen,” he said. A dry chuckle. “What he does not know is that while the Red Baron was an excellent marksman, he was an average pilot at best. Crashed several times, in fact.”

“And average is one thing this guy isn’t,” Kira put in. “Miriallia, what do we have coming besides that CGUE?”

“Five GINNs, all of them on Guuls,” Mir replied. “The same number of DINNs, and sonar detects at least two GhOONs and a ZnO.”

“Thirteen mobile suits?” Natarle said incredulously. “Isn’t that a bit much for a single Vosgulov?”

Alex frowned. “You’re right, Lieutenant. He must have help.”

“That’s affirmative,” Lia chimed in. “We’re detecting another sub, same class.”

“Wonderful.” Alex did not know how Bartlett had gotten another submarine assigned to his team, but it did not really matter.

Another voice broke in. “Hello, Strassmeier,” Bartlett himself said. “Ready for another round?”

“Do you think this is some kind of schoolyard squabble?” Cagalli snapped from the other Skygrasper. “Is that all the war is to you?”

The ZAFT pilot looked at her fighter with sudden interest. “Remarkably young for a fighter pilot, aren’t you? From the sound of your voice, you cannot be much older than sixteen or seventeen. I wasn’t aware the Earth Forces employed child soldiers.” He indicated the Strike with his beam rifle. “Except for traitors, like him.”

“You bastard!” Cagalli shouted. “Don’t you dare call him that!” Only the knowledge that her fighter was doomed if she charged kept her from doing just that.

“Calm down, Cagalli,” Alex said, then turned back to his old nemesis. “Bartlett, Kira Yamato is an Orb national who enlisted in order to protect his friends.” He smiled thinly. “He’s also a better pilot than you could ever hope to be, and the Strike has the advantage in atmosphere.”

“Perhaps he has more mobility,” Bartlett conceded. “But it remains to be seen what he can do with it.” As he spoke, the other airborne mobile suits assumed a formation around him. “Enough talk. Have at you, Strassmeier!”

His subordinates ignored Alex completely; Bartlett had given orders that Alex was to be left to him. Two DINNs went for the Skygraspers, forcing Mu and Cagalli to break in opposite directions. The remaining DINNs and three of the GINNs focused on the Strike; thus, unknown to them, sealing their own fates. The last two GINNs, equipped with the same sort of weapons the Le Creuset team had used at Heliopolis, dove at the Archangel.

“Just the two of us, now, Strassmeier,” Bartlett taunted. “This is our last battle.”

Alex’s cold blue eyes narrowed. “For once, I agree with you, but I will not be the one to fall today.” He raised his rifle.

Bartlett smiled. “Go ahead. It won’t do you any good.”

We will see about that. Alex squeezed the trigger, the brilliant green beam struck the CGUE’s hatch…and splashed against it, leaving the mobile suit unharmed. “What the-!”