Eighth Fleet Rendezvous Point, Near-Earth Orbit, 12 February, C.E. 71
The Earth Alliance Forces mobile assault ship Archangel slid gracefully into the Eighth Fleet formation. More than a dozen warships, Drake- and Nelson-class, commanded by Admiral Lewis Halberton from his flagship, the mighty Agamemnon-class battleship Menelaos. Among such a fleet, the Archangel looked both out of place and somehow right, its sleek lines both contrasting with and completing the Earth Forces formation.
Next to the Archangel was its not-quite sister ship, the midnight-black Valkyrie. Though its presence made some of the Eighth Fleet’s people nervous, Admiral Halberton, on learning that the mysterious ship’s captain was the niece of Archangel captain Murrue Ramius (who happened to be a protege of his), had ordered that it be allowed within the perimeter.
Even so, the vessel’s positively ominous presence was such that more than one Earth Forces soldier was incredibly grateful on hearing that it would not be remaining with them.
“Deceleration proceeding normally,” Chief Petty Officer Arnold Neumann reported. “Matching velocity with the Menelaos.” He looked over his shoulder. “Is it a good idea to cruise this close to the flagship?”
Murrue smiled. “Admiral Halberton probably wants to see us with his own eyes. As you probably know, he was one of the biggest supporters of the program that produced both this ship and the G-weapons.” She shifted her gaze to the comm screen. “Which reminds me, the Admiral is planning to pay us a visit. Lia, if it’s all right, I’d like you and Alex to be present.”
Lia glanced over her shoulder at the hawk-faced Coordinator, got a nod from him, then turned back to her aunt. “We’ll be there.”
“Very well.” Murrue rose from her command chair and moved for the elevator hatch, accompanied by Natarle Badgiruel. “Please hold the fort while we’re gone.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Neumann acknowledged.
Badgiruel braced herself as the hatch slid shut. She knew her commanding officer would dislike what she was about to say, but she felt she had no choice. As far as Badgiruel was concerned, nothing was more important at this point than the Strike; specifically, the Strike’s current form. And since they knew of only one person capable of handling it…
“Captain, do you have any plans for the Strike?” she said at last.
Murrue frowned. “What plans?”
Badgiruel’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Everyone on this ship knows that the only reason we were able to make it this far was because of the Strike’s incredible capabilities, and because he was the one piloting it. Are you planning to just let him go?”
Murrue sighed. She knew exactly where her subordinate was headed, and she did not like it one bit. “I understand what you’re saying, Natarle. But Kira Yamato is not a member of the military.”
“His abilities are invaluable to us,” Badgiruel persisted. “We cannot afford to lose them.”
The captain sighed again. “Regardless, we can’t force him to volunteer. And if you are suggesting what I think you are suggesting,” she added, “do not. We can’t afford a repeat of what happened with Lacus Clyne.”
“And let me remind you of what he’s been going through,” Murrue said sharply. “In order to do what he believed was right, Kira had to face his best friend in mortal combat. Neither of us can even begin to understand how much that must hurt.” She turned down a side passage, leaving Badgiruel behind.
The ensign stood there for several moments. In her opinion, the benefits of keeping Kira onboard outweighed any costs. The Strike was more powerful than anything ZAFT had short of the four stolen Gundams, and since Kira Yamato was the only person capable of piloting it, they had no choice but to retain his services. As for Athrun Zala, Badgiruel had no problem with continuing the special dispensation; it was a bit much to ask Kira to strike down his best friend, and it would also be to their advantage if they recovered the Aegis intact.
Shaking her head, Badgiruel followed her commander.
The physical pain had faded, but the emotional pain was as fierce as ever. Not sorrow, but a deep, burning humiliation. Being beaten by an untrained rookie pilot was more than he could bear, and the knowledge that he had been warned about it only made things worse.
You will pay for this, Yamato, Yzak thought. Next time we meet, you are going down!
Half his face was bandaged; the gash extended diagonally from the bridge of his nose to beneath his right eye. He had received a hefty dose of anesthetic, but it was not enough to soothe his anger. As far as Yzak was concerned, Kira Yamato was no longer protected by his longstanding friendship with Athrun Zala. The next battle would be the final one.
If he survives, fine. But there is no way he is beating me again!
His cousin was another matter entirely. Even now, Yzak did not want to kill him, but he did not intend to let Alex get in the way again, either. If they met in battle again, the only part of the Stormbird that would be left intact would be the cockpit itself; the rest would be scrap.
I cannot kill him. Andrea would never forgive me, and I am sure she is still alive. I will bring Alex to his senses, and then we will go find her.
Yzak closed his eyes. He had no doubt that battle would once again be joined soon, and he intended to be ready. His Duel Gundam had been upgraded with a modified Assault Shroud. This equipment package, originally developed for GINNs and CGUEs, gave his machine extra armor, as well as more firepower, in the form of a missile pod and a railgun.
For now, though, he needed to rest. Even if he was not healed when they struck, he was going out there.
Kyle Perry, Hiro Nakamura, Brian Kilgore, and Chris Madsen sat together near a viewscreen. The image before them was dominated by the two largest ships, the Menelaos and the Archangel. A few of the smaller Drake- and Nelson-class ships were visible in the background, but the two largest warships had the young pilots mesmerized.
“Gotta say, the Earth Forces build pretty ships,” Brian commented. “Sure, the Archangel was built by Morgenroete, but to the Alliance’s specs.”
Predictably, Chris had other things on his mind. “First a brand-new warship, and now the entire Eighth Fleet?” he groaned. “I mean, Lia’s aunt is one thing, but an Alliance flag officer? Do we really want to deal with this bunch?”
Kyle heaved a long-suffering sigh. “Chris, for once in your life, think with your head instead of your prejudices, okay? Admiral Lewis Halberton is one of the few -probably the only- flag officers in the Alliance that we can trust.”
“Besides, Alex thinks Halberton might give him another lead about his sister,” Hiro said quietly. He looked at Kyle. “You think they’ll find out anything?”
The nondescript pilot shrugged. “That’s more your department than mine. To be honest, I do not see Halberton knowing anything useful; there is no way he was involved in the kidnapping, and it’s highly unlikely that the incident was publicized even within the military.”
“If it had been, Ezalia Joule would’ve found out a long time ago,” Brian opined. “She was even madder than Alex after Mandelbrot; Alex’s mom was her sister, after all.”
“Mad doesn’t begin to describe it,” Kyle said. “She made a major speech just after it happened. If looks could kill, then entire Atlantic Federation government would have been struck dead right through the camera.”
Everyone winced at that. Though it was not commonly known, Ezalia Joule had started out as a moderate. She did not hate Naturals per se -she routinely met with high officials from Oceania- but the Mandelbrot Incident had driven her firmly into Zala’s camp in other respects.
Which, given that she did not believe her nephew’s warnings, made for some very strained relationships.
“I still don’t get it,” Chris said. “We all know Zala’s a homicidal maniac; why can’t Alex’s aunt realize it?”
Kyle sighed. “It’s not that simple, Chris. Patrick Zala is a consummate politician; he did not get to be chairman of the National Defense Committee by doing stupid things. He knows as well as we do that if he publicly called for the extermination of the Naturals, his own people would revolt.”
That much was certainly true. Much as Zala hated to admit it, ZAFT could not win without allies on Earth, which meant they had no choice but to deal with Naturals. Without the Naturals of Oceania, ZAFT would not have the vital Carpenteria Base, and their allies in the African Community had provided a major staging area for the operation that took Gibraltar away from the Eurasians.
“None of that matters right now,” Kyle said. “The Archangel is bound for JOSH-A in Alaska, Kira and his friends are going home, and we’re heading for Orb. Once we have settled down, then we can figure out what to do about Zala.”
Even as they made rendezvous with the Fleet, the mechanics worked at a feverish pace. The Strike was undamaged, but Mu La Flaga’s Moebius Zero was still undergoing repairs. Fortunately, they had a spare gun barrel to replace the one Dearka’s missiles had destroyed. There were also some computer problems due to a short circuit; to deal with that, Mu had enlisted the aid of master programmer Kira Yamato.
“Would someone please tell me why we’re in such a hurry?” Kira asked, poking his head through the Zero’s hatch, and scaring Mu, who had almost dozed off, out of his wits. “We’ve met up with the Eighth Fleet, so why…?”
Mu took a moment to slow his heart. “I don’t feel safe when it’s still damaged.”
“The new pilots from the Fleet are all wet behind the ears,” Murdoch put in. “If something happens, we’ll need the Lieutenant here to sortie.”
Kira digested that. “I guess, but what about the Strike?” he went on, nodding at the silent mobile suit. “Is it really okay to leave it as is?”
Mu followed the Coordinator’s gaze, an arrested look on his face. “Never thought about that,” he said slowly. “We can’t return it to its original state, since that would reduce its performance.”
“Then we’ll just have to hope we can find someone who can pilot it as is,” a feminine voice said.
Mu and Kira looked up to see Murrue Ramius drifting toward them. “To what do we owe this honor?” the lieutenant asked, eyebrows raised.
“I just wanted to have a little talk with Kira,” Murrue said.
Kira frowned. “A talk? About what?”
Murrue smiled at his expression. “Oh, don’t give me that suspicious look of yours.” She chuckled ruefully. “Although I can’t say I blame you.”
A few minutes later, the two stood on a catwalk in front of the Strike.
“The past three weeks have been rather chaotic,” Murrue said. “I haven’t really had a chance to talk to you before now.” She sighed. “It must have been hard for you, and I admit I didn’t make things any easier. To be honest, I’d do it again if the same situation arose.”
Kira managed a smile. “I understand; and you did make it a little easier, when you let me use disabling attacks on the Aegis.”
“I was being realistic,” Murrue replied. “I couldn’t ask you to kill your best friend, after all.”
“I’m surprised Ensign Badgiruel didn’t protest.”
She shrugged. “Even she will admit that asking someone to kill his best friend is going a bit too far. Besides, recovering the Aegis intact would be a big help. Admittedly, she did not like that your friend is the son of Patrick Zala, but his reaction to Le Creuset’s abortive sneak attack changed her mind.”
Kira was silent for a long moment. “When I confronted Athrun outside Artemis,” he said at last, “he kept asking me why I was with the Earth Forces. He wanted to know why I was siding with the Naturals.” He shook his head. “I told him I was just protecting my friends, that I didn’t care what someone’s genes looked like.”
“To be honest, I can’t blame him for thinking we were using you,” Murrue said. “After what happened to his mother, I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t ready to think the worst of the Earth Forces.” She sighed, then turned to face him. “In any case, though the others might not say it, we’re all very grateful for what you’ve done.” She bowed.
Kira floundered for a moment, flustered. “Ah, thanks. I’m glad I could help.”
“I imagine things will be chaotic even on Earth,” Murrue said, straightening. She held out her hand. “Good luck, Kira. I hope we meet again someday.”
He could not help smiling back; despite the circumstances of their first meeting, he genuinely liked the Archangel’s captain. “So, do I,” he said, gripping her hand firmly.
“I wonder what Admiral Halberton wants,” Lia commented. She and Alex had arrived on the Archangel ahead of schedule. “He’s Aunt Murrue’s mentor, sure, but I don’t see that being the only reason for this visit.”
Alex shrugged. “He’s probably curious. Remember, the Strike was piloted by a Coordinator; not many of our kind cooperate with the Earth Forces under any circumstances. I’m aware that he doesn’t have any personal animosity towards Coordinators, but the fact remains that most of us are in the PLANTs these days, and that usually means ZAFT.”
Like you almost were, Lia thought, but did not say it aloud. She knew about her friend’s deep frustration at being unable to help defend his homeland.
“If it weren’t for the move to Heliopolis, Kira might have joined ZAFT himself,” she said instead. “I know he doesn’t like to fight, but his best friend is a member of their forces.”
Alex nodded slowly. “I’m inclined to agree. He is certainly no fan of the Earth Forces; if his classmates had not gotten involved, he might well have given the Strike to Rau Le Creuset just to make him go away. Or maybe-” He broke off, frowning at something ahead.
Lia blinked, confused, and then her own eyes narrowed as she picked up what Alex’s far keener hearing had already noticed. Increasingly loud shouts could be heard from the volunteers’ quarters. Two voices, one male, one female. The female voice was instantly identifiable as Flay Allster; the male was… Sai Argyle, Lia thought grimly. If this is what I think it is…
Indeed, it was. “WE ARE THROUGH!” Flay shouted, and stormed out, almost colliding with the two Coordinators. “Hey, what do you think you’re-” She froze, seeing just who she had almost mowed down. “Lia, Alex!” Flay gasped for breath. “I’m sorry! It’s just that-“
“You were too mad to watch where you were going,” Alex finished for her. He smiled when she looked at him nervously. “No harm done. I’ve been in such a state myself, albeit for different reasons.” He nodded at the hatch. “Clearly something unpleasant just happened; forgive us for overhearing, but it was physically impossible not to. You two could be heard as far away as Copernicus.”
Flay looked away, blushing. “I just broke up with Sai,” she said in a low voice. “Our engagement was arranged by my father, and since he’s gone, I don’t see why I should be bound by it anymore.”
Alex snorted; he had thought as much. “Say no more. I know exactly what you’re talking about.” His lip twitched in a brief sneer. “Frankly, I’ve always despised the very concept of arranged marriages. However, much they might love them, parents are simply not equipped to choose their child’s spouse under any circumstances, and to even make the attempt is contemptible.”
The redhead chuckled at his vehemence. “What about Lacus Clyne and Kira’s friend?”
“That may have started out as parental arrangement, but it is clearly far beyond that now, or so I judge by Lacus’s reaction to seeing Athrun again; one thing that girl will never do well is lie.” He shrugged. “Much as I love my homeland, the marriage laws in the PLANTs are an abomination; the fact that we Coordinators have a low birthrate is irrelevant.”
Lia laughed. “I’m with Alex, though I wouldn’t put it quite that strongly.” She glanced at her watch. “Sorry, Flay, but we need to get moving.”
“See you later.” Flay waved and departed.
Alex glanced at her over his shoulder. “That was interesting,” he murmured. Good luck, Kira.
“You think Kira has a shot?”
“Possibly.” Alex shrugged. “I hope so; Kira needs someone like that. He’s got a long road ahead.”
Lia frowned at him. “What are you getting at?”
Her friend waved his prosthetic hand. “It may sound strange, but I think Kira is leaning toward officially joining the Earth Forces, even if he doesn’t yet realize it. I have no doubt that they would continue the special dispensation allowing him to hold back when fighting the Aegis -even Badgiruel would insist on that; she knows better that to ask someone to kill his best friend- but that would not be enough. He needs something tangible to fight for.”
Valkyrie’s captain nodded. “And Flay would do nicely. I see.” She looked at him sidelong. “What about you?”
“You know perfectly well what I’m fighting for, Lia,” Alex said. “I’m fighting to protect my homeland, and to find my sister.”
And find her I will, Alex added to himself. No matter what it takes.
Unbeknownst to the Earth Forces fleet, the Le Creuset team was extremely close by. With several other teams under his command (including Bartlett’s), Le Creuset was taking no chances. He wanted to be able to smash the Eighth Fleet, and with the Valkyrie still a factor, that would take more than four G-weapons and a handful of GINNs.
“Have they spotted us?” Le Creuset asked.
Ades shook his head. “Not so far as we can tell.” He joined his commander at the tabletop display behind the command chair. “Even the black ship hasn’t noticed us yet.”
“They will,” Le Creuset said. “You can count on that; Alex Strassmeier is anything but stupid. In any case, our main problem is the legged ship.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I thought they would make for their lunar headquarters, but after further study of their actions, I think they’ll be landing on Earth.”
“Their intended target appears to be Alaska,” Ades observed.
Le Creuset frowned behind his mask. “I’d somehow like to finish them off while they’re still in our own backyard.” He looked up. “What say you?”
Ades pursed his lips. “The Ziegler has six GINNs. We have five machines, including the Aegis, and the Gamow can send out the Buster and the Blitz.”
“And probably the Duel, as well,” the masked man said wryly. “Wounded or not, I don’t see any way to keep Yzak out of the fighting.” He indicated the additional ships that had joined them: Bartlett’s Bismarck, and the Laconi and Porter teams with one Nazca and Laurasia each. “As it is, we have more than enough firepower.”
“What of the black ship?”
Le Creuset snorted. “It’s unlikely that Strassmeier will fight more than a delaying action. He has no love for the Earth Forces; helping any of their units, even one commanded by his friend’s aunt, has to be like pulling teeth without anesthetic for him.” He shook his head. “He probably won’t be involved much longer; from what we know of him, he and his companions will likely make for the Orb Union.”
“That would make sense,” Ades agreed. “Orb allows Coordinators to live openly within their borders.”
Le Creuset nodded. “The black ship is of secondary importance.” He looked at the display again and smiled grimly. “The infamous Halberton. It’s time the admiral took his final curtain call.”
Archangel, hangar, 13 February, C.E. 71
The Archangel’s officers, senior crew, and volunteers stood well back as the Menelaos’s launch settled to the deck. No one, apart from Murrue Ramius, knew why Admiral Halberton wanted to make a personal visit, but they knew the importance of making a good impression.
Alex, standing beside his friend Lia, stifled a yawn with the ease of long practice. Though Halberton was the only Alliance flag officer he considered worthy of respect, he still disliked this sort of thing. Just because he was experienced with formalities did not mean he liked them and standing in line waiting for an Earth Forces flag officer was not Alex’s idea of fun.
Without turning his head, he glanced at the volunteers. Despite his explosive breakup with Flay Allster the day before, Sai seemed remarkably composed. Tolle and Mir looked at him every minute or so, visibly concerned. Kuzzey, for his part, seemed unaffected, though he had to know what had happened.
Kira, on the other hand, knew nothing of what had transpired in the crew quarters. All he knew (or thought he knew) was that he would soon be able to go home.
At last, the launch’s hatch opened, and Rear Admiral Lewis Halberton stepped through, followed by Captain Hoffman of the Menelaos. Tall and broad-shouldered, with blond hair and a mustache, Halberton was an imposing figure.
His face lit up when he saw Murrue. “Thank goodness you’re safe,” he said, drifting toward them. “When we got word of Heliopolis, I thought it was all over.”
Murrue smiled back, saluting. “It wasn’t easy, sir, but we made it.”
Mu and Badgiruel saluted as well. “Ensign Natarle Badgiruel, acting XO,” she said crisply.
“And I’m Lieutenant Mu La Flaga, of the Seventh Orbital Fleet,” Mu said.
“Indeed,” Halberton said. “We were fortunate to have you.” He looked at the two Coordinators standing nearby. “They’re from that black ship, I presume?”
Murrue nodded to them. “My niece Lia, Captain of the Valkyrie, and her friend Alex Strassmeier.”
Before Hoffman could comment on the name, Alex spoke up. “Yes, I know what you’re going to say, Captain: Why should we trust a close relative of Ezalia Joule.” The last came out in a very dry singsong, as if he had been over the same subject before and was weary of it. (Which was of course the case; Cagalli Yula Athha, Natarle Badgiruel, and the late George Allster had all had unkind things to say about his bloodline.)
Halberton smiled. “I don’t blame you for being wary, Mr. Strassmeier. Rest assured, I have nothing against Coordinators, and I certainly don’t blame you for the actions of your relatives.” He laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “I know you love your aunt but forgive me if I say that her grip on reality seems…questionable.”
“You needn’t worry about offending me, Admiral,” Alex said mildly. “I’ve thought the same thing often enough; after all, she’s supporting a homicidal madman.”
Halberton nodded, then shifted his attention to the volunteers. “And who do we have here?”
Murrue followed his gaze. “These are the civilians who have been helping operate the ship since Heliopolis.” She introduced each in turn. “Kuzzey Buskirk, communications; Sai Argyle, electronic warfare; Miriallia Haw, parasite operations; Tolle Koenig, assistant helmsman; and last, but certainly not least, Kira Yamato, pilot of the Strike.”
“We owe you a great deal,” the admiral said. “Especially you, Mr. Yamato. Without your skill, the Archangel would never have made it this far.” He raised a hand, sparing Kira the need to reply. “We’ve done some checking, and all of your families are safe.”
The students cheered quietly. With Kira piloting the Strike, their main worry was for their respective parents; Halberton’s news gave them some much-needed relief.
“If possible, I’d like to have a chat with each of you,” Halberton continued. “Unfortunately, we’re short on time.” He looked at Murrue. “We need to get some things straightened out. I’d like your niece and her friend to be present for this as well.”
Murrue looked at Lia, who nodded. “Of course, sir.”
For once, Murrue stood in front of her desk instead of sitting behind it. Admiral Halberton occupied the chair, with Captain Hoffman at his elbow. Mu and Badgiruel stood with her, while Alex leaned next to the window and Lia stood behind her aunt.
“I can’t believe ZAFT would destroy Heliopolis and Artemis all for the sake of one warship and a single G-machine,” Hoffman said, shaking his head.
“Don’t act so surprised, Captain,” Alex advised him. “Not all ZAFT soldiers would do it -Andrew Waltfeld, for example, would never pull a stunt like that- but Rau Le Creuset is probably the most ruthless commander on either side.”
Hoffman raised his eyebrows. “You’re from the PLANTs. Have you ever met him?”
Alex’s lip twisted. “Four times. And no, I do not like him. Patrick Zala is a lunatic; Rau Le Creuset is plain creepy.” He shook his head. “In any case, what’s done is done. To my knowledge, there were no civilian casualties at Heliopolis, thanks in part-” here he shot a nasty glance at Badgiruel “-to Kira picking up a damaged life pod.”
Halberton suppressed a smile at the youngster’s acid tone. “Regardless, the fact that you made it this far can be counted a significant victory for the Earth Forces.”
Alex hid a grimace, and then hid a smile at Hoffman’s response. “It seems that Alaska doesn’t share this view.”
“Bah! What do they know about the realities of space combat?” Halberton snorted derisively. “Those pencil-pushers waste resources on concessions while our people are fighting and dying, both in space and on the ground!” He gave Alex an apologetic look. “Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against the people in the PLANTs. Nor do I endorse the idiotic restrictions that were placed on them; and I certainly don’t think the Bloody Valentine was justified.”
Alex waved that away. “You chose your loyalties a long time ago, Admiral. I respect that. I hope you don’t mind my referring to your high command as a pack of murdering thugs, though.”
Halberton chuckled. “I’d be shocked if you felt any other way.”
Hoffman cleared his throat. “What of the other Coordinator, Kira Yamato? Are we supposed to just forget about him?”
Murrue took a deep breath. She had known this was coming. “Kira Yamato climbed aboard the Strike only to protect his friends. Despite great hardship, he never gave up, even when he had to face his best friend in mortal combat.”
Halberton’s eyebrows almost climbed into his hairline. “His best friend?” he repeated carefully.
“The pilot of X303 Aegis, Athrun Zala,” Alex supplied. “Not his father’s son by any means, but still committed to ZAFT.” He sighed. “I should mention here that I have a similar problem. My cousin Yzak Joule is the pilot of X102 Duel.”
Badgiruel took a step forward. “Admiral, I believe that Kira Yamato’s abilities are vital to our mission.”
Halberton’s eyes narrowed; he had a feeling he knew where Badgiruel was going with this. “He is not, however, a member of our forces.”
“I realize that, sir. However, if we held his parents-“
The ensign never had a chance to finish. Before the admiral could snap an angry rebuke, Alex turned slightly, and suddenly Badgiruel’s right shoulder board was pinned to the rear bulkhead by a throwing knife.
He smiled thinly at her expression. “I would advise you not to go any further, Ensign,” he said, his voice like a silk-wrapped blade. “The consequences could be…unpleasant.”
Badgiruel thought for perhaps half a second, and quickly decided that it would be foolish to further provoke this black-clad ice sculpture. She stepped back.
Alex’s smile thinned further. “Good.” He pulled up his right sleeve, revealing a hidden compartment in his artificial arm, in which the black handles of two additional double-edged throwing knives were clearly visible. “If Kira decides to officially enlist in your military, fine,” he said, retrieving his knife and handing Badgiruel her shoulder board. “That aside, you can’t exactly claim to be better than ZAFT if you force a foreign national to serve.”
“More or less what I was going to say,” Halberton observed. “You were more eloquent, though.”
“Surprisingly so,” Hoffman said. Alex quirked an eyebrow, and he shrugged. “You have a reputation for studiousness; I realize that Coordinators tend to be overachievers, but a scholar who also happens to be a martial arts master seems rather odd.”
Alex nodded understanding. “A common misconception; as it happens, scholarly martial artists are the rule, not the exception.” His eyes briefly took on a faraway look. ” ‘To train the mind to its full potential, you must also train the body,’ that’s what my father always said. The reverse is also true.”
“Getting back to the matter at hand,” Halberton said, “I’m afraid the Archangel will have to descend to Earth with its existing complement.”
“The replacement personnel were lost with the advance fleet,” Hoffman explained. “You will be shorthanded, but it unfortunately cannot be helped.”
Alex blinked. He had intended to leave for Orb as soon as possible, but this news changed his calculations. If the Archangel were going to continue without a full crew, they would be vulnerable. ZAFT would never just let them go, and without a capable pilot for the Strike, it would only be a matter of time before they went down.
He and Lia exchanged glances, then nodded. “I believe we may be able to help.” Alex smiled at the surprised looks of the Earth Forces officers. “I have no love for the Earth Forces, as you well know, but I have my own reasons for keeping the Archangel safe.” To no one’s surprise, he did not elaborate on those reasons. “We can see to it that this ship lands on Earth safely; I can’t say beyond that yet. We’ll have to plan further after we’re down.” And after I talk to Cagalli.
Halberton considered that. They have a lot of firepower. If they can keep the Le Creuset team off our backs, then it will be worthwhile even if this is their last battle. “Very well. I do have one question: can your mobile suits handle it if they’re forced to enter the atmosphere on their own?”
Lia took that one. “Our machines have been equipped with a feature we call a reentry cocoon,” she said. “It acts in a manner like ablative gel, shielding the mobile suit from heat and friction. They’ll be fine.”
Halberton nodded. “That’s all I wanted to know; thank you.” He stood. “Make sure those pencil pushers in Alaska get this right.”
The three officers saluted. “I’ll be sure to convey your sentiments,” Murrue said.
“As a surviving mobile armor pilot, that is one order I can’t refuse,” Mu added.
Halberton returned the salutes. “Good luck to you all.”
The four volunteers gazed in confusion at the papers they held. Despite the uniforms they wore, they had thought they were still civilians. Earth Forces high command appeared to think otherwise.
“Discharge papers?” Tolle said, perplexed.
Hoffman cleared his throat. “While you were instrumental in ensuring the safety of this ship, the fact remains that it is illegal for civilians to participate in battle. This is our way of getting around any potential complications. From a legal standpoint, you enlisted in the Earth Forces for the duration of the emergency.”
“The Valkyrie, of course, is a different matter entirely,” Badgiruel said. “They will be assisting us in our descent to Earth.” She handed an extra set of papers to Tolle. “Give these to Kira Yamato.”
In the back, Flay Allster raised her hand. “Excuse me.”
Hoffman looked at her. “Hm?”
She hesitated. “I… I want to enlist.”
Before either officer could respond, the other students tore their discharge papers in half. “We’re all with Flay, I think,” Sai said. Despite their breakup the day before, he did not want to just leave Flay behind.
“Sai’s right,” Tolle said. “I’ll make sure Kira gets his papers, but I’m staying.”
Badgiruel exchanged an incredulous glance with Hoffman, then finally nodded. “Very well. Welcome aboard. For myself, I’m glad you’re staying; you’ve all been extremely helpful over the past three weeks.” She smiled, much to the new enlistees’ surprise. “I think you should all go to the hangar; no doubt you’ll want to see your friend off. Just don’t take too long.”
“Yes, ma’am!” The students saluted, then moved for the elevator.
Hoffman gazed after them. “You were quick to accept their enlistments, Ensign,” he observed. There was no condemnation in his voice, just curiosity.
Badgiruel shrugged. “As I said, they’ve been a big help. Besides, if those five remain, it could induce Kira Yamato to enlist as well.”
“Which would give you a much better chance of reaching Alaska safely,” Hoffman said, nodding. “I see. How likely is it?”
The ensign shrugged again. “I’d give it at least a fifty-fifty chance. As Captain Ramius pointed out, Kira piloted the Strike to protect his friends. If those friends remain, he might well stay on so that he can continue to protect them.”
Especially Flay Allster. Strassmeier’s right about that situation, at least. Despite her by-the-book exterior, Natarle Badgiruel had a knack for reading people, and Kira’s attraction to Flay was extremely easy to spot. She did not say so, though; much as she respected Hoffman, he was a stodgy sort.
The ZAFT vessels were a beehive of activity. Everyone knew that the coming battle would be important; this would be their best chance to take down the so-called “legged ship” and the entire Eighth Fleet.
“Mobile suits to launch in three minutes,” the Vesalius’ P.A. system blared. “All units, check systems.”
Athrun Zala settled into the cockpit of the Aegis and began powering his machine up. He was nervous -only a fool was not nervous before a major battle- but also confident. The four stolen Gundams (Nicol had come up with the same acronym Kira had) were more than a match for Earth Forces mobile armors.
And if Commander Le Creuset is right, we will not have to worry about the Valkyrie’s machines. Of course, from what Yzak had said, it was entirely possible that the Commander was dead wrong. Athrun devoutly hoped he was right.
Over on the Gamow, the other three redcoats prepped for action. The Blitz, the Buster, and the upgraded Duel had been repaired after their last encounter with the Archangel, and the pilots were spoiling for a rematch. Dearka was tired of swatting flies (mainly the Moebius Zero), Nicol wanted another chance at the ship itself, and Yzak, of course, had a score to settle with Kira Yamato.
His superiors, nervous at the prospect of the wounded pilot (the right side of his face was bandaged from the bridge of his nose to his cheekbone) going into battle again so soon, tried to dissuade him. “Don’t do it, Yzak. You’re not ready!”
Yzak was having none of it. “Shut up!” he snarled. “Hurry up and guide me out,” he added in a low growl. He gritted his teeth as the crew complied. Yamato, you bastard! This assault shroud will teach you a lesson for humiliating me!
“Eight ZAFT vessels approaching, four Nazcas and four Laurasias,” the Menelaos’ radar operator reported. “Estimated time to intercept, fifteen minutes.”
Halberton cursed. “Le Creuset. This is going to be difficult.”
“We’ve also identified at least one of the other three teams involved,” Hoffman said. “The Bartlett team, commanded by an old rival of Commander Strassmeier.”
A snort came over the comm link. “Maybe he considers it a rivalry,” Alex said, “but I don’t. I have more important things to worry about.”
“What are we dealing with?” Halberton asked. “You do know the man, after all.”
Alex snorted again. “He’s very nearly on a par with Le Creuset in terms of ability. Just remember: if he loses this battle, but survives, he will come after you again. His main weakness is his vindictive nature; he holds grudges until they die of old age and then sends them to a taxidermist.”
The two senior officers both chuckled. “Can you hold them off?” Halberton asked.
“We’ll do what we can,” Alex said. He was already in full flight gear, minus the helmet. “Count on it.”
“This is going to get ugly,” Lia said. “Even with five Gundams -six, if they can launch the Strike- sheer numbers could give us a lot of trouble.”
“I know,” Alex replied. He glanced at Cagalli. “Do we stay with the Archangel, you think? Beyond this battle?”
The princess nodded firmly. “For sure. I don’t like the Earth Forces any more than you do, but the Archangel is different.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” Truth be told, Alex was reluctant even now, but something told him the Archangel was too important to let Rau Le Creuset destroy it.
“In any case, we don’t have much time,” he went on more briskly. “In fifteen minutes, this area is going to be swarming with GINNs.” His expression hardened. “All pilots, to your machines.” Then, to Lia, “Sound Battlestations, Lia.”
She nodded, meeting his gaze without flinching, then touched a control on the arm of her chair. “All hands, Level One Battlestations!”
By the time Kira got to the hangar, most of the refugees had already boarded the launch. A line remained, guided by one of the Menelaos’s junior officers, a lieutenant. He had ditched his uniform, knowing that he would have no need of it when he left.
One of the refugees, a girl of about five, spotted him then. Smiling brightly, she shook free of her mother’s grasp and pushed toward him. Coming to a stop at Kira’s feet, she reached into her bag and pulled out a small paper flower. “Thank you for protecting the rest of us till now,” she said, holding it out to him.
Kira smiled and knelt, accepting the gift. “Thank you.” Watching the girl rejoin her mother, he felt a sense of relief. He had had to fight, but he had succeeded. These people would make it home safely.
He turned in surprise. Sai, Tolle, Mir, Flay, and Kuzzey, all in uniform, landed in front of him. “Huh? What’s going on?” Why is Flay in uniform?
Tolle pushed a set of papers into his hand. “Your discharge papers. Good luck.”
Kira blinked. “What about you guys?”
Tolle smiled. “We’re staying here, with the Archangel. They’re shorthanded, so we figured we should keep helping out.”
“It was actually Flay who started it,” Mir said, smiling at the redhead. “Then the rest of us decided to stay on, too.”
“All of you…” Kira was at a loss. He had thought that his friends would be joining him on the shuttle, but they clearly had other ideas. Even Kuzzey, nervous though he obviously was at the prospect of battle, wanted to remain. “You’re…”
What should I do? If even Flay enlisted?
It was humbling, somehow. His friends, nowhere near as capable as he was, had nonetheless elected to remain with the Archangel. If they want to stay, is it right for me to just leave them behind?
All this flashed through Kira’s mind in the space of ten seconds, and he made his decision. “I’m with you,” he said, crumpling the papers in his hand. “If you’re staying, then I’m not leaving you behind.”
Tolle and Mir looked delighted, and Flay’s face lit up. “That’s great,” Tolle said.
Kira smiled. “I’ll get suited up and stand by in the Strike. We might have to launch on short notice.”
“Got it,” Tolle said. “We’ll be on the bridge.”
“Except me,” Flay interjected. “I… don’t have a post yet. There hasn’t been time to figure things out.”
The Coordinator nodded. “I understand. Don’t worry, it’ll work out.” He waved at the refugees, then he and his friends left the hangar. Sai, Kuzzey, Tolle, and Mir split off for the bridge, while Kira headed for the pilots’ locker room, Flay (much to his surprise) tagging along.
They would soon go into battle once again, but they were not worried. If they stuck together, they knew they could get through anything.