Chapter 19: The Lady and the Tiger

Morgenroete testing facility, 4 April, C.E. 71

It was always noisy at Morgenroete’s main testing facility. Vehicles of one kind or another were always being maintained or worked up, which meant quiet was very hard to find. However, while there was a pair of mobile suits in the huge expanse, neither was being worked up.

MBF-X108 Stormbird clashed its saber against an anti-beam shield. The machine bearing it, a main-line MBF-M1 Astray, pushed back, drawing a saber of its own. Neither pilot gave ground, at least not willingly. Eventually, though, the Stormbird pushed its mass-produced opponent back.

“You’re getting better,” Alex Strassmeier said approvingly. “You almost had me that time.”

“Almost doesn’t count,” Cagalli Yula Athha shot back. “You still won. Again.”

Alex sighed. He wouldn’t give Cagalli up for anything, but she could be tiresome at times. “Cagalli, it’s been less than a month since you learned you were a Coordinator, and maybe a week since Kira and I started training you in mobile suit combat. You’re progressing at a remarkably rapid pace.”

“I know, I know,” she grumbled irritably.

“Why don’t we call it a day,” Alex suggested. He marched his machine to its place and powered down.

The only reason it had taken so long to start her training in the first place was the need to get her accustomed to her Coordinator abilities. Alex had taken care of that himself; his martial arts training had made him a natural choice for the role. As with mobile suit operations, Cagalli had progressed at an astounding rate.

They found Kira and Flay in the lounge, side by side on a couch. “So, how’d it go?” Flay asked.

“Don’t ask,” Cagalli grumbled, pouring herself a cup of coffee. “Alex took me apart, as usual.”

Alex snorted. “Don’t listen to her, Flay. When you bear in mind the fact that she’s been training for approximately one week, her progress is nothing short of incredible.” He smiled. “The only person I know of who took to this faster is Kira, and he has an edge.”

The princess shook her head, then smiled wryly and kissed him on the cheek. “If I’m getting better, it’s because I have a couple of good teachers,” she said, nodding at her brother.

Alex collapsed into a chair. “In any case, it’s a good thing. I give it two months at the most before Orb is drawn into this war, whether your father likes it or not.”

“Do you think we’ll have to fight ZAFT?” Kira asked anxiously, thinking of Athrun.

“We’ll probably have to fight some of it,” Alex replied. “Athrun has already reported Lord Uzumi’s assurance that Orb will never join the Earth Forces, so if Zala does order an attack on us,” he looked grim for a moment; they’d heard of Patrick Zala’s election two days before, “it will prove that I was right all along about his goal. That, in turn, will swing a good-sized chunk of ZAFT over to us.”

Flay took Kira’s arm. “What about Athrun and his team?”

Alex pursed his lips. “I spoke with Aunt Ezalia when I heard about the election results,” he said. “She didn’t say much, probably because it wasn’t a secure channel, but I got the impression that she, along with Tad Elsman and Yuri Amalfi, the fathers of Dearka Elsman and Nicol Amalfi, respectively,” he added for Flay’s benefit, “are with Clyne.”

Kira swallowed. “What about Athrun?”

“I think he’d side with us,” the other said slowly. “It wouldn’t be easy -this is his father we’re talking about, after all- but I think he’d do it.” Alex shrugged. “You know him better than I do.”

Kira considered that. “I think you’re right. If it comes to that, it won’t be easy for him, but he’ll do it. And he won’t be alone, either. I’ll help him if I can, and there’s Lacus and Nicol.”

“Which is very fortunate,” Alex said. “If it hadn’t been for Lia and Yzak, I would likely have gone mad after the Mandelbrot Incident.”

Flay nodded. “I know what you mean.” She briefly looked glum. “I’ve had nightmares about what might have happened if Kira hadn’t been there when my father was killed. What I could have done…” She trailed off, shuddering.

Kira wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. “What’s important is that it didn’t happen.”

“Still, you gotta wonder,” Cagalli said softly. “Will we be ready, if we’re drawn into the war?”

“We’ll be ready,” Alex said, standing. He nodded at the silent mobile suits visible through the window. “We’ll be ready,” he repeated. “We have no choice.”

There was a long silence. Natarle had informed them that very morning of increased activity at Carpentaria Base. From what she’d heard, they were gearing up for a new operation, codenamed Spit Break; the target was rumored to be Panama. It was logical enough; with the loss of Kaohsiung and Victoria, Porta Panama was the only mass driver the Earth Forces had left. If it was destroyed, the door to space was closed.

And that would make Orb, with its mass driver at Kaguya, a prime target for the Earth Forces.

“We shouldn’t be worrying about that right now,” Cagalli said. “Alex is right, we will be ready. For now, though…” She shrugged. “After everything that’s happened since Heliopolis, we all need a break. Which reminds me…” She smiled at her boyfriend. “Happy birthday, Alex.”

He blinked. “Thanks, but how did you know? I know I’ve never mentioned it.”

“I told her,” Andrea said from the doorway.

Alex rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised. Are you here for a reason, Sis?”

Andrea exchanged cheerful greetings with Flay, then looked back at her brother. “Lord Sahaku asked for my input on modifications to his mobile suit.”

“He has one of the Astray prototypes, doesn’t he?” Kira asked.

She nodded. “MBF-P01 Astray Gold Frame. While the Zala team was here, he was talking to Nicol about the Blitz; apparently he wants to use data from that machine.”

From what Alex had seen, the Gold Frame needed repairs more than it needed upgrades. If he remembered right, it had taken damage during the Le Creuset team’s attack on Heliopolis, lost an arm or some such. Alex did know it had plugs that allowed it to use both Orb and Earth Forces weapons, which could be quite an advantage.

He looked at Kira. “You said prototypes, plural?” Kira nodded. “How many are there?”

“Three, I think,” Kira said slowly. “The MBF-P02 Red Frame belongs to that Junker your cousin mentioned, Lowe Guele. It has a Natural-compatible OS, and sword with an anti-beam coating.”

“That would be the Gerbera Straight,” Alex said. “And the third?”

Cagalli took that one. “I heard the P03 Blue Frame was taken by Gai Murakumo. I’ll bet it was the machine Waltfeld ran into when we landed on Earth.”

“Sounds logical,” Alex agreed. He chuckled ruefully. “Speaking of Murakumo, it seems I’m not the only person around here who has a facade. My friend Chris Madsen is ex-Serpent Tail.”

Flay’s jaw dropped. “So, he knows Murakumo?”

“He does indeed, and the battle-frenzy/pyromaniac part of his personality is every bit as much of a mask as my poker face,” Alex confirmed.

“You shouldn’t be surprised, Flay,” Andrea advised. “Alex and I know Lowe Guele, thanks to Lia. Anyway, back to the original topic, Lord Sahaku is interested in the Specter’s energy-draining claw.”

That made sense. Such a weapon had obvious applications in the capture of new enemy machines. If you drained the target’s battery, you could capture or destroy it at your leisure.

Alex stood. “I have to talk to Sahaku myself,” he said. “I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he cares about Orb in the least, but at least he has a grip on reality. Which is more than can be said for certain other individuals here.” There was a soft chuckle at his thinly veiled reference to the Seirans.

Cagalli gave him a quick kiss. “I don’t trust him either, but you shouldn’t have much trouble. You are nobility, after all, even if you’re not from Orb.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Cousteau, crew lounge

“So how long do you think we’ll be here?” Dearka wondered idly.

Yzak looked up from a magazine. “Who knows? It’s not like they’re ready to launch Spit Break yet, and if there’s nothing to do anyway, making sure the Earth Forces don’t try anything with Orb is fine by me.”

“You’re just saying that because your cousins are there,” Nicol said with a grin.

The Duel’s pilot shot him a dirty look but didn’t deny it. “Of course, I am. Andrea was already kidnapped once; there’s no way I’m letting it happen again.”

“For once, Yzak, I’m with you all the way,” Athrun said. “Kira’s there, too, remember. I’m not losing anyone else.”

Yzak snorted, but his heart wasn’t really in it. Now that he’d met Kira Yamato, he understood why Athrun was so loyal to him. There’s something about that guy. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. There was no denying his skill, either.

“I wonder if Orb will be pulled into the war,” Nicol said. “Uzumi said they’ll never join the Earth Alliance, but will that be enough?”

“That’s why we’re here, Nicol,” Athrun reminded him. “Once Panama is taken out, the only mass driver not in ZAFT hands will be Kaguya; I don’t think the Equatorial Union has one.”

Nicol winced. “So, the Earth Forces will demand that Orb join their cause.”

“And Uzumi will tell them to go take a flying leap, so they’ll try to take it by force,” Dearka said, his voice dripping contempt. “The question is, can they, do it?”

Yzak laughed. “Dearka, Orb has Alex, Kira Yamato, and the Hawk of Endymion. Those three could wipe out a bunch of our forces all by themselves, let alone the stuff the Earth Forces have.”

Athrun shook his head. “Don’t be so sure, Yzak. Sure, Alex, Kira, and Commander La Flaga are some of the best pilots around; we know that from experience. That doesn’t mean the Alliance doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve. Remember Andrea’s machine.”

Yzak grimaced. Delighted though he was by the appearance of GAT-X210 Specter, once he found out who the pilot was, its existence was still a bad sign. Unless the war ended soon, something none of them were optimistic about, the Earth Forces would inevitably overcome the OS problem that had hamstrung their mobile suit program. When that happened, things would get a whole lot bloodier.

That was why Operation Spit Break was so important. If ZAFT could at least take out the last Earth Forces mass driver, it would at least buy them some time; the loss of Panama wouldn’t completely trap the Alliance on Earth, but they wouldn’t be able to send any significant force into space.

“My father’s election as Chairman of the Supreme Council may make things more difficult,” Athrun said softly.

His teammates looked at him. “You, okay?” Nicol asked.

Athrun sighed. “I… don’t think he’s himself anymore. He hasn’t been since the Bloody Valentine, really.” He hesitated. “I’m starting to think Alex might be right, that… my father really does want the Naturals extinct.”

“What are you going to do?” Yzak asked gently; he knew from painful experience what a family split was like.

Athrun swallowed. “If it comes down to it, I can’t support him.” The admission came hard, but it was firm all the same. “Saying that all Naturals are the enemy is just as wrong as the Earth Forces’ claim that we’re all monsters. I know Kira’s parents, and I certainly don’t want them dead.”

Nicol laid a hand on his shoulder. “You can count on me, Athrun.”

“I’m with you, too,” Dearka said.

“Count me in,” Yzak added. He smiled at his nominal commander’s look of surprise. “Hey, maybe we’ve never liked each other, but teammates stick together no matter what. Besides, I know what it’s like to have that kind of breach in your family.”

Athrun smiled gratefully. “Thanks, guys.”

Streets of Orb capital, 5 April, C.E. 71

After more than an hour of coaxing, Kira finally agreed to get out of the Morgenroete facility for a while. Flay had pointed out that the Natural OS was ready, the M1s were moving along nicely, and Alex was handling the rest of Cagalli’s training, so he could afford to take a break.

“Hey, Kira, you awake there?” Flay nudged him.

He jumped. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

She laughed. “I thought you were sleepwalking for a minute.”

Kira shrugged. “I guess you were right that I needed a break. That work for Morgenroete isn’t as hard as piloting in combat, but it’s not easy, either.”

Inevitably, Flay dragged him to a clothing store. Kira, feeling out of his depth, waited while his girlfriend chatted with a couple of her friends from Heliopolis, who had somehow made it to Orb. He knew one of them slightly, having met her a couple of times at the college.

He suddenly realized the girl was talking to him. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

She smiled. “Thanks for taking care of Flay.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, you’re welcome.”

The girl laughed. “No need to be embarrassed.”

After a few more minutes, Kira and Flay said their goodbyes and left. They had no destination in mind; Flay just insisted that they not return to Morgenroete before sundown. That was fine with Kira; as he’d said, he needed the break.

Eventually, the two teens found themselves on the waterfront. Taking a seat on a nearby bench, Kira gazed out over the ocean. It’s been so long. I can’t even remember what it was like to live in the homeland. After the better part of a decade in Copernicus, followed by a couple of years on Heliopolis, staying in Orb itself was disorienting.

Flay sat down beside him. “What a beautiful view.”

He smiled. “Yeah. Things have been so hectic since we landed, we haven’t had a chance to just look around. Now though…” He trailed off as something in the distance caught his eye. Pulling a set of electronic binoculars from a belt pouch, he found himself grinning.

“What is it?”

Kira handed her the binoculars. “Take a look.”

Flay did as she was told. “A Vosgulov?”

“Not just any Vosgulov,” Kira said. “That’s the Cousteau. Athrun’s ship.”

She blinked. “What’s he doing out there?”

Kira shrugged. “He told me that his team would be stationed near Orb for a while, to make sure the Earth Forces don’t try anything. Sure, they don’t know we’ve deserted, but they know about Admiral Halberton, not to mention Andrea’s escape.”

Flay nodded her understanding. Even with Patrick Zala now Chairman of the Supreme Council, it made sense that ZAFT would want to ensure the Alliance kept its hands off Orb. Combining the Earth Forces’ manpower with Orb’s technology would be a recipe for disaster.

She rested her head on Kira’s shoulder. “Then we’re safe.” Even she knew there was no way the Earth Forces could have built something that could take on all four stolen Gundams at once.

Kira leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, then leaned back. Thanks, Athrun.


Alex gazed thoughtfully at the black-and-gold mobile suit. Originally, the MBF-P01 Astray Gold Frame had borne a pronounced resemblance to Kira’s GAT-X105 Strike. Now, though, it had been severely modified. It had an entirely new head, one with three eyes: two Gundam-style, and a monoeye above them. The right arm had been replaced and equipped with a modified version of the Trikeros shield system used by the Blitz and the Specter.

There were other, nastier features…

“Evil-looking,” he commented.

The dark-haired, crimson-eyed man next to him laughed. “By design, Commander,” Rondo Ghina Sahaku said. “A menacing image can be just as deadly as a beam rifle, as I am sure you know.”

“Psychological warfare,” Alex agreed. “No doubt its looks do not deceive.”

Rondo laughed again. “Not at all. Your sister was very helpful. Thanks to her, the Gold Frame can now drain a target’s energy battery, though by means of colloid gas instead of a claw. The Trikeros is quite functional, and it also carries three spears tipped with Phase-shift armor.”

“Thus, allowing it to penetrate PSA with a physical weapon,” Alex said, nodding. He glanced at his companion sidelong. “I wanted to thank you, by the way. For taking my part with the Seirans.”

Rondo’s lip curled. “Those fools. I admit I don’t exactly like you, and I know perfectly well you don’t like me, but you are nobility of a sort, and you have long since demonstrated your courage and ability. Unlike the Seirans.”

Rondo Ghina Sahaku may have been arrogant, convinced of the superiority of his own birth, and other cliches to that effect, but no one would dream of questioning either his courage or his skill on the battlefield. More importantly for someone like Alex, his contempt for the Seirans was legendary; he had once been heard to say he wouldn’t wish either Unato Ema Seiran or his worthless son Yuna Roma on a cockroach.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Alex said in a dust-dry voice. He looked back up at the silent mobile suit. “The AMATU. I look forward to seeing it in action.”

Rondo smiled thinly. “That may happen much sooner than you think.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Alex said. “ZAFT is going to attack Panama, and if that attack succeeds, I guarantee you the Earth Forces will come here.”

The thin smile grew thinner. “They are welcome to try.”

Alex nodded, then stiffened imperceptibly. He’d just felt something, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was subliminal, almost as though something was calling him. That, of course, was absurd, but it was the only description he could think of.

“Whew! Had me nervous there for a second.”

The two Coordinators turned. “Mu? Something up?” Alex asked.

Mu waved a hand. “Erica Simmons asked me to come, something about a new AI program. Don’t know why she wants me; Kira’s the master programmer.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I came in here and got the same feeling that hits me when Rau Le Creuset’s in the neighborhood.”

“Rau Le Creuset…” Alex trailed off. “Of course!”

Rondo raised an eyebrow. “Le Creuset?”

“What do Mu, Le Creuset, and I all have in common?” Alex answered his own question. “We all have enhanced spatial awareness. I remember reading somewhere that people with our abilities can sense each other.”

Mu blinked in surprise. “How come we haven’t been able to sense each other before now?”

“Abilities like ours don’t usually surface until late adolescence,” Alex explained. “As you may or may not know, I turned eighteen yesterday. The time frame is about right.”

The Hawk nodded slowly. “Makes sense.”

“So, Commander, what sort of AI does the chief desire?” Rondo asked.

Mu shrugged. “Something about remote weapons; I saw a bunch of Morgenroete techs crawling over the Zero. She’ll probably want Kira’s help, too; like I said, he’s the master programmer.”

Alex nodded, then looked back up at the AMATU. Even in the Land of Peace, people were preparing for war. The military with the Strike and their M1s, nobles like Rondo Ghina Sahaku, and independents like Alex himself, all of them were preparing for the coming fight.

I just hope it’s enough. Enough to stop Zala, and the Earth Forces.

Siegel Clyne’s office, Aprilius One, 9 April, C.E. 71

Siegel Clyne rubbed his temples, groaning softly. Patrick Zala’s election as Chairman had galvanized the radicals, as he had unfortunately expected. He still had Canaver, Joule, Elsman, and Amalfi, but the other five representatives had all lined up behind Zala.

There is no longer any alternative. We have no choice if Patrick’s madness is to be stopped. Siegel sighed, then activated a secure comm. “This is Clyne.”

A brown-haired man appeared on the screen. “Waltfeld here.” The Tiger had lost an eye, and his left arm had been replaced by a prosthesis much like Alex Strassmeier’s, but he was in good shape otherwise.

“It’s time, Commander,” Siegel said. “We no longer have a choice. Proceed as we discussed.”

“Understood. What about the Songstress?”

Siegel gave a half-amused grunt. “I had intended to keep Lacus out of this entirely, but she insisted on helping.” He shrugged. “Perhaps her presence will help persuade Lord Uzumi of our sincerity.”

“Maybe it will,” Waltfeld agreed. “I know she likes that Yamato kid. Then again, so do I.” He chuckled. “How do I handle Strassmeier? Sure, he’s wanted to be a ZAFT soldier ever since the Mandelbrot Incident, but the fact that he’s killed our people might make him hesitate.”

“I’m sure you can persuade him,” Siegel said. “Tell him that the deaths of ZAFT soldiers at his hand will not be held against him, in light of the situations he found himself in. If that fails, talk to his cousin; the Cousteau should still be near Orb.”

Waltfeld saluted. “Understood. I’ll have them load the Justice and the Freedom. We should be ready by the time the Songstress gets here.” He cut the circuit.

Siegel sat back in his chair. With that short conversation, there was no turning back. He and his allies were now committed to their course. He only hoped that it wouldn’t end in disaster.

Archangel, cafeteria, 10 April, C.E. 71

Tolle Koenig took a long gulp of his drink. “Man, I needed that,” he said, setting the glass of milk aside.

Alex cocked an eyebrow. “Been busy?”

“Yeah. Since I’m a pilot, the Captain figured I should get some mobile suit training.” Tolle smiled at a very nervous Mir. “Lucky those M1s are better than anything short of a Gundam, or Mir would kill me.”

Alex snorted. “She might kill you anyway.”

“Nah. I talked it over with her, and she thinks it’s better than sticking me in a Skygrasper, which was the original plan.”

“Only after Kira and Commander La Flaga talked to her about it,” Sai put in, setting his tray next to Tolle’s. “She’s still scared, Tolle, you know that.”

Tolle sighed. “I know,” he said quietly. “But… it’s something I have to do. Lieutenant Neumann is better at the Archangel’s helm than I’ll ever be, so it’s not like I’m indispensable there.”

Sai nodded. The recently promoted helmsman was quiet and professional, and he knew the Archangel’s flight systems backwards and forwards.

“There are some things you should keep in mind, Tolle,” Alex said. “First of all, and I’m sure you already know this one, piloting a mobile suit is nothing like handling a battleship’s helm. It’s a lot more maneuverable, so you’ll be a much harder target.”

“I’m following you,” Tolle said.

Alex leaned forward. “The second one is more important. Remember, up till now you’ve only been responsible for the ship’s course. It’ll be a lot different in a mobile suit. Once you’re out there, there will be enough firepower to take out a capital ship at your fingertips. That is not something to take lightly.”

Tolle nodded slowly. “Kira’s told me about that before.”

“He’s told you, but that’s all.” Alex nodded out the viewport, where the Strike was visible. “Nothing can truly prepare you for the moment you first take someone’s life.”

“Your first was Miguel Aiman, wasn’t it?”

Alex shook his head. “No. It was well before that.” He closed his eyes. “It was when Andrea was kidnapped by the Earth Forces. I was able to take out the first guy who broke into our house. He tried to grab me, but I caught him in the temple with my right hand. It shattered his skull.” He met Tolle’s gaze. “I wasn’t affected at first, and I’m sure you know why. Once things had settled down, though, I had a major panic attack.”

He stood. “I’m not saying that I don’t think you can handle it, far from it. I think you’ll make an excellent mobile suit pilot. I’m just warning you that it’s not all about your skill in the cockpit.”

Tolle watched him go. Knowing Alex as he did, the talk hadn’t surprised him in the least, and he had to admit it made a lot of sense. He resolved to remember what his cold-blooded friend had said.

The next couple of days were uneventful. Kira divided his time between assisting the new mobile suit corps and helping Murdoch’s people with the Strike, catching some time with Flay when he could. Alex and Cagalli were almost always found together, save for when one or the other had some pressing business to attend to.

Murrue and Natarle concentrated on getting their new Orb crewmates up to speed on the Archangel. Command hadn’t bothered to assign extra pilots; Kira, Mu, and Tolle were more than sufficient for their current needs. They were, however, badly in need of other crew, particularly mechanics, so a mixture of Morgenroete techs and Orb military personnel were brought on board.

Unbeknownst to any of them, a new group of allies was nearing Orb. Soon enough, Kira would find himself face to face with the Tiger once again, this time as a friend.

Morgenroete lounge, 12 April, C.E. 71

Alex looked up as the black-haired officer stepped in. “Commander Badgiruel? What brings you here?”

“I have some news I felt should be brought to your attention,” Natarle said, sitting near the window. “Apparently, the Earth Alliance has finally learned where your sister found refuge.” The Coordinator’s eyes narrowed, and she nodded. “They’re demanding that she be extradited to stand trial for ‘desertion’.”

Alex clenched his fists. “Even for them, this takes some nerve. They kidnap her, try to brainwash her, and now they have the gall to demand that she be extradited after she escaped?”

“Lord Uzumi refused,” Natarle said. “He told them that, in light of Earth Alliance policy toward Coordinators, he granted Andrea political asylum, and she will not be turned over to them under any circumstances.” She grimaced. “They threatened military action.”

Alex snorted. “It’s a bluff. They’re too focused on the impending ZAFT attack on Panama to bother with Orb now. They’ll swallow their pride, at least for now.”

“That was my assessment,” Natarle agreed. She looked out the window, watching Kira and Cagalli spar. “Commander, I owe you an apology. You were right about the Earth Forces, but I was blinded by my own loyalty, and couldn’t see it.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. I never blamed you for being loyal to your people.”

Natarle started to reply, but a comm unit beeped before she could speak. She touched a control. “Commander Badgiruel here.”

Murrue’s face appeared on the screen. “Something just came up that none of us were expecting,” she said without preamble. “Is Alex with you?”

“Right here, Murrue,” Alex said, stepping to the visual pickup. “What’s going on?”

“An unmarked transport just arrived from the PLANTs,” Murrue said in the tone of someone who isn’t sure she isn’t hallucinating. “The… passengers requested a meeting with Lord Uzumi, and asked that all of the Archangel’s officers, as well as you and Cagalli, be present.”

Alex frowned and glanced at Natarle, who shrugged; she knew as little as he. “All right, we’ll be there.” He cut the circuit and looked at the ex-Earth Forces officer again. “I wonder what has Murrue so frazzled. I don’t know about you, but the only other time I’ve seen her like this was when she learned Admiral Halberton was in Orb service.”

“I suppose we’ll find out,” Natarle said.

Conference room, Athha residence

Murrue, Mu, and Neumann were already there when the quartet arrived. Uzumi sat at the table, as usual, with Kisaka flanking him. Also, present were Admiral Halberton, Rondo Ghina Sahaku, Andrea, and both Seirans, Unato and his son Yuna.

And their PLANT guests were… Andrew Waltfeld, Aisha, and Lacus Clyne? Alex sat at Cagalli’s left, wondering what on Earth was going on.

“You are undoubtedly wondering what someone like Commander Waltfeld would be doing here,” Uzumi said. “He arrived one hour ago, with a rather interesting proposal.” He nodded at the Tiger. “Commander?”

Waltfeld stood. “Basically, what I was sent here for is to offer an alliance, both against the Earth Forces and Chairman Zala.”

Murrue’s jaw dropped. “I can understand wanting to fight the Earth Forces, but Zala?”

“I think I know what’s going on,” Alex said quietly. “Siegel Clyne has become suspicious of Chairman Zala.” He cocked an eyebrow at the ZAFT officer. “Am I right?”

Waltfeld nodded. “That’s it exactly. The truth about what happened to Heliopolis was the last straw. It proved that Le Creuset lied to the Council with Zala’s approval, and that was enough to bring your aunt on board.”

“Who else is supporting Clyne?” Murrue asked. “Surely it’s not just him and Joule.”

“He’s got Eileen Canaver, Tad Elsman, and Yuri Amalfi in his camp,” Waltfeld said. “Unfortunately, that means Zala commands a majority of the Council, so we have to be careful.”

Uzumi stood. “In light of what have learned over the past month, both regarding Zala and the Earth Alliance, I feel we have no alternative. Cooperation with the PLANTs’ Clyne Faction is in my opinion our only hope.”

“Cooperate with them?” Yuna burst out. “We’d bring the Earth Forces down on our heads.” He glared at Alex; he’d been furious when he heard of the young Coordinator’s relationship with Cagalli. “And with him involved-“

“Strassmeier has already proved his courage and skill on the battlefield,” Rondo cut him off, gazing at the younger Seiran as if he was a particularly disgusting bacterium. “Unlike you.”

“Enough.” Uzumi shot Yuna a cold look. “Such bickering is pointless. Commander Waltfeld, we will assist in any way we can.”

Waltfeld saluted. “Thanks. We have a couple things to… sweeten the deal, you might say. One is a new mobile suit for the kid.” He nodded at Kira, who looked, to put it mildly, shocked. “Based on data from the machines Le Creuset stole, only a whole lot better. You’ll see it in a few minutes.”

Kira forced his mouth to close. “Uh…”

“Save it till you’ve tried out your new machine,” Waltfeld advised. “Anyway, the Songstress here has our other gift.”

Lacus walked over to Alex. “Please take this, Alex.” She held out a narrow box.

Alex accepted it with a puzzled frown. There was something about Waltfeld’s expression; the man seemed to by trying not to grin. Lacus herself was visibly restraining a giggle, as if she knew something he didn’t. Which was true enough, Alex reminded himself. Pushing those thoughts aside, he opened the box… and his jaw dropped.

A red uniform. The red uniform of a ZAFT Elite.

He looked at Waltfeld in disbelief, unable for one of the few times in his life to maintain his poker face. “Commander?”

“From Siegel Clyne,” the Tiger explained. “He’s offering you a position in ZAFT, assuming we can get Zala out of the way.”

Alex took a moment to slow his heart. “But I killed so many…”

“He also says the deaths of ZAFT soldiers at the hands of you and your people won’t be held against you,” Waltfeld said. “Like I told DaCosta the first time we fought you guys, there are such things as mitigating circumstances.”

“But I-“

Cagalli took his hand. “Go for it, Alex.”

He looked at her. “Cagalli?”

“You told me you’ve wanted to join ZAFT since the Mandelbrot Incident, but you couldn’t because of Zala,” she said. “Now you have a chance. Take it.”

Eager, yet still indecisive, Alex turned to Uzumi. “Sir? Do you have any problem with this? If I accept the offer…”

“You’re wondering if I would have a problem with Cagalli seeing a ZAFT soldier,” Uzumi said. “I don’t blame you for being nervous, but I assure you your fears are groundless. Whether you join ZAFT or not, you are still a son of the PLANTs.”

Alex nodded slowly. “Thank you.” He turned back to Waltfeld. “In that case, I accept.”

Waltfeld tossed him a salute. “Congratulations, Commander Strassmeier of the ZAFT forces. Naturally, you and your friends will retain possession of your ship and mobile suits.”

“Speaking of mobile suits,” Mu put in, “we should probably get Kira’s new machine secured.”

“Agreed,” Uzumi said. “We will adjourn to Morgenroete’s Onogoro facility.”

Morgenroete facility, Onogoro Island

Kira stared at his new mobile suit, feeling a sense of awe. He could see its resemblance to the original Gundams, but it looked cleaner, somehow, more streamlined. I thought the Strike was impressive, but this machine blows it away.

“ZGMF-X10A Freedom,” Waltfeld said. “One of ZAFT’s two newest machines; the other, X09A Justice, is for your friend Athrun Zala.”

“Heavily armed,” Natarle commented, her trained eye noting the beam rifle, sabers, railguns, and plasma cannons. “You must have had to develop a whole new generation of energy batteries to pull it off.”

“We did,” Waltfeld acknowledged, “but the Freedom and the Justice don’t have them.”

The black-haired commander frowned at him. “Then how are they powered?”

Waltfeld smiled. “The Freedom and the Justice are equipped with Neutron-jammer Cancelers.”

There was a collective gasp from the Orb contingent. A Neutron-jammer Canceler, if such a device truly existed, would nullify the effects of the N-jammers, thus allowing the use of nuclear power. (Or, more than one person thought, nuclear weapons.)

Mu La Flaga found his voice first. “You mean, that thing is nuclear powered?”

“Yep,” Waltfeld said simply. He cocked an eyebrow at Kira. “Think you can handle it, youngster?”

Kira nodded mutely, still in shock. N-jammer Canceler… four times the power of the Strike… amazing.

“Lord Uzumi.” Erica Simmons walked up to them. “It’s ready.”

He nodded approvingly. “Good.”

Alex, now dressed in ZAFT red, raised an eyebrow. “It?”

Uzumi smiled. “Just after the collapse of Heliopolis, Rondo Sahaku turned over the data he had acquired on the Earth Forces’ new weapons, probably to buy his way out of trouble. In any case, Morgenroete combined that with data from the Strike when you and your friends arrived.” He gestured toward the main gate. “And that was the result.

Another mobile suit was rolled in, and more than one of the groups inhaled sharply in surprise. Gold in color, the machine looked like it was glowing. It was clearly based at least in part on the Strike’s design; hardpoints were visible on the back and shoulders. The right hand held a rifle, a double-ended beam saber was clipped to the left hip, and a shield was mounted on the left arm.

“I am very glad the modifications to my genotype give me high tolerance for bright lights,” Alex said dryly. Several people chuckled.

“This is the ORB-01 Akatsuki,” Simmons said. “At first glance, it seems like just another G-type mobile suit, but it has some features no other machine possesses.”

“Like that weird glow?” Mu said.

Simmons nodded. “That is a special coating we recently came up with. Instead of dissipating beam attacks, it actually reflects them.”

Alex’s head whipped around. “A beam reflector?” he repeated in disbelief.

“That’s right,” Simmons said. “Combine that with PSA, and it’s very hard to damage. It’s far from invulnerable; a close-range attack like a beam saber will damage it, but it’s still very tough.” She nodded at Cagalli. “The Akatsuki was intended to be the princess’s personal machine.”

Cagalli’s eyes widened. “My machine?”

“I felt that if you are to be in combat, you should be piloting something more powerful than an M1,” her father explained.

“We’re working on a mobile turret system for it,” Simmons said. “That’s why we needed Commander La Flaga’s input, so that someone without his special abilities could handle it. Unfortunately, it’s not ready, so you’ll have to make do with conventional weapons.” She smiled. “Care to take it for a spin?”

Cagalli was practically rubbing her hands. “Just try and stop me.” She was itching to get into the cockpit and see what her new machine could do.

“That still leaves the question of what to do with the Strike,” Natarle said. “I suggest the new Natural OS be installed, and the machine be turned over to Commander La Flaga.”

“I agree,” Murrue said. She looked at the Hawk. “Can you handle it?”

He snorted. “I’m the guy who makes the impossible possible,” he said. “With the right OS, you bet.”

Alex stared at the gold mobile suit across from his Stormbird, watching the Strike and the Freedom in the corner of his eye. Now, he was the only one who was completely confident; Kira, Cagalli, and Mu were all getting used to new machines.

“You ready for this?” he asked carefully.

“I’ve been ready!” Cagalli shot back, and the Akatsuki charged. Beam sabers clashed, and the two Gundams stood in a deadlock.

The Strike and the Freedom were in a similar position; if they’d been outside, any observers would have assumed a pair of death-duels. Then both pairs sprang apart, clashing again and again.

“Quite a sight, eh, Aisha?” Waltfeld commented; he and Aisha were watching from a control booth.

She nodded. “Kira’s only gotten better, and the other three aren’t that far behind him.”

Which was fortunate. They’d need every pilot they could get in the coming battles. Spit Break was slated to begin in less than a month, and there was no telling what would happen then, regardless of whether it succeeded or failed. All they knew for sure was that the war was far from over.