Chapter 23: Spit Break

Valkyrie, hangar, 8 May, C.E. 71

Today’s the day, Kira thought, watching the little sub be lifted into the hangar. In just a couple of hours, Operation Spit Break will commence. He looked up at the mobile suits on either side of the cavernous room. Five of the Strassmeier team’s machines, plus his own Freedom, Cagalli’s Akatsuki, Mu’s Strike, Tolle’s Aegis, and Nicol’s Blitz, a positively frightening assembly of firepower.

His mind was not on those, however, as his sister was quick to note. “Looking forward to seeing Flay again?” she asked in a teasing voice.

He nodded but did not speak.

Cagalli rubbed a hand along his spine. She knew perfectly well that her brother was not afraid for his own life; nothing the Earth Forces had could touch the Freedom. No, Kira’s fears were for others, and especially for Flay Allster, the girl who had captured his heart the very day they met.

The sub’s hatch opened, and Mu, Natarle, and Flay climbed out. Flay immediately made a beeline for Kira, while her superiors approached Andrea Strassmeier.

“So, how’d it go?” Andrea asked.

Natarle snorted. “As expected, Captain Sutherland did his level best to blame all the problems we had on Kira.” He looked at the brown-haired Coordinator. “One could make a case, albeit a bad one, for your being responsible for the collapse of Heliopolis, after what you did to Commander Le Creuset’s CGUE. The rest, however, was utter nonsense.”

“They wanted to use Flay for propaganda,” Mu put in, rolling his eyes. “I was slated for an instructor’s slot in California. Don’t know where Natarle was headed.”

“They weren’t very specific,” Natarle said. “All I heard was that my in-depth experience with the Archangel would prove useful.”

Andrea’s eyes turned briefly as cold as her brother’s. “Sounds like they’re building another Archangel-class ship. That could be bad.”

The older woman winced; that thought had not occurred to her. It should have, though. “We’ll deal with that when the time comes,” she said, then smiled at another youngster in Orb uniform. “Are you ready, Ensign Koenig?”

Tolle Koenig grinned. “Yes, ma’am!” he said, saluting smartly. “The Aegis’s controls are close enough to an M1 that adapting wasn’t too hard. I had a little trouble with the transformation system, but Athrun helped me with that.”


“Very good,” Andrea agreed. She touched a concealed earpiece. “We just received a transmission from Commander Le Creuset’s flagship. Operation Spit Break commences in two hours.”

It was as if a cold breeze had blown through the hangar. Kira, one arm around Flay, looked up at the Freedom, know that soon he would fly the skies of battle once again. Mu was similarly intent on the Strike; to date, his only mobile suit experience had come from sparring with Kira.

Tolle, despite his confident exterior, was extremely nervous. He had flown in combat exactly twice, crashing the second time. Granted, it was deliberate, but it still was not exactly a confidence builder.

Do not worry about it, he told himself firmly. Kira and Athrun think you can do it, that is all that matters.

“Flay, our crew is a little messed up just now,” Andrea said. “Since Cagalli will be flying, could I ask you to take her bridge post for now?”

The redhead smiled. “Sure, no problem.”

“In addition to that,” the older girl added, turning to Natarle, “with Lia on the Archangel, I’d like you to take temporary command of the Valkyrie. I can’t think of anyone better qualified.”

Natarle saluted. “I would be honored.”

“Everyone else, mount up,” Andrea said. “When Alex gives the word, we launch.”

Cousteau, Bridge

“Signal from the Valkyrie, Commander,” a comm operator said. “Commanders La Flaga and Badgiruel, along with Crewman Allster, are aboard safely. Their mobile suits are being prepped for launch now.”

Rau Le Creuset nodded. “Excellent. Execute.”

“Alaska,” one of the three redcoats standing behind him murmured. “I never thought I’d be here.”

It was a pity, Rau thought, that Athrun was such an idealist. He had much to recommend him as an ally; superb piloting, exceeded only by his friend Kira Yamato, excellent marksmanship, an unusual trait in a pilot, and a cool, analytical mind. Unfortunately -from Rau’s perspective- he was also a fervent supporter of Siegel Clyne. Inevitable given his engagement to the man’s daughter, but still disappointing.

His companions would have served just as well, save for the fact that they lacked Athrun’s intellectual brilliance. They were, sadly, just as unfit; Yzak was firmly in his cousin Alex’s camp, and Dearka had developed an… interest in Strassmeier’s sister.

“The quickest way to slay the beast is to chop off its head,” Rau said, turning to regard his senior subordinate. “Think of it this way, Athrun; if we succeed here, the war will be that much shorter.”

Athrun nodded. “Even Kira admits that sometimes you have to kill a few so that many will live. And if those few happen to be Blue Cosmos fanatics, so much the better.” He grimaced; Alex’s covert report had included a transcript of the board of inquiry they had faced.

Rau snorted, knowing what Athrun was thinking. “I agree that what happened was absurd. As Commander Badgiruel pointed out, one could make a case for your friend being responsible for the collapse of Heliopolis considering what he did to my CGUE. As for the rest…” The masked man shook his head. “Feeble, even for them.”

The ship’s comm unit came alive with Patrick Zala’s voice, broadcast to all ships. “As we embark on this operation, it is my greatest hope that it will bring the war to a swift conclusion, inspiring the hope in us all that this will lead to true freedom and justice! Let Operation Spit Break now commence!”

Rau turned; he would be out there himself for this battle, piloting a custom DINN. What no one knew was that his goals were different from his comrades’, different even from Zala’s.

Even as he and the three redcoats marched to the submarine’s hangar, they could hear weapons fire outside. Operation Spit Break had begun.

Archangel, Bridge

The atmosphere on the bridge was both tense and somehow relaxed. Murrue and her crew had redonned Orb uniform, much to their relief, while Alex and Lia once again wore red and gray, respectively. Natarle, Flay, and Tolle were not there, of course, but Lia had temporarily taken Natarle’s place in CIC.

Murrue smiled grimly, thinking of the consternation that had to be erupting in the command center. They deserve a little chaos, after they slandered Kira like that. She knew that orders to launch would be coming soon, and while she was not looking forward to their next move, she had reluctantly concluded that Rau Le Creuset was right.

“Incoming message from the Joint Operations Room,” Romero Pal said.

Murrue nodded, then carefully arranged her face in a startled expression. “Captain Sutherland! What’s going on?”

“All defense forces are to launch at once. Commence interception!” Sutherland looked outraged. “They tricked us! At the last moment they switched their target here, to JOSHUA! If they-” He broke off, eyes widening in shock as Murrue’s uniform registered.

A shock that deepened when Alex stepped into view, resplendent in the red of a ZAFT Elite. “The joke’s on you, Sutherland you bastard,” he said, smiling like a shark. He touched a key on the unoccupied comm board. “Strassmeier team, launch!”

Murrue felt a deep sense of satisfaction at the look on Sutherland’s face. “You were had from the beginning, Captain. The Archangel ceased to be an Earth Forces unit the day we arrived at Orb, and that nation is now allied with the PLANTs. We no longer have any love for the Earth Alliance.”

Sutherland turned bright red, then, with an effort, calmed himself. “You won’t get away with this, Captain,” he said softly. “You will fall along with ZAFT.” He cut the circuit.

Murrue leaned back in her chair. “I’m almost surprised he didn’t drop dead of apoplexy,” she said, smiling at the ZAFT Elite.

Alex shrugged. “He’s too mean to die that easily, I’m afraid.” He turned. “I’d best get the Stormbird prepped. Fight your ship, Captain.”

Skies over Alaska

Despite his bone-deep hatred of warfare, Kira felt a fierce sense of exultation as he took to the sky in the ZGMF-X10A Freedom. As Athrun had said, he understood that sometimes a few had to die so that many could live, and if those few were Blue Cosmos, who hurt others because of genetic differences, so much the better. The more of them we take out, the better things will be.

A brilliant gold machine cruised at his left. “Let’s go, brother!” Cagalli said, beam rifle already spitting hard light at the Alliance formation.

Kira grinned, and the grin broadened when a red Gundam came up from the right. “Athrun, you ready?”

“Let’s go get them, Kira!” Athrun responded, then looked at another red machine, which was moving hesitantly. “You okay in there, Tolle?”

Tolle blasted an F-7D before replying. “I will be.”

“If you get a chance, use the Scylla on one of those warships.” Below them, the Archangel fired into the astonished Allied naval fleet. “It can take out a capital ship in one hit.”

“Roger that.”

Tolle was soon joined by the other four original Gundams, X102 Duel, X103 Buster, X105 Strike, and X207 Blitz. Alex’s friend Kyle Perry appeared in the formation a moment later; he had decided it would be best to combine his fire with the Buster’s.

Kira smiled at the sight, but the expression faded when he saw a white machine ahead. It was a DINN, white instead of the standard purple, and only one person could be flying it.

“Now,” Rau Le Creuset said, “the curtain has risen, and it’s time for the actors to show their talents!”

Kira stifled a sigh. He did not trust the masked man, but this was not the time. So, bringing up his targeting system, he locked onto a dozen fixed gun emplacements. He took a deep breath, let half of it out, and pulled the trigger.

The eruption of laser beams, plasma bolts, and railgun slugs came as a complete shock to a lot of his allies; Kira could only imagine the effect it was having on the Earth Forces. Every shot hit dead on, courtesy of the Freedom’s advanced multilocked system.

Cagalli and Athrun achieved comparable results, albeit not as spectacular. Cagalli picked off targets in a coldly precise manner reminiscent of her emotionless lover. Athrun, whose marksmanship had gained even Yzak’s admiration, shot down ten fighters in less than five seconds, not missing even once.

“No wonder you earned the red uniform,” Mu La Flaga commented, leveling his own rifle at an Earth Forces destroyer. Four shots later, it exploded.

A trio of DINNs followed in Mu’s wake, the pilots almost awed at fighting alongside the Hawk of Endymion. One took a hit from an enemy fighter, which he promptly blew out of the sky. His companions concentrated their fire on the enemy fleet below them.

Chris Madsen, as usual, spent his time torching everything in his way. He even repeated his tactic of setting fire to a carrier’s flight deck. “This isn’t shooting fish in a barrel; it’s dynamiting them in a fishbowl!”

Yzak Joule was inclined to agree. “These targets aren’t much of a challenge at all. Is this really all we have to shoot at?”

He soon got his answer, in the form of an Earth Forces tank scoring a hit on a BuCUE’s ankle joint.

“Can’t have that, now!” The Duel’s railgun went into rapid fire, destroying the offending tank and three of its fellows. A few others tried to retaliate, but then Andrew Waltfeld’s modified LaGOWE appeared.

Pathetic, the Tiger thought; the tanks had not lasted more than a few seconds.

“Say, Andy,” Aisha said. “Is it just me, or are all these guys Eurasian?”

He frowned. “It sure looks like it. Hey, Joule, you see anything up there that isn’t Eurasian?”

Yzak blinked at the query. “You know, I don’t think I do.” He gave the area a brief once-over. “The tanks are definitely a Eurasian design, and the fighters have Eurasian markings.” He looked at the Strike. “What about you, Commander?”

A missile salvo fell to the Strike’s CIWS. “I’m seeing the same thing you are, Yzak,” Mu said. “Something’s not right here; this is Atlantic Federation territory, and all the defenders are Eurasian.”

“We’ve always known the Alliance isn’t as solid as their high command would have us believe,” Alex put in, the Stormbird moving to flank the Duel. “I think we just might be witnessing a double-cross. It would explain all the submarine activity we saw when we got here.”

“Not to mention Sutherland’s reaction when he learned the truth,” Murrue added from her bridge.

“The answers almost certainly lie inside the base,” Alex said. “Mu, Kira, what say we go inside and see for ourselves.”

The Freedom immediately broke off its attack. “Roger that.”

“I’m with you,” Mu acknowledged.

Le Creuset had had the same idea. His white DINN had already disappeared through one of the smaller gates. Shaking his head, Alex followed the DINN inside.

Archangel, Bridge

“Target Gottfrieds on the destroyer to starboard,” Murrue said crisply. She waited a beat, then, “Fire!”

So far, the battle seemed to be going well. The ZAFT fleet had achieved complete surprise, and the defenders still had not become organized. Archangel’s sudden attack had compounded matters, hitting the Alliance ships from behind. Several had attempted to retaliate, but their attacks had glanced harmlessly off the Orb ship’s laminated armor.

Adding insult to injury were the three next-generation Gundams, Kira’s Freedom, Athrun’s Justice, and Cagalli’s Akatsuki. Kira especially had come as a nasty surprise; his multitargeting capabilities exceeded anything either side had done before.

“Message from Commander La Flaga, Captain,” Mir said. “He, Kira, and Alex are going to infiltrate JOSH-A.”

Murrue spun in her chair. “Infiltrate? Why?”

“According to Yzak, everything we’ve faced thus far has been Eurasian,” Mir replied. “Alex suspects a double-cross, so they’re going in to see for themselves.”

“I don’t know if it’s a double-cross, but Joule’s right about one thing,” Tonomura put in. “Every single ship, tank, and aircraft on my board is Eurasian; not one is from the Atlantic Federation. Not one.”

Murrue frowned. “It makes sense,” she said slowly. “We already know that the Alliance is effectively controlled by Blue Cosmos, and it would explain why Sutherland was so confident.”

An Alliance ship flashed across the Archangel’s bow before anyone could reply. It started to bring its guns to bear, only to have a bright red beam core through it amidships. The unmistakable shape of GAT-X303 Aegis hovered above the wreckage.

“Thanks, Tolle,” Murrue said, sighing with relief. “That was too close.”

“No problem, Captain.” The Aegis raised its rifle in salute, then flew off in search of more targets.

JOSH-A Base, interior

Alex settled his machine next to Le Creuset’s DINN and unstrapped, drawing his heirloom Luger as he did so. Popping the hatch, he grasped his zip line and lowered himself to the ground. Now for a few answers.

It occurred to him that he might well be playing into the Earth Forces’ hands. Sutherland had seemed disturbingly confident when he predicted their defeat, which caused Alex to wonder just what sort of trick the treacherous Earth Alliance might have up its collective sleeve, and if that made him a mere pawn at Alaska.

He shook himself. It does not matter.

“Is it just me, or are there a lot fewer people than there should be here?” Kira wondered, checking his pistol’s safety.

“Beats me, kid,” Mu replied, pulling the slide back on his own weapon. “Hard to tell from this far out.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Rau Le Creuset said, walking toward them. A ZAFT machine pistol hung from his right hip. “I suggest we proceed together for the moment. There’s no telling what sort of unpleasant surprises the Earth Forces will have for us.”

Though neither the two Orb officers nor his fellow ZAFT commander much liked him, his suggestion made sense. Alex took point; his enhanced eyesight made him better at spotting threats before they got too close. Mu followed him; he knew the layout of the base better than the others. Kira and Rau brought up the rear, the former looking extremely nervous.

“Odd,” Rau murmured as they moved cautiously through the darkened corridors. “One would expect more activity at the Alliance’s terrestrial headquarters, especially when they’re under attack by the Carpentaria fleet.”

“Not to mention all five G-weapons, plus Alex’s people and the new ones ZAFT cooked up,” Mu agreed, forgetting for a moment his dislike of the other. “I’m thinking Alex is right about a double-cross.”

Alex tuned them out, straining eyes and ears both for any sign of the enemy. Footsteps, but they are too far away to matter. Other than that, nothing. With each step, he was convinced that the Atlantic Federation was up to something.

He stopped dead in his tracks when it hit him. “It’s a trap,” he said.

His companions stared at him. “What do you mean, Alex?” Kira asked

“Think about it,” the other said. “Everything we’ve faced here has been Eurasian. You know as well as I do that the Earth Alliance is nowhere near as united as they would have ZAFT, or the neutrals believe. This is a case of the Atlantic Federation getting rid of both a good-sized chunk of ZAFT and some of their troublesome ‘allies,’ along with the ‘traitorous’ Archangel.”

Mu swore viciously. “That could be it.”

“The clincher was Sutherland’s message to Murrue,” Alex continued. “He wasn’t in the Joint Operations Room; he was on the bridge of an Alliance submarine.”

“Which means we’re probably not going to find anyone except some stray Eurasians,” Kira said grimly. “How are they going to pull this off?”

“We’ll most likely find out when we reach the command center,” Rau said.

They arrived moments later. Kira and Mu assumed positions at the two doors, while Alex and Rau moved to a computer terminal. One of the screens showed a tactical schematic of the battle outside; two more displayed nothing but alarm messages. The third, however…

“Well, that explains that” Rau said quietly.

Alex muttered a German obscenity under his breath. “This is even worse than I’d imagined. If something like that goes off here…”

“Everything within ten kilometers will be reduced to a blasted wasteland,” Rau finished.

“Hey, what’s got you all worked up?” Mu called.

Alex cursed again. “Do the words ‘Cyclops System’ mean anything to you?”

The Hawk was there in an instant, followed by Kira, and he went pale at what he saw. Even if it had not been clearly labeled, there was no mistaking the honeycomb formation of discs on the screen. Dozens of disc-shaped microwave generators. It was a Cyclops all right.

Mu swore viscously. “Are they really planning on using it here? It’ll make Endymion look tiny!”

“For once, Mu, we are in complete agreement,” Rau said, though he wished he had made the discovery alone. It would have furthered his own plans quite nicely…

“We need to get out of here right now!” Mu said. “Even the Archangel wouldn’t be able to survive that.”

An instant later, they were off and running again, Alex pausing long enough to shoot an unfortunate Eurasian who blundered into them. He only hoped they would make it in time; the Cyclops was obviously set for remote activation, rather than a timer. If the Alliance brass chose the wrong moment…

“We should warn the Eurasians, too,” Kira said as they reached their machines. “They were betrayed by people they trusted, and besides, it could get us some more allies.”

“No argument from me, kid,” Mu said, grabbing his zip line. “Even Chairman Zala wouldn’t pull a stunt like this.”

Four mobile suits, three Gundams and a DINN, took to the sky once more. With the touch of a button, the situation had changed dramatically for the worse.

Open sky

Cagalli blasted yet another fighter, trying not to worry about what was happening inside JOSH-A. Two of the three people most important to her had gone inside half an hour earlier, and there had not been any word from them.

“Worried about your boyfriend?”

She blinked, then glared at the blood red CGUE to her left. “What’s it to you, Bartlett?” she demanded; one of the few things that annoyed her about the new alliance was being on the same side as Alex’s old rival.

On her screen, Bartlett shrugged. “There’s no cause for concern, milady,” he said. “You’re aware of my opinion of him, but don’t go thinking I don’t respect his ability. Strassmeier is not going to be taken out by anything the Earth Forces have in there; he is too good for that. I should know.”

“Yeah, you should know, because he beat you every time,” Cagalli snapped. Pushing the obnoxious ZAFT officer out of her mind, she lined up on a formation of tanks, carefully allocating shots. One was more than enough to dispose of such vehicles.

Yzak had taken Kira’s place at her right, explaining that Alex would never forgive him if he let something happen to Cagalli. She had been tempted to snap something about not needing protection, especially with the Akatsuki, but had restrained herself. Yzak was extremely protective of his family, and he had decided to include Cagalli, even though nothing had been formalized.

An F-7D blazed past, pursued by a white mobile suit. The Alliance pilot might have had a more agile machine, but he stood no chance against Andrea Strassmeier. It was over in a matter of seconds.

Athrun Zala was going after the ships directly. Connecting his sabers together in a staff-like weapon, he sliced several open near the waterline, then followed up with a blast from his Fortis beam cannons. He was soon joined by Nicol Amalfi, his closest friend in ZAFT. A series of green flashes erupted from the Trikeros, stitching the length of a cruiser’s hull.

This is too easy, the princess thought, vaporizing yet another fighter.

“You know, I’m starting to think Alex is right about a double-cross,” Yzak commented. “Something’s just not right here.”

Cagalli started to reply but stopped when four blips appeared on her scope. That is a DINN, Strike, Stormbird, Freedom, they are okay! “Alex and the others are returning.”

“I see them,” Yzak acknowledged. “Wonder what they found.”

Whatever it was, it clearly was not good, judging the machines were moving. The next transmission confirmed it. “Attention, all ZAFT and Earth Alliance forces!” Kira called; the fact that he was speaking to the Eurasians as well spoke volumes in and of itself. “The Alliance high command planted a Cyclops under the base; it could go off at any time! Please, withdraw from this area immediately!”

Cagalli froze, shocked by her brother’s words. A Cyclops? Those bastards

The ZAFT fleet, of course, followed his request with alacrity. Rau’s subsequent confirmation was unnecessary; word of Kira’s friendship with Athrun Zala, one of their most famous pilots, had percolated through the fleet soon after the Archangel’s desertion had been announced. With that kind of endorsement, they were inclined to take him at his word.

The response from the Eurasians was decidedly mixed. Some of them dismissed Kira’s warning as a clumsy attempt at deception, while others sensibly recalled that Alaska was Atlantic Federation territory, and their own nation was not exactly on the best of terms with them, the formal alliance aside.

In the end, one carrier, two battleships, four cruisers, and eight destroyers got the message and began pulling away from JOSH-A. The ZAFT submarines, after a stern warning from one Commander Strassmeier, let them through. Truth be told, he did not need to have bothered; after such events as the Copernicus bombing and Junius Seven, most ZAFT soldiers were instinctively sympathetic to victims of treachery, especially Atlantic Federation treachery.

The rest of the Allied fleet was not so sanguine, and the ZAFT mobile suits, led by Athrun Zala, found themselves in the uniquely bizarre position of defending Earth Forces warships against attack by Earth Forces warships.

Kira had not been so scared since Heliopolis, and even that had not been as intense. At least he had been in control of his own destiny at Heliopolis once he had taken over the Strike. This was far different; with a Cyclops involved, even the Freedom’s defenses would be less than useless.

“I never thought I’d face a Cyclops again,” Mu muttered. “After Endymion…”

“I understand the official story is that the ice-melting system went out of control,” Rau said. “How likely is that?”

Mu snorted derisively. “You were there, Commander. Do you really think the timing was a coincidence?”

“To be honest, no.” Rau paused to blast a fighter that was preparing to strafe one of the escaping warships. “In point of fact, I don’t believe it was intended for melting ice in the first place, for the simple reason that there was so little ice there to melt.”

Alex unlimbered his plasma cannon, blowing a hole in an enemy cruiser. “You’re saying Endymion was a trap as well.”

“Most likely.”

They broke formation then, Rau returning to the Cousteau. Kira and Mu covered a group of retreating ZuOOTs, while Alex boosted higher, scanning for any additional threats. He did not really think he would find anything, but he would not put anything past the Atlantic Federation at that point.

Blast, it is taking too long, Kira thought. That worried him more than any personal danger; some of the ground machines were painfully slow, especially the ZuOOTs. The BuCUEs and Waltfeld’s LaGOWE were safe enough; they were the most maneuverable land-based mobile suits.

Someone on the ground agreed. The ZuOOTs ground to a halt, and a BuCUE stopped by each one long enough to pick up the pilot. BuCUEs were not meant to carry passengers, but one each was not much of a problem under the circumstances, and there were more than enough BuCUEs.

“Kira, are you all, right?” Flay called frantically.

He managed a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine, Flay. The Freedom is more than fast enough to get me out in time; it’s the ZuOOTs that I’m worried about.”

Flay nodded, relaxing just a little. “I understand.” She glanced at something off-screen. “Cagalli’s back onboard, so she’s safe.”

“Increased radiation detected inside JOSH-A!” Jackie Tonomura suddenly called out. “Estimate five minutes until detonation!”

“All units, go to flank speed!” Murrue snapped an instant later. “Redline your drives if you have to, just get out of here!”

Kira knew he could not wait any longer. A bitter taste in his mouth, he shifted the Freedom into HiMAT mode and went to full throttle.

According to many of the survivors, it was as if the earth itself had erupted. The Cyclops, as Rau Le Creuset had so aptly put it, reduced everything within ten kilometers of ground zero to a blasted wasteland. Within that area were all too many ZAFT and Eurasian soldiers…and a small town, which had provided the civilian support for JOSH-A.

The survivors of the ZAFT fleet swore revenge on the Earth Forces for the cowardly action. They were joined by the Eurasians who had believed Kira’s message and pulled out in time; Cagalli Yula Athha, as the senior Orb officer present, accepted their enlistments in the Orb forces on a provisional basis.

Mu La Flaga, one of only two members of the attacking force to have seen a Cyclops before, practically blew up when he landed. Murrue was finally able to calm him down after he had ranted for about ten minutes.

The other Gundam pilots stood apart, silently watching the conflagration. “I knew the Atlantic Federation was capable of anything at Spit Break, when they betrayed their own allies,” the youngest of them, Nicol Amalfi, said after the war.

The three who had suffered the most because of the Alliance, Athrun Zala and the Strassmeier’s, agreed.

Archangel, briefing room

Murrue sighed wearily, scrubbing her hands over her face. “Do we have any casualty figures?”

“I’m afraid so,” Natarle said unhappily. She checked her board. “Out of all forces engaged, we lost fifty percent, including ninety percent of those who penetrated the base interior. Of fifty-five submarines, fifteen were sunk outright, ten were so severely damaged that they had to be scuttled, and all the rest sustained light to moderate damage.”

“What about the mobile suits?” Murrue asked, afraid to hear the answer yet knowing she had to know.

Natarle sighed. “Severe: eleven GOOhNs, nine ZnOs, forty DINNs, sixteen GINNs, more than a dozen CGUEs, six BuCUEs, and every single ZuOOT. Fortunately, most of the ZuOOT pilots were evacuated by the BuCUEs before the Cyclops went off.”

“That’s something, at least.”

“Those bastards!” Yzak snarled. He hammed his fist on the table. “They used their own allies as bait, then blew them up! And all those civilians…!”

Alex sighed. “Judging by what I was able to see from the air, the town had a population between seven and eight thousand. I…do not believe there were any survivors.” He closed his eyes, more anguished than he cared to admit. While he had not been at Endymion, he knew perfectly well the effect of a microwave bombardment on the human body.

Cagalli squeezed his hand. “Don’t blame yourself, Alex.”

“I know.” Alex smiled at her briefly, then turned to Murrue. “Any word on Le Creuset or Bartlett?”

She shook her head. “Nothing.”

He cursed under his breath. Rau Le Creuset and Daniel Bartlett had vanished within hours of the Cyclops going off, and nothing had been heard from them since. Nicol, always ready to give anyone (except Blue Cosmos) the benefit of the doubt, had suggested it was a simple mix-up. Alex, who knew Bartlett better than anyone save the man’s mother, disagreed. He believed something more sinister was in the offing. Mu, Le Creuset’s longtime adversary, felt the same.

“I don’t get it,” Dearka said, shaking his head. “Why would Commander Le Creuset just up and vanish? Bartlett I can understand; that guy’s nuts.”

“Your CO’s just as nuts, Dearka,” Mu said. “I fought him at Endymion, and he actually spoke to me during the battle.”

Athrun sat up sharply. “What did he say, sir?” he asked; he had had more close contact with Le Creuset than his teammates had.

Mu frowned; this had been puzzling him for a year. “He asked if I was the one who was ‘calling’ him. Then he asked my name. I told him, he started laughing. I asked what was so funny; he said it was the irony of fate. I never could figure out what he meant.”

Flashback, Endymion Crater

“Cain! Russell! Anyone! Do you read me?” Was everyone wiped out? On both sides?

“Mu La Flaga, do you read me?”

“What? Who is that?”

“You and I shall meet another day. I look forward to that occasion with great anticipation.”

“Wait! Who are you?”

“My name is Rau Le Creuset. You would do well to remember it.”

End flashback

Murrue noticed Athrun looking thoughtful. “What is it, Athrun?”

The Justice’s pilot shook himself. “You’ve all met Commander Le Creuset in person now. What you do not know is that he never appears in public without that mask. Even in the PLANTs the only people who’ve seen him without it are my father and whoever his personal physician is.”

“I know he had it on the few times I met him back home,” Alex agreed.

“I think,” Natarle said quietly, “that there is more to Le Creuset than any of us ever suspected.” She shook her head. “In any case, what happened today was an unmitigated disaster; the only reason it wasn’t even worse was the discovery of the Cyclops before those Earth Forces bastards could set it off.”

Heads nodded around the table. Shockwaves from the failure of Spit Break were bound to be felt throughout the world. The Earth Forces would certainly be burning for revenge, not knowing that they were betrayed by their own high command. ZAFT, by contrast, knew precisely who the culprits were, and they were bound to be even angrier.

The PLANTs are bound to be in chaos once they hear about this, Alex thought. Operation Spit Break was Zala’s bid to end the war in one fell swoop. Instead, it failed miserably, so the war will go on.

December Four, PLANTs, 10 May, C.E. 71

Alex had been righter than he could have imagined. The failure of Spit Break, which everyone in the PLANTs had expected to be a crushing victory, struck the Coordinator homeland like a hammer. In the ensuing uproar, Siegel Clyne and his allies made their move. Patrick Zala, finding his position untenable, had been forced to flee, unfortunately taking something like half of ZAFT’s remaining strength with him. His last words before departure were a vow to exterminate the Naturals.

Now, Siegel Clyne stood in a ZAFT hangar, gazing at a giant mobile suit. Originally built as a prototype for the Justice and the Freedom, now they had no choice but to press it into active service. Not only was it highly likely that ZAFT would soon be facing Earth Forces mobile suits, but Zala’s people had stolen at least one other new machine, two.

“The situation is grave,” Siegel said, turning to the young redcoat at his side. “With Patrick gone, and half of ZAFT with him, it is all too likely that we will find ourselves amid a three-cornered war. Orb’s joining our cause will alleviate that to a certain extent, but that only goes so far.”

“Which is where I come in,” the blonde youth said.

Siegel nodded. “I want you to join our forces assembling at Orb. They already have a number of G-units, as you probably know, but it would be unwise to take chances.”

“I understand, sir,” the youngster said, saluting. “I won’t fail.”

This is it; the redcoat thought an hour later. There is no turning back.

“Radiation levels stable,” a voice said in his ear. “Cable disconnect from YMF-X000A confirmed. Clear for launch.”

“Troy Cadwallader,” the Oceanian said, “Dreadnought launching!”

YMF-X000A Dreadnought leapt into space, its destination, Earth.