Chapter 31: Kira’s Birthplace

Dominion, bridge, 10 July, C.E. 71

The captain of the Earth Alliance’s newest warship leaned back in his command chair. Dominion, one of three newly constructed Archangel-class warships, had just completed its final tests. Soon they would be going to the front, taking this war to ZAFT’s home ground.

“Captain Sutherland, we’re receiving a message from Command,” the comm officer said. “It’s Director Azrael.”

Sutherland nodded. “Put him on.”

Muruta Azrael smiled from the screen. “Well, hello, Captain. Congratulations on your new command.”

“Thank you, Director,” Sutherland said. He cocked his head. “Is something up, sir?”

“We’ve heard reports of suspicious activity at L4,” Azrael told him. “Dominion, along with Cherubim and Seraphim, will be sent to investigate. Think of it as a bit of a shakedown before you head to the front lines.”

Sutherland nodded. He was still puzzled, though. “Why would there be suspicious activity at L4? The area was abandoned after the Battle of Yggdrasil.”

Azrael shrugged. “Best guess is Neo ZAFT; Clyne isn’t crazy enough to send people to the middle of nowhere.” He waved a hand. “Anyway, the Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider are being assigned to your ship, and I’ll be going along to see how they perform in space. Is that all right with you, Captain?”

“Of course, sir,” Sutherland said firmly. As a high-ranking member of Blue Cosmos, he had no problem with the idea of sharing his bridge with the group’s leader. “Those new machines will be of help, after what happened at Artemis.”

“Yes, I heard about that,” Azrael said. “Rumor has it that Strassmeier kid was behind it.”

Sutherland snorted. “No rumor, Director. I’ve met him, and I can tell you from personal experience that he’s very devious.” He shook his head. “Not that I’m shedding any tears for Sahaku; that man was more trouble than he was worth. And Garcia is just a fool.”

“He’s Eurasian, what do you expect?” Azrael shrugged again. “So many of them defected after Alaska, after all.” He glanced at something off-screen. “Speaking of Alaska, you might have a chance to get back at the Archangel –and the Spider- for tricking you. If Neo ZAFT is poking around L4, you can bet those space monsters will make an appearance.”

“I look forward to it, sir,” Sutherland said. “Dominion out.”

Yes, I will look forward to it, he thought savagely. You humiliated me –us- at Alaska, Strassmeier. And you, Murrue Ramius. You will pay for your treason with your life, “Captain”.

Thunderbird, pilots’ lounge

Shiho Hahnenfuss had always found the starscape soothing. Lounging in a chair facing the viewport, a drink container in hand, she frequently gazed out for hours on end. It allowed her to forget the war, however briefly.

“Watching the stars again, mate?”

Shiho smiled, recognizing the voice. “Hi, Troy.”

“I always preferred the wet blue yonder, myself,” Troy said, taking a seat next to her.

She knew what he was talking about. Back in their Academy days, he had told her a lot about his scuba diving trips along the Great Barrier Reef. “I’m amazed you didn’t wind up like Commander Strassmeier,” she said with a grin.

The Aussie laughed. “Nah, I’m too good for that,” he said. It was not bravado, either; before joining ZAFT, Troy had been a legend in his native Sydney for his shark encounters. Unlike the Spider of Artemis, he was never even scratched.

“Anyway,” Troy went on, “I thought you’d be on the Archangel about now, since we’re not in combat.”

Shiho blushed. “For your information, Troy Cadwallader, Yzak Joule is not my boyfriend.”

“Yet.” Troy was unfazed by her glare. “Come on, Shiho, you’re too much like Commander Strassmeier’s fiancée: you’ve never been good at hiding your feelings. I think Yzak is the only person who hasn’t noticed.”

He had a point…blast it. Not that Shiho had any intention of admitting it.

“He’s right, Shiho,” Mayura Labatt put in, adding fuel to the fire. “I know it’s not like Nicol and me, but there’s definitely something there.”

“Got it really bad,” Asagi Caldwell agreed.

“No doubt about it,” Juri Wu Nien added.

Shiho sputtered for about thirty seconds. Then, “So what!?” she demanded hotly. She glared at the bespectacled Astray Strike pilot. “And you are one to talk, Juri! What about that Junker, what is his name, Guele?” With an effort, Shiho kept the distaste out of her voice; she had never liked the Junk Guild.

Juri flushed crimson. “What…I…it’s not like that!”

Troy laughed. “Not quite,” he conceded. “I’m pretty sure Lowe’s not interested, anyway.”

“Now, why don’t we stop arguing about everyone’s love life,” Mayura said.

“Yes, why don’t we,” Shiho said with a grimace.

Despite her irritation, she actually liked the Astray girls. Especially Mayura, who had more than a little tomboy in her. Though they lacked Shiho’s experience, they made up for it with solid teamwork and raw courage.

Their new MBF-M1S Astray Strikes probably helped, too.

“So, any idea where we’re going?” Mayura asked Troy. “You’re the Special Forces agent.”

He shrugged. “I hear Admiral Halberton got a message from the Homeland this morning, but I have no idea what it said.”

Asagi raised her eyebrows. “A Special Forces agent doesn’t know?”

“Hey, mate, I’m not the fleet commander,” Troy protested. “Or a team leader, for that matter; you can bet Strassmeier got the same message, or at least a similar one.” He rolled his eyes. “I just fly around in the Dreadnought blowing things up.”

Shiho sighed, shaking her head. “You’ll never change, Troy.”

He looked mildly affronted. “Well, why should I change? I’m fine the way I am.”

Shiho buried her face in her hands. “Oh, brother.”

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex read the message from the Homeland yet a fifth time. Mendel. What would Neo ZAFT want at Mendel? While it was true Zala’s top lieutenant, Rau Le Creuset, knew that Kira and Cagalli had been born at Mendel, that did not explain the breakaway faction’s interest. The colony had been hit with a bioweapon, then sterilized with X-rays and abandoned. As far as Alex knew, there was nothing of interest left.

A hatch slid open, prompting him to smile. “Hi, Cagalli.”

She came over and gave him a quick kiss, then sat opposite him. “Hi, Alex.”

“I was just looking over a message from the Homeland,” Alex said. “We’re being sent to L4. Specifically, the Mendel colony.”

That got a reaction, as he had known it would. Cagalli’s eyes went wide. “The place where Kira and I were born,” she murmured.

“Exactly. Apparently, Neo ZAFT has been poking around there.” Alex sipped from a coffee cup. “I don’t know what they’re after; as far as I know, there’s nothing there.”

“Except the GARM facility,” Cagalli said softly. “Le Creuset knows about Kira and me.”

Alex’s expression darkened. “That would make sense. I was planning to check it out myself while I was searching for the Ultimate Coordinator. If there is anything of interest left in the Mendel colony, it’ll be at GARM.”

He stood, moving to gaze out the viewport. “In any case, you can bet the Earth Forces are going to be sending a task force. We have received reports of three new Archangel-class ships at Ptolemaeus Base. The lead ship, Dominion, is said to be commanded by my old ‘friend’ William Sutherland.”

Cagalli winced. “With three of those ships, it’ll be a lot harder than Artemis.”

“And that’s not even considering whatever Zala throws at us,” Alex agreed. He looked at her, concerned. “Are you okay with this? Going to Mendel, I mean.”

She joined him by the viewport. “Alex, I don’t care how I was created,” she said, taking his hand. “What matters is who I am now.”

He smiled. “I always knew you were strong-willed,” he said, gently pulling her close. A shadow crossed his face. “I wonder what Sam would think…”

Cagalli looked up at him. “Sam?”

Alex sighed. “It’s not commonly known –not now, anyway- but Cassandra wasn’t always Yzak’s only sibling. He had a brother, Samorei, about a year or so older than he was. The reason he’s not in the family photo is because he was elsewhere at the time, not sure why.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Sam joined ZAFT in late sixty-nine. He…he died at Junius Seven.”

“Alex.” Cagalli caressed his cheek.

“It was just after I learned of his death that I pulled my little vanishing act,” Alex said. “Admittedly, I did not disappear completely; I left a message with Aunt Ezalia, though I didn’t say where I was going. I just wanted to make sure she and Yzak knew I was still alive.”

“I’m sorry.” Cagalli felt a brief spike of fury. Yet another crime for the Earth Forces to answer for.

Alex shrugged. “We don’t talk about it much, but I do know it’s one of the reasons Yzak joined ZAFT.”

“So why tell me?”

He quirked an eyebrow. “And why shouldn’t I tell my wife-to-be? You’d have eventually found out in any case.”

“Point,” she conceded. “Andrea would have told me sometime.”

“I’m not sure,” Alex said slowly. “Come to think of it, I don’t know if she knows what happened. She disappeared before the Bloody Valentine.”

“Maybe you should ask her,” Cagalli suggested.

Alex shook his head. “Not now. This isn’t the time; if she does know, I’ll just be mentioning painful memories, and if she doesn’t know, the shock would be rather poorly timed.”

She nodded. Andrea was the more emotional of the family (though that was not saying much), and the last thing they needed was to give her that kind of a jolt.

“No matter what happens,” Alex said softly, “Samorei’s death will be avenged…”

Mendel nearspace

As both the Earth Forces and ZAFT suspected, units of Patrick Zala’s Neo ZAFT were investigating the abandoned Mendel colony. Three Nazca- and five Laurasia-class ships hovered outside the colony, screened by a swarm of mobile suits. Most of those machines were GuAIZs, but two Gundams were among their number, Rau Le Creuset’s ZGMF-X13A Providence and Daniel Bartlett’s new ZGMF-X15A Deathdealer.

“Hurry up,” Bartlett snapped. His temper had frayed noticeably in the months since the spectacular end of Operation Spit Break. “We never know when the Earth Forces –or those ZAFT traitors- might show up.”

“Yes, sir!”

Le Creuset shook his head. “You might want to consider dealing more gently with your subordinates, Bartlett,” he said.

“What’s it to you, Metal Mask!?” the other snapped. “I run my team my way.”

“People work better when they’re led, not screamed at,” Le Creuset countered. “I thought you knew that.” He raised an eyebrow behind his mask. “Or has Strassmeier gotten to you?”

Bartlett snarled wordlessly. “Mind your own business, Le Creuset!”

I seem to have struck a nerve. “You’re playing right into his hands with that kind of attitude,” Le Creuset warned. “You know even better than I do that Strassmeier is cold as ice. He’ll use your anger to his advantage.”

He ignored the incoherent sputtering that passed for a response.

Archangel, Kira’s quarters, 11 July, C.E. 71

Kira sat on his bunk, staring at nothing. Murrue had told him about their latest assignment, and he was not sure what to think. On the one hand, Lord Uzumi had told him of his origins months earlier, yet that was different from actually seeing his birthplace with his own eyes, and he was more than a little afraid of what he would find.

He scolded himself. What happened at Mendel almost twenty years prior did not matter? He was who he was, and he was not alone. Flay, Cagalli, Athrun, Lacus, and others, all of them had promised to stand by him.


Kira looked up. Flay had come in while he brooded. “Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

She sat beside him. “Are you worried about our next mission?”

He did not bother to ask how she knew about it; she was the communications officer, after all. “Sort of. I mean, I know all about how I was created, but I can’t help being a little afraid of what we might find.”

“It’ll be all right,” Flay whispered, gently embracing him. “You already know how you were created; the worst we’ll find is some of the technical stuff. None of that matters.” She settled her chin on his right shoulder. “Of course, some good came out of it, too.”

Kira smiled, sensing the dual meaning. His extraordinary abilities were important to all of them, and his very existence was important to her personally. And to a few other people as well, most notably Athrun Zala.

“You’re right,” he said, returning the embrace.

“All hands, Level One Battlestations!” Murrue’s voice said suddenly. “Both Neo ZAFT and Earth Forces units have been spotted near Mendel! Mobile suits, prepare for launch!”

Kira and Flay knock on the door running.

Mendel nearspace

“All right, guys,” Athrun said, maneuvering the Justice into position. “Looks like we’ve got company.”

Yzak blew a Strike Dagger into flaming dust. “What do these guys want at Mendel, anyway? There’s nothing here but junk.”

“I don’t know why the Earth Forces would be here, but I can make a good guess about Neo ZAFT,” Kira said, frying an enemy GuAIZ. He was reluctant to kill, but since Neo ZAFT’s goal was the extinction of the Naturals, he realized that they could not be allowed to live. “Cagalli and I were born here, and Le Creuset knows about us.”

Dearka swore. “That would explain it,” he growled. “And it would explain why the Earth Forces are here: they’re after Neo ZAFT.”

“Makes sense,” Athrun agreed. Father, why?

It was quite possibly the most chaotic battle to date. Neo ZAFT’s intervention in Panama aside, there had not yet been a true tree-way engagement. The Earth Forces had superior numbers (including three Archangel-class warships), while the ZAFT/Orb alliance had qualitative superiority.

Counting out Neo ZAFT would have been a mistake, though. Though fanatics, their pilots were highly skilled. Few of them were redcoats, but they were far better than most Earth Forces pilots. And, of course, they had two Gundams, both superior to the new GAT-X models.

At least Father’s machines have special markings, so we can tell them apart from our own people, Athrun thought grimly. Each Neo ZAFT mobile suit (save for the Gundams, which did not need it) had the ZAFT emblem emblazoned on both shoulders.

One such machine, a GuAIZ, charged from the side. “You traitor!” the pilot shouted, firing his beam rifle.

Athrun sighed. “I’m sorry, but I have no choice.” He raised his own weapon and blew the GuAIZ away with a single shot.

“How could you turn on your own father!?” another Neo ZAFT pilot demanded. “Why are you siding with the Naturals!?”

“It’s not a matter of Natural versus Coordinator,” Athrun retorted, wincing. He remembered asking Kira the same thing at Heliopolis. “Not all Naturals hate us.”

“You idiot!” the other screamed. “Of course, they hate us! Why else would they have nuked Junius Seven!?”

Athrun slashed with his saber, removing the other machine’s left arm. “Not all the Naturals supported that,” he said coldly. “My best friend is a first-generation Coordinator; there’s no way his parents would have harmed our people.” He pulled back for another slash when something slammed into him from behind. “What the!?”

A second machine, this one a beam equipped CGUE, hovered behind him. “So much for the Chairman’s wayward son,” the pilot sneered. He took aim…

And died when a bright red line cut his machine in half. “I won’t let you!” Kira snarled.

“Thanks, Kira,” Athrun said, feeling relieved.

“No problem.”

Together the two friends waded into the Neo ZAFT forces; aside from a few Daggers, the Earth Forces had not gotten into the act as yet. It was only a matter of time before that changed, of course, but for the moment all the had to deal with were assorted GINNs, CGUEs, and GuAIZs.

ZGMF-X14A Anubis had changed slightly since its initial battle. After the Second Battle of Artemis, the Valkyrie’s mechanics had added an extra marking. The shield now bore the image of a silver spiderweb, with a black spider at the center.

It scared the Earth Forces newcomers out of their wits. Neo ZAFT, of course, was an entirely different proposition.

Alex soon found himself swarmed with mobile suits. The Neo ZAFT pilots, completely unimpressed by his reputation, seemed to think they could take him out with numbers alone. It was not that easy, of course; three GINNs were destroyed by a spiderweb of laser fire before they even knew what was happening.

“You’ll pay for that, traitor!” one of the survivors screamed.

“The weaker they are, the louder they bark,” Alex said, bisecting a CGUE with his saber. “And for your information, I am a loyal son of the PLANTs. The traitor is your leader, Patrick Zala.”

A harsh laugh sounded over the radio. “Glib as ever, eh, Strassmeier?” an all-too-familiar voice said.

Alex spun around. A blood red Gundam was bearing down on him, one that was visibly armed to the teeth. It bore a certain resemblance to the Calamity but had a different weapons loadout; Alex’s trained eye picked out a beam rifle, back-mounted dual beam cannon, a heavy missile launcher on the right shoulder, what looked like a beam javelin on its left shoulder, and two beam sabers mounted in the hips.

Daniel Bartlett laughed again. “So how do you like my new machine, Strassmeier?” he asked mockingly.

“I think it’s remarkably ugly,” Alex said mildly. “And I think you have gone off the deep end, Bartlett. What happened to the suave, sophisticated ZAFT Elite?”

Bartlett fired once, striking the Anubis’s shield. “You’ve really got it made; you know that? ZAFT Commander, people calling you the next Rau Le Creuset, engaged to the Chief Representative’s daughter…”

Alex deployed his DRAGOONs, creating a protective barrier. “If you are suggesting I got all that by cheating, don’t bother. Admittedly, I sometimes feel unworthy of Cagalli, but that is irrational, and she’d probably hit me if I said so.” His own rifle came up. “But that doesn’t matter. You were always petty, Bartlett, and I see that hasn’t changed.”

The Deathdealer’s beam cannons flashed then, narrowly missing. “You don’t know what it’s like, Strassmeier,” Bartlett said. “Always being second best, always getting edged out, and by a guy who doesn’t care about anything. He wins all those awards, and they mean nothing to him.”

Alex sighed. “You have well and utterly lost it. Do you think I would be engaged to the Lioness of Orb if I didn’t care about her?”

“You don’t have feelings,” Bartlett snapped. “You’re just a machine that looks like a person.”

Hopeless. Not bothering to respond, Alex recalled his DRAGOONs and drew a saber. Bartlett responded with his beam lance, forcing the Anubis to approach with more caution than would have been the case otherwise.

Thunderbird/Archangel, bridge

“Have any Earth Forces units engaged besides those Daggers?” Natarle asked, looking down into her CIC.

Commander Morris shook his head. “No, ma’am. Those ships seem to be just sitting there.”

Natarle frowned. What are they up to? “Murrue, do you have any ideas?”

Her old CO shook her head. “None, I’m afraid. Odd, considering that this ship has to be a prime target, since we deserted from the Earth Forces.”

Randall Tucker, Murrue’s ZAFT exec, spoke up. “Maybe they’re just letting us fight it out with Neo ZAFT, then they’ll take whoever’s left.”

“I concur, Captain,” Morris said.

“We’re being hailed by one of the Earth Forces ships,” the comm officer said. “IFF tags it as the Dominion.”

Natarle growled under her breath. “Put them on.”

She recognized one of the two people who appeared on the comm screen; William Sutherland’s craggy face was unmistakable. “Lieutenant Badgiruel, Captain Ramius. I assume you remember me.”

“Of course, I remember,” Natarle snarled, in no mood for pleasantries. “And in case you haven’t noticed, I am a captain as well.”

Sutherland snorted derisively. “A captain among the Orb rabble. Very well. I am calling upon you to surrender.”

“And just why do you think we’d do that?” Murrue demanded.

“Try self-preservation,” the other man said. He smiled thinly. “I’m Muruta Azrael, Director of the Defense Industries Association.”

Murrue looked like she wanted to spit. “And the leader of Blue Cosmos,” she said, visibly disgusted. “There are some things worse than death, Azrael, and I refuse to submit to a group that thinks Coordinators are monsters. My loyalty –our loyalty,” she amended, flashing Natarle a brief smile, “is to the Orb Union.”

Azrael sighed theatrically. “Well, don’t say I didn’t give you a chance. If you want to throw in with those space monsters and their toadies –like Athha- that’s your problem.” He touched a switch. “Calamity, Forbidden, and Raider, launch! Today we destroy the indestructible Archangel.”

The comm officer cut the circuit at a gesture from Natarle. “Why the Archangel?” he wondered.

“We’re a symbol,” Murrue explained. “First of the Earth Forces’ fight against ZAFT, and now of Orb’s struggle against the Alliance.” She looked over her shoulder. “Mir, warn Kira and Athrun. Those three machines are bound to target them.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Natarle glanced back at Morris. “Do we have any IDs on the other Archangel-class vessels?”

“Affirmative,” the XO said. “IFF tags them as Cherubim and Seraphim.”

Natarle shook her head. “Angelic names for an evil nation… All right. Let Yzak know; he has been craving a ‘legged ship’ kill ever since Heliopolis. Meanwhile, target Fafnirs on the Dominion.” She sat back.

I do not know what could bring the leader of Blue Cosmos here, but I am not letting him out alive if I can help it.

Mendel nearspace

“Roger that, Mir,” Kira said. He glanced at the Justice. “You get that, Athrun?”

His friend nodded. “Looks like things are going to get interesting.” Athrun smiled reassuringly. “Let’s go get them, Kira!”

As Mir had said, three unpleasantly familiar Gundams were heading their way. The Calamity was performing noticeably better than it had at Orb; hardly surprising, since it did not have to worry about gravity in space.

Orga Sabnak was loving it. “Yeah, let’s go!”

“They want these guys intact,” Clotho pointed out.

“How about just one of them?” Shani suggested.

Kira frowned. What do they want with us? he wondered, then shrugged it off. What mattered was the fact that the Earth Forces wanted Freedom and Justice, not why they wanted them. Thus, he could not allow himself to be captured.

Not that I would allow it anyway, he thought grimly, firing his rifle at the Forbidden. As he had unfortunately expected, the beam was deflected by the Geschmeidig Panzer system.

“I won’t be that easy!” Shani yelled, cutting loose with his plasma cannon.

Kira swore, dodging; a difficult feat, since the Forbidden’s plasma shots could be guided via magnetic fields. He returned fire with his own plasma cannons, this time missing completely. Growling incoherently, Shani closed the distance, clashing his scythe against the Freedom’s shield.

The Raider tried to swoop in but was cut off by the Justice. “Bastard!” Clotho snarled.

Athrun snapped his sabers together. “If you want Kira, you’ll have to get through me first.”

Clotho opened up with the Zorn, only to see it blocked. Swearing viciously, he swung the Mjollnir, which Athrun nimbly dodged. “Stand still!”

“I don’t think so.” The Fatum-00 detached, slamming into the Raider’s head. When Clotho’s vision cleared, it was too late; Athrun slammed the Justice’s knee into the Raider’s chest. “Back off or else!”

“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t forget about me!” Orga called. Forgetting him would have been difficult; a Scylla blast tends to stick in one’s mind.

Athrun shook his head, avoiding the blast. “These guys are crazy.”

Kira’s duel with the Forbidden had taken him close to the Vesalius. Looking over his shoulder at the destroyer, a nasty idea occurred to him. “Captain Ades, when I give the word, fire the main guns.”

“Understood, Commander Yamato.” If Ades was puzzled, he did not show it.

“Now!” Kira hit his thrusters, “diving”…

And the Vesalius’s main cannons erupted, nearly vaporizing the Forbidden, which barely got its shields up in time.

“Bastard,” Shani hissed.

Kira fired all his ranged weapons at once. “I’m not letting someone like you defeat me!”

A three-on-two might seem to give the advantage to the Earth Forces pilots, but nothing was farther from the truth. Orga, Shani, and Clotho were piloting machines not much advanced over the Heliopolis Gundams, against two nuclear-powered mobile suits piloted by Kira Yamato and Athrun Zala, the best pilots the Orb/ZAFT alliance had to offer.

As Andrew Waltfeld had noted before they left the PLANTs, Kira and Athrun were a fearsome combination.

The three biological CPUs had regrouped, but Kira and Athrun were still pushing the pace. A burst from the Raider’s shield cannon bounced off the Freedom’s PSA, and then Clotho was forced to dodge a return shot from Kira’s rifle. Athrun reduced the Calamity’s Scylla to useless junk, easily dodging a retaliatory ram cannon shot.

“They won’t quit!” Orga complained. “It’s even worse than Orb!”

“Of course, they won’t!” Cagalli snarled, joining the fight. Then, “Aaahhh!”

A projectile from the Seraphim’s starboard Valiant had blown a small chunk out of the Akatsuki’s side.

“Cagalli!” Kira screamed, seeing his sister in danger. An amethyst seed burst in his mind, and he moved.

None of the Allied ship’s crew knew what they had unleashed. The Earth Forces were largely ignorant of the SEED Factor, and what its bearers could do. Battering Forbidden and Raider out of the way, Kira charged the offending ship. Two Strike Daggers exploded when they tried to stop him, and then he was in range. Igelstellungs, Gottfrieds, Valiants, and missile tubes exploded under his fire. He seemed almost unstoppable.

Until the Cherubim came up and fired both Gottfrieds at him.

Eternal, bridge

Lacus stared worriedly at the Golden Gundam, shielded by the Justice while they tried to figure out what had just happened. “Cagalli, are you all, right?”

“I think so,” the princess responded, sounding more than a little frazzled. “No real damage; just shook me up.” She forcibly stabilized her machine. “What was that, anyway?”

“Checking that now,” Martin DaCosta told her. He frowned. “It looks like some kind of superdense projectile.”

“That makes sense,” Aisha put in. “Since the Akatsuki has both Phase-shift and that reflector coating, the Earth Forces must have been searching for a way around it.”

“And it looks like they’ve found one,” Waltfeld said grimly. “Cagalli, can you still fight?”

She nodded firmly. “Like I said, no real damage.”

“Status change!” DaCosta barked. “The Freedom is under attack by one of the new Archangel-class ships, looks like the Cherubim.”

More than one person stared in horror as the Earth Forces ship fired its Gottfrieds, grazing the Freedom and sending it out of control.

Mendel nearspace

No, Athrun thought, staring in mingled disbelief and horror at the tumbling Freedom. Kira, no!

Behind his eyes, an emerald seed burst.

If the druggie trio (as one Allied prisoner had described them) had been startled by Kira’s attack, they were completely blindsided by Athrun’s. The Justice physically grabbed the Calamity, slamming it into the other machines. Athrun then sped off; when they tried to chase him, they did not get far.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Cagalli snarled, mobile turrets slowly orbiting her machine. “I won’t let you stop him from rescuing my brother.”

“KIRA!” Athrun reached his friend just in time to ward off another Gottfried blast. “Leave him alone!” He fired his Fortis beam cannons, slagging both of the Cherubim’s Gottfrieds. He ignored the CIWS fire entirely –it could not hurt him- and opened up on the enemy’s Lohengrins.

Then the Freedom recovered, unleashing its multibeam attack on a swarm of Daggers that tried to interfere.

Athrun gazed anxiously at the Freedom. “Kira, are you all, right?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Kira winced. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have gone off like that.”

“Kira, they tried to kill your sister, and with a new weapon at that,” Athrun said. “It was only natural, and you weren’t being reckless anyway.”

Kira shrugged. “I guess so.”

“Kira, Athrun, the Earth Forces are pulling back,” Nicol said, the Blitz moving to join them. “That just leaves Neo ZAFT for now.”

Athrun looked to where the Anubis was battling Bartlett’s Deathdealer. “That’s bad enough,” he said.

“I will never understand your motives, Bartlett,” Alex said conversationally. “You’ve never struck me as the kind of guy who’d want every Natural dead, yet here you are, one of Patrick Zala’s thugs.”

The other snorted. “Thug? Hardly. I’m doing this for the glory of my people.”

“You’re doing it for the glory of yourself,” Alex countered. He clashed his combined saber against Bartlett’s lance. “All you cared about was that pointless rivalry.”

Bartlett dodged to the side, launching a missile salvo that was immediately shredded by Alex’s CIWS. A subsequent volley of laser fire splashed against the Anubis’s shield. He fired again, cursing as Alex deployed his DRAGOON beam shield. “You’ve always been two-faced, you know. Offering life in one hand and delivering death with the other.”

“And just what is that supposed to mean?” Alex flipped upside down relative to the Deathdealer, firing his rifle. “Never mind; you’re obviously too far gone to make any sense.” He paused, a familiar sensation filling his mind. “So, he’s here, too.”

Bartlett laughed, breaking off his attack. “Yes, he is, and it would appear you’re not the only one to have noticed.” Indeed, Mu’s Strike was visible heading for the colony. “Perhaps you’d better follow your hero, see what the Man with the Mask is up to.”

Alex hesitated. He knew better than to trust Bartlett, yet the other had a point about Le Creuset, who was a far greater threat. Not to mention whatever secrets the GARM facility might still contain. “We’ll finish this later, Bartlett,” he said, turning. “I’ve no doubt you’ll be looking forward to it.”

What could Le Creuset want? he wondered, ignoring Bartlett’s mocking laughter. Does it have anything to do with the Ultimate Coordinator project?

He had a feeling he was not going to like the answer.

Archangel, bridge

“Captain, the Earth Forces are pulling back,” Tonomura said. “Looks like Kira and Athrun gave them a bit of a scare.”

Murrue nodded. It would not last, she knew, even with the damage to Cherubim and Seraphim. They had not come this far just to turn back at their first setback. Still, it gave the First Fleet some breathing space. They had to make the most of it.

“Commander La Flaga reports he’s going into the colony,” Mir said suddenly. “Alex, Kira, and Athrun are going with him.”

Murrue frowned. “Into the colony?” she repeated.

Mir nodded. “Apparently, the Providence was spotting approaching the harbor. Commander La Flaga is investigating.”

The captain felt the blood drain from her face. Le Creuset. She looked at the comm screen. “Captain Ades, do you have any idea what Le Creuset could be after?”

Ades shrugged. “The only logical destination is the GARM facility. I don’t know what he’d want there, though, unless there’s something about Lady Cagalli and Commander Yamato that we haven’t heard.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much, Murrue,” Natarle put in. “Le Creuset is good, but it’s highly unlikely he could defeat the Strike, the Justice, the Freedom, and the Anubis together.”

“I don’t think he intends to try,” Ades said. “There has to be something more.”

Murrue sighed. “I only hope they’ll come out all right.” Mu, please be careful. I cannot bear to lose you. And you, Kira. Take care of yourself…little brother.

Mendel, colony interior

The four Gundams landed near the old GARM facility. Like Ades, they knew that it was the only place Le Creuset was likely to head for.

“No sign of the Providence, but that’s hardly a surprise,” Alex commented, his heirloom Luger clutched in his artificial hand. “Le Creuset is anything but stupid; he knows we’d blow it up, given the chance.”

“Yeah,” Mu agreed. “It’ll be hidden.”

They cautiously moved into the facility, sidearms ready. It was dark, and more than a little spooky; nothing moved save the four of them. From all appearances –scattered papers, overturned tables, long-dead embryos in large tubes- the place had not been touched since Blue Cosmos ransacked it, years earlier.

So, this is where Cagalli and I were born, Kira thought. Though he had known about it for months, he was still unnerved. He clutched his weapon hard.

Athrun laid a hand on his shoulder. “Kira, are you all, right?”

Kira took a deep, steadying breath. “This place…I knew about it, but it’s still getting to me,” he admitted.

“I understand.” Athrun smiled at his friend. “Don’t worry, Kira. You can count on me, no matter what.”

Kira smiled back, some of his nervousness dissipating. “I know. Thanks, Athrun.”

Alex, of course, was completely unaffected by their surroundings. Leaving aside the fact that he had a surfeit of sangfroid, he had had far more time than Kira to prepare himself. At the moment, he was focused on finding the enemy; the place appeared empty, but he could feel Le Creuset’s presence.

So could Mu. “Your old CO’s definitely here, Athrun,” he said quietly. “I just wish I could tell where.”

His question was shortly answered. A shot rang out, striking a nearby railing. Alex returned fire, but he knew there was no way he could hit.

“So, you’ve finally come!” Rau Le Creuset said, laughing.

“Commander, why are you doing this?” Athrun called. “What’s the point?”

Le Creuset laughed again. “Well, hello, Athrun! I suppose it isn’t surprising that you’d be here, not when Kira Yamato is involved.”

“Kira is my friend,” Athrun shot back. “I don’t care how he was created.”

“Maybe so,” the masked man conceded. “And what of you, Strassmeier? How does it feel to come to the place that made you what you are?”

Alex did not even twitch. “It’s nothing more than a curiosity to me, Le Creuset,” he said coolly. “I full intended to come here during my search for the Ultimate Coordinator. Such a place has no hold on my emotions.”

More laughter. “Oh, of course, you’ve always had cold-space lubricants for blood,” Le Creuset said. “But you, Mu, you have a connection of your own to this place, even if you don’t realize it.”

“Why should I believe you!?” the Hawk demanded, firing his pistol.

Rau Le Creuset finally stepped out of the shadows; his own weapon held at the ready. “There are more secrets here than even Strassmeier knows, and he is undoubtedly the best-informed of you. Secrets that Blue Cosmos never suspected.”

Alex took a step forward, raising his Luger. “I have no doubt that Blue Cosmos never cared,” he said. “So long as this facility was taken out, they were satisfied.”

“That may be true,” Le Creuset agreed. He knew had had their attention, but he was careful not to go too far. Alex Strassmeier’s marksmanship was legendary. “Nevertheless, there is much more here than meets the eye.”

Mu snorted. “Like what!?” he demanded. “We know all about the Ultimate Coordinator project, you psycho.”

“This predated the twins’ birth by several years,” Le Creuset told him. “Doctor Hibiki wasn’t pleased, but he knew he had no choice.”

“No choice in what!?” Mu demanded, annoyed at the masked man’s mind games.

“No choice but to do the bidding of a wealthy, arrogant man in order to obtain the funding he needed,” Le Creuset said. “A man who deeply feared death and wished for immortality by any means necessary.” He tossed a binder at the four pilots.

It opened when it hit the floor. Several photos were visible, including one of the infant Kira and Cagalli in the arms of their biological mother, Via Hibiki…and one of Al Da Flaga, Mu’s father.