Chapter 7: SEED

Archangel, infirmary, 10 February, C.E. 71

The ship’s infirmary was even quieter than usual. Sai, Tolle, Kuzzey, and Mir sat near Flay Alster’s bed; the doctor had assured them that she would recover…physically. Emotionally was another story; after watching her father’s death at the hands of a ship full of Coordinators, there was no telling how she would react.

Kira and Alex had better watch themselves, Mir thought. Flay had been friendlier towards Coordinators of late, but it was entirely possible that she would backslide after the events of the last couple of days. And since Kira Yamato and Alex Strassmeier were not only the most visible Coordinators in the group, but had close connections to the Le Creuset team…

The infirmary hatch slid open, and Alex stepped through, Cagalli in tow. “How is she?” he asked without preamble.

Mir sighed. “We’ll know when she wakes up. You might want to be careful, though. You and Kira both have connections to ZAFT, so…”

Alex shrugged. “I’m not worried. She knows that those connections made the last battle particularly difficult, since both people you refer to were out there. Kira more than me; I was too close to Bartlett for Yzak to be able to do anything.”

There was a soft moan from the bed. “What…where am I?”

Sai squeezed her hand. “You’re in the infirmary, Flay.”

“The infirmary?” She sat up and glanced around; to Alex’s relief, she showed no sign of hostility when she saw him. “I must have fainted. How long?”

“Three days,” Alex said, moving to stand by her bed. He hesitated. “I’m sorry. We tried, but we couldn’t save your father…”

Flay shook her head. She was starting to tear up but was not willing to let go quite yet. “It’s not your fault, and it is not Kira’s, either. You both had to fight people dear to you.” A hint of curiosity showed through her obvious grief. “Which machine was your cousin flying? I know Kira’s friend was in the Aegis…”

Alex knew what she was getting at; Flay did not want to blame someone important to him without a good reason. “X102 Duel, the most basic of the G-weapons. He was focusing on me, but I was too busy fighting an old irritant of mine to pay much attention. In any case, it was not a mobile suit that killed your father, it was a blast from the Vesalius’s main guns.”

“Okay.” She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry for asking, but I know you and your cousin are close, so…”

“So, you didn’t want to blame him unless you were sure he was responsible,” Alex said with a nod. “I understand.”

“Thank you.” Then she blinked, suddenly realizing who was not present. “Where’s Kira?”

Alex grimaced. “Let us start at the beginning. Just after you passed out, Ensign Badgiruel contacted the ZAFT forces. She said that Lacus Clyne was onboard, and that if they continued to attack, the Earth Forces would have to take matters into their own hands.”

Flay looked outraged. “How could she-“

“Kira wasn’t inclined to stand for that,” Alex went on, “so he…borrowed the Strike, and turned Lacus over to her fiancé, Athrun Zala. She then returned the favor by ordering Rau Le Creuset to abort a sneak attack; he was using Athrun as a distraction. Anyway, Kira is now facing a court martial.” He snorted. “Mu will be acting as defense counsel, and I’ll be along as an assistant.” He glanced at his watch. “Speaking of which, I’d better get going.”

“Alex,” Flay called after him. When he turned, she gave him a sharp look, even as tears started to fall. “You’d better get Kira off. He shouldn’t be punished for doing the right thing.”

Alex saluted, ZAFT style. “You got it.”

Archangel, captain’s office

“She’s taking things better than I expected,” Cagalli commented.

Alex shook his head. “It won’t last. Remember, Cagalli, I have been where Flay is now. She is still in shock; I give it till tonight at the latest before she goes to pieces. No way to tell how long it will take her to recover, either; true, I recovered fast, but that was because my life was hanging in the balance.” He shrugged. “It’s nice to know she doesn’t blame Kira and me for what happened.”

The princess sighed. “Kira must be hurting, though. I mean, he promised he’d save Flay’s father, and yet he failed.”

“Through no fault of his own,” Alex said. “The fact the Flay doesn’t blame him will probably help some, inasmuch as he’s secretly in love with her.”

Cagalli blinked. “He is? I didn’t notice anything.”

“You haven’t spent most of your life learning to read people,” Alex pointed out.

They came to a stop just outside Murrue’s office. Alex stepped inside, reflexively giving the room a once-over. Murrue herself sat behind her desk, face expressionless as she gazed at Kira Yamato standing at attention before her. Natarle Badgiruel sat to her left, glaring at the young man. On the other side was Mu La Flaga (in full uniform, including cap, Alex noted), looking suspiciously like he was enjoying himself.

Murrue acknowledged him with a nod, then returned her attention to Kira. “This court-martial is now in session. Ensign Badgiruel?”

The ensign rose. “Three days ago, Acting Crewman Kira Yamato, by his own admission, launched in the mobile suit GAT-X105 Strike without authorization. Moreover, he broke a prisoner of war out of confinement, and delivered her to the ZAFT forces.”

Mu started to speak, then grinned slyly and nodded to Alex, knowing that the younger man had a way with words. Take him on, why do not you.

Alex nodded back, then faced Murrue. “It is true that Kira Yamato launched without authorization. However, Ensign Badgiruel’s actions clearly constitute mitigating circumstances, in light of their flagrant illegality.”

“Regulations make an exception for emergencies,” Badgiruel countered.

He gave her an icy look. “First of all, a legal exception is not the same as a moral one, and what you did was beyond despicable. More to the point, your characterization of Lacus Clyne as a POW is a flat-out lie. Captain Ramius specifically said that Lacus was a guest; you can’t suddenly turn around and make her a prisoner.”

“I had no choice, as I told Captain Ramius,” Badgiruel said coldly. “In any case, that has no bearing on Kira Yamato’s actions.”

“Au contraire,” Alex shot back. “As I said at the time, he was only correcting the mistake you made.” He turned back to Murrue. “Captain, Kira’s only action that could be considered criminal was his unauthorized launch of the Strike, and that hardly warrants a severe punishment. Mitigating circumstances, as I said.”

Murrue was silent for a long moment. “Very well. Commander Strassmeier,” the title was Badgiruel’s idea, given the young Coordinator’s position, “is correct. Miss Clyne was not a prisoner of war, and thus the exception Ensign Badgiruel referred to did not apply. Acting Crewman Yamato’s only criminal act was the theft of the Strike, and since he clearly intended to return it, that cannot be considered a major offence. This time. Therefore, a warning will be issued.”

“In other words, don’t do that without our permission again,” Mu said with a smile.

Murrue stood. “Dismissed.”

Kira departed, and the three officers relaxed. Murrue, for one, was glad it was over; she had not been pleased when the situation came up in the first place. Indeed, she had grown rather fond of the youngster in his short time aboard. His obvious pain at having to fight his best friend made her heart ache in sympathy.

Even if that best friend almost killed me, she thought wryly.

Alex sighed and moved to follow Kira. “I’m glad that’s over,” he murmured, and then he, too, was gone.

Mu gazed after him, then shrugged. “So, where do we go from here?” he asked rhetorically. “Le Creuset’s gone for now. By the way,” he added, looking at Badgiruel, “Kira did us some good out there. I was monitoring communications, and I heard the pink princess order Le Creuset to break off his attack.”

Badgiruel nodded. “You’re right; and he’s also changed my mind about his ZAFT friend. Athrun,” she used the pilot’s first name to differentiate him from his psychotic father, “was clearly surprised by his commander’s action.”

That much was certainly true. No one doubted that Athrun’s incredulous response to Le Creuset’s abortive attack had been genuine. He had come out in good faith, only to see his own commander launch a sneak attack. Only Lacus Clyne’s personal intervention had salvaged the situation.

“We should make rendezvous with the Eighth Fleet sometime tomorrow,” Murrue said. “Almost there.”

corridor/open space

Cagalli glanced up as Kira left Murrue’s office, Alex following seconds later. “How’d it went?”

Kira smiled. “They’re not punishing me.” He nodded at the raven-haired youth behind him. “Alex convinced the Captain that I hadn’t done anything major beyond stealing the Strike, so they let me off with a warning.”

“They couldn’t do much else,” Alex said with a snort. “Not that Badgiruel didn’t try; she actually had the nerve to characterize Lacus Clyne as a POW.”

“That’s crazy!” the princess protested. “Captain Ramius said she was a guest!”

Another snort. “Precisely the point I made. In any case, though there was no dispute about Kira’s temporary theft of the Strike, letting him off was the only course.” He smiled thinly. “After all, he’s the only one who can pilot that thing.”

“That’s true,” she agreed after a moment, falling into step with him. Kira moved off; she waved, then went on, “Still, there’s something about Ensign Badgiruel that bothers me.”

Alex waved his prosthetic hand. “To be honest, I think this incident was out of character for the good ensign.”

Cagalli snorted. “You didn’t sound like that three days ago.”

“Three days ago, I had a flashback to my sister’s abduction,” he reminded her. “In any case, I don’t see Badgiruel in the same way I see their high command. She’s a little too by-the-book for my taste, but that doesn’t mean much.”

The pair reached Archangel’s hangar and climbed into their shuttle. Alex took the pilot’s seat; Kyle had offered to fly them, but, like most pilots, Alex could not stand watching while someone else flew the machine. The shuttle smoothly crossed into the ether.

Cagalli watched admiringly. She already knew her friend was a gifted pilot, but this was the first chance she had had to see his skill up close. Alex seemed to bend the shuttle to his will with the most minute control inputs, guiding it from the Archangel to the Valkyrie with minimal effort. Cagalli had only seen two other pilots with that kind of natural ability: Kira Yamato and Mu La Flaga.

“I guess flying skill runs in your family,” she said after a moment, recalling Yzak Joule’s incredible performance in the Duel Gundam.

Alex shrugged. “Partly that, partly the fact that we Coordinators tend to be overachievers, and partly my father’s very specific ideas about what people should be capable of before they leave home.”

“Like what?” Cagalli asked curiously.

He sat back, letting the autopilot take over, and began ticking off points. “They should be comfortable in at least one foreign language; I speak eight: English, of course, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Latin, and Greek.” He chuckled. “Of course, for my father, English was a foreign language; he grew up in downtown Berlin.”

“He was Eurasian?”

“He was,” Alex confirmed. “Anyway. They should be proficient in unarmed combat; my fighting style is an admixture of karate, judo, and Greek wrestling. Also, capable marksmen; as you know, I am an expert shot with most firearms.” He tapped the shuttle’s instrument panel. “Basic pilot training. I, of course, am trained in mobile suit operations. Andrea managed to get checked out in a prototype F-7D.” He jerked his head at the ship they had just left. “Kira, now, he’s another matter. He’s beyond anything I’ve ever seen, or so I judge by how quickly he learned to handle a mobile suit in combat.”

She shook her head in amazement. “You guys sure are something.”

“We try.”

Vesalius, corridor

Athrun Zala drifted slowly down the corridor, brooding. He was grateful for Kira’s efforts in returning his fiancée, Lacus, but his failure to persuade the other Coordinator to abandon the Earth Forces ate away at him. Even that ensign’s cowardly stunt involving Lacus had not shown Kira the error of his ways.

Kira, they are just using you. Why can’t you see that? I do not want to fight you. He sighed. Unfortunately, it was obvious that Kira’s heart was set. He was determined to “protect” his “friends”, even if it meant fighting his own people.

“Haro! Haro!”

Athrun gave a resigned chuckle and raised his hand, intercepting a pink ball that bounced toward him. Having built the little robot himself, he knew what this meant.

Sure enough, Lacus Clyne came around a bend in the corridor. “Oh, hello, Athrun.”

Athrun sighed again. “Lacus, you really shouldn’t be wandering around like this; the Vesalius is a warship, after all.”

She nodded. “I know. It’s just that Mr. Pink always manages to open the door, even if it’s locked.”

The blue-haired pilot chuckled, leading his fiancée to her quarters. “If I’d known that would happen when I built it…” He trailed off, then sobered. “It must have been difficult for you, over there. Being taken hostage, used as a tool.”

Lacus shook her head. “It wasn’t like that at all, Athrun. I was treated well, and your friend was exceedingly kind to me. Kira was just as you described him.”

Athrun clenched his fists. “He’s nothing but a misguided fool. They’re using him, but he justifies it with some nonsense about ‘protecting his friends’.”

She shook her head again. “That’s not true, Athrun. I met Kira’s friends, and I can tell they are all good people. He is protecting his friends because he cares for them, and they for him. No one is using him.”

“Lacus…” For one of the few times in his life, Athrun had no idea what to say.

“And the Archangel’s crew aren’t like the rest of the Earth Forces, either” the Pink Princess went on. “Yes, the ensign did wrong, but she is only one person.”

Athrun frowned. “One person? Wasn’t that at the captain’s order?”

“Ensign Badgiruel was acting alone,” Lacus said firmly. “Captain Ramius was visibly angry; her niece is a Coordinator, remember.” Her expression softened. “And she is kind to your friend. Kira told me she does not ask him to use deadly force against you. She understands that this is difficult for him.” She caressed his cheek. “He doesn’t want to fight you, Athrun.”

“You think I want to fight him?” Athrun whispered.

Lacus sighed. “And he’s not the only one. Mr. Strassmeier, Alex, is having difficulties as well. I believe his cousin is one of your teammates?”

“Yzak, yes.” Athrun shook his head. “He’s even crazier. If what you are saying is true, then Kira’s actions are understandable, even if I think he is wrong. Strassmeier is something else; he hates the Earth Forces, and yet he’s helping their new warship, even though what happened to you proves that he’s making a mistake!”

“Athrun…” Lacus whispered.

He sighed. “I shouldn’t be doing this. I ask for your forgiveness.” He turned to leave. “Please excuse me.”

“When I look at you, I see a different person,” Lacus murmured. “All I see is bitterness.”

Athrun did not look at her. “I can’t exactly fight a war with a big smile on my face.” The hatch slid shut behind him.

Gamow, bridge, 11 February, C.E. 71

With the Vesalius on its way to rendezvous with another ZAFT ship, Yzak took over command of the hunt for the legged ship; Zelman might have been Gamow’s captain, but he knew Yzak wore the red uniform for a reason. Confident as ever, he smirked as he studied the tabletop display. He pointedly ignored the brown-haired man on the comm screen.

“Got them,” he said. “If we act now, we can take down the legged ship.”

Nicol was not so sanguine. “Sure, we can catch them, but we’d only have ten minutes before we entered the effective range of their Eighth Fleet. There’s no way we can stand up to that much firepower, and that’s not even counting the black ship.”

Yzak bit back an instinctive retort. Not for the first time, he saw that what Nicol displayed openly was much the same as what Alex kept carefully hidden.

Daniel Bartlett snorted derisively. “I will never understand how Le Creuset can stand having so many cowards on his team.”

Dearka bristled. He had had his clashes with Nicol, but something like this coming from another team commander, especially someone like Bartlett, was more than he could stomach. “Watch your mouth, Bartlett,” he snapped. “Nicol’s no coward; he proved that at Artemis, when he went in solo, right past the black ship, and opened the door for the rest of us. Not to mention going one-on-one with the Strike.”

Another snort. “If he is so good, then why is the Strike still plaguing us, hmm? If he is not a coward, why didn’t Amalfi shoot to kill?” Bartlett’s lip curled in a sneer. “For that matter, why didn’t Zala blow it away when he had the chance?”

“Because the pilot is his best friend, you idiot,” Yzak shot back. “He could no more kill Yamato than I could kill Alex.” His eyes narrowed. “Not that you’d understand. You do not care about anyone else. All you want is to get back at Alex for that tournament.” That was something Yzak Joule could never stand. Hotheaded and arrogant though he might be, his persistent rivalry with Athrun aside, he had not joined ZAFT out of some insane thirst for glory. He cared deeply for his people and his homeland.

Something ugly flashed in Bartlett’s gray eyes as the barb went home. Then he smiled thinly. “It’s not that I don’t care about others, Joule; I certainly sympathized with your teammate over his fiancée’s disappearance. Still, you might want to learn to care a little less. Emotions such as yours merely get in the way when fighting a war. Alex Strassmeier is the enemy and should be treated as such.”

“Commander, we’ll be within attack range in one hour,” Harriman said from off-screen.

“Understood.” Bartlett nodded, then turned back to Yzak. “We’ll be attacking in one hour. I trust you’ll be ready.” His image vanished.

“Bastard! Idiot!” Yzak hammered a fist into the tabletop display.

Dearka shook his head. “Who does he think he is, calling us cowards?” Then he looked at Nicol. “We’ve still got time, though. The success of a surprise attack is not determined by the time involved. Ten minutes is more than enough.”

“Is only ten minutes, or is it a full ten minutes?” Yzak agreed, regaining his composure. “It’s all in how you look at it, really.”

Nicol hesitated, then reluctantly nodded. “Very well.” He tapped the icon representing the Valkyrie. “What about the black ship?”

“They could be a problem,” Yzak conceded. He thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Bartlett can keep them busy,” he said with a nasty smile. “It’ll keep Alex from helping the legged ship, and maybe get Bartlett out of our way, too.”

“Can your cousin get through alive?” Nicol wondered.

Yzak snorted. “There’s no way Bartlett’s gonna take him in a CGUE. Oh, he’ll give him a fight, but it’ll take long enough for us to hit the legged ship.”

“What about the other machines?” the Blitz’s pilot persisted.

“The Buster lookalike was badly damaged in the last fight,” Yzak replied. “And even G-weapons can be swarmed.”

Dearka gave a thumbs-up. “Works for me.”

Nicol sighed. “All right.”

The three young pilots were supremely confident; even Nicol, for all his doubts, believed they could do it. It was a given that Alex Strassmeier would be reluctant to open fire on Yzak, and he and his pilots would be occupied by the Bartlett team in any case. All the Le Creuset team would face was the Strike and the Moebius Zero.

Unfortunately for them, they were underestimating Kira Yamato, for the young Coordinator possessed a power that he himself was unaware of, a power that would enable him to best them all in a matter of seconds. Few even knew this power existed, and of those, even fewer believed it.

Archangel, cafeteria

Almost there, Kira thought. Once we meet up with Eighth Fleet, it will finally be over. I will not have to fight Athrun anymore.

He sat at a table close to the hatch, nodding a greeting to Sai and Kuzzey. Preoccupied, he chewed his food without really tasting it. Thinking of Athrun Zala had reminded him of another Coordinator with a similar problem. Alex, too, was almost certainly looking forward to the impending rendezvous. Once Kira and his friends (and the refugees) were offloaded, the Valkyrie would have no further reason to accompany the Earth Forces vessel.

And since they are heading for Orb, Alex will not have to fight his cousin again.

The hatch opened, and a familiar redhead in a pink dress stepped in. Flay glanced around, and her face lit up when she saw Kira.

He glanced up when she approached his table. “Flay?”

“Hi, Kira,” she said. “I wanted to see how you were doing.”

Kira blinked. “How I’m feeling?” he repeated. “I thought you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near me, after what happened.”

Flay shook her head. “It’s not your fault,” she said gently. “It hurts, a lot, but I don’t blame you for it. You did the best you could.”

He looked away. “But I still couldn’t save him-“

“Kira,” Flay interrupted, “it’s not your fault. You were fighting your best friend; no one could have expected you to kill him, even to save my father.” She smiled. “Actually, I’m glad you didn’t kill him; I’d like to meet him sometime.”

Kira managed to smile back. “I’ll introduce you, when it’s all over.” He glanced out the viewport. “I hope that’ll be soon.”

“Me, too.” She took a seat near Sai. “I wonder what they’ll do with that ZAFT guy, Coast.”

The pilot blinked; he had forgotten about Coast, despite going past the Doctor’s GINN High Maneuver whenever he boarded the Strike. “I don’t know. To be honest, I do not really care. It’s not like Athrun, or Alex’s cousin; Coast is plain creepy.”

“Don’t I know it,” Sai agreed fervently. “I dropped by the brig yesterday; curious, I guess.” He shuddered. “I’m glad I met you and Alex first, Kira, otherwise I might think all Coordinators were like Coast.”

“If he’s so cold, why’d he become a doctor?” Kuzzey wondered.

Kira snorted. “Alex told me he wanted to know more about the human body; apparently, he sees people as nothing more than numbers. And then he joined ZAFT…because he was curious.”

“Figures,” Sai muttered.

Archangel/Valkyrie, bridge

It had taken weeks, but they were almost there. In less than an hour the two vessels would rendezvous with the Earth Forces Eighth Fleet. From there, the people from Heliopolis (including Kira and his friends) would be offloaded, and the Valkyrie would descend into the atmosphere to begin its journey to Orb.

Cagalli, for her part, was not sure how she felt about going home. It was not that she hated her homeland, far from it; it was just that she always felt constrained. Everyone (except her father) treated her with a deference she found extremely annoying.

Not that I will be alone this time, she thought, glancing at the expressionless Coordinator across the bridge from her own position. In the space of two days, she and Alex Strassmeier had gone from almost hitting each other to being close friends, and Cagalli was looking forward to seeing his effect on people back home. Especially a certain maid, whose idea of proper behavior often got on her nerves.

There was also Alex’s little quest to consider. Cagalli had promised that she would help him, and she had every intention of following through. Orb had plenty of sources; she was certain her father would be able to find something on Hibiki.

And then there was Kira Yamato. Though they had met just minutes before Rau Le Creuset attacked Heliopolis, Cagalli and Kira had grown close enough to be siblings. Princess or not, she had made a point of promising that they would meet again.

And we will, too; I am sure Father will not mind.

Alex looked at her for a moment, mildly curious as to what was going through her mind, then shrugged mentally. Like Kira, he was looking forward to not having to fight someone close to him anymore. Once they made rendezvous, he would be free of the Earth Forces; Lia’s aunt aside, he found giving them a hand more than a little galling.

In part, his thoughts mirrored Cagalli’s. As he had told her during the journey to Artemis, her father was one of the very few politicians he genuinely respected, and he believed that, for the most part, Orb’s policies made more sense than just about anything else going on planet side.

I just hope her father does not get the same idea Mu did, he thought sourly. The day after Lacus was returned to her people, Mu La Flaga had suggested in a snide tone that Alex and Cagalli go out to dinner when they reached Orb. Alex had responded with an explosion of German invective (though, Alex reflected, it was hard to tell that it was invective; Lia had once told him that you could not say “pass the salt” in German without sounding like you were insulting someone and taking five minutes to do it).

In any case, he was confident he could achieve all three of his objectives once he had access to Orb’s resources. Finding Andrea would be child’s play for Orb intelligence, he had Cagalli’s promise of help in the search for Hibiki’s offspring, and it was an open secret that Uzumi Nara Athha did not like Patrick Zala any more than Alex did.

Hiro Nakamura’s voice interrupted his musings. “We’ve got some news, Alex.”

Alex looked up. In addition to being pilot of the Shinobi Gundam, Hiro was the group’s intelligence specialist. “What sort of news?”

“We’ve managed to track down Hibiki’s older son.” Hiro handed him a photo of a black-haired teenager. “Canard Pars, a Eurasian special forces agent. Apparently, the Eurasians have a mobile suit project of their own, trying to show their independence from the Atlantic Federation, I guess.” He shrugged. “Anyway, this guy was tapped as the lead pilot.”

“Indeed.” Alex studied the photo carefully; something in his friend’s tone had made him suspicious. Then it hit him. Is this…?

“What is it?” Cagalli had joined them.

Alex handed her the photo. “Hibiki’s older son, the guy Coast told me about. Remind you of anyone?”

She frowned, puzzled, then gasped in surprise. “He looks like Kira!”

“Exactly,” Alex agreed. “And I, for one, do not believe in coincidences of this magnitude.” He chuckled ruefully. “It seems that part of my search was over before you and I ever met.”

“Maybe.” Cagalli sounded somewhat dubious. “We shouldn’t mention it to Kira, just in case. Not unless we’re sure.”

“Which we aren’t…yet,” Alex agreed. “Still, I think there is a very real chance that Kira Yamato is indeed the Ultimate Coordinator. It would explain many things.”

“Like how fast he learned to fight in a mobile suit,” Lia put in. She glanced at the main screen, which was now displaying the Archangel’s bridge. “Aunt Murrue, how are things over there?”

Murrue glanced over her shoulder at Romero Pal, then nodded at her niece. “We’re not far from Eighth Fleet. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes before rendezvous.” Her expression softened. “I guess it’ll be a while before I see you again.”

“I don’t know about that,” Lia said. “Orb’s neutral, but it’s not like no one from the Earth Alliance ever shows up there. Didn’t Flay’s father have a house in the capital?”

Mention of Flay’s father brought a moment of silence. Though he had not been popular with the crews of either ship, everyone (especially Kira) was mourning George Alster’s death. Alex was regretting some of his words; he still was not exactly fond of the man, but the fact that Flay had turned out all right was a point in his favor.

“I believe you’re right,” Murrue said at last. “Still-“

Pal interrupted her. “Radar wave interference!” he snapped, staring hard at his display. “N-jammer levels increasing!”

“Two ZAFT vessels, the Bismarck and the Gamow,” Chandra sang out.

“Mobile suit thermal pattern detected!” Tonomura said crisply. “One CGUE, five GINNs, the Blitz, the Buster, and the Duel!”

Alex grimaced, pushing out of his chair. “Yzak. He’s always been bullheaded.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Chris, Brian, and I are launching; we still haven’t finished repairing the Devastator, and the Shinobi developed an unexpected electrical fault. It’ll take a while to fix.”

“Understood,” Murrue said. “We’ll be sending out the Strike and the Moebius Zero.”

I just hope it will be enough, she added silently.

Open space

Four Gundams and a mobile armor flew to meet the ZAFT forces. With the opposition consisting of a CGUE, five GINNs, and three Gundams, it was their most even battle yet. None of them were pleased; just minutes before the rendezvous, and they were attacked yet again.

Yzak ignored the Valkyrie Gundams completely. If Bartlett wants another crack at Alex, fine. He cannot win. He glanced at the Blitz. “I’ll lure the mobile suit away. Nicol, the legged ship is all yours.”

“Roger that.” Nicol hit his thrusters and moved away at an angle, bypassing the Strike and Zero altogether.

Bartlett, meanwhile, led his team toward the remaining three Gundams. Having learned their lesson from their two previous encounters, the team’s GINNs were equipped with heavy ion cannons of the same type of Miguel Aiman had used at Heliopolis.

Not good, Alex thought. Ion cannons would be far more of a problem than standard GINN weaponry. Good thing we all have shields.

Focused though he was on Bartlett’s people, he spared enough attention to contact his cousin. “Don’t get to far in, Yzak.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Yzak demanded irritably.

Alex hid a sigh. Same old Yzak. “Kira knows you and I are related, so he probably won’t be shooting to kill. Still, don’t underestimate him.”

“What’s there to underestimate?” Yzak shot back. “I’m taking him down!” Cutting his radio, the hotheaded pilot boosted full speed at the Strike.

Brian spared him a brief glance. “He sounds pretty ticked off,” he commented.

“Yzak always takes things too personally,” Alex said. “Enough about them, we have incoming!”

The next few moments were a hurricane of beams. Unfortunately, this time the Bartlett team had a clear advantage, especially when Chris lost his beam rifle and flamer in rapid succession. Reduced to two Gundams against six beams equipped ZAFT machines, it was all Alex and Brian could do just to hold their own.

In another area of space, Mu was having problems of his own. He had deployed his wired gun barrels and fired shot after shot from his linear gun, but it was nowhere near enough. His target, the Buster, simply shrugged off the projectile fire.

“Heck, that’s pretty useless,” Dearka said with a grin, and replied with a hail of laser fire.

At the same time, Yzak had managed to engage the Strike. Watching his beams splash harmlessly against the enemy’s shield, he drew a beam saber and charged. Before Kira could react, the Duel’s saber crashed into his shield. He was able to break away, firing as he went.

The diversionary tactic worked. Nicol’s Blitz was closing fast on the Archangel…and then it vanished. On the ship’s bridge, Tonomura blinked in surprise. “Captain, I’ve lost the Blitz!”

Murrue intuitively knew what had happened. “He’s gone under Mirage Colloid. Anti-beam depth charges and use anti-air shrapnel warheads.”

“Fire anti-beam depth charges; stern missile tubes switch over to anti-air shrapnel warheads!” Badgiruel snapped.

The anti-beam depth charges launched just as Nicol fired. He snarled in frustration as his beams were harmlessly deflected. Then he had another problem: the anti-air warheads. Knowing that his phase-shift was inoperable with Mirage Colloid up, Nicol dropped stealth and brought the Trikeros up for some extra protection.

“That’s right, this machine once belonged to you,” he said. “Of course, you’d know its weaknesses.” Smirking, he turned invisible once again and jetted away.

Badgiruel was in no mood to let him go. “Disengage Igelstellung auto-tracking. Put up a barrage!”

Forced back into visibility, the Blitz went into an evasive pattern. This is not good, Nicol thought. How am I supposed to get close?

While the mobile weapons fought in a swirling melee, the warships exchanged long range fire. Though they were outgunned, the two ZAFT vessels were putting up a terrific fight. The Gamow managed to graze the Archangel with a laser blast, taking off two radar arrays.

Alex grimaced, watching the scene. Martial arts tournaments aside, he did not believe in fair fights, and this was about as unfair as it got. He had taken down one of the enemy GINNs, but that still left five mobile suits to deal with. Brian was doing what he could, but it was not enough. They could not ask for help, either; Mu was occupied with the Buster, and Kira was hard-pressed by the Duel.

This is ridiculous, he thought, and then the flat crack of a beam against his shield jolted him back to his own battle. Cursing under his breath, Alex fired on the nearest GINN, beheading it, then raised his shield to fend off another shot from the CGUE.

“Having trouble, eh, Strassmeier?” Bartlett taunted.

Alex gritted his teeth. “Not as much trouble as you’re about to have,” he bit out, and moved. Dodging yet another laser blast, he spun the Stormbird to his right, stowing his rifle and drawing a saber. The blade of red fire slashed down, cutting off the CGUE’s left arm and the shield Gatling with it. When Bartlett whirled, snarling in sudden fury, Alex drew his other saber and slashed again, this time destroying his enemy’s beam rifle.

Bartlett swore savagely. “You’ll pay for that, Strassmeier!”

“Perhaps.” Alex watched his old nemesis retreat, then turned his attention to Kira’s battle.

It was certainly interesting. Kira was staying well clear of the Duel, his beam rifle spitting green fire. Yzak, trying like mad to close the range, was almost swearing in frustration. Tiring of the game, he pulled back for a moment, then charged at full speed, his shield in front.

The Strike fired again, but the beam splattered against the Duel’s shield. “Gotcha this time!” Yzak shouted.

Kira’s eyes narrowed, and he stowed his rifle. “I’m not about to be defeated here!” Drawing a saber of his own, he clashed it against Yzak’s.

The white-haired pilot cursed under his breath. Nicol’s right, this guy’s good. Briefly wishing that Athrun had been able to persuade the Strike pilot to join them, he drew his weapon back for another blow.

His opponent was not inclined to play. Kira had no intention of losing to anyone, let alone a hothead like Yzak Joule. Two beam sabers locked, neither pilot giving ground.

In the confusion, Nicol was finally able to slip past the Archangel’s defenses. Landing the Blitz on the warship’s hull, he proceeded to fire his beam rifle into the superstructure at point-blank range. There was a limit to how much damage even laminated armor could take, and Nicol’s attack was almost certain to exceed that limit.

The crew knew it, too. “Kira! Kira!” Mir called. “The Blitz is beside the bridge! Get back here!”

Kira stared in horror. “No! The Archangel!” Images flashed through his mind: Tolle, supporting him even after learning that he was a Coordinator; Sai and Mir, helping him get Lacus out; Kuzzey, standing by him despite a lingering distrust of Coordinators; and Flay, giving him her full support even though he had failed to save her father.

Behind his eyes, an amethyst seed bounced and exploded. “The Archangel, I won’t let you destroy it.”

Yzak yelled, slashing down hard with his saber…only to find that the Strike had moved. “What?” He stared around, bewildered, and then the Strike attacked, its saber opening a gap in the Duel’s left hip. With a growl of rage, Yzak leveled his rifle at the fleeing machine. “Take this!”

He fired repeatedly, but it was ultimately futile. “He dodged it!”

“Stop it now!” Kira shouted. He slashed his saber down, then slammed the Strike’s knee into the Blitz when it dodged. With Nicol out of the fight, he was free to deal with the other threat.

“Now I’ve gotcha!” Yzak shouted.

I do not think so. Feeling like everything was moving in slow motion, Kira drew an Armor Schneider and thrust it into the gap he had made in the Duel’s phase-shift.

Yzak clenched his control bars. That bastard! he thought, watching his instrument panel spark, then cried out in pain as something exploded, shattering his faceplate, and cutting a deep gash in his face. “Arrgh!”

Helpless, the Duel drifted back, where it was caught by the Blitz. “Yzak? Yzak! Are you okay in there?” Nicol yelled. He radioed the Buster. “Dearka!”

Still firing at the Zero, Dearka grimaced. “What’s the matter, Nicol?”

“It’s Yzak.”

Yzak clutched his face. “Urgh, it burns, it burns, it burns!”

“Yzak,” Dearka whispered.

Nicol yelped. “Dearka, we have to retreat! The enemy fleet’s coming!”

The other pilot cursed. “You’re right. Yzak’s hurt, and we’re almost out of power.”

Alex watched them go. His feelings were more than a little mixed. On the one hand, he felt profound satisfaction at their victory. On the other… I am sorry, Yzak. I wish it had not come to this.

Cagalli’s face appeared on his screen. “You okay?”

He shook himself. “I think so. It’s just…I hope Yzak’s okay.”

“He will be,” the princess said gently. “You guys are pretty tough.”

Alex reluctantly nodded. “You’re right.”

As they spoke, the Strike came to rest on the Archangel’s forward deck. The Zero passed above; Mu had lost a gun barrel in his battle with the Buster, but his machine was in working order otherwise. He barely noticed that, however; now, he was marveling at what his young friend had just accomplished. “Look at that, they’re gone! You were terrific, kid.”

Kira closed his eyes. “Not really.” I am sorry, Alex. I know how close you and Yzak are, but I could not let him… He sighed. Alex would understand; that was all he needed to know.

And then Sai’s voice came over the radio. “The Eighth Fleet is here!”