Chapter 24: Flight of the Magic Bullet

Valkyrie, Bridge, 15 May, C.E. 71

A week after the spectacular failure of Operation Spit Break, the weary survivors neared Orb’s Onogoro Island. Of all the ships involved, only the Valkyrie itself had come out unscathed; even the Archangel had taken some bad hits. None of the Gundams had taken any real damage, fortunately, but all the pilots were exhausted.

The biggest cause for concern was the disappearance of Rau Le Creuset. He was widely acknowledged (even, reluctantly, by Alex) as ZAFT’s best space commander. Not only would there be a dangerous hole in ZAFT’s command structure, but few liked the idea of facing him in battle. Of Orb’s pilots, only Kira Yamato and Mu La Flaga stood a chance against him, and even they would be hard pressed.

Out of ZAFT, Alex alone was looking forward to it.

“Approaching the Onogoro dock,” the ship’s helmsman said. “ETA, fifteen minutes.”

“Understood,” Lia said. She looked at Alex. “Any special orders?”

He snorted. “In a docking maneuver? No, there’s nothing.”

Lia hid a smile at the way a certain blond-haired princess moved to stand by Alex’s chair. Those two, she thought fondly, then returned her attention to the main viewer. Valkyrie’s sister-ship cruised to starboard, while several ex-Eurasian vessels followed in their wake. Bringing up the rear were several ZAFT’s Vosgulov-class submarine carriers.

Overall, it was a motley group, but Lia would not have had it any other way. It may have lacked the spit-and-polish of an Atlantic Federation fleet, but it also lacked their almost insufferable arrogance, an arrogance which was the biggest factor in their strained relations with their nominal allies, the Eurasians.

“Well, that was something different,” a deep voice said.

Lia snorted. “You have a gift for understatement, Commander,” she said wryly.

“It’s not every day we get mass Earth Forces defections,” Andrew Waltfeld said.


Alex, though he gave no sign he even heard, agreed. His first real battle as a ZAFT commander had been one step short of a complete disaster; only the discovery of the Cyclops had minimized the death toll. And it also gave a clue about Rau Le Creuset’s true intentions. I have the distinct impression that he would have been perfectly happy if we had been caught in the Earth Forces’ trap.

Defense Headquarters, Onogoro Island

Athrun Zala slumped on the bunk in the quarters Orb had assigned to him following the announcement of the Orb/ZAFT alliance. Like Alex, he felt the disappearance of Rau Le Creuset provided a clue as to the masked man’s goals. Unlike Alex, though, Athrun felt no sense of vindication.

Commander, why? What are you up to? Why are you doing this? Athrun felt betrayed. First his father turned out to be, as Alex put it, a homicidal madman, then an officer whom he admired, who held the Order of the Nebula, ZAFT’s highest award for valor, had turned traitor.

The door slid open, and Lacus Clyne, the Pink Princess of the PLANTs, stepped through. “Hello, Athrun,” she said brightly. “It’s good to see you safe.”

Athrun stood and enfolded his fiancée in an embrace. “It’s good to be back. After everything…”

Lacus stroked his face. “I heard about Commander Le Creuset. It must be hard, knowing that your commander is a traitor.”

He shook his head. “I just don’t get it. My father I can understand, even if it hurts. The Commander, though, I just cannot figure it out. What does he want?”

“I don’t know, but I have some news about your father.” Lacus looked glum. “He has announced the formation of what he calls the ‘Neo ZAFT’ organization, and openly proclaimed his goal of exterminating the Naturals.”

Athrun sighed. “It’s not a surprise, and it doesn’t change anything. I had made up my mind to oppose him even before Spit Break. Now…he’s only confirmed that I made the right choice.”


“If he’s capable of something like this, then he is no longer the man who raised me,” Athrun said softly. “That man died with my mother at Junius Seven. What family I have left is right here in Orb: you, Kira, and Nicol.”

Lacus just tightened her grip, not speaking.

“I’ll fight for as long as it takes, to stop my father, and to bring freedom to our homeland,” Athrun said.

She nodded. “I know. I wish you didn’t have to do it, but I understand.” She smiled and gently tugged him toward the door. “But right now, you need to relax. You shouldn’t be all alone in your room like this.”

Athrun smiled. Despite her apparent naiveté, Lacus was extremely perceptive. “Lead on, Lacus.”

HQ lounge

The lounge was fairly crowded by the time Athrun and Lacus arrived. Most of those present were off one of the two mobile assault ships, but there were a few people from the ZAFT submarines scattered about, as well as some crew members from the ex-Eurasian vessels. The latter kept to themselves not yet accustomed to Orb.

Athrun quickly spotted several people he knew. Kira Yamato and Flay Allster sat together on a couch, the latter half asleep. Dearka Elsman chatted with Andrea Strassmeier; Athrun had to hide a smile at that. Sai Argyle and an extremely nervous Miriallia Haw listened as Tolle Koenig described his first battle in the Aegis.

Nicol was off in a corner, an electronic keyboard in front of him. The notes from the small instrument provided a soothing background.

Alex Strassmeier and Cagalli Yula Athha stood near Kira and Flay. Neither was in uniform; Alex wore jeans and a t-shirt, the only martial touch being the Luger holstered at his thigh, while the princess was dressed in her favorite civilian garb, khaki pants, and a red t-shirt. Cagalli was not visibly armed, but Athrun would not have put it past her to have something lethal in her pocket, especially after spending so much time with Alex.

To Athrun’s surprise, Natarle Badgiruel was present, engaged in what looked like a chess match with Arnold Neumann. It was hard to tell who was winning, though the Archangel’s helmsman appeared to be holding his own.

“Hey! Over here!”

Athrun could not help smiling. “Hey yourself,” he said, as he and Lacus took a seat across from the speaker.

Mu La Flaga grinned. “Nice to see you’re not getting all formal on me.”

Athrun shrugged. “Any friend of Kira’s is a friend of mine,” he said. “Kira might be naïve at times, but he’s always been a good judge of character.”

“You got that right.” Mu leaned back in his chair, glancing at Kira. “Flay’s the best thing that ever happened to him,” he said more quietly.

The ZAFT pilot nodded agreement. “I didn’t think so at first, since her father was a top-ranking member of Blue Cosmos, but Cagalli straightened me out.”

Mu raised his eyebrows. “How’d she do that?”

Athrun grinned a little sheepishly. “She slapped me.”

The Hawk laughed uproariously. “That I can believe. She’s not exactly known for being gentle.”

“I heard that!” Cagalli glared at them, but there was a definite glint of humor in her eyes.

Athrun laughed, then turned, looking into his fiancée’s clear blue eyes. Even though his father had become his enemy, Athrun felt better in some ways than he had since the Bloody Valentine. Lacus was with him, he and Kira were finally on the same side, and with the recent changes in Orb and the PLANTs, he was fighting for something he believed in.

The far door slid open, and a young man in Orb uniform stepped through. Tall, with brown hair and eyes, he looked about twenty-three, but his eyes bore a haunted look, as if he were carrying some horrible secret. The way he moved proclaimed him to be a pilot; Athrun found himself wondering just what the man flew. An M1 was logical, except that they were just coming online, and the newcomer was clearly experienced.

He then spotted Athrun and froze, his eyes going wide.

Athrun frowned. He looks spooked. Is something wrong? He stood and crossed over to him. “Athrun Zala of ZAFT,” he said.

The young man, a lieutenant commander, hesitated. “Harris, sir. Lieutenant Commander Jacob Harris.” He looked away. “Formerly of the Atlantic Federation Navy,” he added softly.

Athrun looked at him curiously. “Why would I hold that against you? Aside from Kira and his friends, everyone on the Archangel used to be with the Atlantic Federation, and I have a good relationship with them simply fine.”

Harris shook his head. “It’s not that simple. You see…” He took a deep breath. “I was piloting a TS-MA2 Moebius mobile armor at Junius seven.”

Athrun nodded slowly, understanding flooding him. Jacob Harris was the pilot who had launched the nuke into Junius Seven, and at that moment Athrun wanted more than anything else to hate him for that. But he could not; the pain in Harris’s eyes and voice was genuine. The fact that Orb accepted him despite that was another mark in his favor.

“All I can say in my defense is that I had no idea the missile had a nuclear warhead,” Harris said softly. “I know that’s not enough, and that it can never excuse what I did that day, but you should know the whole truth in any case.” He closed his eyes. “I can’t ask you to forgive me. What I did is beyond that.”

Athrun gazed at him for a long moment, aware of Lacus and Kira nearby. He believed every word the ex-mobile armor pilot had said, most Alliance pilots would have balked at a nuclear attack on a civilian target. Still, Athrun was conflicted; he still wanted to avenge his mother’s death, along with all the other people who had died there, but much as he wanted to, this was not the way to do it.

“Killing you won’t bring my mom back,” he said at last. “I won’t say this is easy for me because it isn’t. Still, if it is true, you did not know what it was you were doing, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, then you’re just as much a victim as the people who died there.” He held out his hand again. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be friends, but at least we won’t be enemies.”

Harris gripped Athrun’s hand, then saluted. “Thank you. I don’t deserve it but thank you.”

Athrun returned the salute. “I can’t say I was pleased to meet you, but it’s not your fault.”

The other nodded, then drifted off to a table.

“Well, looks like you’ve moved up in the world, Athrun.”

Athrun spun around, vaguely aware of his teammates doing the same. Two ZAFT soldiers stood by the door, one in standard green, one in elite red. Troy Cadwallader was not a surprise; they had heard on arrival that the young Special Forces agent would be joining them. The other man, however, had all four of them wondering if they were seeing ghosts.

Nicol found his voice first. “Miguel?” he whispered.

Miguel Aiman grinned. “Been a while, Nicol,” he said, then looked back at Athrun. “A Commander, huh?”

“Ah…” Athrun swallowed. “Miguel, how did you survive? I saw your GINN explode.”

Miguel shrugged. “Nah. Strassmeier’s shot managed to get bent by the cockpit armor. I was still pretty banged up, but it didn’t kill me.” He raised his eyebrows. “He here?”

Alex stepped forward. “An honor to meet you, and I’m glad we’re off the battlefield.” He hesitated. “I guess I owe you an apology.”

Miguel shook his head. “Representative Joule explained what you were up to. Don’t worry about it.”

“I know you have a lot of catching up to do,” Troy interrupted, “so I’ll see you later.”

“Hang on,” Dearka said. “What brings you to Orb in the first place?”

The Aussie grinned. “Reinforcements -I pilot a G-unit, after all- and to brief you on the next operation, as well as the so-called ‘Neo ZAFT’ group Zala produced. It’ll be a few days, though, so you can relax.”

Athrun watched him go, wondering just what was going on. He knew that the next operation was almost certain to involve Panama; with JOSH-A gone, the Porta Panama mass driver was the most logical target. After the tremendous losses at Alaska, they had to close the door to space and trap the Alliance on Earth.

Morgenroete Hangar, 16 May, C.E. 71

“Sorry I took so long,” Miguel said. “It took almost four months to get me back to normal.”

He and Athrun stood on a catwalk in Morgenroete’s main hangar. In front of them were a pair of mobile suits, Athrun’s ZGMF-X09A Justice, and Miguel’s new machine, one of the first production ZGMF-600 GuAIZ units. GuAIZs were normally green, but Miguel’s was orange, matching the color scheme of his old GINN.

“Don’t worry about it,” Athrun said. “I’m glad to see you anyway.”

Miguel smiled, then looked over to another part of the hangar. The twins stood talking with Alex, about their mobile suits. Yzak’s cousin had an unusually animated look on his angular face. “Nice to see your buddy made it.”

“Yeah.” Athrun grinned and waved at his friend. “Same for Alex; I know Yzak was hurting, fighting him like that.”

Miguel chuckled. “I saw his last tournament, just before the Bloody Valentine. You don’t want to pick a fight with that guy.” He shook his head. “Who’d have thought Mister Emotionless would fall for a princess?”

“Don’t let her hear you say that” Athrun said, then sobered. “So, what’s this I hear about a new operation?”

Miguel shrugged. “Troy’s got the details on it; all I know is we’re attacking Panama.”

Athrun nodded. He had expected as much.

“Athrun.” Miguel laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry about your father. I don’t know what happened…”

“I do,” Athrun said softly. “He lost his mind after Mom died. He… he can’t tell a bad Natural from a good one; he just wants them all dead.” He sighed. “He’s not really my father anymore, Miguel.”

Miguel nodded, not speaking.

“So, you have any plans?” the redcoat asked, changing the subject.

The older man returned his gaze to the GuAIZ. “I’ll be sparring with Commander La Flaga later today,” he said. “He was good in a mobile armor -he actually gave me a good fight at Nova- and I want to see how he does in a mobile suit.”

Athrun grunted. “You won’t be disappointed, Miguel. I saw him in action in Alaska, and believe me, there aren’t many who could take him.”

Miguel grinned. “I expected no less from the Hawk of Endymion.”

Alex gazed up at the three mobile suits, his fearsome Stormbird, Cagalli’s golden Akatsuki, and Kira’s majestic Freedom. Amazing how machines originally intended for heavy industrial work proved so devastating in combat. Though few were aware of it, the original GINN design had been used for orbital mining operations.

“Chief Simmons says they’ve almost finished the mobile turret system for the Akatsuki,” Kira said. “A few Eurasian engineers are helping with some last-minute modifications.”

Cagalli nodded. “I heard it’s based on the light-wave barrier the Eurasians have at Artemis. Sounds good.”

“And thanks to the AI Kira and Mu produced, you’ll be able to use it properly. Not as well as Kira or I could, but it will still be a major advantage,” Alex put in. He checked his watch. “If you will excuse me, I need to get back to the Valkyrie. Lia needs me for something or other.”

The princess gave him a quick kiss. “See you later.”

Kira hid a smile. And to think she thought he was a spy.

“So how are you doing?”

Kira blinked. “Huh?”

Cagalli shook her head. “Kira, we both saw what happened at Alaska, and I know you well enough to know how you must have felt about it.”

He closed his eyes, seeing again the horrific devastation at Alaska, hearing again the chopped-off screams of people caught in the blast. The thought of what must have happened to those people made him shudder; he knew as well as anyone the effect a microwave bombardment had on the human body. And unlike Endymion Crater, there was no doubt that Alaska was deliberate.

“I… seeing what happened there, it made me so angry.” Kira shook his head. “I hate having to fight, but what the Earth Forces did there, it just makes me sick. The way they used a Cyclops on their own people.” He sighed. “I was never in any real danger, not with the Freedom, but still. So many people died there. I can’t help thinking, if I’d done something different, maybe they’d still be alive.”

“And maybe you’d be dead,” Cagalli countered. “Kira, it’s not your fault that those people didn’t make it. It was the Earth Forces, and they’re the ones we’re fighting against.”

Kira nodded reluctantly. He still seemed troubled, though.

There is always something, Cagalli thought. “What is it?” she asked gently.

He looked away. “I’m…I’m not sure what I am anymore,” he whispered. “I thought I was just an average Coordinator, that there was nothing different about me. It’s been two months since I learned the truth…”

She squeezed his arm. “Kira, there’s nothing to worry about. What happened to you before you were born wasn’t your fault.” Cagalli nodded toward another catwalk, where Athrun and Miguel stood. “Athrun doesn’t care about it,” her voice firmed, “and neither does Flay.”

That last remark did the trick. Kira smiled and hugged her. “Thanks, Cagalli,” he said softly. “You’ve been a tremendous help, ever since Heliopolis.”

She returned the embrace. “Kira, you’re my brother; I always knew that subconsciously. I love you, and I do not want to see you hurt. You can always count on me.”

“I know.”

They turned to lighter matters then, life since they were separated, anything but their origins or the state of the war. For a few minutes, at least, they were not a princess and an ace pilot, but just siblings, unconcerned by the outside world.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Yzak Joule unceremoniously plunked down on his cousin’s bunk. “Man, what a disaster.”

“You can say that again,” Lia Ramius agreed. “This is even worse than your old CO’s decision to use D-package weaponry at Heliopolis; at least that didn’t kill anyone.”

Alex nodded agreement, recalling the sight of a town going up in flames. “I never thought even the Atlantic Federation would have gone so far as to incinerate their own allies like that.”

“Incinerate is right,” Lia said, grimacing. “According to the reports I have seen, Eurasia has been pretty well shattered. They no longer have an effective military force at this point.”

“The Atlantic Federation has always been the major power player in the Earth Alliance,” Yzak observed. “Aside from their mass drivers –both of which are now in our hands- the South African Union and the Republic of East Asia haven’t really been factors.”

Alex sighed. “I had a message direct from the Council when we got back to Orb. It seems that the Kingdom of Scandinavia and the Equatorial Union have been ‘persuaded,'” the word dripped sarcasm, “to join the Alliance. On top of that, Uzumi’s official announcement of Orb’s support for the PLANTs was received with outrage by the Atlantic Federation.”

Yzak laughed harshly. “Tough. Orb understood something clearly at last, thanks to Lacus and Commander Waltfeld. I hear the attack on Panama is going to stage from Onogoro.”

Alex reached into a desk drawer and withdrew a hardcopy document. “Here’s the Atlantic Federation’s official response; I was present when Lord Uzumi received it.” He cleared his throat and began to read aloud. ” ‘By giving political and military support to the criminals on the so-called PLANT Supreme Council and its terror organization, the so-called Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty, the Orb Union has abandoned its inherent responsibilities as a nation of Earth. Considering this, the Earth Alliance demands the following concessions from the Orb Union. First, an immediate renunciation of its alliance with ZAFT and the PLANTs. Second, the resignation of the Orb Union’s current government. Third, the disarmament and subsequent demobilization of its armed forces.'”

Yzak rolled his eyes. “I’ll bet Uzumi blew his stack when he got that one.”

“That, Yzak, is an understatement of breathtaking proportions,” Alex said. “He turned bright red, crumpled his copy in his hand, and hurled it into a trash bin. When he had calmed sufficiently to speak coherently, he started out by cursing the Atlantic Federation in particularly vile terms.” He chuckled at the memory. “Cagalli told me afterward that she’d never seen him that mad.”

Lia snorted, running a hand through her brown hair. “I can believe it. Lord Uzumi’s always struck me as an urbane sort; it probably takes a lot to make him lose his temper.”

Yzak nodded, then looked at the photo above Alex’s bunk. It brought back a lot of memories, most of them happy, but at the same time it was bittersweet. Klaus and Elena Strassmeier would never walk the streets of the Homeland again, and no matter how many Earth Forces soldiers were killed, it would not bring them back. Yzak understood that whatever his hotheaded exterior might suggest; he fought to ensure that no one else suffered his aunt and uncle’s fate.

He looked at his cousin. There were still shadows of grief in Alex’s blue eyes, and Yzak believed there always would be. Such a wound never completely healed, even when the perpetrators were brought to justice. Like Yzak, Alex had devoted himself to ZAFT both for revenge and to make sure no one else suffered the way he had.

Still, he was looking better than he had when he had left the PLANTs. Since he had gotten involved in the war, Alex had fulfilled his dream of becoming a ZAFT Elite, he had found his sister (or rather, his sister had found him), and he had managed to win the heart of a certain tomboy princess. Yzak could not help grinning at that.

“So how are things back home?” Alex asked suddenly.

Yzak shrugged. “Cassandra’s doing fine, even if she can’t talk. Mom’s been busy; she dropped by Carpentaria just before Operation Spit Break was launched, fact-finding mission. The Earth Forces haven’t gotten anywhere near the Homeland since they hit Jachin last year.”

Alex waved a hand dismissively. “Their only significant space presence these days is Ptolemaeus Base on the Moon; Artemis isn’t worth anything, and all they have besides that are a couple of space stations at L1.”

“Yeah.” Yzak sat up. “Athrun said there was a bit of an uproar after Heliopolis, Orb building mobile suits for the Earth Forces and all that.”

Alex snorted. “I’ll bet that’s died down now that Orb’s an ally.”

“No kidding. Mom says Mu La Flaga’s defection had people dancing in the streets.”

“Can’t say I’m surprised. If any Natural is genuinely famous in the PLANTs, it’s Mu.” Alex sipped from a coffee mug. “You gonna watch Mu duke it out with Miguel?”

Yzak grinned. “No way I’m gonna miss that one.”

“Then let us get moving. We can make it if we hurry.”

Morgenroete testing grounds

Mu grunted as the GuAIZ’s beam claws slammed into his shield. He forced it back, then drew back to lash out with his saber. His opponent jumped back out of range. The two machines stood motionless for a moment, then charged, claws locking with saber. After another moment of straining, they sprang apart once more.

He sure has not lost his touch, Mu thought. This is even tougher than Nova. Of course, we are not trying to kill each other here.

Miguel lunged again, but this time Mu was ready for him. The Strike sidestepped and brought its saber around, the point of the glowing weapon stopping a bare meter from the GuAIZ’s monoeye sensor. Miguel, conceding the point, slowly backed away. Then his beam rifle abruptly snapped up, spitting brilliant yet harmless green darts.

Most splashed against the Strike’s shield, but one struck the optics, temporarily blinding Mu. The GuAIZ pressed its attack, claws slashing is a cross pattern. Mu, recovering his sight, swung his saber in an infinity loop, keeping Miguel just barely off him. Their weapons locked for a third time…

“Man, I knew La Flaga was good, but not that good,” Dearka commented, watching the Strike with frank admiration.

The black-haired young woman next to him shrugged. “I’ve always thought our advantages over the Naturals were overstated,” Andrea Strassmeier said. “This is just more proof.”

Dearka nodded. His contempt for Naturals had been thoroughly burned out of him by his association with the Archangel’s crew. Tolle Koenig and Miriallia Haw, Kira’s closest friends from the Heliopolis gang, had taken a particular interest in him. He felt humbled, a new experience for him. He had tried to kill them several times.

“You hear Doctor Lockwood is looking for a way to give Naturals Coordinator abilities?”

Dearka looked at her in surprise. “Is that even possible? I mean, all the standard treatments have to be administered way before birth.”

Andrea laughed. “Dearka, a long time ago people said we’d never be able to fly, and now look. Millions of people live in space, and the number is increasing every day.”

“Got a point there,” the Buster’s pilot admitted. He turned slightly, making sure to keep her in view. Something about Andrea had caught his attention from the first. It helped that she was attractive (downright gorgeous, in Dearka’s opinion), but there was something more. Dearka was not sure what it was, but it was there.

Andrea hid a smile. She had an innovative idea what he was thinking; like Cagalli, Dearka Elsman was not particularly good at concealing his feelings. As it happened, her brother’s teasing after their run-in with that Earth Forces task force in the Marshall Islands had been right on the money. She had more than a passing interest in the former Le Creuset team pilot.

“Anyway,” she said, stepping closer, “I’ve never cared about someone’s genes. Besides, it was the Naturals who created us in the first place.”

Dearka nodded, watching the match conclude. To no one’s surprise, it had ended in a draw. “I’ve learned my lesson.” He hesitated before turning back to her. “Say, Alex told me about a restaurant in the capital…”

She grinned. “Are you asking me out?”

“Uh, yeah.” He still was not sure what to make of this girl.

The grin broadened. “Sure.” As if I would ever refuse…

Not far away, Nicol Amalfi sat at a computer terminal, tweaking the Blitz’s OS. Unlike most of his teammates, he had always had a respect for what Naturals could do, so the outcome of the day’s match had not surprised him. Even though his scores had earned him the red uniform, and later one of the Gundam units, he did not consider himself superior, either to the Naturals or the majority of his ZAFT comrades.

We might be physically superior, with better immune systems and the like, but those advantages only go so far. The G-weapons were designed by Naturals.

“I hope I’m not bothering you.”

Nicol turned. A redhead in Morgenroete uniform stood a few meters away. He recognized her but did not remember her name. “You’re one of the M1 test pilots, aren’t you?”

She nodded. “I’m Mayura Labatt. You’ve seen my brother Max around.”

Nicol remembered the youngster, a boy with reddish-blonde hair with an odd habit of speaking of himself in the third person. “He pilots a custom Astray.”

“That’s right. He’s one of the few Naturals who doesn’t need a special OS, and he has spatial awareness rivaling Commander La Flaga.” Mayura reached past him and punched up a schematic of Max’s machine. It was mostly blue, with an unusual backpack. “This is the Integrated Weapons Striker Pack, or IWSP.”

Nicol studied it with interest. “Heavily armed,” he commented.

“Yep,” Mayura agreed. “Beam rifle, two 105mm cannons, two 115mm railguns, two katana-style anti-ship swords, a beam boomerang, and a shield-mounted Gatling gun inspired by the CGUE. It was originally intended for the Strike, but the power system turned out to be incompatible; even though it was built by Morgenroete, the Strike has a different energy battery.”

Nicol nodded. “What about the standard machines?”

“Our M1s have the same weapons as the Aile Strike, minus the Armor Schneider knives,” Mayura said. “Thanks to the backpack unit, we can fly in atmosphere, which gives us a major advantage.”

That was a major point. Out of all ZAFT’s Gundams, only the Stormbird, Scorpion, Specter, Dreadnought, and Justice were capable of atmospheric flight without a subflight unit like a Guul, and of its mass-produced units, only the AMF-101 DINN could manage it. Orb has three more flight capable Gundams, the Aile Strike, Freedom, and Akatsuki.

“So, when did you decide to join ZAFT?” Mayura asked suddenly.

Nicol blinked in surprise, then leaned back, recalling his feelings at the time. “It was just after I heard about Junius Seven. When the Earth Forces used nuclear weapons, even though the pilot did not know,” Mayura nodded at that; they’d both met Lieutenant Commander Harris, “it took everything to a whole new level. ” He shrugged. “I figured I should do my part and join the fight, so I enlisted.”

“I can see that.” Mayura smiled. “I’ve been fascinated by mobile suits since the first GINN was rolled out, so when I was offered a position as a test pilot, I jumped at the chance.”

“Yeah. They’re fun to pilot, even though I don’t really like to fight.” Nicol looked out at the Blitz. “Guys like Yzak and Dearka sometimes seem like they live to fight. Me, I fight because I have to, because it’s the only way to protect the Homeland.”

“I know what you mean. Lieutenant Yamato says the same thing.” Mayura took an empty chair. “So, you going to stay with ZAFT after the war?”

Nicol nodded. “There will always be a need for protectors, and since I’m really good at it -I’m not wearing this red uniform for nothing- I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Mayura nodded, then followed his gaze to the Blitz. She could not help noticing the contrast between machine and pilot; GAT-X207 Blitz was easily the most malevolent of the original five Gundams. It looked positively sinister, which was one thing Nicol Amalfi was not. He was much like Kira: open, friendly, yet murderous towards any who would threaten his people or his home.

End of Part 2

Athha Residence, conference room, 17 May, C.E. 71

The conference room was far more crowded than usual. All the Archangel’s officers were present, along with every ZAFT Red currently in Orb. Lieutenant Commander Harris was there, as well as several ex-Eurasian officers who had survived the betrayal in Alaska. Colonel Kisaka was present, of course, and Admiral Halberton attended electronically from his flagship.

“I believe you all know the purpose of this meeting,” Uzumi said. He nodded at Troy Cadwallader. “Agent Cadwallader, if you would.”

Troy activated a wall screen. “This, as you all know, is Panama, site of the Porta Panama mass driver, the only such facility currently under the control of the Earth Alliance. It is the target of Operation Odin’s Lance.”

“That’s a pretty sizable target,” Mu commented. “Do we have the forces, after Alaska?”

“Yes and no, Commander,” Troy said. “Our mobile suit forces have been augmented now that Orb’s M1s have come online, but we still haven’t recovered from the Alaska fiasco. Much as we would like time to reconstitute our forces, we simply do not have that time. To regain the initiative, we must close the door to space, and trap the Alliance on Earth. Hence Odin’s Lance.”

Alex leaned forward in his chair. “If we are still understrength, why in blazes are we contemplating attacking Panama, of all places? That is the most heavily defended target they have right now, except maybe Heaven’s Base.”

Troy shrugged. “Like I said, we don’t have much choice.”

He changed the image. “As for how we intend to do it, here is our trump card, the Gungnir. It is an EMP weapon designed for taking out anything in its path. All our mass-produced units have enough shielding to avoid the effect, as do Gundams as a matter of course. The Earth Forces’ units are, of course, another story.”

Another image appeared, an orbital schematic. “The Gungnirs will be dropped from orbit by a force of Laurasia-class frigates, covered by Admiral Halberton’s flagship. Our job is to clear them a path.”

Athrun lifted an eyebrow. ” ‘Our’ job? You’re coming, too?”

The Aussie grinned. “Why do you think Chairman Clyne gave me the Dreadnought? With the new DRAGOON system, I’ll give those Earth Forces bastards something to think about.”

“So will I,” Cagalli put in. “They had to modify the Akatsuki more than expected, since a mobile turret system needs a nuclear engine to work properly, but that’s been taken care of.”

“I look forward to seeing it in action,” Troy said with a grin. He then sobered. “We might face an enemy machine with the same ability.” He mentioned a schematic of a truly evil-looking Gundam. “ZGMF-X13A Providence, stolen by the so-called ‘Neo ZAFT’ faction when they fled the PLANTs. Overall height: 18.16 meters at antenna. Weight: 90.68 tons. Armament: two MMI-GAU2 Picus 76mm CIWS, like the Freedom; MA-MV05A composite armed shield system, consisting of a beam saber and two beam cannons; MA-M221 Judicium beam rifle; and, of course, a DRAGOON system, eleven units for a total of forty-three separate emitters. Then there’s the most likely pilot.”

There was a long silence, broken by the Hawk of Endymion. “Rau Le Creuset,” he said darkly.

“That’s the most likely,” Troy agreed. “Given the number of Gundams at our disposal, it’s not likely he’ll be able to stop us, but fighting him won’t be fun.”

No kidding, Alex thought sourly.

“Well,” Uzumi said, “if there is nothing further, I believe we can adjourn.”

Kisaka stood. “Since we have officially announced our alliance with the PLANTs, there will be a series of events tomorrow.” He looked at the mobile suit pilots, assembled in a group. “I believe you know what that will include.”

Murrue followed his gaze. “What kind of event?”

Alex shrugged. “A parade.”

The meeting ended on that note.

Neo ZAFT Headquarters, Lagrange point Three, 18 May, C.E. 71

Patrick Zala was almost unrecognizable. That was Rau Le Creuset’s assessment, anyway. His once dark hair had turned iron gray, and there were always dark circles under his eyes. The man’s personality had also changed; even after the Bloody Valentine Zala had been upbeat, despite his grief. Now, though, a perpetual air of gloom hung around him.

Not that it had reduced his determination any.

“Those cursed Naturals,” he snarled. “They’ve infected the PLANTs, Clyne, and even my own son.”

Fool. “With all due respect, Your Excellency, Athrun isn’t really a surprise. According to him, Kira Yamato is a first-generation Coordinator. Because Athrun knows Yamato’s parents, it is to be expected that he would be less than sympathetic to our goals.”

Zala grunted. “Perhaps you’re right. In any case, we must stop them, and this Operation Odin’s Lance is the perfect opportunity.” He stood behind his desk. “You and Commander Bartlett are to take your teams and ambush them at Panama. Pay especially close attention to Yamato and ‘Commander’ Strassmeier; they are priority targets.” He shook his head in disgust. “How Ezalia Joule’s nephew could fall in love with an Orb princess is something I will never understand.”

Le Creuset saluted. “Understood, Your Excellency.”

“I’m assigning the new mobile suit to you, Commander,” Zala went on. “You are the only one who can use it to its full potential. Unfortunately, Commander Bartlett’s new machine is not ready yet, so he will have to make do with his CGUE.” He stared hard at the masked commander. “Don’t fail me, Le Creuset.”

Oh, I will not fail, “Your Excellency.” You will not like the results, though. “I understand, sir.”

Streets of Orb capital

As parades went, this one was the most bizarre in history. Most military parades involve a combination of armored vehicles and marching infantry, and while there was plenty of that, there was an added feature. Specifically, column after column of ZAFT and Orb mobile suits.

A team of ZuOOTs led the way, followed by Andrew Waltfeld’s custom LaGOWE and several BuCUEs. Then came the workhorse of ZAFT’s forces, the ZGMF-1017 GINN. Behind them were white ZGMF-515 CGUEs, and then ZMGF-600 GuAIZs, led by Miguel Aiman’s distinctive orange machine. Orb’s own MBF-M1 Astrays, with Asagi Caldwell, Juri Wu Nien, and Mayura Labatt in the lead, came next, while purple AMF-101 DINNs flew overhead.

Last in line were the various Gundams.

Deep in the cheering crowd, a thirteen-year-old Coordinator with black hair and red eyes stood with his parents and younger sister, staring in awe at the mobile suits. Even the tank-like ZuOOTs were impressive, but what really captivated him were the Gundams. Four of the Strassmeier teams units, Devastator, Scorpion, Shinobi, and Inferno. Yzak Joule’s Duel, looking like an armored knight. Dearka Elsman’s hulking Buster, bristling with weapons. Mu La Flaga’s Strike, in Aile mode for the parade. Nicol Amalfi’s sinister Blitz, demonic in the morning light. Tolle Koenig’s Aegis, its red armor glinting. Troy Cadwallder’s Dreadnought, practically screaming lethality. Andrea Strassmeier’s Specter, looking remarkably like an angel. Athrun Zala’s crimson Justice, tall and proud. And, especially, Alex Strassmeier’s menacing Stormbird, Cagalli Yula Athha’s golden Akatsuki, and Kira Yamato’s majestic Freedom.

“Shinn, look at them!” his sister piped up.

Shinn Asuka nodded mutely. This is amazing! He had heard about the alliance with the PLANTs, of course, but seeing what ZAFT had to offer was something else. He found himself wishing he were just a little older. The minimum age for enlisting in ZAFT was fifteen, so he had to wait another year and a half.

As soon as I am old enough, I am joining up.

The Gundams moved to flank a stage, where Chief Representative Uzumi Nara Athha waited. The pilots dismounted; none of them wore flight suits, as this was a ceremonial occasion. Instead, they were all in uniform, Mu, Kira, Cagalli, and Tolle in the silver-white of Orb, the rest in ZAFT Elite red.

Uzumi was making speech, but Shinn was not listening. He had eyes only for the Gundams and the red uniforms their pilots wore. In that moment, he knew where he wanted to be…

“Well, that was interesting,” Alex commented when it was over. “I’ve never liked parades, but this one was actually fun.”

Cagalli punched his shoulder. “You just liked being cheered.”

“I admit I acquired a taste for adulation during my tournament days,” Alex said. “That’s beside the point.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Alex smiled. “By the way, Happy Birthday, Cagalli.” Before she could respond, he pulled her close and kissed her.

Several moments later, she pulled back slightly. “Thanks,” she said simply. She rested her head on his shoulder.

He stroked her hair. “You’re welcome,” he whispered.

Author’s note: The author apologizes for taking so long; the author had a serious case of writer’s block. Credit goes to Storm Wolf77415 for breaking the jam, as well as suggesting the term “Neo ZAFT” to refer to Zala’s faction. Not exactly action-packed, but the next chapter should be different. The Battle of Panama, where Alex will have a very unpleasant experience.