Chapter 26: The Battle of Orb

Morgenroete testing facility, Onogoro Island, 1 June, C.E. 71

Alex grunted, fending off the double saber attack. He sidestepped, his own saber clashing with his opponent’s shield. The other machine pressed its attack, the dual beam saber spinning so fast its blades were a blur. It stopped abruptly, one end and then the other stabbing at Alex’s borrowed machine.

“Gotcha!” the other pilot said triumphantly as her saber came within a meter of the M1’s head.

Alex slumped in the cockpit. “No kidding,” he said tiredly. “You’re getting faster, Cagalli.”

“Maybe,” Cagalli conceded. “Or maybe it’s because you’re still injured,” she added sharply. “You really should be resting, Alex.”

The young ZAFT pilot sighed and unstrapped, then opened his hatch. “Cagalli, it’s been-“

“Less than a week,” the princess interrupted. “You have no business in the cockpit right now.”

Alex stifled a groan, grabbed his zip line, and lowered himself to the floor. For all that Cagalli had grown accustomed to her own abilities, there were some things about Coordinators that still had not really sunk in.

“Cagalli,” he said, seeing her approach, “have you forgotten how fast our kind heal? For all that the wound was messy, it was not very deep, as you well know.”

She glared at him for a moment, then relented and embraced him. “I know,” she whispered. “It’s just that, I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

Alex smiled, returning the embrace. “Hey, at least this was just a training match. Remember that stunt Yzak pulled at the Eighth Fleet.”

Cagalli tightened her grip for a moment, then reluctantly pulled away. “Yeah. Still, you should not be pushing yourself too hard yet. It’ll take a while for the Earth Forces to recover after Panama, so you should relax while you can.”


The two youngsters moved to the lounge overlooking the testing grounds. As usual, there were some other pilots there. Kyle Perry, Andrew Waltfeld, Mu La Flaga, and Miguel Aiman were engaged in what looked like a poker game. Alex’s sister Andrea stood by a water cooler, chatting with Dearka Elsman.

“Are they together?” Cagalli asked in a whisper.

Alex nodded fractionally. “Dearka asked her out just after Miguel showed up. I don’t think either of them has actually said anything, but neither is particularly good at hiding their feelings.”

Cagalli chuckled softly. “You got that right.”

They chose a table near the facility’s huge window. Alex dug into his inevitable seafood lunch (lobster in this case), while Cagalli wolfed down an endless supply of chili kebabs. For a while they ate in silence, though Alex found himself wondering how his girlfriend could eat that much spice without bursting into flame.

He looked up abruptly. “Where’s Kira? I thought he’d be here.”

“He invited Flay to his house,” Yzak said, setting his tray opposite Alex. Shiho Hahnenfuss sat beside him.

Alex sipped from a glass of milk. “Makes sense. You can bet the Alliance will hit us here eventually, so he might as well do it while he has a chance.”

Yzak nodded. “Besides, Flay hasn’t really been out much since we got to Earth. She probably needs the break.” He looked at Shiho. “I don’t think either of you have met Shiho.”

Alex extended his hand. “Commander Alex Strassmeier, at your service.”

Shiho shook his hand, then Cagalli’s. “An honor to meet you, Commander. I have heard much about your exploits.”

He glanced briefly at his cousin. “My exploits? I have fought exactly three battles since joining ZAFT, not counting a couple of false engagements. Before that, I was fighting against ZAFT, and quite a few soldiers died by my hand.”

“Some in the Homeland resent what you’ve done, but not very many, especially since Zala showed his true colors,” Shiho said. “A lot of my classmates are looking forward to your return to the PLANTs, Commander.”

Alex smiled wryly. “It’s nice to be famous, I guess, and it’s good to know I’m still welcome back home.” He looked at Cagalli. “Why don’t you come with me, next chance we get? I’d love to show you, my home.”

She grinned. “You got it.”

“Ever been to the PLANTs before, Cagalli?” Yzak asked.

The princess shook her head. “Heliopolis was my first time in space at all. My father has been there a couple of times, but it was quite a while ago.”

“You’ll like it,” Alex assured her. “In the main population centers it’s hard to tell you’re in space at all. Sure, it is all artificial, but that does not matter to us. We have abundant vegetation, open water, animal life, the works.”

“Only a few of the PLANTs have changed much since the war began,” Yzak said. “ZAFT HQ is in December City, and Martius and Maius build mostly military equipment right now, but that’s about it.”

Alex nodded. “My family is fairly well off, financially speaking. We have a sizable home,” Yzak snorted at that, “in Martius Four. Right on an artificial lake, as it happens.”

“It’s not ‘relatively sizable’, it’s freakin’ huge,” Yzak said with another snort. “My mom had the place sealed off after the Mandelbrot Incident. Only Alex and Andrea can get in right now.”

“The purpose being to make sure everything is well preserved,” Alex said. Something flickered in his eyes, but it was gone in an instant. “I guess, as the elder offspring, that house belongs to me, now.”

Cagalli exchanged a glance with Yzak. Neither of them had missed the flash of pain in Alex’s eyes when he spoke of his old home. Both knew him well enough to see that there was more than he was letting on.

Shiho, who of course did not know him, missed it. “Have you talked with your sister about it?”

“Yes, we have,” Andrea said, coming up to them with Dearka at her elbow. “Alex holds title to the house, but Mom and Dad wanted us to continue sharing it, at least until one or both of us got married.”

“Possibly even after that,” Alex said with a shrug. “As Yzak just pointed out, the place is huge, easily big enough for two families.” He sipped his drink. “But that’s for the future.”

“Yeah,” Yzak agreed.

Yamato residence, Izanagi Island

Looking at the nondescript building, no one would have thought it was the home of a young man who was already being hailed as a hero by both the Orb Union and their ZAFT allies. Medium sized, a plain white in color, few would give it a second glance.

Flay Allster thought it was a wonderful place to be.

“Kira, this is wonderful,” she said, collapsing on a couch.

He smiled, a little taken aback by her enthusiasm. “I actually haven’t spent much time here,” he said. “Seven years with Athrun in Copernicus –we were roommates- and then a year in Heliopolis. I was five years old when we left for space.”

Flay reached up, grabbed his hand, and pulled him down beside her. “So, you don’t have any memories of Orb?”

Kira wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “A few. I remember watching the sunrise a couple times.” He nodded at a window, which faced east. “I’m still not used to being on Earth.”

“It must be harder for Athrun and Alex,” Flay said softly. “They grew up in the PLANTs.”

“Mainly Athrun,” Kira said. “Alex had been to Earth –Orb, in fact- before; this is Athrun’s first time on-planet. It’s not that hard, anyway; Athrun told me that gravity in the PLANTs is pretty close to Earth’s.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “I like it here,” she said softly. “It’s a lot nicer than the Atlantic Federation.”

Kira smiled. “There’s a reason Orb is called the Land of Peace, you know. Lord Uzumi only got involved in the war after he heard the truth about the Earth Forces and Chairman Zala, and only because he felt he had no choice.”

“Yeah.” Flay nestled against his side. “It’s sad, though. Orb has to go to war because of a few lunatics on each side.”

“You’re starting to sound like Lacus,” Kira commented.

She shrugged. “She’s right.”

As if their words had been a signal, Kira glimpsed a familiar head of pink hair in the window. A moment later, there was a knock at the door.

“It’s open,” Kira called.

Athrun Zala and Lacus Clyne stepped in. Athrun, unusually for him, was in civilian clothes, black jacket, pants, and boots, white shirt, and sunglasses. Lacus, by contrast, wore a simple white dress, devoid of the ornamentation she frequently wore on stage.

Kira and Flay rose to greet the visitors. “Athrun, Lacus, what brings you here?” Kira asked, waving them to chairs.

“Visiting friends,” Athrun said with a shrug. “This is the first chance we’ve had to really look around.” He threw a casual glance around the room. “Nice place, Kira.”

Kira resumed his seat, Flay beside him. “Like I told Flay, I haven’t spent much time here. You’re right, though, it is nice.”

Lacus sighed, gazing out the window. “Earth is so beautiful,” she said softly. “It’s so sad to have it tarnished by war.”

Athrun, used to his fiancée’s poetic nature, gently squeezed her hand. “Yeah, it is,” he agreed. “And it’s only going to get worse.”

Kira tilted his head. “Athrun?”

“I just got out of a meeting with Lord Uzumi,” Athrun said grimly. “The government just received a message from the Atlantic Federation.”

“Why would they bother sending a message?” Flay asked incredulously. “Orb is an official ally of the PLANTs; what makes them think the Cabinet will even talk to them, especially after Panama?”

Athrun snorted. “Commander Badgiruel believes, and I concur, that the Earth Forces are desperate to get their hands on a mass driver, and an all-out attack here would risk destroying Orb’s. Anyway, it was another ultimatum. They made the same demands as last time, plus a few more.”

“What kind of demands?” Kira asked, sounding uncharacteristically harsh.

Athrun’s lip twisted. “First, that Orb turn over both the Morgenroete facilities and the Kaguya mass driver to the Earth Alliance. Second, the return of the Archangel, both Skygraspers, the Moebius Zero, and the Strike to the Atlantic Federation. Third, the extradition of Admiral Halberton and the Archangel’s crew to stand trial for treason. Except for you, Flay,” he added. “Kira is to be charged with kidnapping you; I guess the fact that your father was an Atlantic Federation official means they have to tread carefully.”

Flay looked murderous, and even Lacus was visibly outraged. “Those bastards,” the redhead hissed.

“Finally, they’re demanding that Orb change its official policy towards Coordinators to mirror that of the Atlantic Federation,” Athrun finished.

“Meaning that people like you and Kira are supposed to be treated like animals,” Flay said bitterly. She clenched a fist; whatever she had started out as, there were several Coordinators who meant a great deal to her personally now. Kira, Athrun, Cagalli, Lacus, Alex, Lia, Andrea, she had even taken a liking to the Desert Tiger. All of them would be in even more danger.

“An attack here is expected by the end of the month,” Athrun said. “Fortunately, Orb has a small enough population that a mass evacuation is practical. Coordinators and their families have priority; no offense, Flay,” he added, nodding at the only Natural in the room, “but our kind would fare much worse under an Earth Forces occupation.”

Flay shook her head. “Don’t worry about it, Athrun. I understand.”

“In any case, with the combined transport capacity of Orb, Oceania, and the PLANTs, we shouldn’t have any trouble evacuating everyone who wants to leave,” Athrun said.

Kira leaned forward. “This is pretty well thought out,” he said quietly. “How long have they been planning this?”

“Since Uzumi agreed to the alliance,” Athrun said equally quietly. “After Alaska, we simply don’t have the forces to hold Orb, and I have no illusions that we destroyed all of the Alliance’s mobile suits at Panama.”

Flay abruptly got up, heading for the kitchen. She returned a moment later with a tray, which she set on a nearby table.

Kira looked at it appreciatively. A pitcher of juice, four glasses, and some cheese and crackers. “How’d you know we had that stuff?”

“Your mom told me,” Flay said, pouring the juice and handing each of them a glass. “She said it would be good to know.”

Athrun and Lacus grinned at each other. “Looks like Mrs. Yamato is taking the long view,” Athrun said.

“Yeah,” his fiancée agreed.

“Anyway,” Athrun said, returning to the subject at hand, “the civilians, except for the government and some Morgenroete employees, will be taken to Ame-no-Mihashira, and probably to the PLANTs from there; Lord Uzumi doesn’t trust Rondo Sahaku.”

“What about the rest?” Flay asked.

Athrun sipped his juice. “The Seirans and the Sahakus have already said they’ll be staying behind; I don’t want to know why. In the meantime, a combined Orb/ZAFT force will meet whatever force the Alliance sends. Our job will be to make them pay in blood for Orb.”

Kira winced, but he understood the necessity. “And after that?”

“The remaining Morgenroete personnel will set demolition charges in their facilities, then escape in a pair of Vosgulov-class submarines.” Athrun said. “The bulk of the Cabinet will board the Archangel, while Lord Uzumi joins Cagalli on the Valkyrie. Both ships and their mobile suits will then open fire on the mass driver, destroying it. After that, the combined force will retire to Carpentaria, and from there to the PLANTs.”

Flay sighed. “I’d love to see the PLANTs, but I wish it didn’t have to be like this.”

“Me, too,” Kira said. He wrapped an arm around her.

Athrun nodded sadly. He knew how his friends felt; he had always wanted to visit Earth, but not in the middle of a war. “When we get to the PLANTs, why don’t you stay at my place? It’s a little too big for me.”

“I’d like that,” Kira said. “It’ll be kind of like Copernicus.” He looked at his girlfriend. “What about you?”

“Works for me,” Flay said.

Kira tightened his grip, smiling. He knew what Athrun had left unsaid; with his father leading an enemy faction, Athrun was feeling more than a little lonely. Having a familiar face around would do a lot of good. He has always been a loyal friend. This is the least I can do.

Atlantic Federation Council Chamber, Washington, D.C., 10 June, C.E. 71

“I don’t believe this!” The president of the Atlantic Federation slammed his fist into the table. “This,” he gestured angrily at the screen, which displayed the wreckage at Panama, “makes our success at Alaska meaningless!”

“I agree,” an older council member said.

“You know, instead of whining about what happened, maybe we should do something about it,” the only non-government official in the room said. Muruta Azrael, Director of the Defense Industries Association, had made his fortune as an arms manufacturer. Now thirty years old, with blonde hair and a decidedly oily manner, he was highly experienced at dealing with politicians.

And the politicians knew it. “What do you propose, Director?” the president asked. “We’ve already sent Orb our ultimatum, but there’s no way they’ll agree. Not with that bastard Athha in charge.”

Azrael shrugged. “So, take him out. Oh, come on,” he admonished them, seeing their incredulous expressions, “what good is an ultimatum if you’re not willing to back it up?” He smiled thinly. “I’m no soldier, but even I know that even with the traitorous Archangel and their alliance with ZAFT they can’t possibly have the forces to hold us off. Quantity has a quality all its own, after all.” The smile widened. “We have plenty of skilled pilots of our own, plus the three new machines.”

The president nodded slowly at the reference to the new GAT-X models, Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider. “You’re saying that we could overwhelm Orb.”

“Exactly. They’re far more advanced than the originals from Heliopolis, and the pilots have some…special abilities of their own.” Azrael’s grin turned nasty. “We can manage Orb.”

“And what if this Neo ZAFT faction intervenes?” another council member asked.

The president shook his head. “This isn’t like Panama. Zala will not care who wins; what matters to him is that Naturals will die. I will say this much for Clyne: he is not crazy. Zala is.” He looked at Azrael. “All right. We will be preparing for an operation to recapture Victoria. In the meantime, a fleet will be dispatched to Orb; by the fifteenth of this month at the latest. I presume you’ll want to go along?”

Azrael nodded. “Of course. It’ll be nice to get firsthand combat data on the new machines.” The leader of Blue Cosmos stood. “If you’ll excuse me.”

Those Coordinator-lovers are in for a nasty surprise, he thought viciously. And if our intelligence is correct, we can nail ZAFT’s best pilots in the bargain.

Archangel, Bridge, 14 June, C.E. 71

Murrue Ramius stood at the front of the bridge, staring at nothing. Her mind was turned inward, remembering comrades living and dead. Of those still living, most were with her on the Archangel. A few remained with the Earth Forces, thankfully in noncombat positions.

The most important of them had taken Orb service. Admiral Halberton, of course, commanded a sizable portion of Orb’s space fleet. Natarle Badgiruel continued to serve ably as Archangel’s XO, though Murrue intended to recommend her for a command of her own. Mu La Flaga had proved just as brilliant with the Strike as with his old Moebius Zero mobile armor.

And then there was Kira Yamato. Murrue had come to see the young Coordinator as a little brother, and he clearly reciprocated the sentiment; she vividly recalled Kira’s tearful confession that her recent attacker was his best friend. She was deeply grateful that Kira and Athrun were now fighting side by side.

“You know, a Captain shouldn’t look so depressed.”

Murrue turned, smiling at the newcomer. “I’m just thinking, Mu,” she said.

“A likely story,” Mu said with a grin. “What about?”

“Old comrades, mainly,” she said. “And how glad I am that I’m not likely to know anyone in the fleet the Earth Forces are sending.”

“I know what you mean,” Mu said, moving to stand beside her. “None of my squad mates survived Endymion.” He shook his head. “I never thought I’d be flying off a ship where most of the pilots are ZAFT Elites.”

Murrue glanced at him sidelong. “So, what do you think of our ZAFT friends?”

Mu leaned sideways against the viewport. “If it wasn’t for his last name, you’d never know Athrun was Patrick Zala’s son; they’re nothing alike.”

“I can’t see someone like Lacus Clyne falling for a homicidal lunatic,” Murrue said, “and Kira considers him a brother.”

Mu nodded. “Nicol’s so much like Kira it’s almost scary. He’s not as good as Kira, but that’s not saying much; ZAFT doesn’t give the red uniform to mediocrities.” He folded his arms. “Dearka acts the tough guy, but he has a heart behind all that. He’s a good guy to have at your back.”

That fit with what Murrue had heard. Of course, it was always possible that some of that was Andrea’s influence. “And Alex’s cousin?”

Mu laughed. “Sometimes I think Yzak’s a nutcase, but he’s a good guy. And the way he throws the Duel around, even with that assault shroud…”

That was Mu, all right. The quickest way to earn his approval was to excel in the cockpit. “It’s a good thing we have Alex, then, even if he’s on another ship,” Murrue said. “I’ve noticed he has a calming influence on Yzak.”

“Yeah.” Mu raised an eyebrow. “How’s Lia?”

“Doing well, actually.” Murrue looked at the Archangel’s black twin, visible in the adjacent dock. “I never thought I’d see her in the uniform of a ZAFT ship captain, but I have to say, she wears it well.”

“There’s nothing wrong with her competency, either,” Mu agreed. “Any truth to the story that she’s got a thing for Alex?”

Murrue shook her head firmly. “None whatsoever. Their relationship has always been that of a brother and sister. Neither is the other’s type, and Lia has little interest in romance in any case.”

“Lucky for her,” Mu said dryly. “You know how possessive Cagalli is about Alex; they’d have killed each other.”

“And since they’re both Coordinators, it would have been spectacular,” Murrue agreed with a laugh. “Instead, they’re the best of friends.”

“Who’d have thought?” Mu murmured.

Murrue looked at him curiously. “Mu?”

He shook himself. “I just remembered something I’ve been meaning to do.” And then, to her astonishment, he pulled her close and kissed her. She froze for a moment, convinced she was hallucinating, then slowly closed her eyes.

They pulled apart. “You know, I can’t stand mobile armor pilots,” Murrue said, more than a little breathless.

Mu merely grinned. “Then it’s a good thing I’m a mobile suit pilot,” he said, leaning in again.

The bridge hatch opened. “Is anyone here?” Arnold Neumann asked, then froze. Jackie Tonomura and Romero Pal, coming up behind him, were likewise shocked.

“I was wondering when this would happen,” Natarle Badgiruel said, appearing behind her stunned subordinates. She smiled at Murrue’s expression. “Come now, Murrue,” she said, using her CO’s given name for the first time. “This has been blindingly obvious for months; you didn’t dare act on it while we were with the Earth Forces, but our situation has changed.”

“Just be glad Dearka didn’t see,” Neumann commented, moving to his station at the helm. “He has an endless supply of one-liners.”

“Point taken,” Murrue said, shaking her head fondly. “Well,” she said more briskly, reluctantly pulling away from the Hawk, “we’d better make sure everything’s ready. The Earth Forces are only a day away from Orb.”

Even as she spoke, Murrue wished that they would be doing more than merely delaying the enemy. Sadly, she agreed with Athrun; even with their ZAFT allies, they just did not have the forces to hold Orb. If they tried to do more, they would be throwing their lives away for nothing.

No one got much sleep that night. After Orb had openly participated in the attack on Panama, everyone knew that the Earth Forces would be out for blood. Given the tone of the most recent ultimatum, it was clear that they would be facing the Alliance’s full remaining strength.

All they could do was stall, time to escape, to fight another day…

Orb Central Command, Onogoro Island, 15 June, C.E. 71

So it begins, Uzumi thought, watching the blips on the tactical display come inexorably closer. Once they crossed the line into Orb territorial waters, the battle would begin; he had agreed with Colonel Kisaka and the ZAFT commanders that waiting for the Earth Forces to open fire was pointless, so Orb was going to strike the first blow.

“Earth Forces fleet approaching the border,” a radar operator said crisply. “ETA, five minutes.”

Kisaka nodded. “Instruct our ships to open fire the instant the enemy crosses.” He looked at the Chief Representative. “My Lord?”

Uzumi sighed. “Yes, of course.” He rubbed his temples. “At least the evacuation succeeded,” he said softly, then met Kisaka’s gaze. “You may begin.”

The Allied fleet crossed the border. Instantly, the combined Orb/ZAFT fleet opened fire, showering the enemy with beams and projectiles. Orb’s Archangel and ZAFT’s Valkyrie led the way; behind and beside them were a flotilla of Orb Aegis-class cruisers and several teams of ZAFT Vosgulov-class submarines.

Uzumi gazed at the blip representing the Valkyrie, the ship which carried both his daughter and the young man who was almost certain to eventually become his son-in-law. “Be careful.”

Archangel, Bridge

“Aim Gottfrieds,” Natarle snapped. A beat. “Fire!”

So far, of their mobile suits only the shore based M1s had engaged the enemy. None of the Earth Forces machines had yet launched, so Orb and ZAFT were holding back their Gundams. In the meantime, the combined naval fleet was more than enough to keep the attackers busy.

Natarle turned to look over Mir’s shoulder. “Commander Zala, what’s your status?”

“We’re ready to move at any time,” Athrun said promptly. He showed no sign of impatience; hardly a surprise, as the decision to withhold the Gundams until the Earth Forces deployed their mobile suits had come from him. He knew more about mobile suit tactics than any Orb officer save Kira, and Natarle had found the young ZAFT team leader to be something of a kindred spirit.

“Understood,” Natarle said. “No sign of Alliance mobile suits yet-“

“Status change!” Tonomura snapped. “Enemy mobile suits detected! Checking thermal patterns…Strike Daggers, and several machines like the machine Jean Carrey piloted at Panama.” He stopped, studying his readouts. “Additional units incoming. Judging by the pattern, several are equipped with Striker packs, mostly Aile but also at least one with an unfamiliar package.”

“Unfamiliar to you, maybe,” Mu said from the Strike; he had seen the data. “Not to me; that’s a Gunbarrel pack, based off my old Moebius Zero.”

Natarle swore. “All right. Mobile suits, launch at once!”

Skies over Orb

It was the first large-scale mobile suit battle of the war. The Earth Forces, despite the delay imposed by Rau Le Creuset’s attack on Heliopolis, had finally produced mobile suits in significant numbers, and not just the cannon-fodder Strike Daggers they had fielded at Panama. In addition to an improved mass-produced version of the Strike (nicknamed the 105 Dagger), production models of the Duel and the Buster were also present.

Three new GAT-X models, X131 Calamity, X252 Forbidden, and X370 Raider Gundams, added to the chaos. Piloted by three unstable individuals known as “Biological CPUs”, they were in some ways superior to the Heliopolis line. On top of that, two different variations of the Forbidden, a single GAT-X255 Forbidden Blue piloted by ace Jane Houston, and a few production model GAT-706S Deep Forbiddens, both intended to combat ZAFT GOOhNs and ZnOs.

Cagalli glared at the oncoming mobile suits. She had never liked the Earth Forces to begin with; the fact that they were attacking her home infuriated her. The knowledge that they had no choice but to give ground made it worse.

She glanced worriedly at the silver M1 pacing her. Despite the loss of the Stormbird and his own injuries in that battle, Alex refused to sit on the sidelines. He had chosen an M1 because it was the closest mass-produced unit to his old Gundam.

Alex, please be careful. I cannot bear to lose you.

She was jolted out of her reverie by a laser blast against her shield. Snarling, she fired back, and had the satisfaction of seeing the offending Dagger explode. Alex followed suit, and Cagalli felt her worries vanish as he blew three, four, five Daggers into smoking pieces.

“Glad to see you keeping up,” she told him, blasting another Dagger. “I was afraid you’d have trouble without the Stormbird.”

Alex drew a saber. “In the words of Manfred von Richtofen, the famous Red Baron, ‘It is not the crate, it’s the man who flies it.’ There’s a reason I wear the red uniform.” On the heels of that remark, he bisected a Dagger foolish enough to try close combat. “I’m gonna be busy for a while.”

“Roger that.” Cagalli moved to face a group of 105 Daggers equipped with what looked like modified Aile packs. You are going to pay…

This is crazy, Nicol Amalfi thought. His Blitz stood on the shoreline with a group of M1s (including the Astray trio), an unusual position for him. The Blitz was intended for stealth operations, but in this battle raw firepower was more important than sneakiness, and Nicol’s machine was still good in a stand-up fight.

Better than these Daggers, anyway, he thought, sending a lancer dart into a Duel Dagger that had tried to sneak up on him. “You girls holding up?”

“We’re fine, Nicol,” Asagi said.

“Heads up,” Mayura snapped. “Armored transports incoming; they’re dropping Strike Daggers.”

Nicol swore under his breath, leveling the Trikeros at one of the transports. “Call it three suits per plane, like ours,” he said, firing. “One down.”

Juri opened an instant later. “Make that two.”

“There goes another one!” Asagi said.

Unfortunately, there were more than the Blitz and a handful of Astrays could bring down. Soon enough, they had a swarm of Daggers on their hands, mostly the basic models, but with a few 105s and Duels mixed in. On the plus side, both the Blitz and the Astrays were well-equipped for melee combat.

A Dagger suddenly exploded; judging by the angle of the shot, it had been hit from the air. Several pilots on both sides looked up to see GAT-X105 Strike and ZGMF-X09A Justice descending on them. Mu moved like a fencer, stabbing in and out with a saber, while Athrun twirled his combined weapon like a quarterstaff, occasionally taking out two suits at once.

Nicol felt relieved as the Justice impaled a Dagger right in front of him. “Thanks, Athrun.”

“Don’t mention it.”

The Blitz’s Gleipnir lanced out, impaled a 105 Dagger, and retracted. “This area’s clear for now,” Nicol said.

“Roger that,” Mu responded. “Come on, guys.”

Dearka frowned at the machine facing him. It looked remarkably like his Buster, except that it had a pair of sabers in the hips, giving it some close combat ability. “What is that thing, anyway?” He lifted his beam rifle. “It looks like my machine…”

“Take this, space monster!”

The Buster jumped away, its pilot cursing as the Alliance machine snapped its weapons together and sent a sniper blast at him. “Who is this guy?”

“I’m no guy,” his opponent said coldly, firing again. “My name is Lieutenant Rena Imelia, and you killed my students!”

“Huh?” Dearka fired a scatter blast from his gun launcher to cover himself while he punched up the Archangel’s frequency. “Captain, I’ve got some nutcase after me, saying I killed her students. Name’s Imelia or something like that.”

“Oh, no, Rena…” Murrue’s voice trembled slightly. “I’m afraid she’s right, Dearka. Rena Imelia trained the young officers who were assigned to pilot the G-weapons. They were killed when you bombed the harbor at Heliopolis.”

Dearka swallowed a curse. Great. Simply great. “Figures.”

“Need some help, Dearka?” Kyle Perry’s Devastator Gundam dropped next to him, weapons raised.

“Yeah, thanks.”

“Both of you, be careful,” Murrue said.

Rena Imelia was a tougher nut to crack than the lemmings they had faced so far. She was an excellent shot, and though the Buster design was not the most mobile around, she knew exactly how to make it do what she wanted.

That, however, was balanced by the caliber of her opponents. Kyle and Dearka were both Coordinators who wore the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite. In addition to that, they had far more combat experience than Rena, who had spent most of the war as an instructor.

Of course, Rena was hardly alone. Two more Buster Daggers appeared, escorted by four 105 Daggers.

Dearka swore. “This is bad, Kyle.”

“Tell me about it –or not,” Kyle amended.

ZGMF-X10A Freedom swooped in, wings spread. Twenty-four surgically precise shots lanced out, reducing all but one of the Daggers to basket cases; Rena herself was able to evade at the last instant.

“Thanks for the assist, Kira,” Dearka said. “We can handle the last one.”

“Roger that.” Kira gave him a thumbs-up.

ZAFT pilots turned back to Rena’s Dagger, which was anything but down for the count. “Don’t count me out yet,” she snarled.

A team of Daggers, six basic Strike models led by a single 105, had somehow gotten within sight of the Orb command center. It had taken a great deal of effort, and more than a little sneaking, but they had made it. Or so they thought.

“We’ve made it,” the 105-pilot said. “Let’s finish this.” He started to raise his rifle, but then a green beam lanced out, striking the 105’s energy battery. The resultant explosion knocked his comrades several meters back.

“Where’d that come from?” one pilot shouted desperately, and then he too exploded. Five more shots struck from nowhere.

Andrea’s GAT-X210 Specter Gundam faded out of Mirage Colloid. She smiled grimly, surveying the wreckage. “No one tries that on Lord Uzumi and gets away with it,” she said. “Believe it.” She touched a control, and the Specter vanished.

The majestic shape of the Freedom cruised high overhead, shooting down Earth Forces mobile suits whenever they wondered into its sights. Kira was not easy to anger, but he had come to hate the Earth Forces. His best friend Athrun had suffered personally because of them, as had the Strassmeier’s, and now they were invading his home.

Nevertheless, he avoided deadly force when possible; he had no quarrel with the grunts who had enlisted to fight for their country. His problem was with the leadership, the people who had oppressed the PLANTs, the people who lied about Coordinators, the people who destroyed Junius Seven.

A Duel Dagger lunged for him; the pilot thought his assault shroud knockoff would give him an edge against the Freedom. He was wrong, of course; Kira effortlessly swatted it from the sky. Another appeared, but a red blade stabbed through its cockpit.

“You okay, Kira?” Alex asked, blasting yet another Dagger.

Kira smiled. Alex’s ruthlessness chilled his blood at times, but he was still an all-right guy. “I’m fine, Alex,” he said, seeing the Akatsuki and the Justice. “In fact-” He broke off, throwing the Freedom to the side to avoid a double blast of green energy.

In the blue X131 Calamity, successor to the Buster, Orga Sabnak grimaced. “Missed.”

“What’d you expect moron?” Clotho Buer demanded. His transformable machine, the black X370 Raider, was serving as a platform for the flightless Calamity. “That thing was made to fly; what makes you think you can hit it?” He tipped over, dumping the artillery machine, and switched to mobile suit mode. “Get lost!”

Shani Andras, with his green-and-gray X252 Forbidden, ignored them completely. Crashing down on the deck of an Orb ship, he raised the Forbidden’s melee weapon, a gigantic scythe, and sliced through the superstructure.

While Kira chased after the Forbidden, Alex’s blue eyes narrowed. “Watch out, guys. Those have to be new GAT-X models, and the pilots are definitely out of the ordinary.”

“He’s right,” Athrun added, snapping his sabers together. “And the pilots don’t care about each other, either.”

Alex took aim at the Raider and fired, missing. “Blast it.” He keyed in his team’s frequency. “Chris, Hiro, Brian, watch yourselves. We’ve got three new Gundams here.”

“Roger that,” Hiro responded.

“There’s another one underwater,” Brian said. “It’s tearing up the GOOhNs and ZnOs.”

Alex muttered a curse. “All right, Brian, see what you can do; you have our only Gundam capable of operating effectively underwater.”

“Got it.”

Chris, predictably, was letting his pyromaniac persona run free. “Burn, baby, burn!” he shouted, laughing maniacally. His flamer incinerated several Allied fighters.

Alex shook his head, then grinned as a certain blue Gundam joined him. “Ready to wreak havoc, Yzak?”

His cousin grinned back. “Let’s do it, Alex.”

They focused their attacks on the least mobile of the enemy machines, the Calamity. Orga, seeing his danger (the storm of energy fire got his attention), hurriedly boosted away. He tried to return fire, but both the Duel and Alex’s M1 were far too maneuverable for him to draw a bead on.

Alex laughed. “Is there anything funnier than a mobile suit jumping around like a flea on a hot griddle?”

“Man, this guy’s nuts,” Yzak agreed.

Orga, frustrated by his enemies’ elusiveness, turned his attention to the Akatsuki. Snarling incoherently, he fired his dual Schlag beam cannon. When the blast struck home, he grinned. “Ha! Didn’t even try to dodge- what the?” He boosted away, narrowly avoiding being destroyed by his own attack.

Cagalli smirked. “Didn’t expect that one, did you?” She started to turn, dismissing the Alliance machine.

Which was when X370 Raider came straight at her. “Reflect this, Orb scum!” Clotho shouted. “You’re terminated!” With that, he swung his Mjollnir spherical breaker, hitting the Akatsuki squarely in the torso. The princess, who had confidently expected the attack to bounce harmlessly off her PSA, cried out in shock as she was slammed backward.


Alex Strassmeier stared in mingled horror and disbelief. “CAGALLI!”