Chapter 20: Illusory Combat

Valkyrie, gym, 13 April, C.E. 71

The black-haired young man grunted as the training mat rushed up and smacked him in the face. He lay there for a moment, gathering his strength, then rolled over and got to his feet. She’s gotten better, he thought. And I thought our first session was bruising.

The blonde girl who’d just tossed him halfway across the room laughed. “What’s the matter, Alex? Slowing down?”

“More like you’re speeding up,” Commander Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT forces, retorted. He felt his jaw and winced. “I’ll feel that one in the morning.”

Cagalli laughed again. “Don’t act so surprised. If I could nail you back in the desert, why wouldn’t I be even better after you and Kira spent weeks working with me?”

“Point.” Alex came over and gave her a quick hug. “And while I may be surprised, I’m not complaining. Anything that makes you harder to kill, I’m in favor of.”

“You’d better be.” She returned the embrace… and then flipped him over on his back.

Alex grunted again as he hit the floor, though at least this time it wasn’t as hard. The impact was enough to knock the wind out of him, but not enough to do any real damage. He wasn’t out of tricks, though, and Cagalli yelped in surprise as he swept her legs out from under her.

She landed on top of him.

“You know,” Alex said conversationally, “if Mu or Tolle could see us, they’d probably get the wrong idea.”

Cagalli blushed. “It’s your fault, Alex,” she said in a mock-severe tone. “If you hadn’t knocked me over-“

“Don’t tell me you thought I was down for the count,” Alex cut her off with a grin.

She grinned back. “Not really.” She kissed him quickly and helped him stand. “Think that’s enough?”

“Yeah.” Alex reached for his crimson jacket. “I wonder if I’ll ever get used to this.”

It had been barely twenty-four hours since he’d accepted Siegel Clyne’s offer, delivered by the Desert Tiger, to join ZAFT. His friends (and, inevitably, his sister) had followed suit, and the newly formed Strassmeier team had become the first ZAFT unit to be assigned to Orb.

Of course, they can’t admit they’re an ally until we’ve taken care of Zala.

“Come on, Alex, you only joined up yesterday,” Cagalli said. “Of course, you’ll get used to it. Besides,” she added with a sly smile, “you look good in red.”

“Thanks.” Alex smiled, then turned, hearing the intercom buzz. “Strassmeier here,” he said, accepting audio only.

“Alex, it’s Lia,” the other said. “We’ve got a priority signal from Colonel Kisaka.”

Alex blinked. Kisaka had been spending a lot of time on the Archangel of late. “Put him through.” He offered a salute when the Colonel appeared. “To what do we owe this, Colonel?”

“Greetings, Commander,” Kisaka said. “How is your team shaping up?”

The Coordinator shrugged. “The only practical change is that we’re wearing ZAFT uniforms now.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Somehow, though, I don’t think you called just for that.”

Kisaka chuckled. “Sharp as ever. Yes, I did have a more pressing reason. Lord Uzumi has a job for your team and the Archangel.”

Alex’s other eyebrow went up. “What sort of job?”

“A covert one.” Kisaka’s face was replaced by a map. “It is not yet known outside of Orb that the Archangel has defected, aside from a select few in ZAFT at least. What we intend to do is make use of that, and send Captain Ramius and her crew to Alaska, and there infiltrate the Earth Forces high command.”

Cagalli whistled. “That’s big. What if Alaska doesn’t believe them? They have been here for almost a month.”

Kisaka smiled grimly. “Simple. Kira and Alex will have to discuss it with the Zala team, but the general idea is to have the Archangel fight one or two mock battles with them. It will probably be necessary to fake the destruction of at least once of the G-weapons, possibly two. For that matter, Kira will likely have to fake his own death and the destruction of the Strike; he probably wouldn’t get a warm welcome at Alaska, after all.”

“Too true,” Alex murmured. “All right. The Akatsuki and the Specter have already been loaded. We’ll temporarily transfer the Freedom here; Kira can reclaim it once his part is done. As for the Zala team, I think they’ll be willing to help. I can’t order them to -Athrun Zala is senior to me- but it shouldn’t take much persuasion.”

Kisaka nodded. “Very well. Commander Waltfeld and Aisha will be joining you with a modified LaGOWE. Please hurry with your preparations; this is a rather spur-of-the-moment operation, and we hope to launch sometime in the next two days.”

“I understand. The Cousteau is still near Orb, so I’ll be able to get in touch with them easily enough.” Alex cut the circuit. “So it begins.” He looked at Cagalli. “You ready?”

She nodded. “It’s time we got moving again.”

“Very well.” He touched the intercom. “Communications, this is Commander Strassmeier. Signal the Cousteau and tell Commander Zala that I’d like to meet with him. Kira Yamato and my sister Andrea will also be along.” He paused, then smiled mischievously. “And don’t tell them that I’ve joined ZAFT. I’d like to give Yzak a little surprise.”

“Yes, sir.” Even with visual switched off, Alex could tell the comm officer was grinning.

As was Cagalli. “Anyone ever tell you have a sadistic streak?”

He laughed. “Hey, Yzak and I do this all the time.”

“Yeah, sure.” She punched his shoulder. “Get going, Alex.”

He grinned, saluted, and went on his way.

Cousteau, upper deck

Kira was right, Athrun Zala thought. Earth really is beautiful. From his position on the submarine’s top deck, he could see for several kilometers over the ocean. If he turned to the side, the coastline of Orb’s Onogoro Island came into view, the rocky terrain hiding the massive dock he knew was there.

Athrun leaned back, clasping his hands behind his head. Though he was devoutly grateful for the chance to relax, and even more grateful that he would no longer have to fight Kira, he found himself hungering for some action. According to Commander Le Creuset, it would still be some time before Spit Break was launched, and Athrun was almost at the point of wishing for an Earth Forces attack just to relieve the tedium.

“Hey, Athrun.” Nicol poked his head through the main hatch. “Wait till you hear what the Alliance is saying now.”

Athrun sat up, grateful for anything new. “Judging by your tone, it’s even crazier than usual.”

“Is it ever.” Nicol shook his head. “They’ve found out where Andrea Strassmeier is.” Athrun’s eyes narrowed, and his friend grimaced. “They’re demanding that Orb extradite her to stand trial for desertion.”

The Aegis’s pilot snorted derisively. “I’ll bet Lord Uzumi wasn’t happy.”

“You got that right,” Nicol agreed. “He told them that in light of Alliance policy toward Coordinators, he granted Andrea asylum in the Orb Union, and under no circumstances will she be given to the Earth Forces.”

“Glad to hear it.” Athrun had been impressed by Lord Uzumi at their first meeting, and it looked like he’d been right. “I’ll bet Yzak’s mad, though.”

“Yzak threw a screaming fit,” Nicol said, grimacing again. “Can’t say I blame him, either.”

“Neither do I,” Athrun agreed.

Nicol nodded, then looked out to sea. Like his companion, he was awed by what he’d seen on Earth. Oh, he still thought the PLANTs were beautiful, but nothing in the giant space colonies compared to Earth. The best description he could come up with was to say that the PLANTs were like a mirror of Earth. Odd thoughts for a soldier, perhaps, but Nicol Amalfi had always had a poetic streak.

The beep of Athrun’s comm broke the silence. “Athrun Zala here.”

“Commander, we have a signal from the Valkyrie,” the comm officer said. “Alex Strassmeier is requesting a meeting with you. He say he will be accompanied by his sister and Kira Yamato.”

Athrun’s eyebrows went up. Alex and Kira want to talk to me? “Of course. They’ll be coming in their mobile suits?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then give them permission to land. We’ll talk in the main briefing room.” Athrun clicked off his comm. “I wonder what this is about. If it was just Kira, I’d think this was just a social call, but with the Strassmeier’s involved, there must be more to it.”

Nicol got to his feet. “I guess we’ll find out when they get here.”

“Yeah.” Athrun rose and led the way down the hatch.

Briefing room

I wonder what this is about, Yzak thought. Not that I mind getting a chance to see Alex and Andrea, but it’s kind of weird. He snorted. Schemer that Alex was, there was no doubt something big was up. Yzak knew him well enough to realize that.

“Any idea what’s going on?” Dearka asked.

Athrun shrugged. “All I know is that Kira and Alex want to talk to us.”

“You can bet it’ll be something big,” Yzak said. “Alex wouldn’t be coming way out here for the fun of it.”

They turned as the hatch opened, and more than one jaw dropped in sheer astonishment. Kira Yamato wore the silver-white of the Orb Union with lieutenant’s insignia. That was to be expected; all four of them were aware of Kira’s enlistment in the Orb military. What none of them had expected was the sight of Alex and Andrea Strassmeier in the same red uniform they themselves wore.

“A-Alex?” Yzak whispered.

His cousin grinned. “Surprised, Yzak?”

“Kira, just what is going on?” Athrun demanded.

“Commander Waltfeld turned up in Orb yesterday,” Kira said. He proceeded to explain what the Tiger had said at their meeting.

When he had finished, the atmosphere in the briefing room was very somber indeed. “I never thought my father would go this far,” Athrun said quietly. “I didn’t want to believe it, but I don’t have a choice anymore. If Siegel Clyne, who was once his closest ally, has resorted to this, then something is very wrong.” He looked at his teammates, got nods from them, and met Kira’s gaze. “We’re with you.”

Kira seemed to sag in relief. “Thanks, Athrun.” He gestured to Alex. “Alex will explain the plan.”

“What we’re up to right now will require some subterfuge,” Alex said. He activated the wall screen, bringing up a map. “In two days, the Archangel and the Valkyrie will be leaving Orb on a covert mission to Alaska.”

“What kind of covert mission?” Nicol asked.

“In essence, Murrue and her crew will pretend that they are still with the Earth Forces,” Alex said. He highlighted a point just outside Orb territory. “We need your assistance on this, but it will mean that you guys will get somewhat banged up.”

Athrun raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“We need you to stage two mock battles with the Archangel,” Alex explained. “Unfortunately, it will mean inflicting real damage on your machines; that’s what I meant by banged up. Kira will temporarily resume control of the Strike. In each battle, we will simulate the destruction of one of your G-weapons, probably with judicious use of explosives.”

“Makes sense so far,” Athrun agreed.

“In the second battle, Kira will fake his own death, and will remain onboard the Valkyrie until the Archangel is finished at Alaska. The Natural OS will be reinstalled in the Strike, and Kira will launch in the Freedom.” Alex nodded at his sister. “Since Lia and I will be accompanying Murrue into the JOSH-A base, Andrea will be in acting command of my team.”

Athrun thought for a moment, then nodded. “All right. We’ll do it.”

“We can take the Blitz out first,” Nicol offered. “It’s easy to hide.”

Athrun nodded. “I’ll be switching to the Justice anyway, so we’ll fake the Aegis’s destruction in the second battle.” He cocked his head at the visitors. “Who will pilot it after that?”

“Tolle Koenig,” Alex said promptly. “He’s a natural pilot, pardon the pun, and it’ll make Miriallia a little less nervous about him being in combat.”

There was a general round of chuckles at that. Athrun and his teammates had only met Tolle and Mir once, but Tolle’s carefree attitude and Mir’s constant worry for him had been impossible to miss. Athrun himself had taken a liking to the young Natural, probably because of Tolle’s close friendship with Kira.

“All right,” Athrun said. “Anything else?”

“We’ll be escorted out by an Orb fleet,” Kira said. “It’ll make it hard to tell where the Archangel is until the other ships break off.”

Athrun nodded. If they wanted to make this look real, they had to make sure his team didn’t find the “legged ship” too easily.

“The Valkyrie will hang back,” Alex said. “As Admiral Halberton proved when I first met him, my family connections to ZAFT are well known. The Earth Forces’ high command will have no trouble believing that I was reluctant to engage you.”

“All right,” Athrun said again. “Two days. We’ll be ready.” He caught Kira’s eye as the others filed out. “Kira, could you stay for a few minutes?”

He’s changed, Athrun thought, regarding his old friend. The energetic, sometimes forgetful student he’d known in Copernicus was gone. No, not gone exactly, but almost hidden beneath the confident young warrior who stood before him. Kira still had the old gleam in his eye, but at the same time he had visibly matured.

It was, Athrun decided, a good thing.

“Athrun, I…” Kira hesitated. “I’m sorry.”

Athrun shook his head. “It’s not your fault, Kira. I… I’d already decided that my father had to be opposed. It’s hard, and it hurts, but I have no choice.”

“Athrun.” Kira laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “If there’s anything I can do…”

“You’re already doing it.” Athrun managed a smile at Kira’s confused look. “My father, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have family.” He gripped Kira’s arm. “You’re the closest I’ve ever had to a sibling, and I have Lacus and Nicol, too.”

Kira smiled back. Even though they were in the middle of a war, it suddenly felt like old times. “And now we’re on the same side. We don’t have to fight each other anymore.”

That was a great relief to them both. Even though their respective commanders had granted them permission to use disabling attacks, having to fight each other had hurt on a very deep level. Now that Orb was allied with the PLANTs, albeit unofficially, that was behind them.

“I’d better get going,” Kira said. “We have a lot to do, and not much time to do it.”

Athrun watched him go, again struck by the changes in his friend. The Kira Yamato of three years past hadn’t had such confidence, but it seemed he’d grown a lot since Heliopolis. It wasn’t surprising that he’d been changed by the war, but it was clear he’d come through. Thanks to people like Cagalli and Flay.


Alex leaned against a bulkhead; arms crossed. “To be honest, I was hesitant about accepting Clyne’s offer. You know as well as anyone what I’ve done to ZAFT since Heliopolis.”

“Yeah, well, you’re wearing a ZAFT uniform, so somebody must have gotten to you,” Yzak observed.

“Yeah, like Cagalli,” Andrea said.

Alex gave his sister a sour look. “Yes, Cagalli insisted that I pursue my dream, and her father pointed out that I’m a son of the PLANTs regardless of whether I joined ZAFT, so here I am.”

Yzak laughed. “Figures it’d take someone like her to get through that thick skull of yours. No offense, Alex, but you’ve always been hardheaded.”

“Look who’s talking,” Alex shot back, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a grin. “This from a guy who went nuts over a facial scar.”

The white-haired pilot looked away briefly. “I was an idiot,” he said, and admission he wouldn’t have made to anyone else save his mother.

“No, you were just your usual hotheaded self,” Alex said, shaking his head ruefully. He pushed away from the bulkhead. “Well, gotta go. Places to be and people to see and all that.”

Yzak grinned and punched his shoulder. “Say hi to your princess for me.”

Alex just snorted.

Carpentaria Base, 4 April, C.E. 71

Well. This is very interesting indeed. Alex Strassmeier has joined ZAFT but remains in opposition to Chairman Zala. No surprise.

Rau Le Creuset glanced out his office window. He had quickly approved Athrun’s decision to assist the Archangel in their little mission. It could only make things that much easier when Spit Break struck its true target. And Alex Strassmeier’s almost fanatical patriotism would play its part as well.

And then the next stage will begin.

Archangel, Bridge, 15 April, C.E. 71

It was finally time. After nearly a month of rest, the Archangel was ready to move again. This time, though, it was in the service of the Orb Union, and the midnight-black warship trailing it was now attached to ZAFT, though it remained privately owned.

Since the mission required them to pretend, they were still with the Earth Forces, Murrue and her crew had redonned Atlantic Federation uniform. Several of them, most notably Mu La Flaga, found the necessity distasteful, but none questioned it.

Kuzzey Buskirk’s departure had posed a problem at first, but Kira’s programming skills had provided a solution. He’d found it almost trivially simple to purge all trace of his friend’s presence from the Archangel’s computers, and since Admiral Halberton had never reported the enlistment of Kira and his friends, no one at Alaska would have any reason to question it.

“Signal from the flagship, Captain,” Flay said; she’d replaced Kuzzey at communications. ” ‘This is where we leave you. Good luck on your mission and come back safe.’ “

Murrue nodded. “Send our thanks.” She investigated CIC. “Mister Tonomura, any sign of the Zala team yet?”

Tonomura shook his head. “Not yet ma’am. I’m not picking up any submarines or mobile suits.”

“Athrun probably hasn’t launched yet,” Kira put in from the Strike’s cockpit. “His ship will be running silent, almost certainly close by.”

“Any idea when he’ll make his move?”

Kira shrugged. “An hour from now at most. He won’t be able to wait any longer than that, not if he wants to make it believable.”

“Kira’s right,” Mu said from his Skygrasper. “Remember, Athrun’s been with the Le Creuset team since the day he graduated from the ZAFT academy. That means he learned most of his strategies from Rau Le Creuset, and I know from experience how that guy operates.”

“Understood,” Murrue said. She looked at Kira. “Which of his machines is to be ‘destroyed’?”

“The Blitz,” Kira responded. “Nicol mentioned that his machine would be the easiest to hide.”

“I agree,” Natarle said. “It’s Mirage Colloid system will work to our advantage.”

“Very well.”

As it turned out, Athrun had no intention of waiting if Kira suggested he might. Less than fifteen minutes later, four unpleasantly familiar blips appeared on Jackie Tonomura’s radar scope. At the same time, their sonar rig picked up the distinctive acoustical signature of a Vosgulov-class submarine.

“We have incoming,” Tonomura said. “One Vosgulov-class submarine, and four mobile suits. Checking profiles…” He looked over his shoulder. “Aegis, Buster, Blitz, and Duel. It’s the Zala team, Captain, right on schedule.”

“We’re being hailed, Captain,” Flay said. “It’s Athrun.”

Murrue nodded. “Put him on.”

Athrun’s helmeted visage appeared on the main screen. “Captain Ramius,” he greeted. “Are you ready?”

“As ready as we can be,” Murrue said. “What about your end?”

“We’ve planted some explosives on an island northwest of here,” Athrun said. “Guide the battle that way.” He smiled wryly. “Our machines are going to get banged up, but it’s all for a good cause.” He tossed her a salute. “Whenever you’re ready, let’s go.”

Natarle straightened in her chair. “Activate Igelstellungs, prepare Gottfrieds and Valiants. Deploy smoke dischargers.”

Battle was about to be joined once again, a battle that any neutral observer would assume to be a fight to the death. But, of course, nothing was further from the truth.

Open sky

As they had in their previous battle, the four ZAFT Gundams rode Guul subflight platforms to increase mobility. They wouldn’t be as nimble as the Stormbird or Aile Strike, but it was still a major leg up, especially for the notoriously slow-moving Buster.

Dearka raised his eyebrows at the sudden haze. “A smokescreen. Wonder whose idea that was.”

“Probably Commander Badgiruel’s,” Yzak said. He had a lively respect for the black-haired XO’s deviousness. “It’s just the sort of thing she’d try.”

It was soon apparent that smoke wasn’t the only trick their new allies had. An argent beam of red light stabbed out of the smoke, narrowly missing the Blitz’s Guul.

“Everyone scatter!” Athrun snapped. Nice trick, Kira.

Two Skygraspers dove out of the clouds, beam turrets spitting green death. Mu’s carried the Aile pack, while Tolle had the Sword; the latter might have seemed useless on a fighter, but Cagalli had proved otherwise during the Talbadiya battle.

Then the Strike itself joined the fray, hyper-impulse cannon blazing. One shot missed, but the second scored a direct hit on the Buster’s Guul. Dearka grunted in surprise, firing his gun launcher in a futile attempt at retaliation. Seconds later, he was in the drink.

Man, I’m glad that guy’s on our side.

“Where’s the Stormbird?” Yzak wondered, dodging a missile attack from Tolle.

A chuckle sounded over the comm. “You called, Yzak?” Alex swooped in from the side, a beam saber already drawn.

Yzak grinned, clashing his saber against his cousin’s. “This is more like it!”

“Yeah,” Alex agreed. His sister hadn’t launched; it had been agreed beforehand that having Andrea involved in the false combat was a bad idea.

Kira, meanwhile, had landed back on the Archangel’s forward deck. The Launcher pack fell from the Strike, and the Phase-shift faded from its body.

“Strike, stand by to convert to Aile mode,” Mir said.

Mu came to a near hover. “Don’t drop my presents.”

Kira hit his boosters just as Mu released the Aile pack. In a perfect display of coordination, he caught the rifle and shield, while the subflight unit with its sabers and extra thrusters clamped onto the Strike’s back. Color flowed over the Strike once again as the PSA reactivated.

Nicol whistled in admiration. “He changed his equipment in midair.” He snapped the Trikeros up. “Here we go!”

Kira took a deep breath and drew a saber. Seeing that his beam rifle wasn’t doing much good, Nicol launched the Gleipnir, then yelped in surprise as Kira slashed a saber clean through it. The Blitz’s saber ignited in turn, and the two machines fell into a deadlock.

A deadlock that broke abruptly when Tolle dive-bombed the Blitz, scoring several hits with a missile salvo. Kira took advantage of the sudden opening, slicing the Blitz’s right arm off and kicking it off its Guul. He then appropriated the unit for his own use.

Valkyrie, Bridge

“Can you project the Blitz’s landing point?” Lia Ramius asked, looking anxiously at her radar operator.

“Easily, ma’am.” He tapped a few keys. “He should land fairly close to where this fight is supposed to end.”

“Very well.” She touched an intercom control. “Kyle, your turn.”

Kyle didn’t respond verbally, but then he didn’t need to. The Devastator’s beam rifle and gun launcher erupted simultaneously, nearly blowing the Aegis’s head off.

So far, so good, Lia thought. Even though the current battle was staged, she couldn’t help worrying. Accidents could still happen, and Alex Strassmeier had been her best friend for a very long time. If something were to go wrong… No, don’t think about that.

At her old station on the port side, Cagalli bit her lip. Like her friend Lia, she was worried about the possibility of an accident. True, it was unlikely, but even a slight mistake with the kind of firepower a Gundam had could be catastrophic.

“Captain, the Blitz has gone under Mirage Colloid,” the radar operator said.

“Signal from the Cousteau,” the comm officer added. “Dearka splashed down about half a kilometer away. He’s going to try to get to land.”

Lia nodded. “Let’s make things a little more interesting. Fire Gottfrieds; try for a near miss on the Aegis.”

The Archangel fired at the same time, forcing Athrun to dodge wildly. Lia found herself grinning; even though he knew perfectly well that the miss was intentional, Athrun had to have been more than a little rattled by the sudden beam attack.

Open sky

Only two of the ZAFT Gundams were in the air now, and Yzak was exchanging saber blows with Alex. That left Athrun’s Aegis to face the Strike, and it was clear that he was at a disadvantage. Even hampered by the “borrowed” Guul, Kira’s Strike was far more maneuverable, and he was making the most of it.

Here goes nothing, Athrun thought. The two mobile suits closed at high speed, firing all the way. Soon they were forced into a turning battle, exchanging laser blasts at point-blank range. It couldn’t last, as both knew; within moments, one of Kira’s shots damaged Athrun’s Guul. Athrun leapt off, and the unit slammed into Kira’s, forcing the Strike off as well.

Athrun landed hard, raising his shield in time to ward off a barrage from the Archangel’s Igelstellungs. He was also running low on power.


He looked up, and his eyes widened. The Strike, now equipped with the Sword pack, dropped out of the sky, Schwerht Gewehr held high. Athrun jumped back at the last instant, though he wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid having his rifle sliced in half.

“Athrun, you think that’s enough?”

Athrun checked his readouts. “Not quite. Nicol needs a little more time.”

“Roger that.” Kira swung his sword again, impacting on the Aegis’s shield. When Athrun jumped again, he lowered the giant weapon and slammed the Strike’s fist into the Aegis’s head. Pieces of red armor flew everywhere, the Aegis landed on its back, and the PSA faded.

“Here I come!”

Kira and Athrun both jumped, startled, as GAT-X207 Blitz charged from the side, a lancer dart gripped in its remaining arm. Everything seemed to slow; Kira sidestepped and swung his sword, Nicol thrust the dart forward, and then the Blitz disappeared in a titanic explosion.

The Stormbird and the Duel alighted nearby, joined by the Buster. The three pilots strained their eyes, trying to see through the smoke.

“Nicol?” Dearka whispered.

The smoke cleared, revealing the Blitz sprawled on the ground. Nicol was just pulling himself out of the cockpit, looking dazed but otherwise unhurt.

“I’m okay.” The young pilot’s voice came through the comm clearly. “I’ll probably have a few bruises, but nothing worse than that.”

Athrun sighed with relief. “All right. Alex, you’d better pick up the Blitz.”

“Got it.” Alex moved to the fallen mobile suit, accompanied by Kyle’s Devastator. “Ah, where’d the right arm land?”

Nicol pointed off to the north. “About half a klick that way.”

Kyle went off to collect the part, while Alex carefully lifted what was left of the Blitz’s main body. There was no question that it would need extensive repairs, but it wouldn’t be outside the Valkyrie’s resources. Hiro Nakamura’s MBF-X208 Shinobi was a modification of the same design, after all.

That left the question of what it looked like from the Archangel. They didn’t want to do any more hacking than they had to; Kira’s subterfuge regarding his friend Kuzzey was one thing, battle records were something else entirely.

Archangel, Bridge

Jackie Tonomura studied his readouts. “I think that was convincing enough, ma’am. Kira nearly caught the Blitz’s cockpit with that last attack, and the explosives did the rest.”

“Good,” Murrue said. “How’s Nicol?”

“He’s fine, Captain,” Mir said, listening intently to her earpiece. “Nothing worse than a few bruises; apparently he had a hard landing.”

“As expected,” Natarle pointed out.

“Alex is taking the Blitz to the Valkyrie,” Mir continued. “Nicol’s going with him.”

Murrue nodded. “Very well. Send our thanks to Commander Zala and resume our original course.”

Valkyrie, hangar

Alex released the zip line and almost collapsed on the deck. Even though the entire fight had been staged, it had still taken a lot out of him. In some respects, acting was a whole lot harder than genuine combat; at least in a real battle, you didn’t have to worry about convincing someone that an “enemy” had been destroyed when he hadn’t been.

Give me a straight-up fight any day, he thought sourly.

Nicol was guiding several mechanics as they swarmed over the Blitz; the explosives had done so much damage that the cockpit was the only component recognizable as part of a mobile suit.

“Are you okay?”

Alex looked up. It was, predictably, Cagalli. “Just tired. You may find this hard to believe, but what happened out there today was a lot more difficult than an actual engagement.”

She helped him to his feet. “Of course, it was. You had to make it look real without injuring anyone. That can’t be easy.”

“The toughest part was faking the Blitz’s destruction.” He let her guide him out of the hangar. “However, carful we were, it was still a near thing for Nicol. He’s lucky to be just bruised.”

Cagalli nodded. She’d seen the explosion on the Bridge monitor.

“In any case,” Alex said as they stopped at his quarters, “the first step is complete. One more of these fake battles, and then we move on to Alaska.”

He dropped onto his bunk. “That will probably be the trickiest part of all. Lia and I will have to go in, assuming the brass will let is we did play a major role in this mess, after all.”

Cagalli sat on the edge of the bunk. “Do you think they’ll accept the cover story?”

“They should. What worries me is my own part.” Alex grimaced. “They want Andrea extradited, and they’ll know she and I are related. Odds are, whoever’s in charge will accuse me of aiding and abetting desertion. Not that they can do much.”

She squeezed his hand, not speaking.

“Once Spit Break is launched, the Earth Forces will have more important things than one Coordinator to worry about,” Alex said softly.

Maius Military Industries R&D facility, Maius City, PLANTs, 16 April, C.E. 71

Just about ready, the blonde pilot thought, tweaking the program one last time. There!

Troy Cadwallader pulled a disc from the terminal. With that, the operating system for the new weapon he’d been working on was at last finished. The official designation for it struck him as a little odd, though. Detached Rapid Armament Group Overlook Observation Network was quite the mouthful, though the acronym, DRAGOON, sounded menacing enough.

Makes more sense than the G-weapons, he thought wryly. General Unilateral Neuro-link Dispersive Autonomic Maneuver Synthesis System, what is that supposed to mean?

Troy shrugged it off. He was mildly curious as to how this new DRAGOON system was going to be powered; given the number of individual beam emitters, it would drain a mobile suit’s energy battery in short order. Of course, there were persistent rumors of a new device called a Neutron-jammer Canceler, but they’d never been confirmed.

The door opened, and Patrick Zala himself stepped through. “Ah, Mister Cadwallader. How is the new system coming?”

Troy saluted, not missing the hint of distaste in the Chairman’s voice and expression. “I’ve just finished the OS for it, Your Excellency. The hardware, of course, is another matter.”

Zala waved that away. “The actual units were the easy part. What we needed was an operating system to control them properly, and I have no doubt that you succeeded.” His tone indicated that Troy had better have, or else.

“Of course, Your Excellency.” Troy inserted the disc. “As you can see…”

Zala listened carefully as the young Natural walked him through the system. Even as he explained his work, Troy made a mental note to get in touch with Shiho. Something about the Chairman was bothering him; even though his record was spotless, Zala seemed to hold him in disfavor.

If the reason was what Troy was beginning to think it was, then things were going very wrong indeed.