Chapter 22: Hidden Agendas

Carpentaria Base, Oceania, 30 April, C.E. 71

The submarine carrier Cousteau slid to a stop at its assigned dock. Quite a reception awaited the crew; the Zala team had become quite famous for their exploits. Few knew of the false battles outside Orb, nor of the defection of the Archangel to Orb, but enough had filtered down to start some wild rumors.

Commander Rau Le Creuset stood at the dock with Representatives Ezalia Joule and Yuri Amalfi. The two Supreme Council members had arrived from the PLANTs the day before. Officially, they were there for a visit with Prime Minister Cadwallader, but Le Creuset knew otherwise.

Let Chairman Zala keep thinking he has their loyalty, the masked man thought, carefully hiding a smile. It will not matter in the end.

The Cousteau’s main hatch opened, and three young men in elite red debarked. On seeing who was waiting, they saluted in unison. “Athrun Zala, reporting,” the blue-haired youth in front said.

Le Creuset returned the salutes. “Welcome back, all of you. You have done well.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He gestured for them to follow. “Come with me. We have much to discuss.”

“So, it went as planned, then?” Le Creuset asked.

Athrun nodded. “It was a narrow escape for Nicol; the explosion was stronger than expected. In the second fight, Kira and I were both briefly knocked out, but we came through all right.”

“Good.” Le Creuset’s expression was unreadable behind his mask, but the tone was approving. “What of the Earth Forces task force that attacked after the second false engagement?”

The younger man grimaced. “None of us were in a position to intervene, so the Strassmeier team, temporarily lead by the commander’s sister, intercepted them. With the aid of Commander La Flaga and Lady Cagalli, they were able to wipe out the enemy force.”

“Fortunate. If any of them had escaped, the Archangel’s mission would have been over before it had truly begun.” Le Creuset rubbed his chin. “We are all familiar with the skills of La Flaga and Strassmeier’s unit, so it’s not a surprise. Still…” He looked at Athrun. “What is your assessment of the Princess’s skill?”

“Phenomenal,” Athrun said bluntly. “She’s short on experience, but if anything proves that she’s related to Kira, it’s this. Her mobile suit’s capabilities played a part -the only machine we have that can match the Akatsuki is my Justice- but most of it was raw skill.”

Le Creuset nodded slowly. “It would seem that Lord Uzumi’s daughter is not simply a pampered aristocrat.”

Yzak laughed. “Sir, one thing that girl is not is pampered. Like Athrun said, she is good, and I do not think she is afraid of anything. If she is, she won’t admit it.”

“Rather a headstrong individual.” The masked man raised an eyebrow. “Is there any truth to the reports of her being romantically linked with your cousin?”

Yzak snorted. “You bet there is. Alex doesn’t show it much -I’m one of the few people who can read him- but Cagalli isn’t exactly good at hiding her feelings, and she’s not even trying to.”

“I see.” Le Creuset activated a wall screen. “On to other matters. As you know, we are amid preparations for Operation Spit Break. However, what you do not know, because it has been kept a closely guarded secret, is the true target.”

The three youngsters stared at the screen in disbelief. The image that appeared was not Panama, as they had expected, but JOSH-A Base, Alaska, Earth Alliance Headquarters.

“Alaska?” Athrun finally whispered.

“Alaska,” Le Creuset confirmed. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to get word to the Archangel; by the time, our forces are in range, it will undoubtedly be inside the base, and thus out of reach of our comm systems. It is, however, an allied vessel, so it will not be targeted when the attack begins.”

Yzak swallowed hard. “What about the Valkyrie?”

Le Creuset smiled. “Have no fear, Yzak. As you know, your cousin’s ship is in ZAFT service now, and since it has Commander Waltfeld, Aisha, Nicol, Kira Yamato, and Cagalli Yula Athha onboard, not to mention Andrea Strassmeier, who I understand is wanted for desertion, they will not be entering the base. I will personally board the ship and brief them on the new situation.”

The white-haired pilot sighed in relief. After finally reuniting with his long-lost cousin, he did not want to see her caught in the crossfire when ZAFT launched its next assault.

Not that she would be in much trouble, not after her first real battle.

“That will be all,” Le Creuset said. “Dismissed.”

JOSH-A Base, Alaska, 2 May, C.E. 71

Six men in the white uniform of the Atlantic Federation sat around a long table. Aside from a fluorescent light over the table itself, the room was dark. That suited the assembled officers simply fine, for their current agenda was one that they had no intention of bringing to light, at least not yet.

“The Archangel,” one said. “I never thought it would make it here.”

Another snorted. “You think Halberton’s force of will protected it?”

“That traitor?” The ranking officer shook his head. “This young Coordinator is the one who really protected it, along with the black ship.”

“Captain Sutherland, don’t be so sure of that,” the man to the captain’s left said. “Luckily, the destruction of the Strike and the declaration of its pilot as MIA can be considered a… fortunate accident for us. As for the black ship, Strassmeier has his own objectives and has never made a secret of the fact.”

Sutherland smiled humorlessly. “The GAT series will be our main weapon. We’re going to be getting a lot of use out of them in the future, so we don’t want it said that it was operated by a Coordinator child.”

“You’re right about that,” the other conceded.

“It just seems like glaring evidence of our own inferiority!” another officer complained.

Sutherland tapped some commands into his terminal. “All of its technology has already been transferred and further developed, and this time it’s we who will benefit from it.”

The man at the table’s foot gave him a narrow glance. “What have you told Azrael?”

Sutherland shrugged. “I told him that we’d take the necessary steps to address all these problems. We cannot do anything about the black ship just now, given that its captain is Lieutenant Commander Ramius’s niece, but it is merely an inconvenience. It will be caught in the same trap.” He smiled grimly. “All this is for the preservation of our blue and pure world.”

Archangel, Bridge

Just when I finally join ZAFT, I must ditch the uniform so we can fool the Earth Forces, Alex thought. Truth be told, though, it was not his outfit that bothered him. The black suit he wore was amazingly comfortable; what bothered him was being separated from Andrea and Cagalli. He chuckled humorlessly at the thought: Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT Elite, cold-blooded warrior, upset because he was away from his sister and his girlfriend.

“Hey, cheer up,” Lia Ramius said from beside him. “It’s only for a few days.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Alex muttered back. “You know bureaucracies; they’ll delay things any way they can. And how can you tell what’s bugging me?”

She laughed. “I don’t think the Earth Forces will notice if that’s what you’re worried about. No, I just know you too well.”

Too true. Lia Ramius was like a sister to him and was one of the few people who could read him like a book. His standard mask did not fool her in the least.

“It would be best if you do not reveal your relationship with Lady Cagalli,” Natarle Badgiruel said; she had overheard them. “They’ll be suspicious enough as it is.”

“Believe me, I am painfully aware of that.”

The next few minutes passed without incident, as Arnold Neumann guided the Archangel to its assigned dock with his usual skill. Alex, watching from his position next to Murrue’s command chair, frowned. The level of activity outside was odd; too little for the Alliance’s main base, yet what there was of it bordered on frenetic.

His eyes narrowed to blue slits. Are there usually these many submarines at Headquarters?

“Captain, we have an incoming transmission,” Flay said.

A young man wearing lieutenant’s insignia appeared on the screen. “Welcome to Alaska, Archangel,” he said. His expression turned faintly disapproving when he saw Alex, but none of it showed in his voice. “I’m afraid you’ll have to stand by for the time being. The base commander, Captain Sutherland, is currently unavailable. We’ll contact you when the situation changes.”

Murrue raised an eyebrow. “Do you have any idea how long it will take?”

The man shook his head. “I’m afraid not.” His image vanished.

Alex rubbed his chin. “Well, well, what do we have here? It would seem more is going on than even Lord Uzumi thought.”

Neumann turned in his chair. “What do you mean?”

“That officer seemed very anxious to say whatever he had to say as quickly as possible,” Alex said. He nodded toward the forward viewport. “For that matter, look outside. You would know better than I, but it seems to me that there are an unusual number of submarines.”

The helmsman followed his gaze. He was right, Neumann decided. There were at least five subs docked nearby, with more visible beyond them. It was as if they were preparing for disaster.

“Commander Strassmeier is right, Captain,” Natarle said. “I’ve only been here once, just after I graduated from the Academy, but I don’t remember these many submarines.”

“Agreed,” Neumann put in. “It looks like they’re preparing for an evacuation, but why would they want to evacuate Headquarters?”

“Or perhaps they’re preparing to reinforce Panama,” Murrue said. She looked at the ZAFT officers. “Do you think they could have gotten wind of Spit Break?”

Lia merely shrugged, but Alex’s gaze suddenly sharpened. “It’s possible, but if they are sending troops to Panama, they’re in for a nasty surprise. You see, Commander Le Creuset told me that Panama isn’t Spit Break’s target at all.”

Everyone stared at him for a moment. “Then what is?” Mu La Flaga finally asked.

Alex waved his prosthetic hand. “He didn’t say, but it’s obvious enough: JOSH-A, where we now stand.”

Murrue took a deep breath. “Then it’s a good thing ZAFT knows we’re allies now,” she said softly. She turned her gaze to the main gate. “I just hope Kira and the others are all right.”

Valkyrie, cafeteria

As it happened, Kira and the others had no inkling of the impending attack. Oh, they knew Spit Break was imminent, but they had no idea that the blow would fall on Alaska. Kira himself had spent most of the time since the Marshall Islands fight teaching his friend Tolle the art of Gundam combat. Fortunately, the basic controls of the MBF-M1 Astray were modeled after the original five prototypes, so transitioning to the Aegis was not particularly difficult.

Now, Tolle stood by the cafeteria’s huge viewport, his eyes focused on the hidden gate to JOSH-A.

“You, okay?”

He jumped, but it was only Cagalli. “Yeah. I am just worried about Mir. She is in there, right at the center of the Alliance. If they’re found out…”

The princess squeezed his shoulder. “I know how you feel. There is someone important to me in there, too, and he is in a lot more danger. He is a Coordinator, after all.”

“And related to a Supreme Council member on top of that,” Tolle agreed. “Kind of funny. I knew right away he was a Coordinator -he admitted it up front- but I never thought he had relatives that highly placed.” He gave her a curious look. “You met him before Heliopolis, didn’t you?”

She nodded. “It was at a diplomatic reception in Orb four years ago. He did not say much -you know how he is- but the way Andrea stuck close to him made me think there was more to him than met the eye. I was right.”

Tolle looked back out the window, feeling at least a little reassured. He had seen Alex’s skill in a mobile suit, and he knew his friend had killed barehanded before, so Mir at least was well cared for, should anything go wrong. He did not expect it to, though; everyone from the Heliopolis group knew from experience that Alex Strassmeier was a superb actor. The Earth Forces would see only what he wanted them to see.

Behind them, the cafeteria hatch slid open, admitting Andrea Strassmeier. She could not help smiling a little when she saw Tolle and Cagalli standing together. No one had the slightest thought that there might be something romantic, of course; Cagalli’s attachment to Alex was impossible to miss, and if it were not for the unusual circumstances Tolle would not have been on the Valkyrie at all.

What a weird bunch we are, Andrea thought cheerfully, sitting next to another person with the same worries. “I guess it’s up to Alex and the others for now, huh?”

Kira Yamato nodded, then looked at her quizzically. “Aren’t you worried about your brother?”

She rolled her eyes. “If it were anyone else, I would be, but not Alex. If he could singlehandedly pull something like this off,” she waved at the compartment around them, “then he can manage some Earth Forces desk jockeys.”

“She’s right,” the Desert Tiger said, setting his inevitable cup of coffee on the table. “That guy’s got cold-space lubricants for blood; even when he’s mad, he doesn’t stop thinking.” He grinned at the young pilot. “But I’ll bet you’re worried about a certain redhead.”

Kira blushed but did not deny it; neither he nor Flay were good at hiding their feelings. “Yeah. If they hurt her, I’ll…” He did not have to finish the sentence. His grim expression, completely out of place on his face, spoke volumes.

Waltfeld studied him in silence. Even though they had started out on opposite sides, he liked the youngster. Uncertain though he was about his place, Kira had not wavered for an instant, even when facing Athrun Zala in battle.

So young, yet already a veteran, the Tiger thought. It will be tough on him, but he is not alone. There was Flay Allster, Athrun Zala, and of course the blonde girl standing by the window. In retrospect, Waltfeld was surprised he had not noticed the resemblance from the first.

“Anyway, don’t sweat it,” he said. “I’ve seen Alex on the ground; if anyone can keep Flay safe, it’s him.”

Kira nodded. “Thanks.”

JOSH-A Base, conference room, 5 May, C.E. 71

Mu had never liked boards of inquiry at the best of times, and judging by how the room was set up, this was going to be even worse than usual. The long table with five chairs at the front of the room, just below a large view screen, was all too reminiscent of a court martial.

He had faced a board of this sort exactly twice before, the first after Endymion Crater, the second following his encounter with Miguel Aiman during the Nova battle. Neither had been much of a problem; it was hardly his fault that the Cyclops had gone off, and the Magic Bullet of Dusk was dangerous enough to give even a Zero trouble.

That was then, this is now, Mu thought sourly.

The far door opened, and five officers stepped through, led by a craggy-faced captain Mu presumed to be William Sutherland.

“The inquiry will now commence,” Sutherland said without preamble. “The procedure will be that of a court martial. Please, bear that in mind.” He shot a cold glance at Alex Strassmeier, who for his part appeared unaffected.

He noticed, Mu thought, watching his young friend in the corner of his eye. This could get ugly.

It took hours, the five officers probing every detail of the Archangel’s activities. Kira taking control of the Strike in a desperate attempt to save his friends, the intervention of the mysterious Valkyrie, the collapse of Heliopolis, Artemis, the Eighth Fleet…

Murrue fielded most of the questions. She carefully avoided any mention of Cagalli, which would have been rather difficult to explain, even if she was on Alex’s ship, but otherwise gave complete responses.

Sutherland looked more than a little irritated when they got to the events surrounding the rescue of Lacus Clyne, but he did not dare criticize the decision to bring her aboard; even if, as Mu was beginning to think, Sutherland was a member of Blue Cosmos, which would have been a bit much.

They moved on to the events in the desert…

Cousteau, briefing room

“The Alaska base is the most heavily defended installation on this planet, exceedingly even our bases at Carpentaria and Gibraltar,” Rau Le Creuset said, tapping a map with his pointer. “Indeed, even in space it is only matched by Boaz and Jachin Due.”

Aside from Yzak, Dearka, and Athrun, the assembled pilots wore standard green. Le Creuset had hoped that Shiho Hahnenfuss would be available, but unfortunately the project she was working on had not yet been completed.

So be it. “What I am about to tell you is strictly confidential.” He paused a beat. “Approximately a month and a half ago, the mobile assault ship Archangel defected to the Orb Union, which has since secretly joined our cause.”

The effect was electric. While few had known of Athrun’s connection to the Strike pilot, everyone knew of the “legged ship’s” raw power. Having that on their side was a major boost indeed.

Le Creuset waited for the babble to subside, then continued. “At the request of Chief Representative Athha, the Archangel is engaged in a covert operation, pretending to still be aligned with the Earth Forces to infiltrate Alaska. In support of that goal, they engaged in two mock battles with our G-weapons; therefore, neither Nicol nor the Blitz and Aegis are with us at this point.”

A pilot in the front row raised his hand. “Sir, what about the black ship?”

Le Creuset smiled. “It is now a ZAFT vessel. Alex Strassmeier and his comrades officially joined ZAFT at the request of Commander Waltfeld. He and the Valkyrie’s captain, Lia Ramius, are inside the base at present, explaining their role in the legged ship’s operations.”

He raised his pointer. “Back to Alaska itself. It is not the sort of place you can attack without extensive preparation. Even with our feint at Panama, the nature of the area means it will be exceedingly difficult to force any substantial breach in their defenses.” He tapped the main gate area. “The Archangel will be helpful in that regard, and Commander Strassmeier will be getting some intelligence out to us if he can.”

“Sir, is there any word on the Strike?” a man in the back asked.

“It was badly damaged in the second false engagement,” Le Creuset said. “Once repairs are complete, it will be transferred to Mu La Flaga. As for its pilot…” He nodded at Athrun. “The Strike’s original pilot is an old friend of Athrun’s, a first-generation Coordinator named Kira Yamato. He will be piloting a new machine given to him by Representative Clyne, the ZGMF-X10A Freedom. As the model number suggests, it is built on similar lines to Athrun’s Justice.”

There was another uproar at that. The performance of the Alliance’s GAT-X105 Strike was already the stuff of legend in ZAFT. Having it in the Hawk of Endymion’s hands, and its original pilot in an even better machine…

“I will be boarding the Valkyrie tomorrow, so as to brief the Strassmeier team on Spit Break.” Le Creuset shut down the viewer. “Dismissed.”

JOSH-A Base, conference room

It seemed like it was over, but as far as Alex was concerned it was merely the calm before the storm. Sutherland’s questions had made his attitude toward Coordinators brutally clear. Add to that Admiral Halberton’s defection, and you had a recipe for trouble.

“So, Captain, can you think of anything you should have done differently?” Sutherland asked.

Alex felt mental antennae twitch at the man’s tone. Something is about to blow.

Murrue felt the same, but she could not avoid answering. “If I were faced with the same choices, based on the same information I had from Heliopolis onward, I believe I would have made the same decisions.”

“I would hope not,” Sutherland said icily. “There were some mistakes you could have avoided from the start.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Such as?”

“Such as placing the Strike in the hands of a Coordinator,” Sutherland said even more icily. “Need I remind you that Coordinators are our enemies?”

If you only knew. “Sir, I had little choice. We were in a crisis, and Kira was the only person capable of operating the Strike.”

“You should have realized that we would ultimately overcome the OS problem,” Sutherland said.

“Sir, we didn’t have time,” Murrue said. “The Le Creuset team had already captured four of the G-weapons, and the Strike was our only means of defense.”

The captain smiled thinly. “Perhaps. Trusting a Coordinator who happened to be an Orb national was one thing; Orb’s policy toward Coordinators is well known.” Sutherland’s tone made clear what he thought of such a policy. “But trusting certain other Coordinators was very foolish indeed.”

Murrue bristled. “Are you suggesting, Captain, that I should have treated my own niece as a ZAFT spy?”

“Not at all.” Sutherland looked at Alex. “You are Ezalia Joule’s nephew, I believe?”

Alex nodded. He had a feeling about where this was going. “Yes, and my cousin Yzak is a member of the Le Creuset team, the pilot of GAT-X102 Duel, to be exact.”

The Earth Forces officer turned back to Murrue. “I believe, Captain, that trusting a close relative of a Supreme Council member is questionable at best. Especially one whose sister is wanted for desertion.”

Alex kept a firm hold on his temper. “Andrea was never a loyal Earth Forces soldier to begin with, Captain. She was a victim of Alliance barbarism.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised,” Sutherland went on. “One of the men we sent to recruit her died in the process.”

“I know one of them died, because I killed him!” Alex snapped, temper fraying at last. His artificial hand clenched into a fist. “The Atlantic Federation murdered my parents, and then my sister was abducted! For your barbaric Combat Coordinator program, no less!”

The look Sutherland gave him positively dripped condescension. “Come now. The PLANTs are and always have been subject to the sponsor nations. We were well within our rights to impose that blockade when they forgot their place.”

Mu La Flaga felt a twinge of alarm, seeing his friend turn bright red. Never seen him like that before. This could get ugly.

The explosion he feared never came. With a visible effort, Alex regained his composure. “You coward,” he said coldly. “The reason we armed ourselves, the reason the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty was reorganized into a militia is because without an armed force we were at the mercy of Blue Cosmos.”

“As for our being subject to the sponsor nations…” Alex shook his head in disgust. “There are limits in all things, Captain, and the sponsor nations exceeded their authority when they prohibited us from growing our own food.”

Sutherland snorted. “And the Copernicus bombing? Are you going to defend that?”

“If it was ZAFT that, did it, I just might have; Patrick Zala didn’t lose his mind until after Junius Seven was nuked. Another profoundly evil act.” Alex’s lip curled. “For the record, I have nothing against nuclear weapons per se; it would have been just as immoral if conventional explosives had been used. Junius Seven was not in any sense of the term a legitimate military target.” He shook his head again. “In any case, the Alliance’s official statement regarding Copernicus is in every important way a lie.”

The Earth Forces officer narrowed his eyes. “Really. Then who was responsible?”

Alex fixed him with an icy stare. “An Atlantic Federation special forces unit, possibly the same one that kidnapped Andrea.”

“Preposterous!” Sutherland stared at him as if he had gone mad. “What probable reason could we have for wiping out the UN leadership?”

“Simple: you wanted an excuse to declare war on the PLANTs.” Alex’s voice chilled everyone in the room, excluding only Mu and the two ship captains.

Natarle Badgiruel was remembering the last time that voice was directed at her. He almost killed me then.

Sutherland, having tired of his verbal battle with Alex, turned back to Murrue. “Another thing regarding Ensign Yamato. You explicitly gave him permission to avoid lethal force on one of the stolen G-weapons, the Aegis. Yes, recapturing one of them would have been to our advantage, but the fact that you specified the Aegis indicates that there was more to your decision than military considerations.”

Murrue took a deep breath. She had been afraid this would come up. “Sir, Kira knew the pilot personally. They attended a prep school in Copernicus together. They were close enough to be brothers. I judged that it would be both unrealistic and unfair to Kira to put him in the position of having to take his best friend’s life.”

Sutherland raised an eyebrow. “Did Ensign Yamato ever identify this… friend by name?”

She covered a wince, suddenly extremely glad she was no longer with the Earth Forces, whatever Sutherland thought. “The pilot of the stolen GAT-X303 Aegis was Athrun Zala, the son of then-Defense Committee Chairman Patrick Zala.”

“So.” Sutherland’s voice was even colder than Alex’s had been. “He knew the son of Patrick Zala. Patrick Zala, quite possibly our worst enemy in the PLANTs; Clyne at least has been conciliatory. Do you realize what this means, Captain?”

Natarle rose. “Captain Sutherland, with all due respect, Ensign Yamato’s friendship with Athrun Zala in no way indicates that his loyalties were divided.” Murrue looked at her in surprise; she did not normally talk like that. “Indeed, it was friendship that induced him to join our forces in the first place,” the lieutenant continued. “It was a deeply painful experience for him; leaving aside the issue of Athrun Zala, he had to fight against people he would otherwise have called friends, most notably the pilot of the Blitz, one Nicol Amalfi, and Andrew Waltfeld.”

The look she gave Sutherland then was just short of a glare. “Ensign Kira Yamato gave his life protecting the Archangel and his friends. Sir, he should be commended, not condemned.”

Sutherland shook his head. “All this, in defense of one Coordinator.” He sighed. “It was inevitable, the exigencies of battle and all that. In any case, it is the determination of this board that the officers and crew of the Archangel functioned as best they could and were in no way tainted by the treason of Rear Admiral Lewis C. Halberton. The alliance with the renegade mobile assault ship Valkyrie will be overlooked, in light of the blood relationship between the two captains.” He gave Lia an almost courteous nod.

“The crew of the Archangel will remain as it is. Except,” he made a great show of consulting his board, “for Lieutenant Commander Mu La Flaga, Lieutenant Junior Grade Natarle Badgiruel, and Crewman Second Class Flay Allster.”

Murrue straightened in surprise. She should have expected it, but… “Sir?”

“Commander La Flaga and Lieutenant Badgiruel have talents that can be utilized elsewhere,” Sutherland said. “As for Crewman Allster, her name still commands profound respect within the Alliance. She need not be on the front lines.”

Propaganda, in other words, Murrue thought in disgust. You have no idea how things stand, Captain. It was unlikely that Flay would go along with such a thing, due in no small part to her relationship with Kira. The girl had gone from being a Blue Cosmos sympathizer (her father’s influence) to an almost obsessive supporter of Orb and the PLANTs.

We will have to get them to the Valkyrie somehow. Especially Flay; she is good at her job, but she would be effectively helpless anywhere else.

“This board is adjourned,” Sutherland said.

Archangel, cafeteria

Murrue finished the briefing and waited.

Flay, predictably, looked outraged; slighting Kira was guaranteed to make her angry. Sai clearly felt the same, while Mir’s expression bordered on murderous.

“Just who do they think they are?” Sai demanded. “Sure, maybe you could blame Kira for what happened to Heliopolis, after the way he blasted Le Creuset’s CGUE. But the rest of that and saying that he couldn’t be trusted because of Athrun!” The blonde youth clenched his fists.

Natarle smiled thinly. “I know how you feel, Sai,” she said, using his given name for the first time. “The accusation defied all logic; how was Kira supposed to know that he and his friend would someday find themselves on opposite sides in a full-scale war?”

“And saying that they were trying to recruit Andrea!” Flay could have blistered battle steel with just her tone, Murrue noted. “Since when do you kidnap people, you’re trying to recruit?”

“That’s the way they operate,” Mir said bitterly, then took a deep breath, visibly calming herself. “What about the transfers?” she asked in a more normal tone.

Alex took that one. “Mu, Natarle, and Flay, will be spirited off to the Valkyrie; Athrun’s people were kind enough to supply us with a small submarine. It should be able to sneak in.” He shrugged. “Given the level of activity here, getting three people out shouldn’t be very difficult.”

“In the meantime, I will be making use of a ULF transmitter, which I highly doubt the brass here will even know to look for, to relay some hard data on JOSH-A to the Valkyrie.” Alex’s lip twisted slightly. “They will in turn relay it to Commander Le Creuset; I understand he’s the overall commander of Spit Break.”

The three youngsters nodded; Flay knew how useful a ULF -ultralow frequency- transmitter was for covert communications. They were difficult to detect at the best of times; with the combination of the N-jammers and Earth’s own magnetic fields, Alex’s idea was certainly safe.

And I will get to see Kira again, the redhead thought cheerfully.

“If, as I expect, JOSH-A is indeed Spit Break’s target,” Alex said, “the Earth Forces will be in for a very unpleasant surprise. Once the defense forces launch, the Archangel will attack in concert with the Valkyrie.”

None of them liked the tactic their friend was describing, but they also understood that it was necessary. Judging by some of Sutherland’s comments, as well as his apparent desire to get Mu, Natarle, and Flay away from the ship, the brass had no further use for the Archangel.

“I don’t know what Sutherland’s up to,” Alex said softly, “but I can guarantee he won’t like what happens.”

Valkyrie, briefing room, 6 May, C.E. 71

Kira nervously straightened his uniform. They had received a communication from the Cousteau an hour earlier, telling them to expect Commander Rau Le Creuset, who was coming to brief them on the details of Operation Spit Break.

Why couldn’t they send someone else? he wondered. Why not Athrun or Yzak?

He knew the answer, of course. Le Creuset was the best ZAFT had, and he had the favor of Chairman Zala himself.

Waltfeld caught his eye. “Nervous?” He smiled when Kira blushed. “Don’t worry about it. I have never liked him either; how your friend Athrun can stand him, I have not a clue. Anyway, remember that you are an officer yourself, an experienced pilot, and a member of one of the Five Noble Families.”

Kira swallowed. “I will. It is just that, I am not really used to it. I only found out in March.”

The Tiger nodded, then turned as the hatch opened, admitting Rau Le Creuset. His featureless gaze swept over them, leaving no hints as to what might be going on behind the mask.

“In two days, Operation Spit Break will commence,” he said without preamble. “As some of you have probably realized, the target is not Panama at all, but rather Alaska.” He switched on the main viewer. “Even though most of their defense forces have been sent to Panama in response to our feint, breaking through will be difficult. Your comrades on the Archangel will be extremely helpful in that regard.”

Le Creuset then explained their own ship’s role. They would soon be picking up Mu, Natarle, and Flay, who were being transferred at Sutherland’s order. Once Alex gave the word, the Strassmeier team would launch, along with Mu, Kira, Cagalli, and Nicol. The surprise alone would be enough to throw the defenders off balance; if not, nine extra Gundams (Alex had brought the Stormbird with him to the Archangel) would make a major difference.

The rest of the plan was simple: breach as many gates as possible, then rip the interior apart.

Kira was not sure what to think. On the one hand, he did not like to kill; on the other, they now had ample confirmation of Blue Cosmos’s influence within the Earth Forces command structure.

He felt something, and suddenly realized Le Creuset was studying him. He returned the gaze, wondering what on Earth was going on.

“So,” the masked man said softly. “These are Hibiki’s progeny.”

Cagalli glared at him. “What’s it to you?”

Le Creuset shrugged. “I have long known of the man’s work, though I had no idea either of the twins had survived. It does, however, explain how your brother did so well so quickly.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I have often wondered how things would have turned out if Hibiki and his wife had survived and raised you themselves.”

“Why should it matter?” Cagalli shot back; she was starting to see why Mu disliked this guy.

“It’s an academic consideration,” Le Creuset conceded. “And it is certainly true that things turned out well enough for you.” He turned to leave. “How well remains to be seen.”

Cagalli shook her head. “Now I see why Mu can’t stand that guy. He gives me the creeps.”

“He has that effect on a lot of people,” Waltfeld agreed. “Outside his own team, there aren’t many who can stand the guy. Chairman Zala, a couple others on the Council, that’s all.”

Kira said nothing. He was sure there was more to Rau Le Creuset than anyone realized. He could not put his finger on it, but something did not seem quite right about him. It was if the mask he wore concealed more than just his face. Kira shook himself. All he could say right now was that he did not like it.

No time to worry about it, he told himself. I will be back in combat in a couple of days. Think about this later. He only hoped his suspicions were unfounded.