Chapter 4: The Songstress

Archangel, Bridge, 2 February, C.E. 71

More than one of the Earth Forces contingents saw their escape from Artemis as a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Even with the food Lia had brought over, the Archangel was low on supplies, and the Valkyrie had taken additional damage during their fight with the Le Creuset team’s mobile suits; Dearka had managed to pulverize the starboard Gottfried. Repairs were proceeding, but they would take a couple of days yet.

On the plus side, X304 Scorpion, X208 Shinobi, and X112 Inferno were finally ready for action, and their pilots (especially conspiracy theorist/pyromaniac Chris Madsen) were spoiling for a fight.

“So, we need supplies, particularly water,” Murrue said. She glanced at her niece. “Lia?”

Valkyrie’s captain grimaced. “We’ve still got plenty of food, but a freak hit during the battle with the Vesalius and the Gamow contaminated about half our water supply.” She sighed. “We’re in pretty much the same situation as you guys.”

Alex, standing next to Cagalli -What’s going on with those two? Mu wondered, I thought she hated his guts- stroked his chin. “Fortunately, we’re not in danger of imminent attack, so we can consider our actions more carefully.”

Badgiruel raised an eyebrow. “Are you certain of that?”

A shrug. “Our Parsifal attack very nearly blew the guts out of the Bismarck,” he said. “As for the Gamow, well, I don’t think we have much to worry about. As I told Kira, Yzak is the dictionary definition of ‘arrogant hothead’, but he is anything but stupid. Besides which, it’s highly unlikely that they can even find us; we’re too close to the Debris Belt.”

There was a general nodding of heads at that. The Debris Belt, an immense collection of cosmic junk left over from humanity’s early exploration of space, was virtually guaranteed to wreak havoc on any sensor system ZAFT could possibly have at that point.

Not that they expected the area to be completely deserted. The Junk Guild was known to poke around there from time to time (though since Lia’s parents were members, no one expected any trouble from that sort of encounter), and there was always the possibility of pirates. (Of course, Archangel and Valkyrie between them would make short work of such vermin.)

The Debris Belt… “I know we can’t sail right through it, but what if we scavenge the Belt for supplies?” Mu suggested. “As Alex just pointed out, we’re pretty close, so we should be able to find something we can use.”

Murrue, Lia, and Cagalli winced almost in unison. Mu’s idea made sense, but none of them particularly liked it.

“I guess we have no choice,” Lia said reluctantly.

“It sounds macabre, but it’s really our only option at this point,” Alex agreed.

Cagalli still did not like it, but she realized the necessity. “We’d better not hang around too long, though,” she said.

“Why’s that?” Murrue asked, genuinely puzzled.

The princess highlighted a recent addition to the Belt. “Junius Seven wound up right there,” she said quietly. “It’s only twelve days till the one-year anniversary of the Bloody Valentine Tragedy. You can bet that the area’s going to be crawling with ZAFT ships before too long.”

Badgiruel winced. “She’s right, Captain. We would best get what we need as quickly as possible, then get out of there. The last thing we need is a fight with multiple ZAFT teams at once.”

That was putting it mildly.


At that moment, the student volunteers were discussing the same subject over lunch. They understood the ship would be low on supplies even without the refugees Kira had picked up. (Not that any of them blamed him, especially Sai.)

They were joined by Alex’s friend Kyle, pilot of the Devastator. Like all the Valkyrie’s pilots, he had enrolled in the college at Heliopolis, and he had taken some classes with Tolle and Mir. The three of them had become close friends over the past year, and Kyle had repeatedly apologized for his deception.

“For crying out loud, don’t worry about it,” Tolle said for about the fifth time, laughing. “If even half of what Alex says about Patrick Zala is true, we can’t exactly blame you for being cagey.”

Kyle smiled. “Thanks. Now, getting back to the topic at hand, anyone have any ideas?”

Sai shrugged. “Not a clue. We shouldn’t worry about it, though; I’m sure the officers have some plan.”

“With Alex helping them, you bet they will,” the pilot said with a smile. He gave Flay a gracious nod. “He might not like the Atlantic Federation, but he’s not going to desert you guys.”

Flay wondered about that. She did not like Coordinators, and she was more than a little nervous around Alex, but she believed what she had heard so far.

And what happened to his sister is every bit as wrong as what ZAFT is doing, she grudgingly admitted. “Does he have anyone he’s close to, like a girlfriend?”

Flay jumped, startled, as Kyle roared with laughter. It was nearly a minute before he could speak. “Alex Strassmeier, have a girlfriend? Ha!” He wiped his eyes. “I asked him the same question when we left the PLANTs. He gave me this icy look-” everyone, Flay included, grinned; Alex was famous for his ability to stare people down, “and said that any girl who took that sort of interest in him should have her head examined.”

A low chuckle ran around the table. While he was not rude or unfriendly -Kira had seen him grin once- Alex tended to keep to himself. Until Kira had revealed what Cagalli had told him, the others had thought it was simply Alex’s personality. Now they knew better.

I bet what happened to his sister has something to do with it, too, Mir thought. “Did you know his sister?” she asked.

Kyle shook his head. “I didn’t meet him until a year after she was abducted. It wasn’t until after the Bloody Valentine that he told me what was ailing him.” A wry smile touched his lips. “I do know Yzak, though. Nice guy, unless you are his enemy. Hotheaded and impulsive, sure, but everyone’s got their problems.” He looked at Kira. “I also know your pal Athrun.”

“What’s he like?” Tolle asked, turning to Kira.

Kira closed his eyes, smiling a little as the memories came back. “Ever since I have known him, Athrun has always been a loyal friend. I knew that if I needed him, he would always be there to help. He’s not the same as his father, that’s for sure.”

Mir raised her eyebrows. “Why did he join ZAFT, then?”

Kira’s expression darkened. “He lost his mom in the Bloody Valentine. Athrun joined up about a month later, both to avenge her, and to make sure no one else suffered that kind of fate.”

Even Flay sympathized with that. She had lost her mother when she was little, and her opinion of Coordinators aside, she had been both shocked and horrified when she heard about Junius Seven. “How can we claim to be better than they are if we do something like that?” she had asked at the time.

Further conversation was cut off by the PA system. “Volunteers, report to the bridge. Repeat, volunteers, report to the bridge.”


“So that’s the size of it,” Mu said. “We need supplies, and this is the only way to get them.”

Sai looked troubled. “It seems wrong, somehow. It’s as if we’re feeding off the dead.”

“We’re only getting what we need,” Murrue said quietly. “We will not take things that belonged to others. Our primary concern is the water supply.”

No one questioned that. Food was not too much of a problem (fortunately, since any food they found in the ruins of space colonies would almost certainly be inedible), but if they ran out of water, they were doomed.

“It sounds ghoulish, I know, but we have no choice,” Alex said. “Water won’t be hard to find, of course. All we have to do is look for the inevitable giant chunks of ice.”

“You guys will be teamed with some of the regular crew in Mystral shuttles,” Mu said. “Except you, Kira. You’ll be flying cover in the Strike.”

That much Kira could accept without question. Since he was the only one who could pilot the Strike, it would be his job (along with the Valkyrie’s pilots) to deal with any nosy interlopers (i.e., ZAFT). He did not like it, but he recognized the necessity.

Alex seemed to sense his thoughts. “You won’t be alone out there, Kira. Kyle and I will be flying, and we have finally got the Scorpion, the Shinobi, and the Inferno operational. That should be more than enough to take care of any crazies we run into.” He stared into space. “First, however, we’re going to have a memorial ceremony.”

“A memorial ceremony?” Kuzzey repeated, frowning.

Badgiruel tapped her board, bringing up a map of the area. “The one-year anniversary of the Bloody Valentine is twelve days away,” she said. “The remains of Junius Seven fell into the Debris Belt.”

Everyone understood at once. Junius Seven, a farming colony destroyed three days after the Earth Alliance declared war on the PLANTs. Alliance personnel loyal to Blue Cosmos had smuggled a nuclear missile onto the mobile armor carrier Roosevelt. No one else knew until it was far too late.

Officially, the pilot who had fired the fatal shot had committed suicide out of guilt for his actions. What no one on Archangel or Valkyrie knew, save Alex and Cagalli, was that he had in fact faked his own death, and then secretly emigrated to the Orb Union. He was now a Morgenroete test pilot, working on Orb’s top secret mobile suit program.

Poor guy, Alex thought. It is not just Coordinators who fall victim to Blue Cosmos. Naturals are in just as much danger.

Supreme Council Chamber, Aprilius One, PLANTs, 3 February, C.E. 71

Fourteen people sat in a dimly lit chamber. Twelve of them sat around a large circular table: the PLANT Supreme Council. Foremost among them was Siegel Clyne, representative of Aprilius City and Chairman of the Council. Other notables included Patrick Zala, Chairman of the National Defense Committee; Tad Elsman; Yuri Amalfi; Alex Strassmeier’s aunt, Ezalia Joule; and Eileen Canaver, Clyne’s closest ally on the Council.

The remaining two, Commander Rau Le Creuset and Zala’s son Athrun, were there to present a report on the Heliopolis operation. So far it had gone well, though some Council members, notably Chairman Clyne and Yuri Amalfi, were visibly disturbed by the destruction of Heliopolis.

“That concludes my initial report,” Le Creuset said. “Are there any questions?”

Zala stood. “What of that black warship, Commander? You have so far said little about it.”

The masked man shrugged. “We know little about it at this point, sir. Its design is like the legged ship’s; the main differences are that it lacks linear cannons, it uses laser clusters for point defense, as opposed to the standard machine cannons, and it is clearly intended to be difficult to find.”

“Do you have any idea who is operating it?” Zala asked. “Is it an Earth Forces vessel?”

Le Creuset shook his head. “Not precisely. According to the few communications intercepts we have, its commander is related to the legged ship’s captain, one Murrue Ramius, a senior-grade lieutenant. Unfortunately, we do not have much on her, but we do know that her older brother is a member of the Junk Guild; the black ship’s captain is apparently his daughter.” He sighed. “We do, however, have a positive I.D. on their lead mobile suit pilot.”

“And that is?” Zala prompted.

Le Creuset looked directly at Ezalia Joule. “A young man named Alex Strassmeier,” he said softly.

Ezalia’s face, pale even under normal circumstances, went white. “Are you certain?” she whispered; eyes wide with horror.

“I’m afraid so,” he confirmed. “Yzak had a rather vicious argument with him during the battle. There is no doubt.”

Ezalia closed her eyes. Alex, why? What could possibly induce you to help the Earth Forces? “Did he say what he was up to?”

Le Creuset shrugged. “According to Yzak, he had some rather unpleasant things to say about Committee Chairman Zala, not to mention my own actions at Heliopolis. As for why he would help that warship, his own ship’s captain is also one of his closest friends; I assume he didn’t want to ask her to turn against her own family.”

“There may be another reason,” Ezalia said slowly. “I believe you said Mu La Flaga was involved?” Le Creuset nodded. “Alex has always admired the Hawk of Endymion,” she continued. “La Flaga is one of the few Earth Forces officers I would speak well of, one of the small groups of their officers who see Coordinators as people, rather than monsters.”

“A pity he’s on the wrong side,” Elsman agreed.

There was a general nodding of heads (notably excluding Patrick Zala). Even though he was a Natural, Mu La Flaga was not exactly hated in the PLANTs, other than among the truly hardcore factions. For most people, including the bulk of ZAFT, he was considered a worthy opponent.

Sees Coordinators as people; could that be why Kira is cooperating with them? Athrun thought. Not that he could say that out loud; his father had made clear that his friendship with the Strike pilot was to remain secret. Athrun thought the restriction was silly, given that all his teammates knew, but it was not his decision to make.

Maybe Strassmeier’s right. Maybe the legged ship is not like the rest of the Earth Forces. While he knew his father would disagree, Athrun was starting to think that perhaps the legged ship’s crew could be brought around, if they were shown the truth about the Earth Forces. After attending a lunar prep school, where everyone knew he was a Coordinator, he knew perfectly well that not all Naturals hated his people.

Le Creuset had the floor again. “To give an idea of the capabilities of the new mobile suits, I have brought Athrun Zala. He piloted one of the machines we captured and fought against the one the Earth Forces retained.”

Clyne exchanged a glance with the elder Zala, then nodded. “I will allow Athrun Zala to present his report.”

Athrun took an unobtrusive breath and stood. “First, I would like to present this machine, known as the Aegis…”

Ezalia Joule’s residence

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Yzak said. “I tried, but…” He shrugged helplessly.

Ezalia shook her head. “Don’t be. You did your best.”

The image on her comm screen grimaced. “My best wasn’t enough. The Vesalius was almost blown up in the first battle. Artemis was worse; I had him talking, and then that idiot Bartlett got in the way.”

“Bartlett.” Ezalia spat the name. “That fool. He still hasn’t gotten over that tournament on Maius Three.”

Yzak grinned. “He still can’t win, either, even with that custom CGUE. Alex kept him under control and still had enough to scatter the rest of his team. Then the black ship gave Bismarck a dose of antimatter.”

That is something, at least. Normally, she would have been furious that one of their warships was defeated so easily but getting Daniel Bartlett’s flagship out of the way would make things easier. He is good, but he is also too much of a loose cannon. “What about that other machine, the Strike?”

Yzak shrugged. “Athrun never actually fought it, since his best friend was flying it, but the guy trounced Nicol at Artemis.”

Ezalia frowned. “His best friend? A Natural?”

Her son frowned back. “Who said anything about Naturals? He’s a first-generation Coordinator, name of Kira Yamato.”

“A first-generation Coordinator? Commander Le Creuset’s report did not say anything about that. Neither did Athrun Zala’s, for that matter.” She checked a transcript of the day’s Council meeting. “Are you sure this Yamato isn’t a Natural?”

“Positive,” Yzak said firmly. “A first-generation Coordinator. Athrun was adamant about that, and since he went to school with the guy for seven years, he would know. He tried to get him to join us, but Yamato refused.”

“Why would he refuse?” Ezalia asked in disbelief. “If he’s a Coordinator…”

Yzak shrugged again. “He said something about protecting his friends, and that he doesn’t care if they’re Naturals.”

“There may be some truth to that,” she said slowly. “Yamato is an Orb national, correct?” Yzak nodded. “Orb is one of the few nations on Earth that allow Coordinators to live openly among them. Chairman Clyne has been trying for some time to persuade them to declare for the PLANTs, but so far it hasn’t worked.”

“What about the Earth Forces?”

“If Mu La Flaga is involved, that would explain things,” Ezalia replied. “By all accounts, he’s not cut from the same cloth as their high command, and you know Alex admires him.”

“Yeah…” Yzak looked like he wanted to say more, then shook his head. “I guess that’s it.”

Ezalia nodded grimly. “Be careful out there. And keep at Alex.” Her son nodded back and cut the circuit.

She closed her eyes, feeling suddenly weary. Her nephew’s actions had come as a tremendous shock, and she was still numb. It just did not make sense. Alex was well known for his passionate hatred of the Earth Forces; even with Mu La Flaga involved, it was difficult to believe.

Unless… Ezalia blinked as a new thought occurred to her. After hearing Le Creuset’s report, she had read the intelligence dossier on Murrue Ramius for herself. The woman appeared to fall into the same category as La Flaga, someone who did not care whether those around her had been genetically engineered or not. She had also been mentored by Admiral Lewis Halberton; the only Allied flag officer known to have any sympathy for Coordinators. Halberton’s protégé, brother in the Junk Guild; does Alex think this will bring him closer to Andrea?

That made sense. Ezalia remembered the days following the Mandelbrot Incident all too well. She remembered her nephew’s face, streaked with blood and tears, as he told of the assault on his home, of Andrea’s abduction, and his own escape.

Once he had recovered, Alex had sworn to find his sister, and exact revenge on those who had stolen her. Yzak had agreed; he loved his cousins as siblings, and Andrea’s disappearance had filled him with a white-hot rage. It was a rage Ezalia shared; she had nothing against Naturals per se, but the Atlantic Federation was by far the worst of the Allies.

Alex, whatever you are up too…be careful.

Debris Belt, Ruins of Junius Seven

Kira Yamato was nearing the hangar when he heard a voice. “Kira?”

He turned. “Flay? What is it?”

The redhead hesitated, visibly nervous. “I… wanted to apologize. For Artemis. I shouldn’t have blurted out that you were a Coordinator…”

Kira laid a hand on her shoulder. “It’s not your fault. They would have found out anyway, since only a Coordinator can manage the Strike’s OS.” He raised an eyebrow. “But what’s with you? I thought you didn’t like Coordinators.”

Flay glanced away. “I… I am not sure anymore. You’re the first Coordinator I’ve really gotten to know, and after hearing what happened to Alex’s sister, I can’t help wondering if everything I’ve heard about them is true.” She shook her head. “I don’t think my father lied to me or anything, but he hasn’t been around Coordinators much, either.”

“Your father is an Atlantic Federation official, isn’t he?”

She nodded. “He’s vice foreign minister.”

Kira winced. “Let us hope Alex doesn’t meet him. You know how he hates the Atlantic Federation.”

Flay winced in turn. She did not believe her nation was as rotten as their mysterious ally insisted, but she also could not blame him for thinking that way after what happened to his family. The identity of his sister’s abductors was a matter of dispute, but the Mandelbrot Incident was a matter of public record.

She shook herself. “Anyway, I wanted to say that I’m behind you. We all owe you our lives.”

Kira almost blushed at that. He did not consider himself a hero, but he had to admit it felt good to have someone like Flay (who he had a secret interest in) express gratitude for his efforts. It gave him the will to keep fighting.

“Thanks,” he said, smiling. “That means a lot.”

She smiled back. “Be careful out there.”

Six mobile suits and more than a dozen people in spacesuits stood on the edge of a cliff. Spread out before them was the vast expanse of an artificial continent, the largest piece of debris from the PLANT called Junius Seven. X105 Strike and X108 Stormbird headed the mobile suit formation, Kira disturbed, Alex expressionless as usual. Sai Argyle, Kuzzey Buskirk, Tolle Koenig, and Miriallia Haw, Kira’s fellow volunteers, stood at the foot of the Strike.

It feels different when you are there, Mir thought. This is not a news report; it is real. Stepping forward, she released a bundle of paper flowers into the void. On hearing where they were headed, the refugees Kira had rescued had made their own contribution to the memorial. The paper flowers Mir set free were made by the youngest of their charges.

That is my cue. Natarle Badgiruel, of all people, had suggested that, since he was the senior PLANT native present, Alex Strassmeier should speak at the memorial. To the surprise of most, save Cagalli, Kyle, and Murrue, he had agreed readily enough. “The Bloody Valentine, the greatest tragedy in the history of space colonization,” he said, his cold blue eyes sad, his normally toneless voice loaded with emotion. “More than two hundred thousand people, murdered in a barbaric nuclear attack.”

The Stormbird took a step forward, raising its beam rifle. “May the victims of this tragedy rest in peace, knowing that they will rest alone. The Bloody Valentine must never be repeated.” Alex fired one shot, then stepped back, resuming his place beside the Strike.

He has a good voice, when he uses it, Murrue Ramius thought.

The next few hours were relatively uneventful. Archangel’s complement of Mistral work shuttles used giant buzz saws to cut through the huge chunks of ice that dotted the colony’s remains, while the six mobile suits and Mu La Flaga’s Moebius Zero flew cover. No one was expecting trouble, but they were not inclined to take chances after their recent narrow escapes.

Kira gazed at the ruined landscape, seeing in his mind’s eye the searing fireball that reduced Junius Seven and its entire population to dust and debris. He had already moved to Heliopolis when it happened, and the event had permanently soured his attitude towards the Earth Forces high command. The crew of the Archangel were different, of course; Mu had taken Kira under his wing, and the young Coordinator genuinely liked Murrue Ramius.

He looked to the side. Alex’s Stormbird cruised next to his own Strike, primed for battle. Two other Valkyrie machines, X208 Shinobi and X112 Inferno were visible beyond it. Kira did not know either of the pilots very well, though he found Chris Madsen somewhat unnerving.

“Kira.” Cagalli’s face appeared on his screen. “How are you holding up?”

Kira smiled, grateful for the distraction. “Okay, I guess. It still feels like we are feeding off the dead, but Alex is right. We don’t really have a choice.”

“I know.” The two had grown close very quickly since the escape from Heliopolis. Nothing romantic; neither was the other’s type, (fortunately, as it developed), but their connection, whatever it was, had guaranteed they would be friends. “I don’t like it, either, but…” The princess shrugged.

Kira sighed. Will this never end?

Archangel, bridge

Romero Pal had almost dozed off when his console beeped at him. He stared at the screen for a moment, and then his eyes widened in disbelief. “Radar interference! N-jammer levels increasing!”

“Confirmed,” Chandra put in. “Detecting two Laurasia-class frigates, emerging from the debris field. They’re launching mobile suits.”

“Check profiles,” Badgiruel snapped.

Jackie Tonomura studied his display. “Thermal patterns… twelve GINNs, ma’am. Standard weapons packages- wait. The lead machine is a GINN High Maneuver.”

Murrue cursed under her breath. “Faster and more agile than a standard model. Do we have an ID on those frigates?”

Chandra punched up the catalogue. “Checking…the Pasteur and the Curie. According to our most recent reports, they’re with the Coast team.”

Alex’s face appeared on the main screen. “Coast? Mikhail Coast?”

Murrue blinked. “How did you know that?”

“He was my family’s doctor before he joined ZAFT,” Alex replied, pointedly flexing his right arm. “He fitted my prosthesis. Coast knows what he is doing, but he is still not a good doctor. He definitely isn’t one of my favorite people.”

Badgiruel frowned. “How can he know what he’s doing and yet not be a good doctor?”

Alex snorted. “Being a doctor requires more than technical skill, Ensign; you need compassion, and Mikhail Coast has the bedside manner of a mummified catfish.” Despite the tension, that line drew a chuckle from all present, including the by-the-book XO. “Valkyrie’s doctor did his residency under Coast; talk to him, and you’ll get an earful.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Murrue pressed an intercom key. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”

Colony ruins

“Here we go,” Alex called. “Everybody ready?”

“I’ve been ready for days!” That, naturally, was Chris Madsen.

The other pilots confirmed ready for action, and Alex tightened his grip on his control bars. “All right, people, let’s show them what we can do!” Then the battle was joined.

Kira quickly found himself beset by two GINNs at once. Fighting his instinctive panic, he flung the Strike into a spin, bringing his rifle to bear on the closer ZAFT machine. He waited for just the right moment, and then his finger squeezed the trigger, sending blasts of hard light into the GINN. One shot pierced the cockpit, vaporizing the pilot; another found the machine’s battery, triggering a spectacular explosion.

The other GINN did not last much beyond that. It charged, firing wildly with its assault rifle. Kira let it come, knowing that the bullets could not hurt his Phase-shift. When the GINN reached melee range, he calmly bisected it with a beam saber.

Kyle ignored the mobile suits entirely, focusing his attention on the pair of frigates. Two Laurasia’s, under Mikhail Coast, of all people. “Archangel, Valkyrie, I need some targeting data.”

“Coming right up,” Cagalli responded.

“On the way,” Mir concurred. “Best shot would be for the Curie.”

“Thanks.” Eyes narrowed in concentration; he snapped his guns together in sniper rifle mode. “Try this!” he snarled and fired.

There was an eye-searing flash; apparently, he had scored a direct hit on the Curie’s main reactor.

On the other side of the battlefield, Chris was having the time of his life. Despite his public persona, he was anything but unstable; he just loved to fight. Two GINNs fell to his rifle in quick succession, then he torched a third with his flamer.

“Burn baby, burn!” he shouted, laughing maniacally.

Sitting quietly in his stealth machine, Hiro Nakamura shook his head. Lunatic. Watching a GINN fly past, unaware of his presence, he slowly raised his Trikeros. At precisely the right moment, Hiro dropped Mirage Colloid and fired off his lancer darts. The GINN vanished in a boil of flame.

It did not die alone. The remaining machines, excluding Coast’s High Maneuver, swiftly fell to Brian Kilgore and his insanely agile Scorpion Gundam. He eschewed mobile suit mode entirely, flitting around in mobile armor mode and annihilating GINNs with his Stinger beam cannon.

The Doctor was overconfident, Alex thought. No surprise. He keyed his comm. “You seem to be running out of mobile suits, Doctor. Are you ill?”

A derisive snort sounded over the radio. “Natural causes, Alex,” Coast replied, not at all surprised at the identity of his opponent. “Clearly my pilots were incompetent.”

“Actually, the only Natural pilot in the area is Mu La Flaga,” Alex said coldly. “I see you still see us Coordinators as some kind of master race.” He raised an eyebrow. “You clearly have no use for the Hippocratic Oath; I believe its first tenet is ‘do no harm’.”

“Who’s doing harm?” Coast asked, sounding genuinely puzzled. “The Naturals are a cancer. I’m merely cutting it out,” he added, firing a burst from his rifle.

Alex did not even bother to dodge. “Your weapons are ineffective against machines with Phase-shift armor, Doc. And the Naturals are not a cancer or any other disease. Without Naturals, we would not exist. Even Yzak, for all his hatred of the Earth Forces, recognizes that.”

“Your beloved cousin has the same mental illness you have stupidity.”

Alex laughed at that. “I believe this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Yzak wears elite red, you do not. Plus, he is a member of the Le Creuset team, and, for all that I despise Rau Le Creuset, he is no fool. Only the best is chosen for his team.”

“True enough,” Coast conceded. “On the other hand, you can be an exceptional warrior -which your cousin is, I admit- and still be a fool, which he also is.”

“Really.” Alex unlimbered his plasma cannon and fired. Coast dodged easily enough. Blasted High Maneuver. “Yzak’s main problem -which I have pointed out to him on several occasions- is that he allows his temper to rule him. Personally, I’ve never understood how you earned a medical degree; you have all the charm of a ball bearing.”

Coast did not bother replying. Stowing his assault rifle, he drew his sword, a new version with anti-beam coating, and charged. Alex met the attack with a saber, and the two machines strained against each other.

This cannot last much longer, Alex thought grimly.

Archangel/Valkyrie, Bridge

Natarle Badgiruel stared hard at her display, feeling a grim satisfaction. Almost done. She looked up at her CO. “Strassmeier has Coast under control, Ma’am. All other GINNs confirmed destroyed, and Perry was able to take out the Curie.”

“Confirmed,” Lia Ramius said from her own Bridge. “All that’s left is the Pasteur. Suggest we focus our attacks there.”

Murrue nodded. “Agreed.” She glanced at Badgiruel. “Fire at your discretion, Natarle.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Badgiruel straightened. “Prepare Gottfrieds and Lohengrin! Target: Pasteur.”

“All weapons, match targeting data with the Archangel,” Lia said crisply. “Fire on my command.”

There was a moment of almost complete silence as the two warships locked on. Then, a single word rang out on both ships. “Fire!”

The Laurasia-class frigate Pasteur vanished in a blinding fireball.

Colony ruins

Mikhail Coast slumped in the cockpit as his flagship exploded. “It seems I have no choice,” he said, sheathing his blade. “I surrender.”

The Stormbird’s beam saber clicked off. “Wise of you, Doctor.” Alex switched frequencies. “You get that Archangel?”

“Affirmative,” Mir responded. “We’re sending out a shuttle.”

“Roger that.”

Kira, meanwhile, was starting to feel the effects of the battle, only now was it sinking in that he had just killed two people in less than a minute. Why…why did I have to kill them? Intellectually, he knew he had had no choice, but that did not mean he liked it.

Then a blip on the radar caught his eye. What is that? He keyed his comm. “Alex, you see that?” Kira knew the Stormbird had a better angle.

Alex frowned. “It’s a civilian ship. The Silverwind, hmm.” Where have I seen that before? Then it hit him. “Kira, check for any life pods, will you? I need to escort the Doctor’s GINN to the Archangel.”

“Got it.” Kira did not know what his friend was thinking, but he had no problem with a SAR run. Even if Ensign Badgiruel hates it, he thought with a trace of genuine humor.

He found a single pod almost at once.

Archangel, hangar

Practically the entire crew had gathered in the hangar. Or so it seemed to Alex, at least, as he unstrapped and opened his hatch. All three officers were present, along with Kira’s friends and every mechanic on the ship. Badgiruel, predictably for anyone who spent more than thirty seconds in her presence, was looking faintly disapproving. Mu, of course, clearly found the whole thing amusing.

Alex came to a halt near Kira. “What’s the word?”

“Almost got it open,” Murdoch said. “Stand back.”

The pod’s hatch opened, several guards raised their weapons…and a spherical pink robot drifted out, muttering to itself. Following it was a pink-haired teenage girl, one whom Alex Strassmeier, as a native of the PLANTs and the nephew of a Supreme Council member, recognized instantly.

Alex stepped forward. “It’s been a while, Miss Lacus. I don’t know if you remember me.”

While the girl looked at him in surprise, Badgiruel gave him a narrow look. “Miss Lacus?” she repeated.

“Lacus Clyne,” Alex explained. “Daughter of Supreme Council Chairman Siegel Clyne. It should be obvious how I know her.”

The ensign nodded. “Because you’re Ezalia Joule’s nephew.”

That got Lacus’s attention. “Mr. Strassmeier? Excuse me, Alex,” she amended, recalling that he had expressed a dislike of excessive formality. “I never would have expected to see you out here.”

“Particularly on an Atlantic Federation warship,” he said, allowing himself a rueful smile.

Her eyes widened in surprise. She did not know Alex very well, but she did know of his passionate hatred for the Earth Forces. “Atlantic Federation?”

“Perhaps we should discuss this in my office,” Murrue said. She gave Lacus a gracious nod. “I’m Murrue Ramius, Captain of the Archangel. And yes, this is an Earth forces vessel, despite the mobile suits.”

“The machine that brought you in was built by Orb for the Earth Forces,” Alex put in. “The one next to it is my personal machine, and the GINN is the sole survivor of a ZAFT team we ran into just before we found your pod.”

“I see.” If Lacus was disturbed by the thought of someone like Alex fighting against ZAFT, she did not show it. “Even if you’re Earth Forces, I’m grateful for your assistance.”

Murrue smiled. “We’re not monsters here, Miss Clyne.” She looked at Alex. “Would you join us, as well? You do know her, after all.”

Alex shrugged. “Not well, but I’ll come along nonetheless.”

Murrue’s office

“To begin with, what would bring the daughter of the Supreme Council Chairman to the Debris Belt?” Murrue asked. “This is rather unusual.”

Lacus, oddly enough, was unperturbed by her current situation. “As you know, the one-year anniversary of the Bloody Valentine is eleven days away. I came as part of a committee to prepare for a memorial ceremony. However, we encountered an Earth Forces vessel shortly after we arrived. When they learned we were from the PLANTs, they demanded that we allow an inspection party aboard.”

“An inspection party?” Mu repeated.

She nodded. “Seeing no harm in this, I agreed, but when they came aboard, they began to argue with the ship’s crew. They insisted we were a ZAFT vessel, and then things grew violent. Someone pushed me into a life pod, and that was the last thing I saw.” Lacus sighed. “I hope everyone is all right.”

Alex hid a grimace. She is not going to like it, but she must know. “I’m afraid your hope is in vain, Lacus,” he said gently. “The Silverwind is a gutted wreck. As far as we know, you’re the only survivor.”

Dismay showed on the girl’s face. “Are you sure?”

“As sure as we can be. I’m sorry.”

“I see.” Lacus closed her eyes briefly. “What of the ZAFT team you encountered? Did they know anything about what happened?”

Murrue frowned. “I don’t know. Natarle?”

The ensign shrugged. “Coast was just moved to the brig. We haven’t had the chance to interrogate him.”

Alex snorted derisively. “Don’t bother. You do not have the wherewithal, and Mikhail Coast has all the compassion of a cobra. I highly doubt he’d volunteer information just to soothe a teenage girl’s feelings.”

“I thought as much.” Murrue sighed, then turned back to Lacus. “In any case, you’re safe for now. You are a guest, not a prisoner, and will be treated as such. Someone will escort you to quarters.”

Lacus brightened noticeably. “Thank you, Captain.”

Gamow, pilots’ ready room.

Yzak Joule sat on a couch, brooding. He was alone, just as he preferred; while he appreciated his teammates’ sympathy, he was not one to wallow in it. Right now, his thoughts were focused inward, as he contemplated the trinket in his hand. It had been a gift from his cousin Alex, four years before.

He still remembered that day. “A tooth?” he had said, puzzled.

Alex had smiled ruefully. “It’s from the shark that bit my arm off,” he had replied, flexing his prosthesis. “I know you’re interested in folklore, so I figured you’d be interested. South Sea islanders used shark teeth for, among other things, currency.”

Yzak remembered his cousin’s fascination with such creatures; it came with being the son of an ichthyologist, he supposed. “I’ll take your word for it,” he said with a smile, pocketing the tooth. “Thanks.”

Alex had run a hand through his space-black hair, done in the same style as Yzak’s. Both of their parents had commented on the similarity in their appearances, along with how, though their temperaments were almost exact opposites (Alex was cold and methodical, while Yzak was hotheaded and impulsive), they were close enough to be brothers. “Think of it as a link, cousin. You and I, different though we may be, are alike in the ways that truly matter.”

Tears stung Yzak’s eyes, and he angrily dashed them away, thankful no one else was present. Now was not the time or place for such things. Even though Andrea was still missing, he could not afford to give in, not now. Too much was at stake.

He sighed. “Alex, wherever you are, whatever you’re up to…keep yourself alive, okay?”

Little did he know that, at that very moment, his cousin was having similar thoughts.

Valkyrie, Alex’s quarters

Alex sprawled on his bunk, gazing at a tooth almost identical to the one Yzak held; not surprising, since they came from the same shark. He, too, remembered that day, four years earlier. He remembered it all…

His chime sounded. “It’s open.”

The hatch slid aside, and Cagalli stepped in. “We’ve topped out on water,” she said, taking a seat near his desk. “We’re ready to go, and so’s the Archangel.”

“At least something went right today,” Alex said. “I don’t know who I would have expected to run into in the Debris Belt, but Mikhail Coast certainly came as a surprise. And then Kira rescued the daughter of Chairman Clyne.”

Cagalli shrugged. “Stranger things have happened. How is she doing, by the way?”

“Better than I would have expected from someone in her position,” Alex replied, frowning slightly. “It’s as if she doesn’t realize she’s on an enemy warship. She was unfailingly polite and didn’t show any fear.” He snorted. “Of course, it’s hard to be afraid of Murrue Ramius unless she’s pointing a gun at you. In any case, Lacus barely reacted when she heard I was fighting alongside the Earth Forces; I may seem emotionless most of the time, but my hatred for that bunch isn’t exactly a secret.”

“Maybe she’s had a sheltered life.”

Alex considered that, then shook his head. “Unlikely. That girl is more than just a pop star, and I have a hard time believing Siegel Clyne’s daughter to be a complete idiot. Besides which, it is hard to have a sheltered life in the PLANTs, particularly after Junius Seven. No, I think there’s something else.” He chuckled softly. “Now that I think about it, maybe my presence here is not that much of a surprise, either. I haven’t exactly hidden my opinion of Patrick Zala.”

“You got that right,” Cagalli said, chuckling herself.

He started to reply, then closed his mouth as another thought struck him. “It just occurred to me that Lacus’s presence could complicate things even more.” When the princess raised her eyebrows, he grimaced. “You can bet there’ll be a search party or three headed this way soon, since she obviously hasn’t been heard from. Plus, we just wiped out the Coast team, which may well have been one of those parties…and she happens to be engaged to Kira’s friend Athrun.”

She winced. “That could be a problem.”

“No kidding.” Alex fell silent, once again gazing at the tooth in his hand.

Cagalli watched him in the corner of her eye, concerned. The young Coordinator was clearly troubled about something more than just their current predicament, and she knew him well enough by now to make a good guess at what it was. It was either his sister, kidnapped years before, or his cousin, whom he now had to fight.

Maybe both. “You okay?” she asked gently.

Alex blinked, as though surprised she was still there. “Hmm? Yeah, I guess so.”

“I don’t think so,” Cagalli countered. “I’ve seen enough to be able to tell when you’re depressed. So, what’s wrong?”

He shrugged. “Just thinking.” Alex held up the shark tooth. “This came from the shark that bit my arm off, four years ago. I had three of the teeth removed, gave one to my sister, one to Yzak, and kept the third.”

Cagalli nodded in understanding. “It reminds you of your sister and your cousin.”

“Exactly. As it happens, Yzak has an interest in folklore, so I gave him a small background story.” Alex pocketed the tooth. “In the southwest Pacific, shark teeth were once used as currency, among other things. That piqued his interest.” He sighed. “It’s a sort of link between us. As I told him at the time, we may be different on the outside, but we’re alike in all the ways that matter.”

To his considerable surprise, Cagalli came over and gave him a quick hug. “You’ll make up someday, just like Kira and Athrun. I’m sure of it.”

Alex blinked, then returned the embrace. “I hope you’re right.”

“Don’t you think otherwise,” she said firmly. “Besides, I think I’d like to meet this guy.”

He managed a smile. “Then we’ll just have to make sure we all get out of this alive.”

Looking out at the stars, Alex promised himself that they would make it, that he and his cousin would reconcile, and they would find Andrea. Yzak, keep yourself alive out there. Kira will not kill you -he is a better pilot, but he and I are in the same predicament- and I certainly will not. We will find Andrea and put an end to this insanity.

Author’s and Recorder’s note: Please, no one accuse me of having Ezalia Joule out of character, for the same reason as Yzak in earlier chapters.