Chapter 27: The Fall of Orb

Skies over Orb, 15 June, C.E. 71

“CAGALLI!” Alex screamed.

Max Labatt’s custom M1 appeared, getting between the Raider and the Akatsuki, but Alex barely noticed. He did not even notice that the younger pilot was blasting away with a beam rifle. All that mattered was the fact that the one he loved was in mortal danger.

Behind his eyes, a blue seed burst.

Snarling with rage, Alex drew a beam saber and hit his thrusters. Clotho, caught by surprise, was barely able to interpose his shield in time. He pushed the silver M1 back, gaining an instant of breathing space, and tried to swing the Mjollnir.

Who is this guy? Clotho thought in disbelief as Alex contemptuously dodged the attack. “Who in blazes are you!?”

“Your worst nightmare,” Alex said in a voice colder than space. He slashed again; this time it bounced off the Mjollnir’s chain. Anti-beam coating, it has to be.

“Ha, ha, ha! Nice try, bastard!” The Mjollnir swung again, this time hitting Alex’s M1 in the right shoulder and causing it to drop the saber. Another swing forced the Astray back.

Which was when X102 Duel appeared. “NO ONE DOES THAT TO MY COUSIN!” Yzak shouted. The Duel opened up with its full ranged weaponry, even adding a CIWS burst in an attempt to wear down the Raider’s TPA.

Clotho swore viciously. “Another one!” He fired a blast from his Zorn energy cannon, but Yzak took it on his shield. He cursed again.

Meanwhile, Kira was busy fighting Clotho’s compatriot (in a loose sense) Shani. It was more than a little frustrating; the Forbidden had demonstrated a very annoying feature that actually deflected beam attacks.

This guy’s nuts! Deciding that close combat might be better, Kira emulated Athrun’s tactic of snapping his sabers together. He went on the attack, finally driving Shani back. Unable to use the Forbidden’s plasma cannon –the only weapon he had that could damage the Freedom- the Alliance pilot could only dodge and weave.

Then he saw the melee around the Raider. Cagalli! Forgetting Shani for the moment, Kira boosted skyward, determined to rescue his sister (and future brother-in-law, a distant corner of his mind wryly noted).

“Leave her alone!” he yelled, beam rifle blazing.

Clotho glared at his newest opponent. “They won’t quit!” he growled. He wound up for a Mjollnir attack…and a perfectly timed laser blast from Alex’s Astray drilled through the Raider’s head. Muttering an obscenity, he shifted to mobile armor mode and retreated as fast as the machine would go.

Kira and Alex let him go; they had more important things to worry about. “Cagalli, are you okay?” her brother called anxiously.

The Akatsuki’s flight stabilized. “Yeah, I think so,” Cagalli said. “What was that, anyway?”

“Judging by the effect, that mace thing was extremely dense,” Alex said, casually blasting a 105 Dagger that got too close. “I can’t think of any other way for a physical weapon to damage PSA.”

“Let’s just hope he’s the only one,” Yzak said grimly. “One was bad enough.”

Tarawa-class carrier Powell, bridge

“Captain, the Raider is pulling back. It is damaged,” a radar operator said.

The Powell’s captain jerked upright. “What!?”

“Don’t blame Clotho, Captain,” Muruta Azrael said unexpectedly. “We’ve already confirmed Joule’s nephew, Strassmeier, is piloting that silver M1, and he’s no ordinary pilot; ZAFT doesn’t give the red uniform to just anyone. Clotho’s good, but Strassmeier’s in the top tier of even the redcoats.”

The captain grunted but agreed. “If he can do that with an M1, I’d have to agree.” He shook his head. “At least Strassmeier seems to be ignoring him now.”

Azrael smiled humorlessly. “That gold machine belongs to Athha’s daughter, and our spies say it’s common knowledge in Orb that Strassmeier’s in love with her. Since Clotho’s retreating –for now- Strassmeier won’t care about him until he’s made sure the princess is all right.” He rolled his eyes. “Sooner or later, that’ll get him killed.”

Orb shoreline

Two blue mobile suits exchanged energy fire on the shore of Onogoro Island. One was an Earth Forces unit, Orga Sabnak’s GAT-X131 Calamity; the other belonged to ZAFT, Shiho’s YFX-200 CGUE DEEP Arms.

“You’re bugging me, loser!” Orga snarled. His bazooka and shield-mounted ram cannon fired simultaneously, narrowly missing the CGUE.

Shiho returned fire with her beam cannons. “You’ll be sorry if you underestimate me because I’m a girl!”

The Calamity merely intensified its fire, adding blasts from its Schlag and chest-mounted Scylla multiphase energy cannon.

Shiho growled and drew her sword. “I’m sick and tired of your nonsense!” A perfectly timed chop bisected the Calamity’s bazooka.

Orga gaped at the stump of his weapon. “How did she-” Before he could finish, the DEEP Arms body-slammed his machine, knocking him over.

The young ZAFT Elite glared down at him. “So much for you, Earth scum.” Both cannons leveled, her finger tightened on the trigger…

And was forced to flee from a pair of Launcher-armed 105 Daggers. Aware that her CGUE stood no chance against that kind of firepower, Shiho retreated, covered by Nicol’s Blitz Gundam. One of the Daggers continued to fire, while the other handed the Calamity a replacement bazooka.

Orga, typically, did not thank them for the rescue. “Who was that!?”

“Ensign Sabnak, we have incoming ZAFT mobile suits,” one of the Dagger pilots said.

Orga glared. Four TMF/A-802 BuCUEs, the mainstay of ZAFT’s ground forces. Two of them were armed with missile pods, while the others had railguns. Neither would be any threat to the Calamity, though Orga knew the beam sabers could hurt him.

Only if they get in close, and I am not going to let them! he thought. He raised his bazooka and fired, catching one BuCUE off guard. The remaining three spread out, beam sabers sprouting from their heads. Laughing, Orga nailed another with his ram cannon, and kicked the third away.

The last one was trickier. Its pilot clearly realized that a BuCUE was far more maneuverable than the Calamity, and he was making the most of it. He zigzagged around, unleashing a missile salvo; since the Earth Forces had no NJCs, Orga’s new Trans-Phase armor would not last forever.

Orga knew it, of course; he may have been a homicidal lunatic, but he was not stupid. If he ran out of power, he would have been easy prey even for a ZuOOT. Therefore, he had no intention of allowing that to happen. Grinning tightly, he powered up his Scylla.

The ZAFT pilot never knew what hit him.

Beneath the waves, it was exclusively a battle between the Earth Forces and ZAFT; Orb had no underwater mobile suits. It was left to ZAFT to deal with the Deep Forbiddens and Jane Houston’s Forbidden Blue.

The bulk of ZAFT’s underwater force consisted of GOOhNs and ZnOs, with a few GINN WASPs mixed in, but also among them was Brian Kilgore’s Scorpion Gundam. Once again equipped with a phonon maser, the Scorpion cut a swathe through the Deep Forbiddens; while the Earth Forces machines shared the Forbidden’s beam deflector, it was useless against sabers.

His attacks did not go unchallenged. “No one does that to my people,” Earth Forces ace Jane Houston growled. “I’ll show you the power of the Forbidden Blue!”

Brian, of course, saw her coming. “Uh-oh. This could be trouble.” He fired his maser once and was unsurprised to see the blast deflected. “Definitely trouble.”

Houston’s maser fired back, impacting on the Scorpion’s shield. She was careful not to engage in close combat, as her trident would be useless against PSA. Indeed, the maser was the only weapon she had that could be effective, unless the Scorpion ran out of power.

That applies to me, too, Houston reminded herself. I do not have a titanium hull. “Look, I really don’t have anything against you guys,” she told the other pilot. “Just back off, and I won’t have to kill you.”

“Maybe you don’t think so,” Brian shot back, “but your superiors sure do!” Four ZnOs and a pair of GINN WASPs moved to flank him. “If you want Orb, you’ll have to go through us first!”

Open sky

Kira had once again found himself in a duel with the Forbidden, but this time he had help, in the form of Athrun’s Justice. The two of them attacked in a spiral pattern, never giving Shani a target long enough to fire. It was giving him fits.

Not that Kira and Athrun were having fun. Kira fired repeatedly with his rifle and plasma cannons, only to see the beams deflected. Projectiles were ineffective, and while Athrun occasionally detached his subflight unit and sent it to attack separately, overall, it was a stalemate.

Then several things happened at once. The Raider appeared (with a new head), Alex chased after it, and a double blast of green light flashed up, narrowly missing the Raider.

Clotho glared at the Calamity. “Orga! You jerk!”

“Do Earth Forces pilots normally shoot at each other?” Alex asked, sounding bemused.

“Not that I’ve seen,” Athrun said, frowning.

Another double blast lanced out, this time hitting the Forbidden’s shield…and once again narrowly missing the Raider. “Shani! You bastard!” Clotho shouted, understandably put out.

The three Coordinators watched in amazement as the Alliance pilots squabbled. Orga was the only one who fired; the other two seemed content to just snarl. Clotho did, anyway; Shani barely said anything.

Alex was the first to take advantage of the situation. Drawing a saber, he attacked the Raider; he was still furious that Clotho had nearly killed Cagalli.

Clotho let out a startled-sounding yelp. “You again!” The Zorn fired, but Alex dodged the blast.

“You’ll have to do better than that.” Alex began swinging his blade in an infinity loop, peripherally aware of his friends resuming their attack on the Forbidden.

It could not last much longer. Alex was pushing the pace against the Raider, Kira and Athrun were wearing down the Forbidden, and the Calamity was firing at random. The new Earth Forces machines had to be running out of power.

What few knew was that the pilots were running out of time.

“You’re bugging me!” Orga snarled, boosting skyward. The Schlag locked onto the Forbidden. “The same goes for you, Shani!” He fired again, and once again it was deflected.

Clotho practically shook with rage. “I’ve had enough, Orga! You bug me- aaahhh!”

His transmission ended in a scream of pain, one swiftly echoed by his nominal comrades. As the astounded Orb and ZAFT pilots watched, the Raider converted to mobile armor mode and grasped the Raider in its claws. It then sped off, followed by the Forbidden.

Mu La Flaga spoke for all of them. “What was that?”

Powell, bridge

“The Raider, the Forbidden, and the Calamity are returning, sir!”

The Captain leapt to his feet. “They’re what!?”

Azrael smiled thinly, though inwardly he was seething. “I guess they ran out of time.” He stood, stretching languidly. “Well then. Captain, I think it’s time we took a little break from this battle”

The officer spun around. “Are you serious!?”

“Face it, we’re not going to get much further without the new GAT-X machines,” Azrael said. “Not when they have the Archangel and all five of the Heliopolis G-weapons, not to mention three ZAFT-built and one Orb G-weapon, and four of Strassmeier’s mobile suits.”

The Captain muttered something vicious under his breath. “We should thank that lunatic Le Creuset for taking care of the fifth one,” he growled. “All right. Fire a signal flare, temporary withdrawal!”

Main hangar, Onogoro Island

Everyone was grateful for the respite, even though they knew it was bound to be brief. Mobile suits were recharged and rearmed, those that could not be repaired were dumped offshore so the Earth Forces could not recover them, and the pilots got some much-needed rest.

Losses had been severe. As Azrael had told the Alliance Council, quantity has a quality all its own, and both Orb and ZAFT had paid for it. Brian’s inconclusive duel with Jane Houston had allowed the Deep Forbiddens to ravage ZAFT’s submarine forces, while Orga Sabnak had wreaked havoc on the land defenses before turning his guns on his teammates.

Orb’s surface fleet had taken a beating as well. The Archangel itself was undamaged, but the conventional forces were not so lucky. On top of that, every single Eurasian vessel that had joined them at Alaska had been sunk, though only one was lost with all hands.

“Heavy casualties, sir,” Alex said, rubbing his hands over his face. “Our submarine mobile suits were virtually wiped out; I don’t think we’ll be able to use them next time. They’ve been sent to Carpentaria.”

Lord Uzumi nodded. “I am deeply sorry to put your people through this, Alex,” he said softly. “So many ZAFT soldiers have died defending a country not their own…”

“Lord Uzumi, Chairman Clyne knew what he was getting into when he offered to ally with Orb,” Alex said. “Just as I knew what I was getting into when I chose to join ZAFT. And truly, it is my country.” He met the Chief Representative’s gaze squarely. “I love Cagalli very much. That relationship makes Orb my country as well, if only by adoption. There’s also the fact that you and my father were close friends.”

Uzumi smiled. “Your father would be proud of you, Alex,” he said.

Alex looked slightly uncomfortable. “I like to think so,” he replied, looking away.

“I’m serious.” Uzumi laid a hand on the ZAFT Elite’s shoulder. “I knew your father better than anyone save his wife, and I can tell you that he would be proud to hear of his son’s accomplishments.”

The younger man relaxed. “Thank you, sir. That…means a lot to me.”

“I know.” Uzumi looked at the Specter and Buster Gundams. Andrea and Dearka appeared to be in close conversation. “Your sister seems to have taken a shine to Mister Elsman.”

Alex laughed. “I saw that coming months ago. You should’ve seen her in the Marshall Islands; she shot down at least a dozen helicopters before they could hit the Buster.” He shook his head fondly. “The way she acts in battle, you’d think she had some kind of split personality.”

“Indeed.” Uzumi turned to leave. “And now, I have preparations to make.”

Alex saluted. “See you on the Valkyrie.”

He is right, Alex thought a few minutes later. Dad would be proud of me. I have achieved my dream of becoming a ZAFT soldier, brought what is left of the family back together –or will have when we get to the PLANTs, anyway- and even found someone to love.

He climbed into the cockpit of his borrowed M1 and brought up the main terminal. The saber he had lost in battle with the Raider had already been replaced, so pretty much all he had to do was make sure the software had not been corrupted or some such.

“How long are you going to keep at that?”

Alex looked up. “Huh?” He checked the time display and blinked. He had been working for over an hour. “I guess I’m done,” he said, pushing the terminal away and standing.

Cagalli handed him a coffee cup. “Good.” She sat beside him on the machine’s torso. “How long do you think we’ll have?”

Alex sipped his coffee. “I’d say till dawn. Those new G-weapons took a beating, and we destroyed quite a few of their mass-produced units. They’ll need time to regroup.”

“Makes sense,” she agreed, then looked at him curiously. “You had a talk with my father, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.” Alex’s shoulders twitched. “He apologized for putting us –meaning ZAFT- through this. I pointed out that Chairman Clyne knew what he was doing when he proposed the alliance.” He took another sip. “He said that my father would be proud of me,” he went on in a softer voice.

Cagalli rubbed a hand along his spine.

“He was right, too,” Alex said. “I’m a ZAFT Elite, fighting to defend the PLANTs. The rest of the family is back together, and” he wrapped an arm around her waist, “I met you.”

She smiled affectionately. “So, you think he’d approve of our relationship.”

“The only reason he vetoed Lord Uzumi’s suggestion of an arranged marriage was because he knew how I’d have reacted,” Alex reminded her.

“Good point.”

Across the hangar, Kira and Athrun sat on a pair of crates near the Freedom and Justice. Both were exhausted; they had had a field day with the mass-produced units, but the new GAT-X models had turned out to be more of a challenge.

It makes sense, Kira admitted to himself. They are not going to put inferior pilots in Gundams.

“Hard to believe those guys are regular military,” Athrun commented.

Kira raised an eyebrow. “You mean those new Gundam pilots?”

“Yeah,” the other said. “The way they were fighting…” He pursed his lips. “We both fought Natural mobile suit pilots in Panama. Those new ones we saw today, they were nothing like those others.”

“The others were in mass-produced units,” Kira pointed out.

Athrun nodded. “That’s true, but Commander La Flaga pilots a G-weapon, and his style is completely different. True, he’s probably the best Natural pilot around, but those new pilots have to be among the best, too, yet they’re not at all like him.”

“You think they’re Coordinators?”

Athrun shook his head. “Commander La Flaga is proof that with the right OS, which the Earth Forces clearly have, Naturals can fight Coordinators on equal terms; if he was ZAFT, he’d easily qualify for the red uniform.”

“Like Troy Cadwallader,” Kira agreed. “So, you’re saying they don’t need Coordinators.”

“Exactly, and you know as well as I do that if the Earth Forces don’t need Coordinators, they won’t use them,” Athrun said. “The Combat Coordinator project was a failure, and I know of only two of our kind who joined voluntarily, you and Jean Carrey.”

Kira nodded soberly. Jean Carrey had defected to Orb just after Operation Odin’s Lance; his white M1 was in that very hangar, in fact. “They aren’t AIs,” he said. “We both heard them snarling at each other, and AI-controlled units don’t move that fluidly anyway.”

“Maybe ZAFT intelligence can tell us more,” Athrun said, then paused as an Orb Navy steward appeared. The man handed both cups of hot soup, then departed.

“I hope so,” Kira said, then took a large mouthful of soup; he had learned to appreciate the value of a hot meal in the months since Heliopolis. “It’d be nice to know why the Earth Forces are using freaks like that; when I was with them, the kind of behavior we saw today would get you court-martialed.”

“Same with ZAFT,” Athrun said. He looked at his hotheaded teammate, who was standing near the Duel, talking to Shiho. “Yzak’s been known to disobey orders, but he’d never dream of shooting at his own teammates unless they turned on him.”

“Yeah.” Kira had come to know Yzak well since defecting. “Well,” he said, yawning, “I think I’ll get some sleep while I still can.” Before Athrun could respond, Kira was stretched out, asleep.

Valkyrie, bridge

Lia Ramius rubbed her eyes wearily. Her ship had gotten into a close-range battle with an Atlantic Federation cruiser midway through the battle. The Alliance ship had crossed the Valkyrie’s T, but since the ZAFT vessel’s weaponry faced fore-and-aft instead of broadside, all it did was give Lia’s people a bigger target. It took less than five minutes.

“The latest status report, ma’am,” her XO, a stocky, brown-haired man said.

She sighed. “Just give me the highlights, Nash.”

Nash Fletcher nodded. “We sustained moderate damage to the starboard levitator; backups should suffice until repairs are complete.” He checked a memo board. “We’re topped off on food and water since we’ll be leaving soon. Main engines are in good condition, linear catapults and weapons are go.”

“Good.” Lia forced herself to straighten. “That reminds me, before we leave for space, we really need to outfit one of the cabins into something that could pass for VIP quarters; we are going to be carrying the Chief Representative, after all.”

“Point.” Nash made a note on his board. “Fortunately, I don’t think he’ll expect much; frankly, I don’t think he’ll expect anything, since he knows this is a warship.”

“We should still make the effort,” Lia said. “This is a head of state we’re talking about.”

“True.” Nash nodded slowly. “All right, then. I’ll see to the preparations.”

Lia smiled to herself. Nash was the perfect XO: efficient, reliable, and possessed of an almost psychic ability to anticipate exactly what his captain needed at any given moment. A native of September City, he had been on vacation in Heliopolis when Alex and Lia recruited him into their little band of misfits.

Hard to believe it has been so long. Now we are all ZAFT soldiers. Well, all of us, she amended, seeing Alex and Cagalli sitting together on Alex’s borrowed M1.

The decision to join ZAFT had been difficult for her. Born and raised on a Junk Guild freighter, Lia had grown up among people who had little use for either the Earth Forces or ZAFT. When she met Alex Strassmeier, however, that had slowly changed. Even at an early age, Alex had been a fanatical PLANT patriot, and would often complain bitterly about the way the sponsor nations treated his homeland.

Lia had taken those stories to heart. After the Mandelbrot Incident, she had found herself slowly drifting away from the standard Junk Guild attitude of neutrality. When Alex had produced his plan just after the Bloody Valentine, she had joined him without hesitation.

The decisive step had been something else. Lia had, of course, wholeheartedly supported Alex’s decision to pursue his dream and join ZAFT, but her own loyalties had been more problematic. In the end, she had received encouragement from her parents and Astray Red Frame pilot Lowe Guele.

Stay with your friends, he said. Well, Alex and Andrea are my friends, and I will stand by them no matter what.

Powell, bridge

“So how much longer?” Azrael asked.

The Earth Forces captain snorted. “We’re almost ready. I’m told the main problem is with your people.” His voice dripped disdain.

“My fault, sorry.” Azrael did not sound sorry at all. “I think they’ve been punished enough. Now that they know what will happen if they do not improve their performance, we should get some better results.”

“Hmph.” The captain sounded skeptical. “I just don’t like relying on unstable elements. People like Houston and Imelia can be admired; your people are nothing more than thugs.”

“Maybe.” Azrael shrugged. “We need them at least long enough to take out Yamato.”

The captain turned around, frowning. “But Yamato’s dead.”

“No, he isn’t.” Azrael shook his head. “He’s piloting one of those new machines, the one with the multibeam trick. I doubt even Morgan Chevalier could take him. No, Orga, Shani, and Clotho are our best bet to deal with him.”

“Especially when he’s fighting alongside that red machine,” the captain agreed sourly. “That one is assigned to Patrick Zala’s son, according to Intelligence, and he’s the best ZAFT has.”

Azrael raised his eyebrows. “Patrick Zala’s son? Then why isn’t he with the ‘Neo ZAFT’ faction?”

“He’s engaged to Clyne’s daughter, the pop star,” the other said. “On top of that, he and Yamato have been friends since childhood, or so I heard from Captain Sutherland.”

“That would explain it,” Blue Cosmos’s leader agreed.

The captain checked his watch. “Can the biological CPUs be ready in time for a dawn attack?”

“Easily.” Azrael smiled. “Just a few hours, and we’ll take out a lot more space monsters.”

Main hangar, Onogoro Island, 16 June, C.E. 71

Yzak hated waiting. It was annoying at the best of times; when the enemy was sitting right outside, it was infuriating. Even worse was the fact that they would have to abandon Onogoro, and Yzak hated retreats even more than he hated waiting.

But the Earth Forces are not going to get this place for free, he thought viciously.

“Are you okay?”

Yzak turned, his eyebrows going up in surprise. “Shiho? Yeah, I’m fine.”

Shiho Hahnenfuss snorted. “You don’t sound like it.”

He rolled his eyes. “How do I sound, then?” he asked. Shiho was one of the few people who could get away with that sort of query.

“Like you’re itching to go out and blow up as many Earth Forces bastards as possible,” Shiho said. “Like that cousin of yours,” she added.

Yzak snorted. “He’ll be going after that black G-weapon, but only because it attacked Cagalli. He’s as cold as they come.”

“Tell that to the princess,” Shiho said, nodding at the couple.

“That’s not what I meant,” Yzak said, though he could not help smiling at the sight. “Alex doesn’t let his emotions get in the way in battle, that’s why Bartlett keeps losing. He’s obsessive about protecting the PLANTs –and his family- but he normally keeps his feelings locked down in battle.”

Shiho chuckled. “Nothing like you.”

“Yzak and Alex have always been opposites, even though they look almost the same,” Andrea said, walking up to them with Dearka by her side; they were found together a lot these days. “Aunt Ezalia and my mom always said they were like day and night.”

Yzak shook his head, smiling; Andrea brought out a side of him that few people ever saw. “You were always there, too,” he said. He laughed softly at the looks Dearka, and Shiho gave him. “The three of us spent a lot of time together, since our parents had to be away a lot.”

“Makes sense,” Dearka agreed. He exchanged sly looks with Andrea. “Maybe we should go check our machines.”

She grinned in a way that made Yzak suspicious. “Yeah, why don’t we,” she said, confirming his suspicions. She kissed Dearka on the cheek. “They could use the time anyway.”

Shiho watched them curiously. “What was she talking about?”

Yzak heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Knowing Andrea, she was trying to play matchmaker.”

“Matchmaker?” The brown-haired pilot blinked.

“Yeah.” Yzak met her amethyst gaze. “She’s always been like that.”

“Ah, I see.” Privately, Shiho did not mind at all. Not that she could tell Yzak…yet.

Yzak leaned back against the Duel’s leg. Just a couple more hours, he estimated. Then the Earth Forces would begin their next attack. Despite his anger, Yzak found he was looking forward to it; he found blasting Alliance units into dust was a great stress reliever.

“Airborne mobile suit force approaching Onogoro!” the PA system blared abruptly. “All units, prepare to intercept!”

Yzak grabbed his zip line. Looks like I overestimated how long it would take. Fine. Let us go, bastards.

Open sky

Alex’s hands clenched on his control bars as he launched. “All right, people, this is it. We’ll have to pull back eventually, but we’re going to make the alliance pay in blood first!”

Unfortunately, the Earth Forces had proved they could give as good as they got. The three new Gundams alone were a major pain, to say nothing of the nastier mass-produced models.

So be it, Alex thought. He selected a 105 Dagger as his target. It tried to evade, but he quickly locked on, sending an emerald dart through its Striker pack. One down, who knows how many to go.

A second Dagger blew apart, courtesy of a precisely aimed shot from the Akatsuki. “Take that!”

Alex grinned to himself, then jumped, narrowly avoiding another 105 Dagger. He turned to engage, but the other pilot proved to be made of sterner stuff than his deceased predecessor. In addition to that, Alex found that he could sense his enemy, which meant the Earth Forces pilot had the same powers as Alex and Mu.

Trouble. Definitely trouble. Instead of an Aile pack, it had something unpleasantly reminiscent of the Moebius Zero’s wired gun barrels. Four remote units spat green death at his M1, forcing him to fly a complex evasion pattern.

“You’re good,” his opponent admitted, “but you can’t dodge forever!”

“I didn’t intend to,” Alex said, drawing a saber. “Who in blazes are you, anyway?”

A bearded face appeared on his screen. “The name’s Lieutenant Morgan Chevalier,” he said. “Some call me the Moonlight Mad Dog.”

“Commander Alex Strassmeier, ZAFT,” Alex responded. A neat slash bisected one of the gun barrels. “I have to say, I didn’t expect to run into you here.”

Chevalier locked his saber with Alex’s. “Just doing my job, kid.”

“Really. I wouldn’t have thought your job would include mass murder.” Alex disengaged, getting a little breathing space. “I haven’t forgotten my sister’s kidnapping, or the Mandelbrot Incident…or Junius Seven.”

“Junius Seven wasn’t our fault, kid,” Chevalier countered, shifting his saber to his Dagger’s left hand, and raising his rifle. “Blame Blue Cosmos for that one.”

“Same thing,” Alex said, taking the attack on his shield. He is good. If only I still had the Stormbird. He returned fire.

Chevalier was becoming more impressed by the minute. Intelligence got it right for once. This kid really is as good as the reports say. He snorted. Of course, he is that good; he is a ZAFT Elite, for crying aloud!

Alex, for his part, was getting nervous. Chevalier was not like the new Gundam pilots; there was no hope of making him angry enough to make a mistake. That, combined with the Gunbarrel Striker, made him extremely dangerous indeed.

Freedom and Justice soared high overhead. They made a deadly team; any Earth Forces mobile suit that escaped Kira’s multibeam attack long enough to close fell to Athrun’s lethal sword dance. The Alliance pilots soon learned to avoid them.

Except, of course, for Orga, Shani, and Clotho, who were spoiling for a rematch with the two nuclear machines.

“Ha! There’s the hotshots we fought yesterday!” Orga shouted.

Athrun cursed. “Here we go again, Kira. I’ve got the Raider.” Comm intercepts had given them the codenames for the new Gundams.

“Roger that. I’ll take the Forbidden.” Kira peeled off, drawing a saber, and slashing down hard.

Shani dodged at the last instant, swearing. “Bastard,” he muttered. He fired his plasma cannon, only to see the blast splatter against the Freedom’s shield. An instant later, he was forced to block a double shot from the Freedom’s railguns.

Athrun spared them one glance. Be careful, Kira, he thought, then brought up his own shield to fend off a Mjollnir strike. “This guy’s out of control,” he muttered.

“Ha, ha, ha! You’re terminated!” Clotho fired the Zorn, missing by centimeters.

“I don’t think so.” The Justice’s Fortis beam cannons erupted; Clotho hurriedly began spinning the Mjollnir. The anti-beam coating on its chain absorbed the attack…barely.

Fighting had now become general. Kyle and Dearka were now keeping the Calamity busy, while Chris Madsen’s Inferno Gundam had come to Athrun’s aid. Hiro Nakamura focused on sneak attacks, occasionally backed up by the Scorpion.

“Special attack!” Clotho switched to mobile armor mode and struck with his claw-mounted plasma cannons.

Athrun grimaced, barely getting his shield up in time. He knew he was better, but Clotho’s sheer insanity was making him hard to predict. I have to win this, and soon. Unfortunately, Athrun was not sure how to. A beam to the cockpit would have worked, except that the Raider was an annoyingly evasive target.

“All right, Earth scum!” Chris Madsen abruptly shouted. “It’s time for you to burn!”

Clotho cried out in shock as the Inferno attacked, beam rifle and flamer blazing. The rifle was bad enough, but the flamethrower, fed by plasma, was actually hot enough to damage his Trans-phase armor. It was not doing any serious harm –yet- but that would change, given time.

“You’re the one who’s gonna burn!” he screamed. “Exterminate!” Shield cannon and Zorn fired simultaneously, followed by a Mjollnir swing.

Chris swore under his breath. He had no time to dodge, and while the shield cannon was ineffective against his PSA, the other weapons were another matter. The Zorn blast blew of the Inferno’s left arm, destroying its flamethrower in the process, while the Mjollnir knocked its head off.

He still had one trick left, though. Reverting to his mercenary training, Chris lined up his rifle by eye, his targeting systems gone with the Inferno’s head. He squeezed the trigger once, hesitated, and squeezed a second time.

The results were all he could have hoped for. His first shot blew the Raider’s left arm off, ending the Mjollnir threat, while the second took its head off.

Clotho cursed incredulously. “I’m too good for this. Realizing that he was beaten –not to mention low on power- he transformed again and fled, pausing only to retrieve the beleaguered Calamity.

“Thanks, Chris,” Athrun said. “Now get back to the Valkyrie; your machine is in no shape to continue battle.”

“I wish I could disagree,” Chris said sourly, glaring at his displays. They were not encouraging. “Unfortunately, my damage control board is lit up like a freakin’ Christmas tree.” He eased his machine into a turn. “It’s almost over, anyway.”

Athrun did a quick scan of the battle area. Chris was right; the only major engagements left were Kira’s battle with the Forbidden and Alex’s running duel with the Moonlight Mad Dog. Aside from the Gundams and a few mass-produced units like the Astray trio, their own forces were pulling back.

“Athrun,” Miriallia Haw said in his ear, “new orders. All units are to begin pulling back to Kaguya.” She sighed. “It’s time to leave.”

“Roger that.” Athrun could imagine what she was feeling. Unlike the majority of the Archangel’s crew, Mir was from Orb. I would feel the same way if we had to abandon the PLANTs. “I’ll go help Kira with the Forbidden, then pull back.” He hesitated. “And Mir…I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” She managed a smile. “You’ll help Kira, then pull back, understood. Be careful.”

Athrun started to move, then saw that Kira did not need his help. Judging by the fact that Kira’s plasma salvo was not deflected, the Forbidden was running low on power.

And Shani knew it. After firing one last shot, he turned and followed his teammates.

“You’ve lost this round, Mad Dog,” Alex said. “I suggest you retreat.”

Chevalier grimaced. The ZAFT kid was right; he was down to one gun barrel and a saber. Alex’s M1, by contrast, was barely scratched. “You’re just letting me go?”

To his surprise, pain flickered in the redcoat’s eyes. “My father was Eurasian,” he said quietly. “Maybe I’m making a mistake by letting you go, but we’re fighting a losing battle here anyway.”

The Mad Dog turned to leave. “Eurasian, you said?”

“He was born and raised in Berlin,” Alex said, his voice still soft.

“I see.” Chevalier felt an odd sense of disquiet as he left.

Alex sighed. “He’s a good man,” he murmured. “Too good for the Earth Forces.”

Cagalli’s Akatsuki appeared to his right. “Come on, Alex. Time to go.”

“Yeah.” The Duel joined him on the other side. “There’s nothing more for us to do here,” Yzak continued, sounding unusually subdued.

Alex shook himself. “You’re right.”

The Alliance will pay for this. I swear it.

Valkyrie, bridge

The bridge was more crowded than usual. In addition to the usual crew, Troy Cadwallader and Shiho Hahnenfuss were present; they would be hitching a ride back to space. Chief Representative Uzumi Nara Athha stood behind Alex’s chair; he had refused to go to his quarters until they actually left Orb waters.

There had been a slight change of plans. Morgenroete had already been destroyed; now the Archangel and the Valkyrie would focus their attacks on the mass driver, denying it to the Earth Forces. It had been determined that the mobile suits would not be needed.

“All ships report withdrawal successful,” Murrue said from her own bridge. “We’re ready.”

Uzumi sighed, but if there was sadness in his eyes, there was also a firm resolve. He had insisted that the order to attack was his responsibility. “Very well,” he said, a corner of his mind noting the way Alex and Cagalli stood, flanking him on either side. His daughter took his hand in hers. He squeezed gently, grateful for the support. “Open fire.”

A hail of missiles, beams, and antimatter erupted from the two warships, striking the mass driver at its most vulnerable point. Everything seemed to hover for an instant, and then the whole island was engulfed in a titanic explosion.

When it faded, there was barely even any wreckage.

“Bring us about,” Lia said quietly. “Destination, Carpentaria.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Alex shook his head. “You apologized to me, sir, but I am the one who should apologize. Orb is being occupied because of someone else’s war-“

Uzumi held up a hand. “No, Alex. Orb would have been attacked even if we had not joined forces with ZAFT. Your people are not responsible for this.”

“That’s very generous of you, sir.”

“It is no more than the truth.” Uzumi laid a hand on his shoulder. “Orb has always welcomed Coordinators; we would have been attacked for that reason alone, even without the mass driver. Your people have enabled us to survive that, and thanks to ZAFT we will ultimately reclaim our homeland.”

Alex nodded. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to Lia. “How many remained behind?”

She checked her board. “A few thousand, mainly those loyal to the Seirans and the Sahakus.”

“Traitors,” Cagalli spat.

Her father nodded grimly. “Rest assured, Cagalli, they will pay the price.”

Alex moved for the elevator. “All right,” he said, forcing a brisk tone. “I’ll be in the hangar; Chris’s machine needs a lot of work.”

“I’ll go with you,” Cagalli said, moving to his side.

Uzumi smiled to himself as the hatch closed. Klaus, I wish you could see them now.

“They really belong together, don’t they,” Lia said quietly.

“Yes. Yes, they do.”

Carpentaria Base, 17 June, C.E. 71

The mobile assault ships Archangel and Valkyrie sailed into the harbor amid cheers from the assembled ZAFT soldiers. Sure, they had not actually won at Orb, but they had known that going in, and the Earth Forces’ victory had been much more costly thanks to their efforts.

Alex stepped out onto the dock, blinking in the morning sunlight. He had never been to Oceania before, but he liked what he could see. Nevertheless, what he was really looking forward to being the trip to space; finally, he was going home.

“Hey, Alex!” Yzak called. “Mom’s waiting for us!”

Alex jumped a little. “Right.”

Ezalia Joule stepped forward as her nephew approached. “Alex, it’s been too long,” she said, enfolding him in a tight embrace.

Alex hugged her back, for once unable to contain himself. “I’m sorry I took so long,” he whispered.

“Don’t worry about it. You’re here, that’s what matters.” Ezalia then turned to Andrea. “And you, too, Andrea.”

The black-haired girl practically tackled her aunt. “It’s good to see you again, Aunt Ezalia.”

Ezalia looked past her, spotting Uzumi. “Lord Uzumi, thank you for taking care of her, and helping Alex.”

He clasped her hand. “I made a promise to their father long ago.” Uzumi nodded at the two youngsters who had accompanied him. “My daughter, Cagalli, and her brother Kira.”

“Ah, yes.” Ezalia gave her nephew a sly smile. “So, this is the princess I’ve heard so much about. You’re incredibly lucky, Alex.”

Alex actually blushed. “Yeah.”

Cagalli bowed. “It’s an honor, Representative Joule. Alex has told me a lot about you.”

Ezalia waved a hand. “Just Ezalia; I see no reason for formalities.” She nodded respectfully at Kira, who braced to attention instinctively. “And you as well, Lieutenant –excuse me, Lieutenant Commander Yamato. Congratulations on your promotion.”

Kira blinked. “Uh, thank you.”

Alex stirred. “Aunt Ezalia, we need to make arrangements for getting the ships to space…”

She smiled. “I know, Alex, and I understand how much you want to go home. Not to worry, it will be expedited. There really isn’t much we can do here.”


Ezalia turned back to Uzumi. “Lord Uzumi, Prime Minister Cadwallader wishes to meet with you, if that’s all right.”

“Of course.”

Troy Cadwallader appeared out of nowhere. “While he’s seeing my dad, why don’t I show you lovebirds the sights?” he said, grinning at Alex and Cagalli.

Both glared at him. “Sure, but if you use that term again, I will break your neck,” Alex growled.

The Aussie, completely unfazed, laughed. “Sure, sure. C’mon, mates.”

Alex and Cagalli exchanged an exasperated glance, then followed. General laughter from their friends trailed them, but neither really minded. They were only glad that people could laugh at all. It made facing the conflicts to come just a little bit easier.