Chapter 2: Race to Artemis

Ruins of Heliopolis

Alex stared at the drifting wreckage; hands clenched on his control bars. An entire colony, gone, he thought, a cold rage in his heart. Just so that bastard Le Creuset could take out one warship and a single mobile suit. As far as he could tell, the lifeboats had ejected safely, which took a load off his mind, but that did not make him any less angry.

He keyed his comm. “This is Strassmeier. Anybody out there?”

Natarle Badgiruel’s voice answered him. “Archangel here. What’s your status?” Despite her distrust of him, the ensign was all business.

The Coordinator studied his readouts. “I’ve still got plenty of power; I only fired once in that last battle, and it wasn’t too hard to outmaneuver Aiman. No real damage.”

“Good.” Badgiruel looked away for a moment. “Captain Ramius would like you to board the Archangel for now,” she said. “Her niece and the princess are already onboard.”

“Copy that. I am on my way. What about Kira?”

“He’ll be along about the same time.” Badgiruel grimaced. “He’s bringing a damaged life pod.”

“I see.” Alex concealed a grimace of his own at the ensign’s tone. He cared about others, whatever Cagalli thought, and Badgiruel’s obvious dislike of a rescue irritated him. She is probably obsessed with secrecy. He glanced over his shoulder and spotted the Strike coming in. Damaged is right; life support would give out in maybe an hour, probably less.

Alex sighed and told himself not to be too hard on Badgiruel. The Archangel’s crew was probably in a state of shock; a low-ranking officer could not be blamed for being annoyed over additional problems. The Earth Forces had most likely trusted the secrecy of their project as a defense -not to mention the fact that Heliopolis was controlled by a neutral nation, Alex thought sourly- and had never thought that someone like Rau Le Creuset would launch an all-out attack.

He conceded that at least part of his own attitude stemmed from his passionate hatred of the Atlantic Federation. Only a handful of people knew the reason: Ezalia and Yzak Joule, Kyle Perry, and Lia Ramius. Alex realized that no one on the Archangel had anything to do with what had happened, but only two things kept him from hating them just as much; the first was the fact that the ship’s captain was Lia’s aunt, the second was his personal admiration for Mu La Flaga.

Andrea, I will find you someday. I promise. Alex looked in the general direction of the Vesalius, and this time spoke aloud to himself. “You will pay for this, Rau Le Creuset. I swear it.”

Side by side, X105 Strike and X108 Stormbird touched down on the Archangel’s flight deck.

Gamow, pilots’ ready room

Three teens in uniforms identical to Athrun’s gazed out at their new machines, brooding on the day’s events. White haired, blue eyed Yzak Joule, pilot of X102 Duel, sat on a couch, drink forgotten in his hand. Dearka Elsman, the tall, blond pilot of X103 Buster, hovered near the window. X207 Blitz was assigned to the team’s youngest pilot, green haired, fifteen-year-old Nicol Amalfi.

“It’s gone,” Nicol whispered.

Dearka shrugged. “So what? They called themselves neutral, even though they were building weapons for the Earth Forces.” He nodded significantly at their new mobile suits. “They call that neutral?”

Yzak was not listening. Athrun had reported the identity of the Stormbird’s pilot, and he was still in shock. Alex, why? How could you be helping anyone in the Earth Forces, let alone the Atlantic Federation? What about your parents, or Andrea? Despite their rivalry, he could only feel sympathy for Athrun, who was in a similar predicament.

Nicol looked at him, concerned. “You okay?”

Normally, Yzak would have found such a query irritating, but not now. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “Alex hates the Earth Alliance, and especially the Atlantic Federation.” He hammered a fist into the couch’s arm. “Athrun said he’s avoiding Chairman Zala’s madness, whatever that means, but that still doesn’t explain why he’d be helping an Atlantic Federation warship.” Yzak shook his head. “Yeah, one of his friends is the CO’s niece, but still…”

Dearka raised his eyebrows. “What’s his beef with them, anyway?”

The Duel’s pilot closed his eyes briefly as the painful memories came flooding back. “His parents died in the Mandelbrot Incident,” he said. “About three days later, his sister Andrea was kidnapped by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit. Alex just barely escaped, and he never saw her again.” Yzak clenched his fists; Alex and Andrea Strassmeier had always been more like siblings than cousins to him. That was one reason he hated the Earth Forces.

Nicol winced. “No wonder he hates them.” He looked out the window again. “You think it’s true, what he and that Yamato guy said? About them just protecting their friends?”

“I wish I knew.” Yzak sighed in frustration. “Athrun insisted that Yamato would never lie to him, and the one exception Alex makes to the Earth Forces is that he admires Mu La Flaga, but…” He trailed off. “I just don’t know.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Dearka opined. “No way is the Commander going to just let them go.”

Archangel, hangar/Bridge

Alex unstrapped and opened his machine’s hatch. There was already a lot of activity in the hangar; mechanics were swarming over La Flaga’s Moebius Zero, while some workers unloaded crates of food that Lia had brought over with her, knowing that Archangel was low on supplies. Directly opposite the Stormbird, the Strike set the life pod it had retrieved on the deck.

The pod’s hatch popped open, and a red-haired girl in a pink dress poked her head through. Alex recognized her instantly, having seen her with Sai more than once. Flay Allster, daughter of Atlantic Federation Vice Foreign Minister George Allster, now this should be interesting. He knew that Flay would dislike him the moment she knew who and what he was; her only major disagreement with Sai was about Coordinators.

Fortunately, he did not have to worry just yet, for at that moment Flay spotted Kira exiting the Strike. Her face immediately lit up. “I know you, you’re one of Sai’s friends, right?” She pushed off, practically tackling him.

Kira blinked in surprise. “Flay Allster?”

She looked up at him. “It was crazy! I lost my friends in the store, and then I got into a shelter, and…” Flay took a deep breath. “Is it true that ZAFT attacked us?”

“I’m afraid so,” Alex said, joining them. “Rau Le Creuset, no less. He used heavy weaponry meant for taking out fortresses.” His lips twitched, a half-formed sneer, perhaps. “That sort of ruthlessness is why I’ve always despised the man.”

Flay frowned at him. “You’re a friend of Sai’s, too, aren’t you? Strassmeier?”

“That’s me,” Alex acknowledged. “I know you know I’m a Coordinator; what you don’t know is that I’m related to a member of the PLANT Supreme Council, Ezalia Joule, to be exact.”

Her expression turned from curiosity to horror. “Ezalia Joule? But she is one of the biggest radicals! The only one who’s worse is Zala!”

Alex shrugged. “All true. I should, however, point out that one of my closest friends is the niece of this ship’s captain.”

“But this is a ZAFT ship!” Flay protested. “There are mobile suits here!”

“The Strike is an Earth Forces machine,” Kira reassured her. “This ship was built for the Atlantic Federation, and the other mobile suit belongs to Alex.”

Flay looked unconvinced. “Even if the Strike is Earth Forces, how can Alex have a mobile suit if he’s not ZAFT?”

Alex kept a firm hold on his temper. Remember, she is George Allister’s daughter, which means she has got all sorts of garbage in her head. He is also not exactly Aunt Ezalia’s biggest fan. “The Stormbird and four other machines were built as a contingency against Patrick Zala trying something insane.”

“Why would you want to stop him?” Flay demanded.

“He’s the only person in the PLANTs I despise more than I do Rau Le Creuset,” Alex said coldly. “He wants every last Natural dead, which is, in my opinion, reason enough to oppose him.” He did not wait for a response. “Kira, why don’t you get her to the cafeteria. Sai and the others should be there.”

Kira nodded; he was only too happy to defuse the situation. “See you later.”

The first thing Alex noticed about Archangel’s bridge was that it was more cramped than Valkyrie’s. Instead of the tabletop screen, it had a large monitor set just above the forward viewport. The two helm stations were directly below it, with the command chair behind them. Communications and fire control were behind and above the captain; the XO’s station was in CIC, behind and below.

“As I see it, we have only one real choice of destination,” Murrue was saying. “Even with the food Lia brought with her, we’re short on supplies.”

La Flaga agreed. “We can’t make it to the moon in our current condition,” he said, looking at a map of the area. “Artemis looks like our best bet.”

Badgiruel was not so sure. “Artemis is a Eurasian base, and the Archangel is a top-secret Atlantic Federation vessel. Neither it nor the Strike has a recognition code that our allies recognize.”

Even if they did, there is no guarantee the Eurasians would respect it. Especially not at Artemis. “The Lieutenant is right,” Alex said. “There’s no point in going for the moon if you don’t have the supplies to make it there alive.” He shrugged. “Whether they can be trusted is your call; the Valkyrie will remain outside until your resupply is complete.”

Lia nodded. “The question is how to get there in one piece. I doubt the ZAFT forces would even notice Valkyrie, but your ship is more of a problem; it’s not exactly stealthy.”

La Flaga frowned thoughtfully. The girl has a point. Their ship is almost impossible to spot, but ours… He brought up a file on Pal’s terminal. Maybe if we use decoys… Such a maneuver could work, but only if Le Creuset did not realize how limited their choices were. And even if he did not, with two ships he could cover them without much trouble.

“If we send decoys toward the moon,” he said at last, “and then head in the opposite direction, we could make it.”

“I agree with Lieutenant La Flaga,” Alex said. “A two-hour burn with your main engines followed by a coast should get you to Artemis in… call it two days.” He tapped the back of the command chair. “If it comes to a fight, Archangel is well-armed, plus you have the Strike, assuming Kira agrees to fly it again.”

Assuming, indeed; Kira had so far shown great reluctance to fight. Not that even Badgiruel blamed him; it was a bit much to ask someone to face his best friend in battle. However, it was also true that Kira was willing to do what was necessary to protect his friends, to say nothing of the refugees he had just brought on board.

“I think he’ll do it,” Murrue said at last. “How are you people doing?”

Lia consulted a portable computer she had brought with her. “The Parsifal positron cannons -a modification of your Lohengrin design- are on-line. We’ve also got the other linear catapult working, as well as Kyle’s Devastator.”

“That should be enough.”

Let us hope so. Alex closed his eyes briefly. “I never thought I’d be helping an Atlantic federation warship.”

Badgiruel glanced up sharply at his tone. He sounds like he is bitten something sour. Just what is with him, anyway? “Do you have a problem with us, Strassmeier?”

He did not even glance at her. “With you personally, no. With the Atlantic Federation, yes,” he said acidly.

“What kind of problem?” This youngster was beginning to grate on the nerves.

Alex finally looked at her, and for the first time the Archangel’s crew saw signs of emotion in the young Coordinator: anger. “I lost my parents in the Mandelbrot Incident,” he bit out, “and my sister was kidnapped by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit just three days later.” A shadow crossed the young Coordinator’s face. “I never saw her again.” He spun on his heel and stalked out.

There was a long silence. Of the group on the bridge, only Lia had heard the story, and she had promised to keep it secret. The others, particularly Badgiruel, were having trouble coming to grips with this new revelation. None of them liked the thought of their own nation engaging in outright kidnapping. Murrue was disturbed; leaving aside the fact that her niece was a Coordinator, the scenario Alex had just described disgusted her.

La Flaga, for his part, was less surprised than he might have been. Even before Endymion, the rhetoric coming out of the Alliance high command had been growing increasingly hardline, and, for all his dislike of ZAFT, he had never believed that they were responsible for the Copernicus bombing.

And now this. He looked at Murrue. “Captain, I think we should make some discreet inquiries when we get the chance. If he is telling the truth, then there’s something very wrong with the Alliance.”

Even Badgiruel agreed. “Such a move would clearly violate the military’s own code of conduct. I still don’t trust Strassmeier,” here she glanced half-apologetically at Lia, “but the sort of action he described is inexcusable.”

“I’ll talk to Admiral Halberton,” Murrue said. “We could check at Artemis, but since the events occurred before the Alliance was formed, it’s unlikely they would have any information.”

Not to mention the fact that the Eurasians do not exactly like us, she added to herself. If they heard about this, it could split the Alliance apart.

Archangel, Cafeteria

Cagalli stepped through the hatch, eyes sweeping the room. Unlike Lia, she had come over because the refugees were Orb nationals, and she wanted to be sure they were safe. Also, she was curious about the other Coordinator she had met at Morgenroete. Something about him had caught her attention.

Oh, come on, she told herself. There is nothing special about him; you just wanted to apologize for the way you treated him at Heliopolis.

Still, Kira seemed like a nice guy, and it certainly beat having to deal with Strassmeier’s cold attitude. She was glad to escape it, if only for a little while.

Cagalli spotted Kira quickly enough. He was sitting at a table with his friends -Sai, Tolle, Kuzzey, and Mir, if she remembered correctly- and a redhead she did not recognize. She shrugged. Now, she would take almost anyone over Alex Strassmeier.

Kira looked up, and his eyes widened in surprise. He rose as Cagalli approached their table. “Uh, hi.”

She smiled; there was something about Kira that made you trust him even if you had only just met. “I wanted to apologize,” she said. “For snapping at you, back at Morgenroete.”

He waved that away. “Don’t worry about it. Things were simply crazy; I didn’t blame you.” He hesitated. “Is it true that you’re the princess of Orb?”

Cagalli winced. “Please, don’t call me that. I really, really hate being a princess. I prefer just Cagalli.” She chuckled softly. “Just about everyone back home would be horrified, except for my father. He doesn’t mind that sort of thing, even if it drives everyone else nuts.”

“Uh, okay.” Kira was not sure what to make of this girl. A princess who hates being one, now that is simply weird. “Why did you come to Heliopolis, anyway?”

“I’d heard that Morgenroete was building mobile suits for the Earth Forces, so I came to see if it was true.” She shrugged. “I was right. Even though we are supposed to be neutral, we’re building weapons for the Alliance.”

Kira frowned, remembering the scene in the factory, and Alex’s words to Athrun during the later battle. “But the government wasn’t involved. At least that’s what Alex says.”

Distaste flickered over Cagalli’s face. “What does he know? He is from the PLANTs, not Earth. Besides, the guy’s probably a ZAFT agent himself.”

“Hey,” Tolle protested. “We watched him take out one of ZAFT’s top aces; you think he would have done that if he was a spy?”

“He was probably trying for a disabling attack, but missed,” Cagalli countered.

Mir shook her head. “No. He is cold, but… No. Alex is obsessed with efficiency; if he shot that GINN dead center, then that was where he meant to shoot. I know he hates the Atlantic Federation, but…”

“It’s like he sees the Archangel as separate from the Earth Forces as a whole,” Sai put in. “Maybe it’s because he’s friends with the captain’s niece, but it doesn’t matter.”

“He must be hurting, though,” Kira said. “Even if he doesn’t show it. I mean, he has to fight his own cousin.” He winced, then shrugged. “Besides, he knows we’re carrying refugees. Do you think he’d try to get them killed?” he asked pointedly.

Cagalli hesitated. Do I think he would go that far? No, but still… “He’s related to Ezalia Joule, one of Patrick Zala’s closest allies. Why would someone like that help an Earth Forces ship?”

Kira had to think. “I know the refugees are one reason,” he said slowly. “I’ve heard him say some nasty things about Patrick Zala, and the tactics the Le Creuset team used today are just about guaranteed to make him mad, even if he doesn’t show it.”

“Kira’s right,” Kuzzey said reluctantly; he was wary of Coordinators at the best of times. Learning that one of his classmates was related to one of the most radical members of the PLANT Supreme Council had made him even more so.

The princess still was not convinced, but she let it go. “Maybe.” She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to get going; Lia’s shuttle leaves soon.”

Kira waved. “See you later.”

Cagalli could not help smiling; somehow, she knew they were going to be friends. “See you.”

Over the next day, the crews of the two ships settled into an almost comfortable routine. Kira’s friends wound up assisting the shorthanded Archangel, Kuzzey taking over communications, Tolle helping Chief Neumann at the helm, Sai handling electronic warfare, and Mir acting as combat operator for the Strike and Le Flaga’s Moebius Zero. Murrue and Badgiruel coordinated with Lia on battle plans, Alex occasionally contributing to an almost toneless voice.

Both crews knew perfectly well that they were far from safe. Rau Le Creuset was anything but stupid; with two ships, he had his choice of tactics. He could take one ship on the lunar route and send the other to cover Artemis. On the other hand, it was possible (as was in fact the case) that he would see through the decoy attempt and cut them off.

Either way, everyone knew all too well that a battle could well be imminent…

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters, 26 January, C.E. 71

Cagalli drifted down the corridor toward Alex’s cabin. She had just spent half an hour pumping Valkyrie’s other pilots for information on their leader, and not getting much. Brian had only said that he considered Alex a friend, as had Hiro. Kyle, on the other hand, had seen precisely where she was going.

“Look, I know Alex isn’t the friendliest guy around, but he has a heart,” the Devastator’s pilot had told her. “I don’t blame you for your attitude, not when he’s related to someone like Ezalia Joule, but he’s not what you think, either.”

“Why does he hate the Atlantic Federation, then, if not because of his relatives?” she had shot back.

Kyle had taken a moment to respond. “I don’t think I should be the one to tell you,” he had said at length. “Alex doesn’t like that being spread around; if you want to know, you’ll have to ask him yourself.”

Cagalli had decided to do just that, though at the same time she could not suppress a chuckle at what had happened next. Chris Madsen, the flame-haired pilot of X112 Inferno, had turned up just as she was leaving.

“Are you sure we can trust them, Kyle?” he had asked, referring to their Earth Forces allies. “What if they’re with Blue Cosmos or something?”

Cagalli had burst out laughing at Kyle’s response. “Will you give the conspiracy theories a rest, Chris?” he had groaned, in the tone of someone who had been over the same subject at least a hundred times. “I swear, you see black helicopters every time somebody sneezes.” Chris had just looked innocent.

She shook herself. That is enough. You are here for answers. She pressed the buzzer key next to the door.

“Enter,” Alex’s voice said.

Cagalli stepped through the hatch and looked around. The cabin was sparsely furnished, with a military bunk against one bulkhead, a bookcase directly opposite, a desk with a built-in computer terminal and two chairs, and what looked like a supply cabinet of some sort. A framed photo hung over the bunk.

Alex glanced up from whatever file he was perusing on the terminal. “Have a seat,” he said, waving at the other chair. “I think I can guess why you’re here: you want to know what I’m up to.”

“Something like that,” she acknowledged; once again, he had unnerved her. “Everyone I’ve talked to says you hate the Earth Forces, so why are you helping them?” she asked bluntly.

His eyes narrowed slightly at her tone. What is she getting at? “Lia is one reason; I could hardly ask her to turn against her own family.” Alex shrugged. “More to the point, Le Creuset’s attack on Heliopolis forced my hand. I knew we’d have to leave eventually; I just didn’t think it would be quite so soon.” He quirked an eyebrow. “What, did you think I was part of some deep-cover intelligence op?”

Cagalli blinked, then glared at him. “What am I supposed to think? You knew about the attack, your aunt is on the Supreme Council, and your cousin is a member of the Le Creuset team. What else can you be?”

He snorted. “A patriot who doesn’t like the direction the PLANTs are taking,” he said.

“Then why not work from within?” she challenged. “You’re Ezalia Joule’s nephew; you must have had some influence.”

“Not enough.” Alex’s voice was as cold as the space around them. He looked her in the eye. “There is far more going on than you realize; don’t talk when you don’t understand. I don’t need a lecture from some pampered aristocrat,” he added.

His words spared an explosion. “Pampered?” Cagalli shouted, bursting out of her chair. “Just who do you think you are? I have had military training; I do not just sit around doing nothing! And at least I am trying to change things, instead of betraying my people and my own family!”

The flat crack of Alex’s palm striking the desk was like a pistol shot. Cagalli flinched, realizing in an instant that she had gone too far. “You have no idea what you are talking about, Cagalli Yula Athha,” Alex said, very softly. “I tried to tell Aunt Ezalia that Zala was trouble. I tried to tell her that he wanted more than victory, that he wanted the Naturals extinct, but she did not believe it. She told me I was being paranoid. So, I left. I came with a few friends to Heliopolis, and we decided to counter Zala’s madness. In the process, I got to know Kira and his friends. And now, because of Patrick Zala and Rau Le Creuset, I must fight my own cousin, a cousin I have long seen more as a brother. Do you have any idea, any idea, how much that hurts?”

The princess looked away, ashamed. She had been convinced that Alex was a spy, a ZAFT agent, but now she knew she had been wrong. The pain in his voice was too clear; if he had wanted to keep up a charade, he would simply have maintained his emotionless mask. How could I have been so stupid? “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

To her surprise, Alex leaned back in his chair, looking suddenly weary. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “It’s as much my fault as it is yours; I have a tendency to keep things bottled up, and that sometimes gives people the wrong idea.” He smiled wryly. “And I admit that the ‘pampered’ line was a bit over the top; my apologies.”

Cagalli found herself grinning; under the mask, she suddenly realized, was a genuinely likeable human being. “Like you said, don’t worry about it. I guess I had it coming.” She raised an eyebrow. “By the way, why do you hide your feelings like that? And why are you being so friendly suddenly?”

He shrugged. “I learned at an early age that the best way to avoid being taken advantage of was to make sure no one could tell what I was thinking; sometimes I overdo it. To answer your second question, there are few people I trust enough to really be open with; it’s always a relief to find another person like that.” Alex glanced out the viewport, watching the Archangel cruise alongside. “To be honest, Kira probably falls into that category, along with Mir Haw and Lia’s aunt. Plus, Mu La Flaga; I’ve long admired him.”

“But why me?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t mind; I can see now that you’re an all-right guy, but still. We only met yesterday.”

“Not quite,” Alex countered. “We actually met once before, about four and a half years ago. It was at an official function in the Orb capital. You were wearing a green dress, and visibly hating it. I was with my parents and younger sister, dressed in a black suit of military styling.”

Cagalli’s eyes widened. “I remember now!” She chuckled. “You had about as much expression as the wallpaper, but I remember thinking you were a nice guy, deep down inside. I think it was the way your sister stuck close to you; I figured that anyone that devoted to a sibling had to be okay.”

“That’s about right,” Alex agreed. “My first thought was something along the lines of ‘tomboy’, an assessment I now see was more accurate than I originally thought.”

She chuckled again. “Yeah, everyone says I’m a tomboy, and they’re probably right.” Cagalli looked at the photo over Alex’s bunk, which she now realized was a family portrait of sorts. “So, how’s the family?”

His face darkened, a mixture of grief and barely suppressed rage. “My parents were killed in the Mandelbrot Incident, and Andrea was abducted by an Atlantic Federation special forces unit shortly thereafter. I’ve been searching for her ever since.”

“I hope you find her.” Cagalli was an only child, but she knew how much Alex had to be hurting, and besides, she would rather like Andrea Strassmeier the one time they had met. No wonder he hates the Earth Forces. “Was there something wrong with your arm?” Alex looked at her questioningly, and she shrugged. “I remember you seemed to be favoring your right side.”

“Oh, that.” He grimaced, indicating a point halfway down his upper arm. “From here down, the arm is a prosthetic. You see, my mom ran an ichthyoculture farm, specializing in sharks. My arm was bitten off by a half-ton mako.”

Cagalli blinked. “Sharks?”

“Sure; shark meat is very nutritious.” Alex grinned. “I got fitted with a prosthetic, and we had the offending shark for dinner.”

She had to laugh at that. “Eat and be eaten.” Another thought struck her. “You said your mother ran an ichthyoculture farm. What about your father?”

“Dad was somewhat more highbrow.” Alex tapped his computer screen. “He was a geneticist. Some of his work I only learned about after he was killed.” He considered his words carefully. “Have you ever heard of Ulen Hibiki?”

Cagalli frowned. “Should I have?”

“I guess not.” Alex stood and began to pace. “He was a colleague of my father’s, famous in his field. He died almost sixteen years ago. Anyway, Dad was working with him on a project to produce the ultimate Coordinator, and it was not exactly kosher. In his attempt to improve mankind, he constructed an artificial womb, eliminating the mother’s body as a variable.” Another grimace. “Hibiki’s wife was not pleased, since he used their unborn son for the experiment,” he said, visibly disgusted.

“His own son?” Cagalli repeated carefully.

“Yep. Nor was that the worst of it; apparently he cloned the poor kid many times over.” Alex shook his head. “None of the clones survived, as far as I know. The ‘original’ lived, the only viable child that thing ever produced. The kid wasn’t completely alone; his twin sister, a Natural, was born about the same time.” His lip curled. “I have no objection to Coordinator technology per se, for obvious reasons, but what Hibiki did was downright nauseating. In any case, he and his wife died in a Blue Cosmos attack about a year later, and the twins were split up and put up for adoption.”

Cagalli nodded; she saw where this was going. “And you’re trying to find them.”

Alex nodded in turn. “Exactly. You see, I am in a sense a byproduct of that project. Dad had me enhanced in extremely specific areas: my hearing is far better than normal, I have reflexes about twice Coordinator norm, an enhanced sense of spatial awareness, and eyesight that would make a hawk jealous.” He sighed. “Until the end of his life, Dad seemed to have something eating at him. Now I know what: guilt for using me in the experiments. I think the only thing that kept him going was the fact that Mom forgave him.” He sat again. “Anyway, I intend to find the Hibiki twins, and bring this madness to a close once and for all.”

This guy has a gift for understatement; madness does not begin to describe it. “If I can help you at all, let me know,” she said. “My father has plenty of sources; we might be able to find something.” She waved at the screen. “Does anyone in the PLANTs know you’re doing this?”

“Aunt Ezalia and Yzak do, that’s about it.” Alex smiled. “Thanks for the offer. I just might take you up on it.”

“No problem.”

Artemis Near space, 27 January, C.E. 71

Murrue Ramius looked at her niece’s image on the comm screen. “We’re approaching Artemis. How are you people holding up?”

Lia checked her board, then nodded. “Okay so far, Aunt Murrue. I do not think we are out of the woods yet, though; we just picked up a heat signature off to starboard. Checking…it’s a Nazca, almost certainly the Vesalius.”

“Concur,” Pal said. Then, “Where’d that come from?” He looked down at his Captain. “Ma’am, we’ve spotted another thermal trace, definitely a Laurasia.”

A curse sounded from the Valkyrie. “We’re in for a fight, then,” Alex said, stepping into view. “I was afraid of this. How’s your parasite complement?”

“The Strike is fully operational, and repairs are complete on Lieutenant La Flaga’s mobile armor,” Badgiruel said. “What about you?”

“We’ve got the rear Helldart launchers ready, but as for mobile suits, we’re still limited to my Stormbird and Kyle’s Devastator.” Alex shrugged. “We’ll make do.”

Murrue nodded. “Understood.” She pressed an intercom stud on her chair. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Kira Yamato settled into the Strike’s cockpit and strapped in. Here goes nothing. A green-eyed face, framed with dark blue hair, appeared in his mind’s eye. Athrun, will I face you again? Will you try to shoot down the Archangel He keyed his radio. “Kira Yamato here.”

Mir’s face appeared on his left screen. “I read you, Kira. Strike to starboard catapult, attach Aile Striker pack.” As she spoke, the mechanics attached the requisite equipment. A subflight unit with two beam sabers went on the back, an anti-beam shield was set on the left arm, and a beam rifle on the right. “Moebius Zero to port catapult.”

“Roger that.”

The other screen displayed Mu La Flaga’s helmeted visage. “Here’s the plan, kid,” he said crisply. “The Archangel will fire a blast from the Lohengrins to cover me while I sneak up and attack the Vesalius from behind. Valkyrie will engage the Gamow directly; you help Alex and Kyle deal with the mobile suits.” His voice softened. “Use disabling shots on the Aegis if you want.”

Kira nodded, smiling gratefully. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, kid.” There was a loud whine as the Lohengrin positron cannons cut loose. “That’s my cue, don’t get shot down before I return. Mu La Flaga, launching!”

So, it begins, Alex thought, fastening his restraints. Yzak, at least hear me out. Please. “Kyle, you up?”

Kyle Perry grinned from the left-hand comm screen. “Ready any time, Alex.”

“As soon as Kira launches from Archangel, so do we.” Alex flicked several switches. “Stormbird is on-line.”

“Devastator is up and running,” Kyle echoed.

“Roger that.” To his surprise, Cagalli looked at him from the other screen. “Ready for launch when you are.”

Alex raised his eyebrows. “Cagalli?”

The princess gave him an innocent look. “Hey, I can’t just sit around, can I? I told you I have had military training; Lia suggested I coordinate the ship’s mobile suits, since I do not hate your guts anymore. This way, I can help you and Kira both.”

He considered that, then shrugged. “Works for me.” He smiled, knowing that the only other person who could see him knew him well enough not to be surprised. “Any word from the Archangel?”

“Lieutenant La Flaga just launched; Kira will be heading out soon,” Cagalli replied. “Almost time.”

Alex sighed. “So, it begins.”

“Strike, go!”

Kira’s hands tightened on the controls. “Kira Yamato, Strike Gundam heading out!”

“Kira’s launching,” Cagalli said.

Alex felt his stomach clench. It is now, or never. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!” The g-forces pressed him back in his seat as the linear catapult spat him into the ether.

“Kyle Perry, Devastator launching!” The Buster near-lookalike followed Stormbird into space.

“What are we dealing with?” Le Creuset asked.

The radar operator checked his readouts. “A single mobile suit off the legged ship, two from the black ship. The extra machine appears to be based on the Buster’s design.”

“I see.” The masked man nodded. “No mobile armor; I suppose they haven’t finished repairing it yet.” He looked at the main screen. “Well, Athrun, it seems you have another opportunity to get your friend to see reason. Good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.” Athrun’s image vanished as the Aegis launched.

Ades shook his head. “This is getting more bizarre by the minute,” he said. “First Athrun learns that his best friend is piloting an Earth Forces mobile suit, then Yzak’s cousin turns up, helping a warship belonging to a nation he hates more than anything else in the world.”

“It is odd,” Le Creuset agreed. “In fairness to young Strassmeier, he is in a rather difficult position. His cousin is piloting one of the machines we captured, and one of his closest friends is the niece of the legged ship’s commanding officer, if Athrun’s report is accurate. This could be remarkably interesting…”

Seven mobile suits closed at each other through the vastness of space, from four different directions. Kira Yamato’s Strike headed directly for his friend Athrun Zala’s Aegis. Alex Strassmeier flew his Stormbird at his cousin Yzak Joule’s Duel, while his friend Kyle Perry took the Devastator after Dearka Elsman’s Buster. Nicol Amalfi ignored the other machines entirely, taking his Blitz directly after the Archangel.

Aegis and Strike both activated beam sabers, although neither struck. “Kira!” Athrun called. “Please, put away your sword!” He felt tears stinging in his eyes. “We are not enemies! Am I right?”

Kira winced. “I told you, I’m not part of the Earth Forces! I am only protecting my friends! I don’t care if they’re Naturals!” He held his position, still unwilling to attack. “Besides, why are you with ZAFT? You used to tell me you hated the whole idea of war.”

“That was before the Bloody Valentine,” Athrun responded. “I lost my mom there,” he said softly.

Kyle, meanwhile, divided his attention between keeping the Buster out of firing range and harassing the maddeningly elusive Blitz. He is good, he thought, firing his gun launcher at the latter machine. With the Blitz temporarily out of the fight, Kyle snapped his weapons together into a sniper rifle and aimed for the Buster.

Dearka wrenched his machine out of the way at the last minute. “What’s with this guy?” He responded in kind, sending a sniper blast at the Devastator.

Now the Duel and the Stormbird were almost in range. Both machines drew beam sabers, but, as with the Strike and the Aegis, neither was willing to attack, at least not yet. Two pairs of eyes, the same shade, widened in dismay.

Yzak spoke first. “Alex?” he said softly, still hoping that Athrun had somehow been mistaken. “Is that you?”

Alex winced, hearing that voice for the first time in over a year. “It’s me, Yzak.” He managed a smile. “Long time no see.”

Hothead that he was, Yzak was instantly furious. “Why are you helping the Earth Forces?” he demanded, boosting forward until he was just within melee range. “How can you even think of helping an Atlantic Federation warship? What about Andrea?”

The crimson beam sabers locked together, bathing both mobile suits in fire. “It’s not a matter of helping the Earth Forces, although I doubt, you’ll accept that,” Alex replied. “It is more a matter of ensuring that a bunch of innocent civilians make it out alive.” His voice hardened. “In any case, what happened to my sister has nothing to do with this. The G-weapon project is the brainchild of Admiral Lewis Halberton, and there is no way he was involved in the events you refer to. The Archangel’s captain promised me she’d look into the matter, and since she’s the aunt of one of my closest friends, I’m inclined to believe her.”

Frustrated, Yzak fired a burst from his Igelstellungs, knowing they were useless against a Phase-shift-equipped machine. “But the Atlantic Federation killed your parents!”

“Irrelevant. As I pointed out to Athrun, the Archangel’s CO is a senior-grade lieutenant. I highly doubt she was in any way involved in the blockade.” Alex clashed his saber against the Duel’s shield. “If you’re trying to get me to see the ‘error of my ways’, don’t bother. Under Zala’s leadership, ZAFT has been reduced to nothing more than the Coordinator equivalent to Blue Cosmos.”

“That’s crazy!” Yzak protested. “Blue Cosmos wants to wipe out all Coordinators!”

“And Patrick Zala wants to kill all the Naturals,” Alex countered. “Forgive me if I fail to see a difference.” He raised his eyebrows. “Tell me: do you want all the Naturals dead?”

Yzak started to reply hotly, then closed his mouth. He knew ZAFT had allies in Oceania and the African Community, but he had somehow never thought of them as Naturals, even though most of them were. “Of course not,” he said at last. “But Committee Chairman Zala doesn’t, either.”

“That’s where you’re wrong.” Alex sighed. “I tried to tell your mother, but, as you probably know, she said I was paranoid.”

The two machines danced through space, sabers clashing repeatedly. “She was right!” Yzak shot back. “They’re the ones trying to exterminate us!”

Closer to the Archangel, the Strike and the Aegis were still locked in a stalemate. “So, you’re trying to kill all the Naturals because of Junius Seven?” Kira asked incredulously. “I mean, I’m sorry about your mom, but is that what you want?”

“We’re not trying to kill all the Naturals!” Athrun protested.

“Oh, really?” Alex spared a moment of attention from his cousin. “You wouldn’t know that from the propaganda coming out of your father’s HQ.”

Athrun did not have an answer to that. The truth was that his father’s rhetoric had become increasingly extreme ever since the Bloody Valentine, much as the Alliance’s had. He did not care, though; he was determined to defeat the Earth Forces, both to free the PLANTs and to avenge his mother’s death.

Aside from a few bursts from their close-in weapon systems, none of the capital ships had fired on the mobile suits. The Vesalius was sitting quietly while Le Creuset watched the battle with interest, Gamow and Valkyrie were doing their best to pound each other into scrap, and the Archangel was waiting for the next blow to be struck.

They would not have long to wait…

A lone Moebius Zero mobile armor approached the Vesalius from behind. Mu La Flaga, having once shot down five GINNs in a single engagement, was more than confident he could pull off the attack. Even the fact that Le Creuset would detect him was not enough to shake him.

Not this time, Rau Le Creuset, he thought viciously. Just…about…now!

On the bridge of the Vesalius, Le Creuset sat bolt upright. Him! He leaned forward in his chair. “Boost engines! Lower bow, pitch angle sixty!”

Ades looked at him in confusion, and then a crewman spoke up. “Heat source approaching below! It’s a mobile armor!”

That was all he needed. “Activate CIWS! Boost engines, lower bow pitch angle sixty!”

Even as Ades gave the order, La Flaga let out a war cry and opened fire with both his linear cannon and wired gun barrels. The attack stitched across Vesalius’s hull like a sewing machine, setting off secondary explosions and short-circuiting half the ship’s computers. Then, for good measure, the Zero’s grappler lanced out, using the ZAFT ship’s hull to slingshot it back towards the Archangel.

Ades coughed on smoke. “Damage report!”

“Number five sodium wall damaged,” a tech replied. “We’ve got fires all over the place.” He looked up. “We can’t take the legged ship in our current condition, sir.”

The captain grimaced. “I see.” He looked at Le Creuset. “Orders, sir?”

Le Creuset clenched his fists. Mu, you bastard. You will pay for this. He sighed. “We’re pulling out. Send word to the Gamow and order our mobile suits to return.”

Alex immediately noticed the explosions. “Well, well, it appears that Lieutenant La Flaga’s idea worked like a charm.” he gave his cousin a sardonic look. “You’ve lost this round, Yzak. If Le Creuset has any sense at all, you’ll be getting a recall order any time now.”

The Duel’s pilot would have disputed that if he could, but the message appeared on his screen just as Alex finished speaking. Not to mention the fact that their fight had taken them perilously close to the Archangel, and Yzak was not so sure he could take that ship singlehanded, at least not yet.

He boosted away, joining Dearka and Nicol. “Another time, Alex.”

Athrun received the order at the same time. The Vesalius was hit? He spun around, hitting his thrusters. “I guess there’s nothing more to be said.” He gave the Strike one last look, tears in his eyes. “I hope you come to your senses, Kira.”

Kira watched him go, blinking back tears of his own. Athrun, I am sorry, but I have no choice. I cannot let my friends die. Then, he too turned back to his mothership. I hope we meet again, as friends.

“Let’s get back to the Valkyrie, Kyle,” Alex said. “We’ve won this round.”

“Roger that.”

“Athrun is back aboard, sir,” the comm officer reported. “Captain Zelman reports Yzak, Dearka, and Nicol have also returned safely.”

‘Very well.” Le Creuset studied the message in his hand. They had received orders to return to the PLANTs and report directly to the Supreme Council. No help for it. “Order the Gamow to remain on station for the moment. Sooner or later, the legged ship must leave Artemis. When it does…” He trailed off, then looked at Ades. “Remind me to request extra forces when we head out again, Ades. That black ship is an extremely dangerous opponent, and I would not be at all surprised if they have additional mobile suits.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alex and Kyle stepped onto Valkyrie’s bridge, exhausted. The fight with the Le Creuset team had been short, but fierce. Archangel had not taken much damage, but Valkyrie was not as fortunate. The Gamow had gotten in several nasty hits. Was it not for the redundancy Alex had insisted on including, the ship might well have been destroyed?

“We’re still operational, but it’ll take time to complete repairs,” Lia was telling her aunt.

Murrue nodded. “I understand. You’re still not coming inside?”

Alex took that one. “We can handle the repairs ourselves,” he said. A grimace briefly touched his angular face. “Besides, I don’t trust Eurasia any more than I do the Atlantic Federation. I’ve also heard a lot of things about Admiral Garcia, all of them bad.” He consulted Lia’s terminal. “On the plus side, Scorpion, Shinobi, and Inferno are almost ready for action. Two, three days till they’re fully operational, max.”

“I understand. Archangel out.”

Lia sat back in her chair. “Now we wait.”

“Yeah.” Alex gazed out the forward viewport; the Gamow -and Yzak- still lurked out there somewhere.

Cagalli approached him, concerned. “Are you all right?” she asked softly.

He was silent for a long moment. “I will be. It’s just that…” He shook his head. “Yzak’s always been more like a brother than a cousin to me. He is a hothead, but I can usually get through to him. This time, though…” Alex sighed. “He doesn’t believe me. Naturally, he brought up what happened to my parents and my sister, wanting to know why I would help an Atlantic Federation warship. I know he doesn’t want to fight me any more than I want to fight him, but still…” He shrugged. “It hurts,” he said simply.

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

He managed a smile, ignoring the surprised looks from the bridge crew, not noticing the way Kyle and Lia exchanged knowing grins. “Thanks.” He investigated space again, then shifted his gaze to Artemis. “I hope Murrue, and the others are all right. I have a bad feeling about this…”

Author’s note: A little faster than I anticipated. Next up is the Battle of Artemis. Not much else to say.