Chapter 25: Odin’s Lance

Archangel, cafeteria, 24 May, C.E. 71

It has been said that war is ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent sheer, howling terror. That may be true, but to the people gathered in the Archangel’s cafeteria, the time between battles was not so much boring as it was relaxing. All of them had their own interests; Kira Yamato, for example, spent half his free time with a computer. (The other half was spent with his girlfriend Flay.) Athrun Zala was always tinkering with machinery, while his friend Nicol Amalfi practiced on a keyboard. Yzak Joule was fascinated with folklore; Tolle Koenig, the least experienced pilot, spent a lot of time honing his skills in the simulator. Dearka Elsman, Mu La Flaga, Andrew Waltfeld, and Andrea Strassmeier swapped battle tactics.

Alex, who had come over shortly after his sister (accompanied, inevitably, by a certain blond-haired princess), sat by himself, buried in a magazine.

“Hey, Cagalli,” Nicol said suddenly. “How did your father respond to that ultimatum from the Atlantic Federation?”

She shrugged. “He didn’t. We’re committed to this alliance, after all, and since Blue Cosmos controls the Earth Forces, Father had nothing to say to them.”

“Orb has an ironclad ‘no negotiating with terrorists’ policy,” Mu said, “and Blue Cosmos is the worst since those religious nutcases back in the early twenty-first century.”

“It’s sad, though,” Lacus Clyne said; she had come along to provide a morale boost. Since the Archangel was better defended than virtually anything else in the fleet, she was not in much danger. “So many people are willing to give their lives for an illusion.”

Alex snorted. “Sad, perhaps, but practically speaking it doesn’t make much difference. If such vermin are willing to die for such a warped belief, I will oblige them. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t like it, but I also recognize that there is frequently no alternative.” He sipped from a coffee cup. “In any case, Orb’s participation in this attack should be a clear enough answer.”

“You got that right,” Dearka said.

They were one day away from Panama. In twenty-four hours, the allied Orb and ZAFT forces would attack, aiming to destroy both the base and its attached mass driver. Even with Orb participation, it was a tall order; Panama had heavy conventional defenses, and there were persistent rumors that the Earth Forces had finally overcome the OS problem that limited their mobile suits to a few Coordinator volunteers, like Jean Carrey.

“You think we’ll have to fight Alliance mobile suits?” Kira wondered.

“Who knows.” Yzak snorted. “My mom took over the Defense Committee,” here he glanced apologetically at Athrun, “but they haven’t heard anything.”

“Never underestimate Earth Forces security,” Waltfeld said. “Le Creuset basically stumbled on the G-weapons at Heliopolis; if he’d gotten there just a day later, it would’ve been too late.”

Alex shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Even if the Alliance has any new mobile suits, they can’t possibly match the Freedom and the Justice.”

Since those two machines, along with Cagalli’s Akatsuki, were equipped with Neutron-jammer Cancellers, no one disputed his point.

“I think the Earth Forces aren’t the real problem here,” Tolle said, sounding uncharacteristically serious. “We know Neo ZAFT has at least one Gundam, that Providence.”

Mention of the Providence provoked a chill. The machine’s raw power, matched only by Freedom and Justice, was terrifying. On top of that, there was only one man in the Neo ZAFT organization who could use it to its full potential. If Rau Le Creuset were to intervene, things could get very ugly very quickly.

Submarine carrier Ballard, briefing room

Daniel Bartlett shook his head at the message, wondering just what Chairman Zala expected them to accomplish. The Gundam unit he had been promised was not ready, so they were forced to rely on the GuAIZs, as well as Rau Le Creuset’s Providence. Bartlett was not sure which was worse, being limited to a GuAIZ, or the fact the Le Creuset was almost certain to show him up.

One rivalry is bad enough. “Just what does Chairman Zala expect us to do?” he demanded of his companion.

Rau Le Creuset shrugged. “I would have thought it simple.”

Bartlett felt his temper heat a notch. “Maybe you think it’s simple, Commander, but I do not.” He stood and began to pace. “We have eight GuAIZs and one G-weapon. Our enemies have Strassmeier’s machines, plus the Freedom, the Justice, the princess’s Akatsuki, and the original five G-weapons. Then there is the mass-produced models, their own GuAIZs, GINNs, GOOhNs, ZnOs, CGUEs, DINNs, and M1s, not to mention any surprises the Earth Forces may have.”

Le Creuset merely looked at him, unreadable behind his mask. “Your point?”

“My point is that we simply don’t have the necessary forces, even with your precious Providence,” Bartlett said. “This is insane.”

The masked man turned to study a map. “You’re too used to being part of the regular military, Bartlett, however informal ZAFT may be. As things stand now, we are a guerrilla movement, which means the balance of forces matters little if we play our cards right.” He sipped his drink. “In any case, you underestimate the Providence.”

“I know all about the DRAGOON system,” Bartlett said, exasperated. “And I know you are one of the few people alive who can use the thing, though I’ve heard Orb is developing an AI for that purpose. Even with that, however, you can still be taken by enough skilled opponents, and Orb and ZAFT have more than enough such people.”

Le Creuset smiled thinly. “You’re really concerned that I’ll deprive you of your next match with Strassmeier, aren’t you?”

Bartlett slammed his fist into the table. “Mind your own business, Le Creuset,” he snarled. “Even if that was my main concern, I doubt you’ll be able to kill Strassmeier.”

“Perhaps. Not. The question is, will you be able to take him?” Le Creuset turned to leave. “Don’t underestimate him,” he added over his shoulder.

Bartlett clenched his fists. “I know him better than you do,” he growled.

Archangel, Bridge, 25 May, C.E. 71

It was time. The combined Orb/ZAFT fleet had arrived off the coast of Panama, and the dawn attack was about to begin. Missiles lanced out from the Vosgulov-class submarines and Orb’s Aegis ships. There was no return fire yet, but everyone knew that it could not last; the Earth Forces were far from stupid.

“All forces have begun their attack, ma’am,” Natarle said.

Murrue nodded. “Very well.” She looked at Mir. “Launch mobile suits at once.”

“Yes, ma’am!” the girl said crisply. She looked down at her monitor, feeling a sense of unreality; only one of the mobile suits had ever launched from the Archangel before. “X102 Duel, connected to catapult.”

The scarred pilot on the screen nodded sharply. “Yzak Joule, Duel Launching!”

Miriallia turned to the next machine up. “X103 Buster, go ahead.”

“Dearka Elsman, Buster taking off!”

Then came a more familiar machine. “X105 Strike, ready.”

The Hawk of Endymion flipped a salute. “Mu La Flaga, launching in Strike!”

A menacing dark mobile suit was next in the queue. “X207 Blitz, cleared for launch.”

Green-haired Nicol Amalfi grinned. “Nicol Amalfi, Blitz taking off!”

Mir swallowed at the next one. “X303 Aegis, ready for launch.” Then, in a softer voice, “Be careful, Tolle.”

He smiled reassuringly. “I’ll be fine.” Tolle pressed his head against the seat back. “Tolle Koenig, Aegis heading out!”

Two remained. “X09A Justice, your turn.”

“Athrun Zala, Justice launching!”

Last, but not least, was the mighty Freedom Gundam. “X10A Freedom, go for launch,” Mir said. “Don’t push yourself too hard, Kira.”

The brown-haired Coordinator nodded. “Kira Yamato, Freedom, let’s do it!”

Miriallia turned to look over her shoulder. “All mobile suits have launched, ma’am.”

“Excellent,” Natarle said. “Prepare for shore bombardment. Aim Gottfrieds and Valiants at the weapon emplacements on the north side; target missiles on the central command and control facilities.”

She sat back, taking a moment to study the tactical monitor. Thus far, the enemy’s response had come from tanks and gun emplacements, though a few aircraft were taking off. Most of them were vestals, with some F7-Ds mixed in. Though they were more maneuverable in atmosphere than most mobile suits, they were not much of a threat.

Of course, there was always a chance of a surprise…

Skies over Panama

Alex wheeled the Stormbird through the air, beam rifle flashing in a precise pattern. Several Alliance tanks exploded, followed by four-gun emplacements. Two fighters tried to intercept him; Alex dodged to the side and blew them away with a single contemptuous shot. Three vestals followed them into oblivion.

His was not the only Gundam causing mass destruction. Kyle and Dearka hung back, their heavily armed mobile suits raining destruction from afar. A couple of GINNs with D-package weapons accompanied them, heavy missiles and ion blasts pummeling the Allied positions. The Inferno and the Scorpion flew escort.

To Alex’s right was, inevitably, ORB-01 Akatsuki. Cagalli was having a field day blasting fighters, vestals, tanks, and anything else unfortunate enough to wander into her sights. “Take that!”

“Yeah? I will take you on! Eat this, you space monsters!”

Alex flicked a switch, tracking the transmission. That turret… One messy explosion later, he shook his head. ” ‘Space monsters,’ is it? For your information, Earth slime, there are plenty of Naturals in the PLANTs.”

“You’re wasting your time, Alex,” Mu said as the Strike flashed past. “I served with some of these idiots. They think any Natural who likes Coordinators is a traitor to his race or something like that.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Alex rolled his eyes.

Not far away, Kira and Athrun worked in tandem, reading each other’s mind. The Justice, its sabers combined in a beam staff, moved in close, covered by the Freedom’s multibeam attack.

Nicol, meanwhile, was getting nervous. “Something’s not right here, guys. Shouldn’t there be heavier defenses?”

Alex’s eyes narrowed. “You’re right. There is something very fishy here.”

Panama Headquarters

“ZAFT forces have established a beachhead,” a radar operator reported. “A group of Orb mobile suits have occupied part of the southeast quadrant.”

The base CO cursed. “Those accursed space monsters and their Orb allies have penetrated much too far.” He turned to an aide. “Deploy the Thirteenth Autonomous Corps.”

His aide frowned. “Are you sure about that, sir?” he asked carefully. “They’re still green…”

“They have to have a first battle sometime, and this is precisely why we formed our own mobile suit corps,” the commander said. “Now we’ll show those space monsters what we’re really made of…”

Open sky

It happened without warning. Two GINNs were busy shelling a platoon of tanks.

“Heh, heh, this is too easy,” one pilot said, then let out a chopped-off scream as a bright green beam drilled through his machine.

A trio of mobile suits, machines that looked like unfinished versions of the Strike, stood behind some nearby trees. “It won’t be so easy from now on,” an Alliance pilot taunted.

“All of you Coordinators are a little too cocky,” another said.

Surprise was total. None of the more advanced Orb mobile suits were in range, and there were too few GuAIZs to make much difference, even with Miguel Aiman. For a few horrifying minutes, the Strike Daggers had a field day with the ZAFT GINNs, destroying five in rapid succession.

The first units to try to help were a few DINNs. One Dagger went down at a cost of six ZAFT units.

It could not last, as the commander’s aide had known. First of the Gundams to intervene was Yzak Joule’s Duel. Yelling a war cry, Yzak dropped out of the sky right on top of the Daggers, blowing two away before they knew he was there. Three more tried to bring their rifles to bear, but Yzak was too fast for them, and the Duel was far superior. They lasted no more than five seconds.

Things soon got even worse for the Earth Forces. The sight of so many comrades falling to the Daggers caused the SEED to burst in Kira’s mind, increasing his already astronomical power. ZGMF-X10A Freedom swooped in, all its weapons blazing. Pieces of Strike Daggers flew in all directions, though even in his Berserker state Kira was avoiding lethal force. To the Earth Forces, the Freedom was like a demon; to ZAFT and Orb, it was a guardian angel.

Athrun Zala was not far behind. More suited to melee than ranged attacks, though its rifle and beam cannons were effective, the Justice cut a huge swathe through the Daggers, and unlike his friend, Athrun was not disabling. A bright red saber stabbed through a Dagger’s core; Athrun tore it out and slashed through two more.

Then a new mobile suit appeared, a white one. It differed from the others in more than just color…

Kira got it first. “Hey, Yzak, is it just me, or does that look like your machine?”

Yzak glared at it. “You’re right, Kira. Except for the color, it’s almost exactly like my machine.” He swung the Duel around. “Leave this one to me.”

The pilot saw him coming, of course. He raised his rifle an unleashed a barrage of laser fire. Yzak dodged, opting for close combat. A beam saber flared to life, impacting on the other machine’s shield. The Earth Forces unit pulled back, trying to cover itself with a missile salvo, which the Duel swatted down with its Igelstellungs.

“The GAT-X102 Duel,” Jean Carrey murmured. “This could be tricky.” He keyed his comm. “Look, just get out of the way. I don’t want to kill you.”

“Quit whining, Natural!” Yzak snapped, firing his rifle again.

Carrey sighed. “I am afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. You see, I too am a Coordinator.”

“What? You traitor!” Yzak snarled, redoubling his attack.

“Calm down, Yzak,” Alex said. “Just being a Coordinator doesn’t mean you have to fight for the cause of ZAFT and the PLANTs. Remember where Kira’s from.”

Yzak had to concede his cousin’s point. In retrospect, he agreed that Kira had been right to take control of the Strike during the Heliopolis attack; Yzak would have done the same thing in his position.

Not that it mattered now, as Carrey pointedly reminded him with another laser blast. Cursing, Yzak launched his rifle grenade, fired his railgun twice, and jumped. Carrey’s machine, a Long Dagger, tried to follow, but Yzak promptly body-checked him, slamming him to the ground.

He is good, the young ZAFT pilot conceded. Better than these cannon-fodder Naturals. Of course, some Naturals could put up quite a fight, indeed, two of them were fighting alongside him at that very moment; Troy Cadwallader’s Dreadnought and Mu La Flaga’s Strike were visible not far away.

The Long Dagger lunged for him again…

Far beyond the battle, nine mobile suits, eight of them GuAIZs (and one of them blood-red in color) and a single Gundam watched the proceedings. The pilots, all of them members of Patrick Zala’s Neo ZAFT faction, were spoiling for a fight.

“Just how long are we going to sit here?” one demanded. “The Earth Forces and ZAFT are pounding each other to scrap; we could smash a lot of them before they knew what hit them.”

“Be patient,” Rau Le Creuset cautioned. “There are many G-weapons in the area, and Orb’s new M1 Astray is at the very least equal to the GuAIZ and is in fact superior in atmosphere. We must proceed very carefully.”

“For once, I’m with Commander Le Creuset,” Bartlett said. “All four of his old G-pilots are here, plus Kira Yamato –by far Orb’s best pilot- and the Hawk of Endymion himself. Then there’s Strassmeier; except for me, everyone who has underestimated him is dead.”

More than one pilot swallowed audibly at that. Kira Yamato was a better pilot, there was no doubt of that, but Alex Strassmeier was far more ruthless. In the fleeting time he had been with ZAFT, he had earned a fearsome reputation as an enemy who seldom gave quarter and was almost impossible to stop.

“Concentrate your attacks on the Earth Forces for now,” Le Creuset said. “I will engage Strassmeier personally; with all due respect to Commander Bartlett, a GuAIZ is no match for the Stormbird.” The Providence’s head glared at each GuAIZ in turn. “Do not attack Orb or ZAFT units until then.”

“Yes sir!”

Asagi, Juri, and Mayura may have been green, but together they made an extremely dangerous team. Asagi had proved to be a born leader; her friends followed her instinctively. The trio had not faced many Daggers yet; one had tried to draw a bead on them, but Juri (the best sharpshooter of the three) had taken it out with a single well-placed shot.

“So far, so good,” Mayura commented. She then spotted a Dagger headed their way. “I’ll take care of this one.”

Unfortunately, this Alliance pilot proved to be made of sterner stuff than most of his cannon-fodder cohorts. He took Mayura’s first shot on his shield, dodged another, and parried a saber strike with his own weapon. A retaliatory stab sent Mayura’s rifle and saber flying. The Dagger raised its weapon for the killing blow; Mayura heard her friends calling her name…

And a flash of green light struck the Dagger in the top of its head, blowing it in half. GAT-X207 Blitz settled to the ground, Trikeros still in firing position. “Are you all right, Mayura?” Nicol asked.

She took a deep breath, steadying her heart. “Yeah. Thanks, Nicol.”

“No problem.” The Blitz stooped and retrieved Mayura’s weapons. “That was close.”

“Closer than I liked,” Mayura agreed. She snapped the rifle up and fired, destroying a Dagger that tried to sneak up on Nicol. “Returning the favor.”

Nicol smiled sheepishly. “Thanks.”

“Heads up, Dearka, you’ve got a couple of Daggers after you.”

Dearka glared at his pursuers. “Roger that, Athrun.” His main weapons snapped together, and a shotgun blast took out both Daggers before they knew what was happening.

Yzak, meanwhile, was still dueling with Jean Carrey. “Just give it up already!” he snarled, firing repeatedly.

“Why keep this up?” Carrey asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. “What will it gain you?”

“The freedom and safety of the PLANTs, you idiot!” Yzak snapped. “They exploited us, they tried to starve us, and they blew up Junius Seven!”

Alex spotted the confrontation. Normally he would not have thought of intervening, given Yzak’s reaction, but it was taking too long. The Gungnirs would be dropped at any moment; Carrey’s Long Dagger, a more powerful unit than the Strike Daggers they had been fighting, had to be neutralized before the drop. With a resigned sigh, he turned the Stormbird.

He never made it. A strange sensation filled his mind, but before he could act on it, a huge gray mobile suit, clearly a Gundam, loomed before him. The enemy’s rifle came up, and a beam far more powerful than anything such a weapon should have been able to produce struck the Stormbird’s shield, overloading the energy-absorbing system and blowing it clean in two.

The Providence, Alex though, numb. He tried to evade, but Le Creuset was ready for him. DRAGOON units separated, and the Stormbird was suddenly caught in a spiderweb of laser fire. Alex’s rifle was blown away, followed by his sabers and plasma cannon. Stormbird’s head simply vanished, and the Providence’s saber cut it off at the knees.

Rau Le Creuset laughed. “Bartlett is truly pathetic, if he couldn’t do in an hour what I just did in mere seconds,” he said. “So much for your ZAFT career, Strassmeier.”

Alex tried to reply, but something in his cockpit shorted out, causing his monitor to explode in his face. His faceplate shattered, he fell unconscious, blood streaming from a huge gash.

Le Creuset laughed again, raising his saber…

Cagalli stared in horror. In a matter of seconds, Alex’s MBF-X108 Stormbird had been reduced from a fighting machine to a pile of junk barely recognizable as a mobile suit. There was no doubt who was responsible; the huge gray Gundam could only have been piloted by one man, and she felt a surge of fury as she realized who.

“ALEX!” she screamed, and behind her eyes, a gold seed burst.

The Akatsuki’s mobile turret system shot out, enveloping the Stormbird in a protective shield just in time to stop the Providence’s beam saber. Le Creuset pulled back, startled, then jumped away to avoid a storm of laser fire from Cagalli’s beam rifle. Akatsuki landed directly between the Providence and the crippled Stormbird, rifle aimed directly at the Neo ZAFT machine.

“Stay away from him,” Cagalli said coldly.

Rau Le Creuset threw back his head and laughed. “So Yzak was right, the Princess is in love with a freak!”

He did not get a chance to continue; X102 Duel slammed into the Providence from the side. “BASTARD!” Yzak Joule screamed. “DON’T YOU DARE CALL MY COUSIN A FREAK!”

X210 Specter faded out of Mirage Colloid. “If you so much as touch my brother,” Andrea Strassmeier snarled, “I’ll tear you limb from limb.”

She was soon joined by the Buster and the Blitz. “Lay off, ‘Commander,’ ” Dearka growled.

“You can’t take all of us,” Nicol said.

A green blast announced the Strike’s arrival. “It ends here, Rau Le Creuset,” Mu snarled.

The remaining Strassmeier team Gundams, recognizing that their comrades could manage the Strike Daggers, moved to flank what was left of Alex’s mobile suit. “You won’t have our commander,” Kyle Perry said icily, leveling the Devastator’s combined weapons at the Providence.

Athrun Zala landed the Justice and spun his saber staff so fast that all anyone could see was a red blur. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you through.”

ZGMF-X10A Freedom dropped next to the Akatsuki. “I won’t let you!” Kira yelled; all his weapons ready.

Strangely, Le Creuset seemed to find the situation amusing. “Well, I don’t believe there have ever been this many G-weapons in one spot before,” he said conversationally. “This could be interesting.”

“I’ll give you interesting, you bastard,” Cagalli snarled. Drawing her own melee weapon, a double-ended saber like the Justice’s combined weapon, she charged. Le Creuset, startled, was only barely able to bring his shield up in time.

Nor was she his only problem. Athrun lunged forward a split second later; Kira opened fire at the same moment. The others soon followed, and Le Creuset found himself forced to evade a hurricane of energy fire. He returned fire enough to keep them from getting too close, aside from Cagalli and Athrun’s initial attack, but he was clearly in a weak position.

No help from his fellows was forthcoming, either. Bartlett had tried to move in while the allied Gundams were distracted, but he and his cohorts had been driven off by a team of GuAIZs and Astrays led by Miguel Aiman.

Le Creuset noticed. “Hmm, it seems the tide has turned.” He swung his machine around and boosted away. “Till we meet again!”

“Let him go,” Cagalli said reluctantly, lowering her weapons. “We have to finish off the Earth Forces here. Kyle, you get Alex back to the ship.” The princess tried to stay calm, but she could not conceal her worry.

The Devastator stooped and lifted the Stormbird. “No problem.”

Cagalli resolutely turned back to the battle at hand. I cannot focus on Alex; he would not want me to, not now. Nevertheless, she could not help worrying.

“He’ll be all right,” Yzak said as if he had read her thoughts. “He’s tough.”

She swallowed. “Still, he was hit pretty bad…”

“Cagalli, I was there when Alex’s arm was bitten off.” Yzak smiled reassuringly. “If that didn’t take him down, a nutcase like Le Creuset won’t, either.”

Cagalli managed to smile back. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Valkyrie, Bridge

“Commander Strassmeier has been moved to the infirmary, ma’am,” the comm officer said. “He has a pretty nasty head wound, but Doctor Lockwood says he should recover.”

Lia sighed. “Thank goodness for that.” She turned to the helmsman. “Ahead half speed. Bring us into firing range of the mass driver.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

As the mighty warship surged forward, Lia considered their options. With Alex incapacitated, his sister Andrea was acting commander of the Strassmeier team, but it was Lia’s job to manage the ship. In this case, though, there was not much to consider. The Strike Daggers were being steadily driven back or destroyed; mobile suit losses had been confined to a few GINNs, most of them destroyed by Daggers, two DINNs, and a single ZnO that had the misfortune to step on a land mine. Jean Carrey’s Long Dagger was no longer a factor; on seeing the Providence’s attack on his cousin, Yzak had cut Carrey’s machine off at the knees and left. Two GuAIZs were bringing it in.

All we must do now is wait for the Gungnirs, Lia thought.

Her aunt’s image appeared on the screen. “What’s your status, Lia?”

“Aside from the fact that Alex is in the infirmary, and his mobile suit is scrap, we’re fine,” Lia said. “We were never in range of the fixed gun emplacements in the first place, and the Daggers never got anywhere near us.”

Murrue nodded. “Good. The Gungnirs will be dropped any moment now, so watch yourselves.”

“I understand.” Murrue’s image vanished, and Lia sat back. It is up to them now.

Open sky

The four nuclear-powered machines, Freedom, Justice, Dreadnought, and Akatsuki, patrolled the skies above Panama. There were few targets left; most of the Strike Daggers were gone, but the few that were left were putting up quite a fight, making up in ferocity what they lacked in skill and experience.

“You know,” Troy remarked, demolishing a Dagger with his DRAGOON system, “you’d think these Earth Forces nuts would retreat when they’ve got this many Gundams after them.”

Athrun snorted. “They fought hard in the Eighth Fleet battle, even though the only mobile suit they had was the Strike,” he pointed out, blasting a gun tower with his Fortis cannons.

Five Daggers were crippled by the Freedom’s multibeam attack. “There’s something I can’t figure out about Carrey’s machine,” Kira said. “I mean, I can see how it could look like the Duel, but how could it have something like an assault shroud?”

“We –the Earth Forces, I mean- captured a few GINNs with assault shrouds at Nova,” Mu explained, absently blowing another Dagger apart.

Miguel Aiman snorted. “I remember that one. You were covering them.”

“So, sue me,” Mu said genially.

Miguel just laughed. He and Mu had come to an understanding when they had sparred back in Orb. “Nah, somebody like you shouldn’t be broke.”

“Enough chatter,” Andrea Strassmeier said, sounding so much like Natarle that everyone in earshot chuckled. “Oh, for…” Giving up, she changed frequencies. “This is Andrea Strassmeier, in temporary command of the Strassmeier team. Target point is secure.”

“Acknowledged,” a voice said from orbit. “Releasing Gungnirs!”

Soon a few shapes were visible high above. Glowing red from reentry heat, the powerful EMP weapons known as Gungnirs dropped to Earth with almost pinpoint accuracy; a small amount of scatter was inevitable, but it was kept to a minimum. Once down, a handful of GINNs, covered by Astrays, began setting them up.

“Heads up,” Hiro snapped. “More Daggers incoming.”

Cagalli snarled wordlessly and attacked. Dagger after Dagger was sliced to bits by the double-ended staff, a few disabled, but most destroyed. Her brother covered her, his weapons crippling even more of the cannon-fodder mobile suits. Troy’s DRAGOON units added to the chaos.

“You guys are pathetic!” Yzak snapped, shooting down yet more Daggers. “I’ve fought mobile armors that were tougher than you!”

Andrea shook her head. “Crazy as usual,” she muttered. For the rest of the battle, she supported Cagalli with flicker-in-shoot-fade-out tactics, making extensive use of the Specter’s Mirage Colloid.

Their other stealth machine, the Blitz, stayed close to the Astray trio; Mayura’s near-death experience had rattled them, so a more experienced comrade was reassuring.

Kyle, having returned from dropping off his injured commander, kept up a steady barrage of artillery fire, while pyromaniac Chris Madsen torched any Daggers that got too close. Brian Kilgore danced around in the air, concentrating his efforts on leftover fighters.

Tolle had been forced to return to the Archangel for resupply twice; he had not been reckless with his fire, but simply had more targets than most.

“Yzak, look out!” Mu yelled suddenly.

Yzak turned, saw at least five Daggers headed his way. He raised his rifle; no one was in range to assist…

Or so he thought. Yzak got one, and then the others exploded before he could fire again. Behind where they had stood was a blue machine with the unmistakable monoeye design of a ZAFT mobile suit. It had two beam cannons mounted on the shoulders, and its right hand held an anti-ship sword like the Strike’s Schwert Gewehr.

“This is Shiho Hahnenfuss,” the pilot called. “I was sent down with the Gungnirs.”

Yzak could not help grinning. “Glad you could make it, Housenka. Plenty of targets to go around.”

“Yzak Joule!” Shiho sounded momentarily flustered. “I…roger that!”

Troy Cadwallader chuckled. “Don’t strain yourself trying to impress him, mate.”

“Troy, I’ll get you for that!” Shiho yelled, before turning and slicing her sword through what looked like a guard tower.

The Australian pilot laughed, absently blasting a few tanks to debris.

“Gungnirs primed and ready!” a GINN pilot called.

It was doubtful that the Alliance even knew what they were until it was too late. They knew about EMP tricks, of course, but they had believed that a nuclear explosion was the only way to do it; with the N-jammers in place, it should not have been possible. ZAFT, however, had been working on the technique ever since the war began, and had made the necessary breakthrough. All the ZAFT and Orb units had more than sufficient EMP shielding to be unaffected. The Earth Forces were not so fortunate.

A huge wave of energy swept the area, disabling mobile suits, aircraft, ground vehicles, and command and control facilities. Somewhere in the maelstrom a power coupling blew, causing a chain reaction that destroyed the mass driver. With no choice if they wanted to live, the remaining soldiers surrendered.

The Earth Alliance was now trapped on Earth.

Valkyrie, infirmary

With a groan, Alex forced his one working eye to open. What…what happened? His last memory was of the Providence aiming its beam rifle at him. Now he was in the infirmary, with no idea how he had gotten there. There were people around him, that much he knew, but his eye was not focusing properly.

“It’s true that the wound was rather bloody, but head wounds are usually like that,” Doctor Vincent Lockwood was saying. “However, I have no doubt he will make a full recovery. It will probably leave a scar, but nothing worse than that.”

There was a collective sigh of relief. Andrea Strassmeier, Lia Ramius, Cagalli Yula Athha, Kira Yamato, Flay Allster, and Yzak Joule had rushed in as soon as the battle had ended.

His eye focusing at least, Alex managed a smile. “He’s right, you know. I’ve had worse.”

Cagalli was immediately at his side. “Are you all right, Alex?”

He squeezed her hand. “Head hurts, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it looks.”

She squeezed back. “When I get my hands on Le Creuset…”

“You’ll have to take a number,” Kira said dryly. “I’ve never seen Mu that mad.”

Alex snorted. “Le Creuset does have that effect on people,” he said, then looked at his cousin. “I guess we’ll have matching scars, Yzak.”

“Yeah.” Yzak grimaced. “That bastard got away clean, sorry.”

Alex shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. There’s always tomorrow.”

“Well, you’d better be more careful, so you can see tomorrow,” his sister told him in a severe tone. “I don’t want you dying on me.”

He smiled tiredly. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

They chatted for a while, filling him in on things. Jean Carrey, it appeared, had long been doubtful of his own position, and had jumped at an offer of asylum in Orb. A few others had made the same choice, though some for less than noble reasons. So long as such individuals did not betray them, Alex was fine with that.

After a while, the others started to drift away, Kira, Flay, and Yzak to the Archangel, Lia to the bridge, and Andrea to the hangar to work on her mobile suit. Even the doctor left, saying something about a research paper that he could afford to work on now that Alex was out of danger.

“Are you sure you’re all, right?” Cagalli asked quietly.

Alex smiled. “Cagalli, however tough you may be, you’re also quite the worrier.” He reached up and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “This is nowhere near as bad as the time that shark bit my arm off.”

She sighed. “Yzak said the same thing,” she admitted. “Still, you could have been killed.”

“Cagalli, I could have been killed a dozen times over since the war began.” Alex sat up, then moved over a little so she could sit beside him. “The point is, that didn’t happen,” he went on, wrapping an arm around her. “We all made it out alive, that’s what’s important.”

Cagalli rested her head on his shoulder. “Yeah, you’re right. It won’t make me stop worrying, but you’re right.” She looked up at him. “What are you going to do now? They might be able to repair the Stormbird, but it’ll take quite a while.”

“I’ll probably be in an M1,” Alex said. “They’re better than anything short of the GuAIZ, and with all due respect to the people at MMI, GuAIZs are ugly.”

She agreed with that, certainly. ZAFT seemed to have a glut of ugly mass-produced mobile suits, especially machines like the ZnO. “Maybe you can get a custom one, like Max Labatt’s.”

“Maybe.” Alex would have shrugged, but he did not want to move her. “It doesn’t matter right now, though. It will take the Alliance a while to decide what to do considering our victory here. For now, I think we’ll be returning to Orb.”

“You think you’ll be healed by the time we head out again?”

He waved his free hand. “Even if I am not, I’ll be out there anyway. And do not give me that look,” he added when she glared at him. “Yzak did the same thing, and he came out just fine.”

Cagalli shook her head fondly. “Yeah, sure.” She gave him a mischievous look. “But I don’t want you thinking about that right now.” Before he could ask what, she meant, Cagalli reached up, being extra careful of the bandages, pulled his face close to hers, and kissed him.