Chapter 3: Enemy Unseen

Artemis Base, 27 January, C.E. 71

As the Archangel sailed into the Artemis harbor, Murrue Ramius breathed a sigh of relief. Now that they were within the Umbrella shield, there was no way the ZAFT forces could get at them. The barrier protecting Artemis was impervious to any known weapon, including the mighty positron cannons mounted by both Archangel and Valkyrie.

There was something strange, though, now that she thought about it. Admiral Garcia had insisted on sending an inspection team, to ascertain their identity, but the men surrounding the ship… Are those people armed? Murrue frowned, seeing the telltale glint of light reflected off rifle barrels.

Mu La Flaga, meanwhile, had taken Kira aside. “I forgot to mention this. Put a lock on the Strike’s OS. Make sure nobody can use it but you.”

Kira blinked. “Yes, sir, but…what’s going on?”

“Just a precaution. I don’t trust the Eurasians.” That was hardly a surprise. It was no secret that Eurasia and the Atlantic Federation were allies of convenience only and hated each other almost as much as they hated ZAFT.

Back on the bridge, Murrue’s frown deepened as the inspection party’s senior officer, Lieutenant Commander Biddaulph, joined her. “Commander, what is going on? Why are you bringing armed men aboard my ship?”

He gave her a cold look. “You would be well advised to remain silent, Captain.”

Valkyrie, just outside Artemis

“So that’s the extent of it,” Lia Ramius said. She, Kyle, and Cagalli had joined Alex in his cabin to discuss the recent battle. “We can finish the repairs in less than a day; more quantity than quality of damage.”

“Um,” Alex grunted. “Good thing we have a small crew, though; one of those leaks contaminated half our water supply.”

Lia looked unhappy. “I’m afraid you’re right. There’s not much we can do about it without docking at Artemis, and, like you, I don’t trust the Eurasians.”

“Who in their right mind would?” Kyle snorted. The December City native rolled his eyes. “Especially with a jackass like Garcia in charge; I hear the guy’s a political admiral.”

“In other words, he owes his rank to his connections within the Eurasian government,” Alex said, disgusted. “What I don’t understand is why they wasted a light wave barrier on a backwater like Artemis. There’s nothing here that either side cares about.”

No one had an answer to that.

“Well,” Lia said, rising, “I’d best get moving; even on a ship like this, the paperwork piles up. Kyle?”

Kyle moved for the hatch. “I’m going to check on the Devastator.” He glanced at the princess. “You are coming?”

She shook her head. “Not just yet; if that’s okay with you, Alex,” she added hastily.

“Fine with me,” he replied absently, poring over yet another file.

When the other two had gone, Cagalli studied her companion. Now that she had realized there was a real person in there, she wanted to know him. Despite his openness with her, Alex still had an aura of mystery about him, as if there was more than met the eye.

Of course, there is, she told herself. Sure, he obviously considers you a friend, but do you really expect him to tell you everything after just two days?

For his part, Alex had noticed her scrutiny, though he showed no sign of it. It did not exactly bother him, though he was not sure why. Not that he was thinking about it right then; he had too much else on his mind. The information he was studying…and the events of the past two days.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Cagalli asked gently, breaking into his thoughts.

He looked up. “Talk about what? The battle, or this?” He waved at the computer screen.

“I was thinking about the battle,” she said, “but I’m curious about what you’re up to.”

Alex stretched. “As it happens, the two topics are related.” He turned the screen so she could see it; the schematics for the Duel were displayed. “As you know, Le Creuset attacked to capture the five G-weapons. If Kira had not fallen into one, he would have succeeded. As it stands, he has four, even if one of them is on its way to the PLANTs as we speak.” He raised an eyebrow. “You heard the conversation Kira and I had with Athrun Zala at Heliopolis, correct?”

Cagalli nodded, seeing where he was headed. “Yeah. You said there was no possibility that the Orb government was involved.” She frowned. “But how is that possible? Morgenroete was building those things, and they had to have authorization from the government.”

“From a couple of Cabinet members, not the government as a whole,” Alex corrected. “There’s no way your father was involved in this; he’s not that stupid.” He smiled at her look of surprise. “I’ve made a practice of keeping an eye on the political scene on Earth; maybe it comes from being related to a politician. Anyway, Orb is one of the few nations that has a sane policy regarding relations between Coordinators and Naturals. I believe that Coordinators can openly live within Orb territory so long as they remain loyal, law-abiding citizens, correct?”

Cagalli nodded. “Yeah.”

“That policy appeals to me for obvious reasons, and your father is one of the few politicians I genuinely admire. Oh,” Alex waved a hand, “he’s delusional if he thinks Orb can stay out of the war.” His expression darkened. “One of two things is going to happen. The first is that Patrick Zala, following his election to replace Siegel Clyne as chairman of the Supreme Council -that part is going to happen; do not think otherwise- will order an attack on Orb as part of his campaign to exterminate all Naturals. The other, and I feel this is far more likely, is that the Alliance will demand that Orb renounce its neutrality.” He grimaced. “Either way, there is a disaster in the offing.”

The princess winced. She knew all too well what both sides were capable of. “So, do you know who was behind the G-weapon project?”

“If you find G-weapon awkward, you can use the term Kira coined for it: Gundam.” Alex snorted. “General Unilateral Neuro-link Dispersive Autonomic Maneuver Synthesis System, whatever that means. To answer your question, I have one definite, and one possible.” He grimaced. “The Sahakus are involved for sure; Rondo Ghina Sahaku’s presence at Heliopolis was confirmed.”

It was Cagalli’s turn to grimace; she knew Rondo Ghina Sahaku, of course, and she did not like him, mainly because of his ego. “And the possible?”

“The Seirans,” Alex said simply. “I know that they’ve been advocating a closer relationship with the Atlantic Federation for years. That is the biggest reason among many that I dislike them.”

This time she shuddered; if there was one person on Earth that she despised, it was the heir to the Seiran family. “I remember you ran into Yuuna Roma at that party.” Alex nodded. “What did you think of him?”

“Yuuna Roma Seiran is a big-mouthed, small-minded fool,” the Coordinator said, his voice dripping contempt. “He’s also a pathological liar.”

Cagalli nodded agreement. That is another point in Alex’s favor, she thought. Anybody who hates Yuuna Roma cannot be all bad.

She decided it was time to steer the conversation in another direction; talking or even thinking about the Seirans was guaranteed to raise her blood pressure. It clearly had the same effect on her new friend; given that he was fighting his own cousin mere hours ago, she did not want to add to his pain. He does not deserve this. He and Kira, they both must fight people dear to them, just so they can do what they believe is right.

Cagalli rose and moved to study the family portrait hanging over Alex’s bunk. She recognized his parents and sister from her own memories of that long-ago party, and Ezalia Joule from news broadcasts out of the PLANTs. And the white-haired youth next to Alex was clearly the same person who captured X102 Duel at Heliopolis. “That’s your cousin?”

Alex nodded. “Yep, that’s Yzak. The picture was taken about a month before the Mandelbrot Incident. It was the last time we were all together.”

“What’s he like?”

The other shrugged. “Hotheaded and impulsive. Occasionally reckless. Arrogant, but with the abilities to back up that arrogance.” Another shrug. “Aside from the arrogance, he’s a lot like you, actually.” He smiled at the mock-angry look she gave him. “You have a temper best described as volcanic, your decision to come to Heliopolis was certainly impulsive, and the way you charged into that factory was clearly reckless.” The smile turned almost gentle. “You have one more trait in common: you’re both fiercely protective of the things and people important to you.”

Cagalli found herself chuckling. He has a point. “I guess you’re right.” She looked out the viewport, where Artemis hung seemingly motionless. “I hope Kira and the others are okay.”

Alex sobered. “So do I.”

Artemis Base, Admiral Garcia’s office

“I apologize for the unpleasantness,” Rear Admiral Gerard Garcia said. “Your identity has been confirmed, so there is nothing to worry about.” He frowned. “However, I must ask you to explain what that black warship outside the Umbrella is doing here.”

Murrue Ramius kept a firm grip on her temper. “That ship is called the Valkyrie, and its commander is my niece, sir.”

“That seems unlikely,” Garcia’s aide put in. “You’re only in your middle twenties, and you expect us to believe you have a niece old enough to command a warship?”

“My niece is a first-generation Coordinator, Admiral,” Murrue replied. “Her father, my brother, is ten years older than I am; he and his wife are with the Junk Guild.”

Mu La Flaga spoke up. “That ship was a big help on the way here, sir. They don’t like the Earth Forces much, but since their captain is related to ours, they were willing to help.” He sent a quick warning look at Badgiruel.

The look was unnecessary; Badgiruel knew perfectly well that revealing the fact that the Valkyrie group included the princess of Orb and Ezalia Joule’s nephew was a bad idea. She still did not trust him, but she preferred Strassmeier to a man like Admiral Garcia, who had been promoted to his level of incompetence.

“Very well,” Garcia said, ending that discussion. “Lieutenant La Flaga, I must admit I’m surprised to see you here. Where were you doing on the Archangel?”

Mu shook his head. “I’m not at liberty to say, sir.”

The admiral shrugged. “As you wish.” He nodded out the viewport. “I’m afraid we can’t allow you to leave just yet; that Laurasia is still out there, so we don’t dare lower the Umbrella. Even with your mysterious friends around, it’s too great a risk.”

Murrue frowned, then spun at the sound of footsteps. Her eyes widened when she saw the armed guards, and she turned back to Garcia. “Admiral, what is the meaning of this?”

“It’s for your own safety, Captain.” Garcia’s smile was somehow malevolent. “I assure you; you will be treated well.”

The three officers were led, ironically, to what looked like a room from some terrestrial nobleman’s manor. Expensive carpeting covered the floor, and a couch and two armchairs were situated near the center, with a table in the middle. There were even a few paintings on the walls.

Mu gave the room an appraising look, then sank into one of the chairs. “Not the sort of thing you expect to see in the middle of nowhere,” he commented. “Garcia seems to be addicted to luxury.”

“I’ve heard he achieved his rank more through political connections than military ability,” Badgiruel said sourly. “It would explain why he was assigned to a backwater like Artemis.”

Murrue looked at her in surprise. It was most unlike the ensign to openly criticize any superior, let alone a flag officer. “Is something on your mind, Natarle?”

Badgiruel hesitated. “I’ve heard rumors about the military using Coordinators in some kind of experiment,” she said reluctantly. “I don’t believe Admiral Halberton had anything to do with it, and it was a rumor, but still…”

“Who’s military? Ours?” Mu asked.

“It seems to vary. I’ve heard reports about both our forces and the Eurasians; some say the Eurasians snatched a young Coordinator from Mendel, of all places.”

Mu frowned. “That is odd. When was this?”

Badgiruel shrugged. “At least fifteen years ago. The rumors I have heard about the Atlantic Federation military, however, are far more recent. Within the last three or four years.”

“And that’s why, despite the fact that you don’t trust him, you didn’t dismiss Alex’s story about his sister out of hand,” Murrue said.

“Precisely.” The ensign shrugged again. “I don’t believe he was lying there; only that he may have been mistaken about the identity of the kidnappers.” She shook her head. “And I certainly don’t blame him for being reluctant to open fire on his own cousin.”

There was a long silence. The mention of Alex’s cousin reminded Murrue of another Coordinator with a similar problem; she now realized that the only reason she was still alive was because Kira’s friend Athrun had recognized him, and hesitated.

“In any case, we can’t stay here forever,” she said at last. “If for no other reason than keeping the Eurasians from exploiting Kira, we need to get out of here.” Murrue closed her eyes. “For now, it’s up to Lia and Alex…”

Nazca-class destroyer Bismarck, Bridge

Two men hovered over the bridge’s tabletop display. The older of the two, Captain Michael Harriman, Bismarck’s commanding officer, wore the gray of a ship’s captain. Despite being five years older than his companion, the compact, brown-haired man was the other’s subordinate.

Younger though he may have been, the teen in ZAFT elite red was more than confident in his abilities and his position. Commander Daniel Bartlett knew exactly what he was about. At seventeen, he was certainly young for his rank, but did not owe his meteoric rise to friends in high places, but rather to sheer ability. (Indeed, that was the only reason he was able to remain in ZAFT at all, since Ezalia Joule loathed him.)

“So,” Bartlett murmured. “Strassmeier is back in the game, is he?”

Harriman nodded. “His identity was confirmed by two members of the Le Creuset team, Yzak Joule and Athrun Zala.”

“And Joule would certainly know if it was him. But then, so would I.” That was putting it mildly. Daniel Bartlett had known Alex Strassmeier since grade school and had always hated him. The seemingly emotionless Strassmeier had always managed to show Bartlett up in school, often beating him by a razor-thin margin. No matter how hard he tried, Bartlett had never quite managed to beat his rival at anything.

His irritation at that had slowly grown, until he had difficulty thinking about the other rationally. To make matters worse, Strassmeier had refused to see him as a rival, saying that such a thing was a waste of his time. Bartlett, by nature competitive, had doggedly tried to keep up, only to suffer a humiliating loss in a martial arts tournament a month before the Bloody Valentine.

Bartlett had joined ZAFT shortly thereafter, while Strassmeier had subsequently vanished. But now, it seemed, he was back.

“He’s helping an Atlantic Federation warship. How odd.” One of their few points of agreement was a hatred for the Earth Alliance in general, and the Atlantic Federation in particular. “Joule must be in shock.” Not that he cared; Alex Strassmeier was indifferent. Yzak Joule hated him, and the feeling was mutual.

“He’s not exactly pleased,” Harriman agreed. “He seems to think his cousin has gone off the deep end.”

Bartlett snorted. “Alex Strassmeier went off the deep end a long time ago, Michael. This is simply more proof. If he is helping a ship that belongs to someone he hates, then there is clearly something wrong with his mind.”

Harriman agreed; some of Joule’s reports proved to his satisfaction that Strassmeier was not exactly thinking straight. “In any case, there is little we can do at present, sir,” he pointed out. “The Umbrella of Artemis cannot be penetrated by any known weapon.”

Bartlett nodded grimly. “I know. Much as I hate to admit it, we are going to have to leave the initial stage of this operation to Le Creuset’s people. They do have three of the Earth Forces’ G-weapons; perhaps they’ll be able to figure something out.”

“Maybe so.” Bismarck’s captain did not like Yzak Joule any more than his commander did, but he did respect the younger man’s ability.

Bartlett turned to the ship’s parasite officer. “Prepare my CGUE and the team’s GINNs,” he ordered. “If Joule and company can bring down the Umbrella, we’re following him in.”

“Yes, sir.”

The commander returned his attention to his own displays. A map of the area around Artemis glowed on the screen. A green icon sat between Bismarck and the Artemis base: Gamow. On the opposite side of the other ZAFT ship was a blood-red icon: Alex Strassmeier’s ship, the Valkyrie. A circle, also blood-red, glowed inside the enemy harbor: the presumed position of the Archangel.

He smiled to himself. Soon, Strassmeier. Very soon, we will come to blows once again. And this time, I will take you, G-weapon or not. Count on it…

Gamow, Bridge

Yzak Joule, Dearka Elsman, Nicol Amalfi, and Gamow captain Zelman stood around another tabletop screen. The green icon representing Bismarck burned near the edge, but they ignored it. None of them had been pleased when they heard the Bartlett team was in the area. Yzak’s hatred for Daniel Bartlett was legendary, Dearka knew and despised most of the man’s pilots, and Nicol had met Bartlett himself once without enjoying the experience. Zelman, for his part, saw Michael Harriman as a gutless incompetent.

“Right now, our main problem is how to get past that light wave barrier,” Yzak said. “Any ideas?”

Dearka shrugged. “Got me. None of our weapons will punch through.”

Nicol, however, looked thoughtful. “I think I have a way.” He tapped a few keys, bringing up the schematics of the Blitz. “My machine, the Blitz, is equipped with a system called Mirage Colloid. It renders the machine invisible to radar, thermal detection, and the naked eye.” He looked at his comrades. “If we take the Gamow out of detection range of Artemis, I can sneak in and destroy the reflectors.”

Normally I would call this a coward’s tactic, but not with Alex and his friends out there. “Sounds good to me,” Yzak agreed. “Any problems with it?”

“Just one: the Phase-shift armor can’t be used while the Mirage Colloid is activated.” Nicol shrugged. “I think it’s a fair trade-off, since you can’t fight what you can’t see.”

“All right.” Yzak nodded. “Take out those reflectors, and Dearka and I will follow you in.” A grimace of distaste touched his face. “You can bet Commander Bartlett will be going; he hates Alex even more than he hates me. Alex humiliated him at a martial arts tournament last year.”

The other two pilots agreed; Daniel Bartlett, while an excellent pilot and a skilled tactician, was known to be extremely competitive, and extremely vindictive.

Nicol turned to leave, then glanced over his shoulder. “Speaking of Strassmeier, did you get anything out of him, Yzak?”

The white-haired pilot grimaced again. “Just what he meant by Committee Chairman Zala’s ‘madness’. It’s the same thing he told my mom last year: he thinks Zala wants to kill all the Naturals.” He smiled humorlessly at the looks of astonishment that earned him. “I know, it’s crazy, since we have Natural allies in Oceania and the African Community.” A shrug. “That’s what he believes.”

“That is crazy.” Nicol resumed walking, but Yzak caught up with him at the hatch. “Yzak?”

Yzak’s voice was unusually soft. “If Alex launches, leave him to me, okay?”

Nicol smiled; they did not always get along, but they stuck together when it counted. “You got it, Yzak.”

Archangel, cafeteria

After the officers had been removed, the ship’s senior noncoms and the student volunteers had been brought to the cafeteria. Neumann was able to keep things under control, but he was getting worried. He did not trust the Eurasians any more than Alex did.

He was also worried about Kira. Poor kid must fight his best friend, and now it looks like our so-called “allies” might have something else in mind for him. If they learn he is the one who has been piloting the Strike, and that he is a Coordinator. Unlike far too many in the Earth Forces, Arnold Neumann had nothing against Coordinators, and he had come to like Kira in the two days since Heliopolis.

The hatch slid open, and Admiral Garcia stepped in, flanked by his aide and two armed guards. “I understand the pilot of the Strike is in here,” he said without preamble.

Murdoch shrugged. “Lieutenant La Flaga was piloting it. Ask him.”

Garcia smiled thinly. “Nice try, but we already know the Lieutenant was flying the Moebius Zero.” His eyes lit on Mir. “It must be you; no one would suspect a girl like you would be a pilot.”

The guards stepped forward, and Kira shot to his feet before anyone could stop him. “That’s not true! I’m the Strike pilot!”

The admiral snorted in derision. “Don’t be absurd. That machine isn’t meant for someone like you.” Annoyed, he threw a punch at the youth.

Kira effortlessly caught it, and Garcia found himself on the deck. “I haven’t done anything to provoke you!”

“He’s telling the truth!” Flay said. “He’s a Coordinator!”

Garcia picked himself up, looking suddenly intrigued. “Is he, now? That changes things: we’ve long been aware that many of ZAFT’s mobile suit pilots are mere teenagers.” He gave Kira a narrow glance. “I wonder what could make a Coordinator side with the Earth Forces, hmm.”

Kira froze as the guards moved to either side of him. “Admiral?”

“You could be very useful indeed,” Garcia murmured. He nodded at the guards. “Take him to the hangar.”

Artemis Nearspace, cockpit of GAT-X207 Blitz

Nicol punched up a recorder; this was the first use of Mirage Colloid, so he wanted to record as much data as possible for the benefit of the engineers back home. “Mirage Colloid online,” he said. “Particle dissipation rate is thirty-five percent. Maximum time in stealth mode: approximately eighty minutes.” More than enough time to get the job done.

He gazed at the asteroid base ahead of him as the Gamow pulled out, wondering, as many on both sides had, why the Eurasians would waste such a powerful defense system on Artemis. With the collapse of Heliopolis, which was itself controlled by a neutral nation, there was nothing at the L3 point to defend. Neither ZAFT nor the Earth Alliance had any colonies in the area.

Unless the Eurasians have some secret project of their own out here, Nicol thought, then shrugged and shifted his gaze to the black ship holding station just outside the Umbrella. Though he knew the Valkyrie could not possibly detect him, he shivered at the sight. While it had the same basic shape as the Archangel, it looked somehow predatory, like a creature of the night ready to pounce on the unwary.

“And if Yzak’s right, that cousin of his is a predator,” Nicol murmured. “I’d better be careful.” Even as he spoke, the Umbrella came down. Okay, here we go. Blast one reflector, then move before the Valkyrie can localize me. He powered up his beam rifle -the saber was useless with Mirage Colloid up- and fired, blowing one of the emitters apart. Boosting to another position, he fired again and again, slagging two more.

When he had taken out six emitters, Nicol dropped stealth and keyed his radio. “Yzak, Dearka, the path is clear!”

“Roger that, Nicol,” Yzak’s voice came back. “Good job. Any reaction from the black ship?”

Nicol checked his radar. “Nothing yet, but you can bet they’re not going to take this lying down.”

“Bartlett and his people are launching,” Dearka put in, sounding more than a little disgusted. “They should be able to keep those guys tied down. You get into the harbor, see if you can find the Strike.”

“Got it.” And if I do find him, I am not shooting to kill. Athrun’s been through enough; I am not going to be the one to kill his best friend.

Alex strapped into the pilot’s seat and began powering up. “What are we dealing with? I know the Blitz is out there; that is the only way they could have taken out the Umbrella. What else?”

“There’s no sign of the Gamow, but the Duel and the Buster are closing in fast,” Cagalli responded. “Also, we’ve got a CGUE and five GINNs coming from farther back. It looks like they’re from…” she glanced at something off screen, probably a sensor readout, “a Nazca, tentatively identified as the Bismarck.”

The Bismarck, why does that sound familiar? Alex shook himself; there was nothing to gain by pondering it. “Alex Strassmeier, Stormbird launching!”

“Roger that. Be careful.”

“Always am.”

Stormbird shot into space, followed closely by the Devastator. They had hoped to have the other three machines ready by the time they had to fight again, but ZAFT evidently was not willing to give them the time needed. Alex shrugged; it did not really matter at this point. The Blitz had gotten into Artemis, true, but Kira was more than capable of handling it. Alex and Kyle, meanwhile, could destroy the incoming mass-produced machines, then focus on the Duel and the Buster.

Even as the two mobile suit forces closed, Lia was bringing her ship into battle. Knowing that Valkyrie outgunned a Nazca-class vessel by a substantial margin, her orders came swift and sure. “Target Sledgehammer missiles on the Bismarck,” she barked. “Ready Gottfrieds and Parsifals!”

Alex watched the missile storm lance out. “That should hold the Bismarck for a while,” he told Kyle, then switched frequencies. “Here to complicate my life again, Yzak?”

Like in their previous encounter, the Duel held a beam saber in its right hand. “We don’t have to do this, Alex,” Yzak said. “You’re one of us, remember? You grew up in the PLANTs.”

Alex sighed. “Yzak, listen to me: I will not serve under Patrick Zala in any capacity. Not now, not ever.” His saber clashed against the Duel’s shield. “To do so would be to show approval for outright genocide.” Knowing that Yzak was not trying to kill him, Alex glanced at the incoming mobile suits from the Bismarck. The GINNs were clearly ZAFT standard, but the CGUE had a beam rifle, and its color scheme… Blood red? Who is that, anyway?

“The Naturals are using you!” Yzak protested. “You and Yamato both! You’re being deceived!”

“Yzak, I came to this conclusion long before I joined forces with the Archangel; before I knew of its existence, for that matter,” Alex countered. “And I have other problems with the Natural versus Coordinator argument. You and I are both second-generation Coordinators; that makes us every bit as natural as someone like Mu La Flaga. After all, it was not our genes that were modified, only our parents.” He shrugged. “Not that I expect you to accept that; it’s a distinction without a difference, as it were.”

Yzak started to reply, but another voice cut in. “Finished arguing with your precious cousin, Joule?”

Alex stiffened. I know that voice…

Kira guided the Strike into a position above and behind the Archangel. He was amazed that his hands were so steady on the controls since he certainly did not feel steady. First Garcia had locked up the officers, then he had forced Kira to reveal himself and help the Eurasians with the Strike.

Even that was not as bad as what the admiral had said about him personally. “But you’re already a traitor to your fellow Coordinators, are you not?” Garcia had asked when Kira protested. “The fact that you’re a Coordinator siding with the Earth Forces makes you very valuable.”

The young Coordinator shook his head violently. All he had wanted was to be able to live in peace, and ZAFT had taken it away. He had been enjoying a quiet life on the neutral Heliopolis colony, and then ZAFT had attacked, ultimately resulting in the colony’s destruction.

Why couldn’t they just leave us alone? Kira thought, then grimaced as a proximity alarm sounded. The Blitz. So that is it; he must have snuck in under Mirage Colloid. Once Kira had agreed to be the Strike’s regular pilot, Badgiruel had briefed him on the stolen Gundams so that he knew what he was dealing with. He grimaced again and unlimbered the massive Schwerht Gewehr. Here he comes.

To Kira’s surprise, the Blitz did not immediately attack. Instead, it radioed him. “Yamato, wait!” The ZAFT pilot activated his saber but did not charge. “Why keep fighting us? We’re Coordinators, just like you!”

He knows who I am? How? “Are you…a friend of Athrun’s?”

An amber-eyed face, framed by light green hair, appeared on his screen. “That’s right,” the other said, nodding. “My name’s Nicol Amalfi.”

Kira closed his eyes briefly. If this guy was Athrun’s friend, then he knew he had to be careful. Athrun’s already lost his mom; I am not making things worse for him if I can avoid it. “I’m fighting to protect my friends, not for the Earth Forces!” Kira yelled, bringing his sword down on the Blitz’s Trikeros. “I don’t care what their genes look like!”

Nicol jetted back and fired off his lancer darts. It was meant as a simple distraction; he knew perfectly well kinetic attacks were useless against phase-shift…

“We know which team those machines are from,” Cagalli reported. “The red CGUE belongs to Commander Daniel Bartlett.”

Alex grimaced; he had thought as much. “Just great.”

The princess raised an eyebrow. “You know him?”

“I’ve known him since grade school,” Alex replied. “He’s good, but I was always just a little better, and the fact that I refused -and still refuse- to consider him a rival drove him nuts. He hates me, and he always has. The final straw came last year.”

“What happened?”

“I humiliated him at a martial arts tournament.” Alex switched frequencies. “Hello, there, Bartlett. Long time no see.”

A well-remembered laugh sounded over the comm. “So, you remember me, Strassmeier. Good; it means we can pick up where we left off. Assuming you’re still in shape.”

“Bartlett, just what do you think you’re doing?” Yzak demanded.

The red CGUE trained its single eye on the Duel. “Putting this irritant in his place, Joule. I’ve waited a long time for this.” Bartlett leveled his beam rifle at the Stormbird. “Take this!”

Alex took the blast on his shield. “Overconfident as always, Bartlett. That’s why you could never beat me.” He reached back and drew his massive plasma cannon.

Over the next several minutes, Stormbird dueled with the red CGUE. It soon became clear that, while the two pilots had roughly the same skill level, Alex had a superior machine. His shield’s energy absorbing capability rendered Bartlett’s rifle effectively useless. Yzak stood back, unable to intervene, while Dearka exchanged long-range attacks with Kyle. Adding insult to injury, Alex drove back the approaching GINNs with no apparent effort.

Bartlett, you idiot, Yzak thought in fury. Why couldn’t you leave him to me? I could have persuaded him, I know it! Unfortunately, it appeared that the young commander’s vendetta against Alex was interfering with his thinking.

It became a moot point when three things happened simultaneously. Kyle disabled both Buster’s main weapons, the missile attack from the Valkyrie struck the Bismarck, and the Archangel burst out of the Artemis base, followed closely by the Strike and the Blitz.

Lia Ramius took advantage of the sudden distraction. “Parsifals, fire!”

The deadly antimatter stream struck the Bismarck a glancing blow, frying its main cannon and rendering the linear catapult useless.

On the ZAFT ship’s bridge, Michael Harriman coughed on the smoke. “Damage report!”

“Main cannon destroyed, half our radars are offline, linear catapult disabled…” The crewman shook his head. “We can recover our mobile suits, sir, that’s about it. If we do not return to the homeland, we’ll never fight again.”

“I see.” Harriman looked at the comm screen. “Commander?”

Bartlett’s red CGUE turned away from the Stormbird. “No choice. As soon as we return, plot an immediate course for the PLANTs.” Then, to Alex: “This isn’t over, Strassmeier.”

Alex ignored him. “Let’s head back, Kyle.”

“Roger that.”

Yzak watched them go. Alex, why? What is going on in your head? “Dearka, Nicol, let us get back to the Gamow. We can’t catch them now, thanks to Bartlett.” He turned away, Buster and Blitz flanking him.

Undefeated, Archangel and Valkyrie sailed on.

Gamow, Bridge

“Bartlett, you idiot! Just what did you think you were doing?”

Dearka and Nicol winced. They had gotten back mere minutes earlier, following their rather nasty battle with the pair of mobile suit carriers. Neither had been pleased when the Bartlett team had joined the fight, but that paled next to Yzak’s reaction. He had never liked Bartlett in the first place; the man’s sudden attack on the Stormbird had only made that worse.

Now, the two pilots stood to one side, wincing in unison as Yzak threw a screaming fit.

“I could have persuaded him,” the Duel’s pilot went on. “I had him talking, concentrating on just me, and then you had to butt in and ruin it!” Yzak glared at the screen. “What in blazes has gotten into you?”

The brown-haired commander smiled thinly. “I merely wanted to show Strassmeier that he’s only human, that he can’t win every time. I don’t see your problem.”

Yzak seemed to swell with fury. “My problem is that you can’t seem to figure out that this is a war, not some schoolyard! Alex never broke any rules, he never cheated, he just kept beating you! This isn’t a game, Bartlett!”

Bartlett snorted, visibly disgusted. “All you’re doing is rationalizing cowardice, Joule. I expected better from a member of the Le Creuset team.”

Dearka and Nicol both flinched as their teammate turned an alarming shade of puce. “DID YOU EXPECT ME TO BLOW AWAY MY OWN COUSIN?” he demanded, trembling with rage.

Nicol stepped in to support him. “Look, Commander, Yzak’s right. He cannot be expected to kill a family member just like that. You should have given him a chance.”

“I’m with Nicol,” Dearka put in. “If we can get someone like Strassmeier on our side, we’d have a major advantage.”

Bartlett snorted again. “I, for one, would not want someone who’s clearly mentally unstable anywhere near a combat unit.” His image vanished before anyone could reply.

“Bastard!” Yzak slammed his fist into a bulkhead. “Who does he think he is?”

Nicol rolled his eyes. “No kidding. Since when does thinking something crazy make a guy mentally unstable, anyway? I mean, come on. Sure, Committee Chairman Zala is a hardliner, so I can see where your cousin’s coming from. I think he’s wrong, but I don’t think that makes him crazy.”

“Yeah,” Dearka agreed. “Say, did you get anything out of Yamato?”

Nicol shrugged. “Just the same thing he told Athrun: he’s not fighting for the Earth Forces; he’s fighting to protect his friends. He doesn’t care what their genes look like.”

“He’s got a point,” Yzak conceded unwillingly, breathing hard. “I still think Athrun’s right about their being used by the Earth Forces, but Alex reminded me that we have Natural allies, in Oceania and the African Community.” He sighed. “It doesn’t matter right now. We’ve lost track of both ships, so I guess we’ll have to wait for Commander Le Creuset to get back from the PLANTs.”

Archangel, Kira’s quarters

Kira Yamato sprawled face-down on his bunk, exhausted both physically and mentally. The battle with the Blitz had been brief but fierce, though it was clear from the beginning that Athrun’s friend Nicol was not actually trying to kill him.

“But you’re already a traitor to your fellow Coordinators, are you not?”

“We’re Coordinators, just like you!”

Those simple comments, one spoken by a so-called “ally” who was not acting like one, the other by an enemy who under other circumstances might have been a close friend, reverberated in Kira’s mind. Try as he might, Kira could not shake the feeling that he was somehow betraying his people.

“Birdy!” the bird-robot by his head chirped. Kira ignored it.

“Traitor,” he whispered.

Behind him, the hatch opened, admitting Cagalli Yula Athha and Alex Strassmeier. Upon learning of Admiral Garcia’s treatment of Kira, and the young pilot’s subsequent confrontation with Nicol Amalfi, Alex had suggested that they check on him. Cagalli had readily agreed; though she had only known the Strike’s pilot for a couple of days, she felt connected to him in a way she could not quite describe, and she hated to see him in this kind of pain.

Feeling a light touch on his shoulder, Kira rolled over on his back. “Alex? Cagalli? What are you two doing here?” Not that he was complaining; he felt the same connection Cagalli did, and if anyone could understand what he was feeling now, it was a PLANT native like Alex.

“Checking on you,” Alex replied. “Mu told me what that dimwit Garcia did with you.” He used the Lieutenant’s name at the man’s insistence; La Flaga had expressed a dislike of excessive formality.

Kira sat up, rubbing his eyes. “He said I was a traitor to my fellow Coordinators, and that guy in the Blitz, Nicol, asked why I kept fighting them.”

Alex laid a hand on his shoulder. “Kira, you keep fighting them to keep your friends alive. Remember that. As for Garcia…” He snorted derisively. “You’re from Orb, if memory serves; if you betrayed them, that would be one thing. As it stands…” His shoulders twitched. “It’s not our genes that determine who we are, Kira. Genes determine certain physical traits, nothing more. Many on both sides have forgotten that. Blue Cosmos thinks we Coordinators are evil. Zala, on the other hand, believes we’re new species, which anyone with even a cursory knowledge of biology knows is preposterous.”

“What about you?” Kira frowned. “I mean, you’re fighting your own cousin…”

The other side. “Kira, one thing you have to remember about Yzak is that he’s the dictionary definition of ‘arrogant hothead’, and, as I said, I have no intention of killing him. No, what I’m fighting is Patrick Zala’s madness, which if left unchecked will destroy both sides.” He looked Kira in the eye. “So, don’t think of this as fighting your own people.”

“I understand. But still…Athrun…”

Cagalli sat next to Kira and gently embraced him. “It’ll be all right. Alex says that your friend is not like his father at all. He’ll see what you’re trying to do sooner or later.”

“Thanks.” Kira hugged her back, a little nervously, then chuckled as Birdy landed on the princess’s shoulder. “I think Birdy likes you.”

She smiled and lightly stroked the robot’s head. “Athrun gave it to you?”

“Yeah, just before he left Copernicus.”

“I remember he had a talent for small-scale engineering,” Alex commented. “Incidentally, I have also met your recent opponent, Nicol Amalfi. It’s not exactly a surprise that he and Athrun are close; his personality is so like yours it’s almost eerie.” He moved for the hatch. “I need to get back to my own ship. Coming, Cagalli?”

She waved. “I’ll stay here a while longer, keep Kira company for a while.”

“As you wish. See you on the Valkyrie.”

When Alex had left, Kira shook his head in bemusement. “Why’d he gets so friendly all of a sudden?”

Cagalli shrugged. “He gave me a kind of long-winded explanation, something about how he prefers to keep his thoughts hidden so people can’t take advantage of him, and that he’s always grateful when he finds someone he can open up to.”

“Makes sense, I guess.” Kira looked away. “Thanks for coming, by the way. You and Alex both.”

“Hey, what are friends for?” She smiled.

They shared a companionable silence after that. Neither knew what the future would bring, but for now things seemed all right.

Author’s note: Please, no one accuse the author of having Yzak out of character. Remember, he is dealing with a split in his own family; that would affect anyone.