Chapter 28: Home At Last

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters, 25 June, C.E. 71

More than a week after the fall of Orb, they were now just a day out from the Coordinator Homeland. They could have made the journey in less time, but they first had stopped at Ame-no-Mihashira to rendezvous with the refugee ships. It had taken days to get things together, but they had done it; numerous Orb vessels (minus Izumo and Susanoo, the Sahaku and Seiran family ships respectively) now slowly cruised to the PLANTs, escorted by the cream of ZAFT’s space forces.

One unpleasant but sadly unsurprising bit of news had reached them at Ame-no-Mihashira: the Orb Union was now a protectorate of the Atlantic Federation. Unato Ema Seiran had been installed as provisional governor, with Rondo Ghina Sahaku in command of the military.

Alex had no doubt Sahaku had plans of his own. Given the man’s undisguised hatred for the Seiran family, it was likely that he was merely biding his time. Sahaku was a snake, ready to strike when no one expected.

The admittance chime sounded, breaking Alex out of his reverie. “Enter.”

Uzumi Nara Athha stepped in. “I hope I am not disturbing you, Alex.”

Alex shook his head. “No, not at all. I was just mulling over what happened after we left Orb.” He waved Uzumi to a chair, then seated himself behind his desk.

“I too have been considering recent events,” Uzumi said. “Before I get to that, Lia asked me to deliver a message.” Alex cocked his head, and the politician sighed. “The Third Battle of Victoria is over. The Earth Forces have won.”

“Did they recover the mass driver intact?” Alex asked sharply.

“Unfortunately, yes. They deployed several new models, including a mass-produced version of the Raider and what appears to be a cross between the Calamity and the Sword Strike.” Uzumi looked angry. “Moreover, the lead Alliance unit was the Gold Frame AMATU.”

“Sahaku.” Alex muttered a German curse. “I bet Andrea and Nicol are kicking themselves about now, since they helped him design the thing.”

“Indeed. According to the reports we have, he destroyed several mobile suit teams all by himself.” Uzumi sighed. “To think that a member of one of the Five Noble Families could be so merciless…”

Alex stood, turning to gaze into space. “Sahaku has always had his own agenda,” he reminded the other. “You know that even better than I do. It was he who got Orb involved in the G-weapon project; this is merely a logical extension of that action.”

“I wish you were wrong. Unfortunately, you’re right.” Uzumi joined him at the window. “I have no doubt he is using the Earth Forces for his own ends, whatever they may be.”

“You can bet it’s something we won’t like,” Alex said, then faced the older man. “Sir, you obviously didn’t come here just to tell me about Victoria. If Lia did not want to use the intercom, she could have sent some low-level type.”

Uzumi chuckled softly. “Perceptive as always. Very well.” He met Alex’s gaze. “It’s about Cagalli.”

Alex blinked. “Cagalli?” He would never tell me to stay away from her, so what is he getting at?

“Yes.” Uzumi nodded at the fleet outside. “Those people just lost their homes to the Atlantic Federation. While few are hurt physically, they are almost certainly in poor spirits.”

The ZAFT Elite frowned. “What does that have to do with Cagalli and me?”

“I would like the two of you to become officially engaged.” Uzumi held up a hand to forestall a protest. “I am well aware of your opinion of arranged marriages, but this is really nothing of the sort. You were clearly headed in that direction already; I am merely requesting that you make it official.”

Alex hesitated. “I understand what you’re saying, sir…”

“Think about it: the heir of Orb and one of ZAFT’s best team commanders.” Uzumi shook his head when Alex started to disagree about his own prowess. “During our brief stay in Carpentaria, I heard some describing you as the next Rau Le Creuset.”

Alex’s eyes widened. Being compared to the masked man was a major professional compliment, his obvious insanity notwithstanding.

“It would give both ZAFT and the Orb exiles something cheerful to focus on,” Uzumi said.

Alex smiled wryly. “All right, if Cagalli agrees.”

The older man smiled. “I already discussed it with her. She was delighted, to put it mildly.”

“Figures.” As Alex gazed out, an old poem came to mind.

I swim through a sea of stars

Never looking back to shore.

Faster than light, bending time,



Archangel, cafeteria

“You guys hear about Victoria?” Tolle asked, setting his tray next to Mir’s.

Nicol winced. “Yeah. The Earth Forces managed to take the mass driver intact.”

“How in the world did they manage that!?” Sai demanded incredulously. “Wouldn’t ZAFT have destroyed it first?”

“They didn’t get a chance to,” Nicol told him. “An Alliance special ops team managed to get in and disable the self-destruct. On top of that, they had those three Gundams we faced at Orb, plus something called a Sword Calamity.”

“Sounds like a cross between the Calamity and the Sword Strike,” Dearka commented.

Nicol nodded. “That’s about what it is,” he confirmed. His expression darkened. “They also had the AMATU.”

Everyone knew why he was suddenly depressed. He, along with Andrea Strassmeier, had helped Rondo Ghina Sahaku design the Gold Frame AMATU. Now that it was being used to kill ZAFT soldiers, both were feeling more than a little guilty.

“Nicol, you shouldn’t be blaming yourself for that,” Dearka said. “Andrea was saying the same thing, and I’ll tell you what I told her: You couldn’t have known what Sahaku was up to. It’s his fault, no one else’s.”

“Dearka’s right, Nicol,” Kira said. “Don’t blame yourself.”

Nicol managed a smile. “Thanks, guys.”

The conversation turned to their plans for when they reached the PLANTs. All of them had some shore leave coming up, and they intended to make use of it. Athrun did not contribute much, but no one really blamed him, and it was clear that he was still looking forward to it.

Flay Allster appeared. “What did I miss?”

Kira smiled, pulling out a chair for her. “We were just talking about what we’ll do when we get to the PLANTs.”

She sat beside him. “I actually visited Aprilius One with my father a few years ago,” she said. “I don’t remember much, though.” She sipped from a glass of water. “I think I’ll visit the Junius Seven memorial and pay my respects.”

“I’ll take you,” Athrun said. “I should go there anyway.”

Flay looked briefly contrite. “I’m sorry, Athrun. I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

She smiled. “Anyway, I figured after that I’d sightsee for a while.” She nudged her boyfriend. “Is that all right with you, Kira?”

Kira squeezed her hand. “Sure.”

“Hey, guys!” Andrea practically flew past the table, almost hitting the viewport. “You’ll never guess what just happened!”

Dearka grabbed her hand, bringing her to a stop. “Man, you’re hyper,” he said with a laugh. “Mind letting us in on the secret?”

She seemed to radiate glee. “Alex and Cagalli just got engaged!”

Reactions to that one varied. Kira and Flay both had expressions that basically said, “It’s about time.” Tolle burst out laughing. Athrun and Nicol grinned at each other, while Sai looked faintly dumbfounded. Dearka merely shook his head in wonder.

Yzak, however, looked puzzled. “That’s not like him.”

“Why’s that?” Kira asked. “I’m amazed it took this long.”

“You’re missing the point.” Yzak’s voice had no rancor; their rivalry was long past. “Alex takes his time with something like this; the only reason his confessed to her when he did was because she disappeared, and it almost drove him insane.”

Kira nodded slowly. “I guess I can see what you’re getting at.”

“It was because Uzumi asked him to,” Andrea said. “He said that Alex and Cagalli were heading in that direction anyway,” general nods; what she said was well known, “and making it official now would give everyone something cheerful to think about.”

“That makes sense,” Athrun said. “Look at me, I’m engaged to Chairman Clyne’s daughter. Sure, we do not usually think about it in those terms, but it has an impact on the people. Same for Cagalli and Alex; the heir of Orb and one of the best team commanders ZAFT has.”

“That’s pretty much what Uzumi said,” Andrea agreed.

Yzak nodded. “Explains why Alex is going along. If speeding up something he is going to do anyway will help the PLANTs, he’ll go for it.” Then his eyes narrowed. “I know that look. You’re up to something.”

She gave him her best innocent look. “What makes you say that?”

“I know you too well.”

Andrea laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t tease him…too much.”

Yzak groaned softly. “I knew it.”

Everyone else laughed. Maybe they were retreating in the middle of a war, but there was still some light along the way.

Main Dock, ZAFT HQ, December City, 26 June, C.E. 71

It was the first time in over a year that Alex had set foot in the PLANTs, and he was struck by the changes. Last time he had been a civilian, out on his own for the first time; now he wore the red uniform of a ZAFT Elite, and he returned as a respected team commander.

Still, he could not help feeling a twinge of guilt. “I finally return to my homeland, but the one I love has to flee hers,” he murmured, unaware that he was speaking aloud.

“Alexander Heinrich Strassmeier, don’t you dare start feeling guilty just because you can go home when I can’t,” Cagalli said sharply from behind him. “It’s not your fault.” She glared at him.

Alex held up his hands. “All right, all right, I’ll be good.” He raised an eyebrow. “How do you know my full name, anyway? I know I haven’t mentioned it, and I doubt Yzak has.”

“Andrea told me.” Cagalli looked surprised that he did not know. “Didn’t she mention it?”

“No.” Alex twitched his head. “Come on. We have quite the reception.”

Reception indeed. Waiting for them in the gallery was Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne, along with Representatives Tad Elsman, Yuri Amalfi, and Eileen Canaver. Standing at Clyne’s elbow was a somewhat younger, dark-haired man.

Siegel came forward and clasped Uzumi’s hand in greeting. “Welcome. Please accept my sympathies about what happened to Orb.”

“Accepted, but unnecessary,” Uzumi replied. “We knew what we were getting into, just as you did.”

“I understand.” Siegel nodded a greeting at Ezalia Joule, then smiled as his daughter came forward. “Lacus, I’m glad to see you well.”

She hugged him quickly. “It’s good to be back.”

Siegel returned the embrace, then looked at the two captains. “Captains Ramius, a pleasure to meet you both.”

“And you, sir,” Murrue said, saluting. “It’s been a very strange journey.”

“You got that right,” her niece agreed. “I never thought I’d wind up joining ZAFT, that’s for sure.” Lia grinned at her expressionless friend. “Blame Alex for that.”

“Indeed.” Siegel looked closely at the young pilot. “It’s about time you returned to the PLANTs, Commander,” he said. “You have been away far too long.”

Alex did not even twitch. “I did what I had to do, Your Excellency,” he said quietly.

“Of course, you did,” Siegel agreed. “I wasn’t implying that you had deserted your homeland, Commander; I’m well aware that it was because of Patrick that you left.”

“I appreciate that, sir,” Alex said.

“Though you fought against ZAFT initially,” the chairman went on, “it is clear that you were working for the good of your homeland throughout, and your performance since enlisting has been superb. In light of that, it has been decided that you will be granted the white uniform of an elite commander.”

“Think of it as a sort of engagement gift,” Ezalia put in.

That got a reaction; Alex’s cold blue eyes widened for an instant, and he inhaled sharply. It was gone quickly enough, aside from an annoyed look at Ezalia; he then braced to attention and saluted. “Thank you, Your Excellency.”

“No thanks are needed,” Siegel assured him. “You have more than earned it.”

“Indeed, he has,” the stranger said, speaking for the first time. “He is much like Commander Le Creuset, without the evident instability.”

Alex frowned. Who is this guy?

Siegel noticed his puzzlement. “This is Gilbert Durandal, one of our top geneticists. He’s been working on the birthrate problem.”

Alex shook Durandal’s hand. He kept his expression polite, but alarm bells were going off in his mind. Coast told me about this guy. Boy genius, involved in the Ultimate Coordinator project, which means he knows about Kira and Cagalli. Always seemed to have his own agenda.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. It was not quite a lie. “The Valkyrie’s doctor has been working on a way to give Naturals Coordinator abilities, so he has experience at seemingly hopeless tasks.”

Durandal smiled. “Perhaps we can help deal with each other’s problems.”

“Perhaps.” But I will have to warn Vincent not to completely trust you.

Siegel waved them forward. “The Council will be meeting to discuss the recent events on Earth this afternoon. Lord Uzumi, I presume you will wish to attend?”

Uzumi nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

Alex trailed behind them, reading a note Ezalia had slipped him. He was to change into his new uniform and report to the Council that afternoon on the new Gundams they had faced at Orb. He would then go on leave until further notice. They figured I need a rest. They are probably right.

“Hey, Alex,” Cagalli said. “Where to now?”

He walked with her to a nearby shuttle. “I’m supposed to report to the Council this afternoon,” he said. “I’ll be on leave after that, presumably until the next major operation commences.” He handed her a keycard. “This will grant you access to my home in Martius Four. I’ll meet you there.”

“Right.” Cagalli nodded. “I’ll be going with Kira and Flay to the Junius Seven memorial.”

“Okay.” Alex sat back in the padded seat, taking Cagalli’s hand in his.

Patrick Zala’s office, Neo ZAFT HQ

“So,” the former chairman of the Supreme Council said. “Orb as fallen, and the accursed Naturals have retaken Victoria.”

Rau Le Creuset nodded. “ZAFT took heavy losses at Victoria; the Earth Forces deployed their new G-weapons there, along with some knew machines based on them.”

Zala grunted. “Clyne is a good speaker, but he was always out of his depth when it came to the military.”

“In fairness to Chairman Clyne,” Daniel Bartlett put in, “this wasn’t his fault. ZAFT hasn’t been able to get the GuAIZ into more than limited production as yet; the units available were hopelessly outclassed.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Zala conceded. “Nevertheless, it is still a major blow. Particularly with Orb now a protectorate of the Atlantic Federation, and little though I agree with Strassmeier on anything else, he’s exactly right about the implications of Unato Ema Seiran being named governor.”

Bartlett snorted. “No kidding. I know Seiran’s reputation; he’s in this for his own aggrandizement, period.” He paused. “Speaking of whom, how long until the Deathdealer is complete?”

Rau’s reaction was hidden by his mask, but Zala chuckled. “Don’t worry, Commander. Your new machine will be ready in time to challenge him.”

“Good.” Bartlett’s gray eyes flashed in the dimness. “This time, I’m bringing him down.”

Le Creuset turned away. Dream all you want, Bartlett. It will not matter; Strassmeier is far better than you will ever be. And you, Your Excellency, I wonder just how far you will go before the forces you have unwittingly unleashed destroy you. It should be remarkably interesting to watch.

Unbeknownst to anyone in the Neo ZAFT ranks, Le Creuset knew exactly what was going on. Zala’s desire to wipe out the Naturals was only the beginning. Personally, Le Creuset doubted it could be achieved as yet, even with the new weapon they were building. They had too many powerful enemies; Strassmeier, Kira Yamato, Mu La Flaga, Athrun Zala, and many others were likely to put a crimp in their plans.

So be it. Ultimately, none of them will escape their fate.

He was looking forward to watching events unfold.

Junius Seven Memorial

Flay knelt and placed a bouquet of flowers on a marker. Though she had never had the chance to meet Lenore Zala, Athrun had told her much about his late mother during the journey from Orb. Flay wanted to honor the woman who had raised Kira’s friend.

“Thank you, Flay,” Athrun said softly. “Mom would have been happy to meet someone like you.”

Flay smiled. “I’m glad you think so.”

“Athrun’s right,” Lacus said. “His mother was always sweet and kind. Kira, you met her, didn’t you?”

Kira nodded, staring at row upon row of markers. The sheer immensity of the Bloody Valentine was overwhelming. “She visited Copernicus a couple of times.”

More than two hundred thousand people, their lives snuffed out in an instant of nuclear fire. The fact that Junius Seven was a farming colony made it worse; at least the PLANTs of Maius and December Cities had legitimate targets, mobile suit factories and ZAFT Headquarters, respectively.

Kira was not given to fits of rage, but he had seen the remains of Junius Seven firsthand. He had stumbled across the bodies of women and children in the ruins. He had seen the expressions of horror, frozen on their faces for eternity.

Dying once is not nearly enough to pay for this atrocity.

“This is why the Earth Forces have to be stopped,” Cagalli said, echoing her brother’s thoughts. “So that no one else has to die because of their genes.”

“That’s what we’re fighting for,” Kira said. “We’re fighting so that everyone can live in peace, no matter what their genes look like.”

“The problem is, my father doesn’t want that any more than the Earth Forces do,” Athrun said with a sigh. “He wants to exterminate the Naturals, just as the Earth Forces want to exterminate the Coordinators.”

Flay looked at him in concern. “Does he really think Coordinators are a new species?”

Athrun nodded. “He’s argued with Chairman Clyne about that for years. He…he insists that we’ve evolved, that we don’t need the Naturals anymore.” He shook his head. “He’s wrong, of course; we still haven’t solved the birthrate problem.”

“Doctor Lockwood and Mister Durandal are working on that,” Lacus said. “In the meantime, the marriage laws here have been changed.”

“I bet Alex is happy about that,” Flay said. “He told me once that he loves his homeland but hates the marriage laws.”

Kira wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It wouldn’t matter for us, since we’re Orb citizens.” Flay blushed.

“So, what are your plans, Cagalli?” Athrun asked. “Kira and Flay are staying at my place.”

Cagalli looked at the ring on her finger. She was not quite used to it yet. “I’ll be staying at Alex’s home,” she said softly. “He hasn’t said, but I think he’s afraid of being alone there. With his parents gone…”

“Yeah. He wants something to fill the void.” Kira nudged her. “You’ll be spending a lot of time there, anyway, won’t you?”

She blushed. “Well, yeah, of course I will be,” she said. “Whenever I’m in the PLANTs.” Cagalli gave her brother a mock-angry look. “You don’t have to talk about it like it’s some kind of shady deal.”

“Who, me?” Kira gave her an innocent look. “Why would I do that?”

“Because you thought it would get a rise out of me,” Cagalli shot back, trying in vain not to grin. “Kira, I love you, but sometimes you’re just crazy.”

Athrun laughed. “Pot, kettle, black? Face it, Cagalli, you’re crazier than Kira’s ever been.”

“Oh, shut up.” Cagalli glanced at her watch. “I’d better get going. Alex’s place is in Martius Four, so I have to move if I want to get there by the time he finishes with the Council.”

Flay waved. “See you later.”

Athrun looked back down at the marker bearing his mother’s name, a rush of confused emotions flooding him. Mother, I will stop Father. I promise.

Supreme Council Chamber, Aprilius One

Alex sat on the same bench Rau Le Creuset and Athrun Zala had occupied when they met with the Council after the Heliopolis attack. It was an eerie feeling; he was not exactly awed by the Council, given that he was related to one of its members, but he now wore the white uniform of an elite ZAFT commander, and was present to report on the Earth Forces’ latest weapons.

“Commander Alex Strassmeier will now present a report on the new G-weapons that were deployed at Orb,” Chairman Clyne said, as if he had read Alex’s mind. “Commander?”

Alex stood, surreptitiously drawing a deep breath. “The machines deployed during the Earth Forces attack on Orb were of a new generation of mobile suit. Prisoner interrogation has allowed us to determine some of the basic capabilities of these new units, though some aspects remain a mystery.”

He called up a schematic. “All three machines are equipped with Trans-phase armor. More efficient than standard PSA, it only activates on impact, thus saving power; as a result, the machine does not change color when the system is activated. However, multiple impacts from multiple directions can overwhelm the system, so it is in some respects weaker than standard Phase-shift.”

“So, you don’t suggest we attempt to copy this system,” Yuri Amalfi observed.

Alex shook his head. “It may save power, but not enough to matter.” He then called up an image of the Calamity. “GAT-X131, the Calamity. Judging by its specs, we believe this unit to be the successor to the X103 Buster, and it is superior in some ways. It is equipped with the same 580mm multiphase energy cannon as the Aegis, as well as a 125mm dual high-energy long-range beam cannon, a 115mm dual ram cannon, and a 337mm plasma-sabot bazooka. We have reports of a similar unit intended for close combat, which was deployed when the Earth Forces recaptured Victoria.”

Next was the Forbidden. “GAT-X252, the Forbidden. Like the Blitz, this unit is apparently intended for special operations. However, instead of turning invisible, this machine mounts a feature called the Geschmeidig Panzer system. This feature uses colloid gas, held in place by magnetic fields, to deflect beam attacks; my friend Kira found that out the hard way at Orb. It is the only one of the new units to include the head mounted Igelstellungs. In addition to that, the Forbidden is equipped with two 115mm machine guns, a single plasma cannon, two 88mm railguns, and a heavy scythe for close combat. There are also at least two variants designed for underwater combat.”

He changed the image again. “GAT-X370, the Raider. A transformable unit like the Aegis, this one’s mobile armor form doubles as a flying platform for the Calamity, the only one of the new machines incapable of atmospheric flight. In this form, it mounts a single 80mm machine gun, two 76mm machine guns, and two short-range plasma cannons in its claws. In mobile suit mode, it has a dual 52mm hyper-velocity shield cannon, a single 100mm energy cannon in the head, and a superdense spherical breaker capable of damaging PSA.” Alex closed the screen. “If you have any further questions, I will do my best to answer.”

Tad Elsman spoke up. “Commander, how much of a threat are these new units, in your judgment?”

“Hard to say, sir,” Alex said. “They are powerful, to be sure, but in the words of the Red Baron, it’s not the crate, it’s the man who flies it.”

“What do we know of the pilots, then?” Eileen Canaver asked.

Alex took a sip of water, stalling to gather his thoughts. “Not much,” he admitted. “It is clear that they are highly skilled, but their level of discipline seems questionable. I personally witnessed them fire on each other; in particular, the pilot of the Calamity seemed quite fond of attacking his teammates.”

“They actually fired on each other!?” Clyne said incredulously.

“They did,” Alex confirmed. “Or rather, the Calamity fired on the others; the Forbidden merely deflected a couple of shots past the Raider, whose pilot appeared content to shout at his teammates. The few prisoners we took knew little about them, but they were described as thugs.”

Ezalia Joule shook her head in disgust. “So, this is what the Alliance has been reduced to.” She looked at her nephew. “What do we know about these pilots?”

“Only their names: Orga Sabnak, Shani Andras, and Clotho Buer.” Alex shrugged. “I checked with Intelligence when we arrived at Carpentaria. It turns out that not even the Earth Forces have much data on them. They’ve been designated as ‘Biological CPUs’ –in other words, equipment rather than pilots- and from what we can tell, their personnel records have been erased.”

Siegel Clyne sighed. “It would seem Blue Cosmos is influencing things more openly.” He rose. “Thank you for your report, Commander. Now, I suggest you get some rest.”

Alex saluted. “Your Excellency.” He bowed respectfully and departed.

Strassmeier residence, Martius Four

As soon as she arrived at Alex’s home, Cagalli decided that Yzak had been understating its size. The house was a full three stories, and the grounds were quite extensive. Not to mention the fact that the property was right on the edge of the biggest artificial lake in Martius Four.

Lovely place, Cagalli thought, sliding the keycard through a slot beside the gate. Though far from spoiled, she appreciated a comfortable home. I could get to like this.

She walked down a path lined with hedges; Alex had described his father as something of a nature lover. The place was clearly well-preserved, as Ezalia had intended. Probably by some kind of housekeeping robot, since very few people could even get inside.

Cagalli had just reached the porch when she heard footsteps. Knowing who it had to be, she stopped to let him catch up. “How’d it go?”

“I managed to nauseate most of the Council,” Alex said wryly. “C’mon, let’s go inside.”

Like the grounds, the interior of the house had been kept meticulously clean. Though no one had lived there since Klaus and Elena Strassmeier had died, it was impossible to tell just by looking. Nothing was dusty; it was easy to imagine that the owners had merely stepped outside.

If only that were true, Alex thought.

“Hard to believe we’re in space,” Cagalli said.

He shook himself. “Yeah. It is so clean because the house and grounds have an extensive AI system. A whole lot of remotes of distinct types keep everything tidy when no one’s home. Aunt Ezalia made sure the complete system was kept in working order.”

“Makes sense.”

Alex took her hand. “This way.”

He showed her the living room first. It was large, in keeping with the house’s general design. Two of the walls were dominated by paintings, one of a starscape, the other an ocean view. Each painting had a couch beneath it, and there were a couple of armchairs on either side of the window.

“Cozy,” Cagalli remarked. “And a pleasant view, too.”

“Mom and Dad wanted outside realities –like the escalating tension between the PLANTs and the sponsor nations- to intrude as little as possible,” Alex said. “They never attempted to exclude current events from conversation, but they at least wanted a comfortable atmosphere.”

“I’d say they succeeded.”

Alex then led her through the rest of the ground floor. Cagalli, ever the tomboy (a trait Alex found very attractive), was fascinated by a workshop Andrea had set up near the garage. They did not spend much time on the second floor, as there was little of interest.

The only thing they bothered with on the top floor was Alex’s own room; they avoided Andrea’s out of respect for her privacy.

Cagalli looked around. “Looks like a cross between a library and a munitions dump.”

The description was apt. One wall was lined with books, a mixture of history and military strategy. The others had an assortment of weapons; an old AK-47 assault rifle, a black-sheathed katana over Alex’s bed, assorted handguns, and a couple of more modern assault rifles. A neat desk sat in front of the window.

“You’re not the first to say that” Alex said dryly. He picked up a small model off the desk. “This is a model of the plane Heinrich Strassmeier flew during the Battle of Britain, a Messerschmitt Bf-109E-1. The 109 was probably the most-produced fighter of all time; something like thirty-five thousand were built.”

Cagalli whistled at that.

“And this,” Alex picked up another model, “is Sergeant Michael Rork’s plane, a Supermarine Spitfire Mark V.” He set both models back down, then sat on his bed. “So, what do you think?”

“I think this is a wonderful place to live,” Cagalli said, sitting down beside him.

He wrapped an arm around her. “Glad you like it. I was half afraid you’d insist on someplace else.”

She reached up and traced the scar on his face. “Alex, you know I’d never do that. This place is important to you.”

He smiled. “Thanks.”

They returned to the ground floor. Alex fixed a small lunch, kebabs for Cagalli and fish for himself.

“Where’d you get this stuff, anyway?” Cagalli asked between bites.

“There’s a cryostorage unit in the kitchen,” Alex said. “I think it’s a legal requirement here in the PLANTs.” He indicated her dish. “Dad had kebabs on occasion, so he made sure to have a supply in stasis.”

Cagalli chewed appreciatively. “This is really good. I didn’t know you cooked.”

“It’s a hobby,” Alex said with a shrug. “Not all my interests involve all-out mayhem.” He glanced out the window. “Though it would seem fortunate that I have long been interested in the military.”

She swallowed a kebab. “You think the war is going to move back into space?”

“Most likely.” Alex sipped some milk, gathering his thoughts. “My report caused something of a stir in the Council. I think that even Chairman Clyne now sees no choice but to escalate the conflict. With Blue Cosmos effectively controlling the Alliance –not to mention the loss of Orb and Victoria- it’s really our only option.”

Cagalli closed her eyes for a moment. “That must be hard.”

“It is,” Alex agreed. “Siegel Clyne is fundamentally a man of peace, but he recognizes that this is no longer solely a matter of independence for the PLANTs. We’re fighting for the very survival of all Coordinators everywhere.” He stood, moving to the living room. “And to make sure what happened to my parents never happens again,” he added softly.

Cagalli followed him, concerned. “Alex?”

Her fiancé sat heavily on a couch. “I…it’s been three years, but I can’t get past it. I thought I had but coming here brought it all back.” He looked away, trying to hide the tears that welled up. When that failed, he angrily dashed them away, muttering something about how a ZAFT commander should not act like that.

“Alex, that’s stupid,” Cagalli said sharply. “Anyone who wouldn’t cry over his parents’ deaths isn’t human,” she went on more gently. “Yeah, you shouldn’t do it in front of your people, but we’re alone here,” she whispered, embracing him. “Trust me.”

Alex finally let go, three years of pain coming out in a rush. Cagalli just held him.

Soon enough, they were both asleep.

Several hours later, Andrea Strassmeier and Dearka Elsman walked in. They stopped dead at the sight that greeted them; Alex and Cagalli together on a couch, both in civilian clothes, both sound asleep. Andrea cautiously approached, but neither so much as twitched.

“They look beat,” Dearka said softly.

“Alex has been through a lot,” Andrea said. “Looks like it finally caught up with him.”

Dearka frowned at her. “Didn’t you have it worse? I mean, you were involved in the Combat Coordinator program.”

Andrea shook her head. “In some ways, yes. Alex, though, he has had to do so much on his own. Building up what amounted to a guerrilla force, hiding from Zala, ultimately having to fight ZAFT, all the while mourning our parents and wondering where I was.” She touched her brother’s face, not waking him. “He acts tough, but he’s no superman.”

Dearka just watched her. You have been through a lot, too, Andrea. He vowed that he would never allow something like that to happen again.

Andrea straightened. “Let us leave them be. They really need the rest. Besides,” she added with a giggle, “they look cute.”

The Buster’s pilot chuckled softly. “Yeah, I guess so.”

They left, Andrea pausing to turn out the lights.

Orbital drydock, December City, 27 June, C.E. 71

Natarle Badgiruel gazed out at the electric-blue warship hanging motionless in space. The mobile assault ship Thunderbird was a joint project between Orb’s Morgenroete Inc. and Maius Military Industries. Based on data from the Archangel and the Valkyrie, it was actually more heavily armed. Most noticeably, the Gottfried beam cannons the other two ships mounted were replaced by a pair of triple-barreled Fafnir cannons.

And it was hers to command.

“I’m sorry to see you go, Natarle,” Murrue said. “Still, I have to say you deserve this command.” She followed the former XO’s gaze. “I understand it carries more mobile suits than virtually any other ship.”

Natarle nodded. “Ten, to be exact. We’re getting Troy Cadwallader and his Dreadnought, Shiho Hahnenfuss with her CGUE DEEP Arms, and eight of the new Astray Strikes.”

The MBF-M1S Astray Strike was another joint project between Morgenroete and MMI. Intended as an answer to the Earth Forces’ 105 Dagger, it was essentially an M1 Astray with Striker pack capability. Though it lacked the Phase-shift of the Strike Gundam, it was still a powerful unit.

“I’m sorry to see you go,” Murrue repeated, reaching out to touch the patch on her friend’s shoulder. It depicted a blue eagle grasping a lightning bolt in its talons. “Randy should do well, though.”

“I’m sure he will,” Natarle agreed. Randall Tucker, a blonde, gray-eyed native of December City, was known for being exceptionally good at his job.

Murrue saluted. “Good luck, Natarle,” she said.

“And you, Murrue,” Natarle said, then clasped her former CO’s hand. “Take care.”

When her old captain had departed, Natarle strode to a docking port connected to one of the Thunderbird’s main hatches. My first command. Dutiful though she was, Natarle Badgiruel was not immune to ambition, and being tapped to command something like the Thunderbird was a major feather in her cap.

Once onboard, she returned the crew’s salutes absently, not really paying much attention. She did, however, note the odd mix of uniforms; some of the crew wore Orb uniform, while others were in ZAFT green.

Five of the Archangel’s crew are ZAFT, Natarle thought. And with Alex engaged to Cagalli Yula Athha, Orb and the PLANTs are effectively bound together.

“Captain on the bridge!” her XO barked as she arrived.

“As you were,” Natarle said; after serving under Murrue Ramius, she had learned the value of a certain amount of informality.

Commander Daryl Morris smiled. “Welcome aboard, Captain.”

“Thank you, Commander.” Natarle returned the smile.

Morris consulted a memo board. “Two more days until we’re fully operational. Thunderbird is going to be assigned to the First Combined Fleet, along with both the Archangel and the Strassmeier team.” He handed her the board. “Here’s the tentative ship list.”

Natarle scanned it. A new warship named the Eternal, commanded by Andrew Waltfeld; the Strassmeier team was being augmented with two additional ships, the Inexorable, a sister-ship of the Eternal, and Rau Le Creuset’s former flagship, the Nazca-class Vesalius.

“I never thought I’d find myself fighting alongside that ship,” she remarked.

“Captain Ades couldn’t stomach Neo ZAFT’s agenda,” Morris said. “With Commander Strassmeier already being called the next Rau Le Creuset, it seemed an appropriate assignment.” He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve spent a lot of time with him, Captain. Is he really as good as they say?”

Natarle nodded firmly. “Alex isn’t as good a pilot as Kira, but he is definitely one of the best, and he has a cool, calculating mind.”

“What about his rivalry with Commander Bartlett?”

The black-haired captain snorted. “It’s entirely one-sided. Trust me, Commander, Alex considers rivalries in general to be beneath his dignity.” She settled back in her command chair. “In the meantime, we have a ship to run. Carry on.”

Thunderbird’s command crew went about their duties with the precision of a well-oiled machine. There were some rough edges, given their inexperience, but far fewer than Natarle would have expected. Everyone knew their duties to the letter and carried them out with only slight hesitation.

If this crew is already performing so well before we even leave drydock, Natarle thought, then we should be more than ready for anything the Earth Forces throw at us.

Strassmeier residence

The first thing Alex noticed when he woke up was the fact that he was not alone. A mass of blonde hair was visible just below eye level, and he could hear soft, regular breathing. His initial impulse was to pull away, but he quickly relaxed. There is nothing improper about this; we are engaged, after all.

Still, they could not stay like that all day. “Cagalli, wake up,” he whispered, nudging her gently.

She blinked groggily, looking up at him. “Alex? What time is it?”

Alex glanced at a wall clock. “0900,” he said, reflexively using military time, “which means we probably slept longer than we should have.” He stood, rubbing his aching neck. Note to self, sleep in a bed next time.

Cagalli vanished into the kitchen, reappearing a moment later with some biscuits. “What’s the plan for today?”

Alex took one, wondering how she had learned to find her way around the kitchen so quickly. “I’ll be heading to December City; Aunt Ezalia said something about getting me a new mobile suit.” He turned at the sound of a knock on the door. “Speaking of whom.”

Ezalia was not alone. With her was a little girl, no more than five years old. Approximately sixty centimeters tall, with long silver-white hair, she looked more than a little nervous.

“Cassandra!” Alex knelt and gave the girl a hug. “I’m surprised you remember me.” He smiled at the sign he got in return.

“Uh, Alex?” Cagalli did not understand sign language.

“Oh, sorry. She said, ‘Of course I remember you.’ She’s always been precocious, even for a Coordinator.” Alex smiled. “Cassandra, this is Cagalli Yula Athha. My fiancée.”

Cassandra, visibly calmed, signed again. ” ‘Nice to meet you,’ ” Alex translated. “She’s very nervous around strangers, but since you’re my fiancée, she figures she can trust you.”

Cagalli nodded, smiling at the girl. “Nice to meet you too, Cassandra.”

“She can’t actually hear or see us,” Alex said. “To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how she perceives the world around her, though I suspect she may be psychic in some way or other.”

“Cassandra is the product of some kind of bio-weapon project,” Ezalia explained. “We’re a little uncertain about the details, and quite frankly, I don’t want to know.”

Cagalli grimaced. “Can’t blame you.”

“She thinks Yzak’s word is law,” Alex said. “She’ll do pretty much anything he says.” He looked at Ezalia. “I understand you have a new mobile suit for me.”

She nodded. “I think you’ll find it a fitting replacement for the Stormbird.”

“Okay.” Alex glanced at the clock. “Give me a few minutes to get cleaned up, and we can be off.”

Top security hangar, December Nine

“This machine was already in development by Operation Spit Break,” Ezalia said, leading Alex and Cagalli onto a catwalk. “Fortunately, the people here were loyal to Clyne, so Neo ZAFT was unable to steal it.” She snapped the lights on. “Here it is.”

Alex gaped. Though it was dull gray, the mobile suit bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Akatsuki. The weapons loadout was somewhat different –it had a Lupus beam rifle and two Lacerta sabers, as opposed to the Akatsuki’s double saber- but the backpack unit appeared identical.

“This is the ZGMF-X14A Anubis,” Ezalia said. “As you can see, it’s based largely on the Akatsuki, though without the reflective coating.”

Alex pointed at the backpack unit. “Is that a DRAGOON system?”

Ezalia nodded. “It actually has one more unit than the Akatsuki, but it isn’t visible from the front. It also has the same energy shield technology.”

Alex whistled softly. This thing makes the Stormbird look like a ZuOOT. “Is it fully operational?”

Ezalia smiled. “We were just waiting to turn it over, Alex. Care to give it a test run?”

He was practically rubbing his hands. “Just as soon as I get suited up.”

They moved to a special test area adjoining the hangar. It was larger than the equivalent facility in Morgenroete –more room in space- but not much different otherwise. The main advantage was the ability to test space model mobile suits.

Alex caressed the control bars. This is more like it. The raw power of the Anubis Gundam dwarfed anything he had flown before. He pressed a button on his console, and the Anubis changed from dull gray to silver with black trim as its PSA activated.

“Ready, Alex?”

He looked up. Hovering at the other end of the huge room was the ORB-01 Akatsuki. Several other Gundam pilots had come to watch; Alex could see the Strike, Duel, Buster, Specter, Freedom, and Justice staying well out of the way. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

“Then here I come!”

Alex drew his sabers and snapped them together, blocking Cagalli’s saber attack at the last instant. He pushed back, following up with a low-power laser blast. Knowing all about the reflective coating, he aimed for the optics, temporarily blinding her.

“Good one.” Cagalli twirled her saber a couple of times, then lunged forward. Alex split his weapons and crossed the blades in an X, binding the Akatsuki’s saber. The two machines strained, fighting to break the impasse.

Alex abruptly released the Akatsuki and drew back. He then deployed his DRAGOON system, unleashing a torrent of green energy. Cagalli followed suit with the Akatsuki’s mobile turret system, and the room seemed to explode with green light.

“I think this is a draw,” Ezalia Joule said. She looked at a woman in Morgenroete uniform. “What do you think?”

“It’s easy to tell that the Anubis is based on the Akatsuki,” Erica Simmons said. “The only area where Cagalli’s machine is superior is the reflective coating.”

Outside, the various mobile suits powered down. “The Anubis was designed with Alex in mind,” Ezalia said. “His powers of spatial awareness rival Commander La Flaga’s, hence the DRAGOON system.”

“The color scheme is certainly appropriate, given his relationship with the princess,” Erica murmured. “His silver to her gold.”

Ezalia laughed softly. “Yes, it is at that.”

And it is a good thing they are both highly skilled, she thought. This war is going to heat up again before long.

Seiran residence, Orb Union, 29 June, C.E. 71

Yuna Roma Seiran stormed into his father’s office. “Father, are the reports from the PLANTs accurate?” he asked without preamble.

His father, Unato Ema Seiran, grimaced. “I’m afraid so. Cagalli Yula Athha is now officially engaged to that ZAFT upstart, and that fool Uzumi is openly supporting it.”

Yuna swore. “The Chief Representative’s daughter marrying a Coordinator, one related to a Supreme Council member, no less!”

“I agree that it’s absurd, but it’s happening.” Unato smiled humorlessly. “Look at it this way, Yuna; having you marry the girl is no longer necessary. Thanks to the Earth Forces, our hold on Orb is secure.”

“Secure?” Yuna snorted. “How can it be secure with that lunatic Sahaku running around?”

“Let Rondo Ghina and his idiot sister play their little games,” Unato said with contempt. “They have their uses, but the time will come to dispose of them.” Both men hoped it would be soon. “In any case, things may be coming to a head soon.”

Yuna looked suddenly interested. “How?”

“The Earth Forces will be sending a fleet to Artemis,” his father told him. “None of our people will be involved, but it will give the Alliance a substantial presence in space.”

“Enough to wipe out the PLANTs?”

Unato shook his head. “Not yet. We’ll need to increase our own space forces for that, unless of course something breaks.” He waved a hand. “But that is for the future. For now, I want you to take command of the Home Fleet. Keep Carpentaria Base honest.”

Yuna nodded. “Of course, Father.”