Chapter 9: Shooting Stars

Menelaos, bridge, 13 February, C.E. 71

On the surface, it appeared that the Earth Forces had the advantage. The Eighth Fleet outnumbered their ZAFT opponents, and the two mobile assault ships, Archangel, and Valkyrie, could bring considerable firepower to bear. Add in the six Gundams, and the coming battle looked bleak for the ZAFT forces.

Admiral Halberton knew otherwise. His goal was to get the Archangel to safety, which meant keeping it out of the fighting if possible. That would also remove one Gundam from the equation, as the Strike would not be launching; theoretically, it could survive reentry on its own, but no one (except for its pilot) was inclined to test that.

Eighth Fleet’s numerical advantage meant little. Except for the Moebius Zero, mobile armors were incapable of facing mobile suits on equal footing, and the Valkyrie’s Gundams were matched by the four machines ZAFT had stolen.

“All vessels assume a tight formation and prepare to intercept,” the admiral said crisply. “Archangel, do not move. Remain beside this ship.”

“Mobile armors, launch now,” Hoffman said. “Activate N-jammers. Prepare anti-beam depth charges.”

Halberton nodded at the image on his comm screen. “Valkyrie, operate at your discretion.”

Lia Ramius saluted. “You got it, Admiral.” Her image vanished.

Halberton sighed. “Well, we’re committed now. Let us just hope the Valkyrie’s firepower will be enough; we certainly can’t stop that many mobile suits on our own.”

The captain hid a grimace. He knew as well as his admiral did that the “black ship” was well armed, but he could not help wondering if even that would be enough to stop the weight of metal headed their way. It was not Alex Strassmeier’s relationship to the pilot of the stolen X102 Duel that worried him; it would not stop him from using a disabling attack and disarming the Duel would be just as effective as destroying it outright.

“That may be difficult, sir,” he said at last. “Leaving aside the fact that Strassmeier is related to one of the enemy pilots, I don’t know how much they can do.”

“Under the circumstances, every ounce of firepower helps,” Halberton pointed out. He gazed out the forward viewport, watching the ZAFT machines come. “You do have a point, though. Ultimately, it’s up to us.”

And may God be with us all, he added silently.

Archangel, bridge

Despite the situation, the scene on the Archangel’s bridge was almost glacially calm. Murrue Ramius sat upright in the command chair, her face set. Behind her, Natarle Badgiruel kept the temporarily undermanned CIC running like clockwork. Forward, Arnold Neumann handled the ship like the consummate professional he was.

“Activate Igelstellungs,” Badgiruel ordered. “Load Korinthos. Prepare to fire Gottfrieds and Lohengrin; remain on standby.”

Unexpectedly, bridge hatch opened, and a familiar quartet joined them. “We’re late, sorry about that,” Tolle Koenig said.

Murrue’s jaw dropped. Wha…? “Where did you people come from?” Not that she was complaining; not only were the youngsters valuable, but she had grown rather fond of them.

“They’ve officially enlisted,” Badgiruel said. The ensign smiled at Murrue’s expression. “Miss Allster as well, though we don’t have an assignment for her as yet.”

The rest of the bridge crew shared Murrue’s attitude. Chandra and Tonomura shared relieved glances as Sai and Mir took their seats behind them. Kuzzey grinned over his shoulder at Pal, while Tolle gave Neumann a thumbs-up from his station at the helm.

“Kira’s staying, too,” Tolle said, half-turning in his chair. “He joined up at the last minute.”

That was certainly welcome news. Murrue’s one worry about making it to Alaska had been what to do with the Strike. No Natural could pilot it, and the only allied Coordinators within reach were on another ship. Now that Kira was an official Earth Forces soldier, they could rest easier.

Though he will not find battling the Aegis any easier, she admitted to herself.

“We’ll have to bend the rules about fraternization,” Badgiruel murmured. She shrugged at her CO’s questioning look. “Koenig, Haw, Buskirk, Argyle, and Allster are ranked as Crewmen 2nd Class. However, as the pilot of the Strike -our only remaining mobile suit- Kira Yamato should, in my opinion, be granted the rank of ensign, and we can’t exactly tell him to stop spending time with his friends.” Not to mention his prospective relationship with Flay Allster.

Murrue nodded. “You have a point.” Her expression hardened just noticeably. “And the special dispensation regarding Athrun Zala should be continued.”

“Of course,” Badgiruel agreed. “It would be unrealistic to ask him to use lethal force in such a situation.”

“ZAFT mobile suits approaching!” Tonomura snapped. “GINNs, CGUEs…and the four stolen G-weapons.”

Murrue swore under her breath. Not that she was surprised. “Just what we need.” She looked over her shoulder at Kuzzey. “Crewman Buskirk, connect me to the Valkyrie.”

Lia’s face appeared on the monitor. “You called?”

“Admiral Halberton wants us to hold position for now,” Murrue said. “That means we can’t launch the Strike -Kira and his friends have officially enlisted- and the ZAFT forces are out of our weapons range. It looks like it’s up to you.”

Lia nodded soberly. “Our shipboard weapons can’t reach them, either, but Alex and the others are mounting up. They’ll do what they can.”

“Good luck.”

Archangel, pilots’ locker room

At that moment, Kira was preparing of his own. Pushing through the hatch with Flay at his heels, he yanked open a locker and pulled out his blue-and-white flight suit. At first, he merely looked at it, his feelings decidedly mixed. Not that he was having second thoughts, far from it. It was simply that he knew his enlistment meant he would eventually have to fight Athrun once again.

Calm down, he told himself sternly. Just because you are an official Earth Forces soldier does not mean they will suddenly tell you to kill Athrun.

“Kira.” Flay had come up behind him. “Are you all right?”

Kira turned to face her, still holding the flight suit. “Yeah. Well, sort of.” He shrugged. “It’s not that I’m having second thoughts…”

“But you don’t want to fight your friend again,” she said, nodding.

He looked away. “I know they won’t make me kill Athrun if it can be avoided, but…”

Flay touched Kira’s face, much to his surprise. “It’ll be all right.”

He blinked. “Well, anyway,” he said, trying (and failing) to cover his nervousness, “I can’t just run away. If I can make a difference, maybe this war will end that much sooner.” He smiled. “I’ll keep going until it ends, one way or another.”

Flay smiled back. “I’m behind you, all the way.” Then, to Kira’s astonishment, she leaned forward and kissed him.

He instinctively pulled her closer, feeling a surge of incredulous delight. He had dreamed of this moment since they had first met, but he had never thought it would happen.

She reluctantly drew back. “Be careful out there, Kira. I don’t want to lose you.”

Kira smiled. “You got it.”

open space

Out in space, things were going badly for the Earth Forces. The GINNs and CGUEs were bad enough; the four Gundams wrought havoc beyond anything either side had ever seen. Yzak, Dearka, Nicol, and Athrun proved the new machines’ worth, destroying mobile armors and capital ships with absurd ease.

The ZAFT forces were not, however, without effective opposition. The five Gundams from the Valkyrie were holding their own; they had already destroyed three GINNs. Though they were hard pressed, they did have one major advantage: since the goal was to see the Archangel land safely, ZAFT had to win, while the Earth Forces just had to keep from losing too quickly.

Thus far, neither side’s Gundams had come into direct contact; they were too far apart. Yzak, for one, was not complaining; leaving aside the fact that his target was the Strike, he had no desire to confront his cousin. Athrun, for his part, was glad that the Strike had not launched, both because he did not want to fight Kira, and because he knew Yzak could not possibly win.

Kira has something Yzak does not, Athrun mused, vaporizing a Moebius. He is untrained, and yet he is better than Yzak will ever be.

Yzak himself was unlikely to agree. The Duel’s pilot was supremely confident in his own skills. While that was a good thing in most cases, it could also lead to overconfidence. And with a pilot like Kira Yamato, such an attitude could be fatal. As far as Athrun could tell, the only reason Yzak was still alive was because his cousin Alex was a friend of Kira.

I just hope that is enough.

Vesalius, bridge

Rau Le Creuset watched the battle from his flagship. Thus far, it had gone just as he had hoped, despite the intervention of the Valkyrie’s Gundams. The Eighth Fleet’s mobile armors were being taken out in a fashion that suggested his own people were indulging in a little target practice. As for the Archangel…

“Admiral Halberton,” he murmured, clasping his hands. “He intends to land that ship on Earth at all costs. He has it stashed away in the rear and won’t let it take part in combat.”

Ades grimaced. “That makes it easier for us. It means they won’t be deploying the Strike.” He winced, seeing the Devastator score a direct hit on the Laconi team’s Nazca with its sniper rifle. The ZAFT ship’s starboard engine pod broke off, streaming fire. “The black ship’s machines are bad enough.”

“He knows it’s no longer possible for them to beat us with warships and mobile armors,” Le Creuset continued. “The man is quite the strategist.” He smiled. “After all, why wouldn’t he be? They say he had those things made.”

“All the more reason to take him out,” Ades grumbled.

A soft chuckle. “His belief does have merit. I will prove it to him during the next battle. It is the least I can do. As for the black ship, even if it remains with the legged ship, it will mean little. Alex Strassmeier is too much the PLANT patriot to go beyond helping that one vessel.”

open space

Le Creuset’s pilots were proving the merits of their new machines quite handily.

Ignoring the storm of cannon fire around him, Athrun transformed his Aegis and clamped onto a Nelson-class ship’s main gun turret. Triggering the Scylla, he backed off to avoid being caught in the massive backblast. Shifting back to mobile suit mode, he watched the Earth Forces ship explode.

Nearby, Nicol was making effective use of the Blitz’s Mirage Colloid stealth system. Appearing out of nowhere in front of a Drake-class ship’s bridge, he slammed the Gleipnir piercer lock right through the forward viewport. I am sorry, but I have no choice.

“Take this!” Dearka Elsman snarled. Snapping his weapons together, he fired into another Drake, the sniper blast going in one side and out the other. The enemy warship broke in half and exploded.

Yzak had a Nelson in his sights. Coming in from the side, he peppered it from bow to stern with laser blasts and railgun slugs.

Even the spectacular detonation did little to sooth his fury. “Where is he?” he snarled. “Just where could that Strike be hiding?”

Unlike his cousin, Alex knew exactly where the Strike was. He was not happy about it, though; Cagalli had informed him of Kira’s decision to stay on, and he believed that the Strike was necessary for this battle. Confident though he was in himself and his people, he did not think they could handle this kind of melee alone.

“Blast it,” he muttered, leveling his beam rifle at a GINN. The ZAFT machine exploded under his fire. “Why haven’t they launched the Strike?”

Cagalli’s face appeared on his comm screen. “The Admiral wants the Archangel to stay out of the fight.”

“With all due respect to Admiral Halberton,” Alex said tightly, “he’s making a mistake. We can only do so much out here, and, though it doesn’t have our cocoons, the Strike can go through reentry on its own.”

“I know, but…” Cagalli glanced off screen, and her face tightened. “Bad news, Alex. Coast has escaped.”

Alex swore under his breath. “How did that happen?” As if we did not have enough problems already.

“He was transferred to the Cassandros. The ship took a hit before they could get him secured, so he overpowered his guards and escaped in his GINN.”

He winced. The news was hardly unexpected, but that did not make it welcome. “Forget about him. A single GINN, even a High Maneuver type, isn’t going to mean much under the circumstances.”

“Roger that.”

Alex returned his attention to the battle, swearing in multiple languages all the while. Even with his five machines, the Eighth Fleet was slowly but steadily losing ground. He and his friends were long on skill, but short on experience. To date, they had only confronted small units, either a single team of GINNs or Le Creuset’s four Gundams. A fleet action was a new and decidedly unpleasant experience.

Then he got a good look at his cousin’s Duel, and his eyes shrank to icy crescents. The formerly sleek and streamlined mobile suit had received an upgrade. Alex’s trained eye picked out extra armor, a missile pod, and a railgun.

Le Creuset, you bastard. He keyed his comm. “All units listen carefully. X102 Duel has been upgraded with a modified assault shroud. That makes it at least twice as deadly.”

A series of acknowledgments came over the radio, and the Moebius units began giving the Duel a wide berth. Predictably, Yzak saw this as cowardice on their part, and charged off in pursuit. His fire destroyed six mobile armors before the others escaped.

Alex shook his head. He loved his cousin as a brother, but that did not make him unaware of his faults. Yzak had always been a hothead, and the injuries he had sustained in the last fight, whatever they were, had clearly intensified that.

“Watch out, Alex,” Cagalli suddenly called. “You’ve got a red CGUE heading your way.”

Only one person that could be, Alex thought sourly. “Roger.” He spun, bringing up his shield just in time to intercept a laser blast. “You again.”

“That’s right.” Daniel Bartlett stowed his beam rifle and drew his sword. “Blade to blade, Strassmeier. How about it?”

Alex did not so much as blink. “As you wish.” He did not, however, intend to limit himself to a saber. His view of war, as opposed to the martial arts tournaments he and Bartlett had competed in for so long, was simple: In battle, there is no such thing as cheating.

Bartlett, of course, knew that. Snarling wordlessly, he brought his giant blade down, then across. He knew perfectly well that the attack would not actually damage the Stormbird; his intention was to get in enough solid hits to wear down the Phase-shift.

Alex had no intention of allowing that. His beam saber came around, parrying the strike and sliding toward the CGUE’s head. Bartlett cross blocked, using the impact to drive his machine back and give himself some breathing room.

“Try this, Strassmeier!” Briefly releasing the sword, the CGUE’s right hand darted to its hip and came back up with a beam knife. Bartlett hurled it straight forward, hoping to catch the Stormbird in the cockpit.

Alex snorted. “I think not.” Abandoning any pretense of swordplay, he snatched out his rifle and fired, vaporizing the knife. Before Bartlett could react, he drew a saber again and sliced through the CGUE’s sword at the hilt.

Bartlett cursed. “I’ve had it with you!” Leveling his own rifle, he squeezed the trigger…only to see the weapon disappear in a flash of green light. “What the?”

MBF-X304 Scorpion slashed in from the side, the Stinger beam cannon blazing. “Not so fast, Bartlett!” Brian Kilgore shouted. Shifting to mobile suit mode, he brought his rifle to bear and fired once. The beam struck with almost inhuman precision, striking the CGUE’s monoeye sensor dead on.

The ZAFT commander, realizing he was beaten, spun around, and hit his verniers. “Another time, Strassmeier!”

Alex slumped back in his seat. I have a little breathing space. He turned his head, looking toward the Archangel. I hope they are doing okay.

Archangel, bridge

Murrue stared at the main screen, her lips compressed in a grim line. The Eighth Fleet had already lost four ships to the stolen Gundams, and it was only getting worse. Even with Alex and his friends out there, it was only a matter of time before the ZAFT machines got through to the Archangel.

She took some comfort in the fact that ZAFT was not getting off lightly, either. Her crew had raised a brief but heartfelt cheer when Kyle Perry disabled the Laconi team’s Nazca, and Alex and Brian’s defeat of Daniel Bartlett had not gone unnoticed.

Still, they were losing, and Murrue was not the only one to notice it. “Why am I still on standby?” Mu La Flaga demanded from the hangar. “Those four machines are at it again! The Eighth Fleet is in big trouble; even with Alex and his friends out there…” He hissed in frustration. “Maybe it won’t make much difference, but with the Strike and my Zero out there-“

“We haven’t received authorization to launch,” Murrue said. “Please remain on standby.”

“But that’s-“

Murrue looked up at Kuzzey. “Connect me to the Menelaos,”

Admiral Halberton’s face appeared on the screen. “What do you want?”

“We need to make our descent at once,” Murrue said. “Alex and his friends are doing their best, but it won’t be enough. If we do not begin our descent soon, we won’t be able to.”

“Are you running away to save yourselves?” Captain Hoffman said incredulously.

Murrue ignored him, addressing the Admiral. “This ship is the enemy’s target. We must move away from you, or the Eighth Fleet may well be destroyed entirely. Alaska is out of the question, but we can make it to Earth Forces territory.”

Halberton was silent for a seemingly endless moment. At last, he smiled wryly. “Murrue Ramius, you haven’t changed. You’re still as reckless as ever.”

Murrue smiled back. “An officer learns from her superiors, sir.”

“Very well.” Halberton glanced at something offscreen. “The Valkyrie is beginning its descent as well, along with the Inferno and the Shinobi; your niece apparently agrees with your assessment of the situation. We’ll make sure not one ZAFT vessel gets past us.”

open space

Yzak was getting progressively more frustrated. He had destroyed so many mobile armors that he had lost track, along with three capital ships, and still there was no sign of the Strike. Combined with the lingering pain in his face, it was enough to drive him mad.

A beam-equipped Moebius charged him from his left. Snarling incoherently, Yzak spun, took three hits on his shield, and fired a single railgun shot. The Moebius broke in half, then exploded.

He was far from mollified. “Come out and show yourself, Strike. Or else…or else this pain I feel will never go away!”

“Save your breath, Yzak,” a voice said in his ear. “Kira hasn’t even launched.”

Yzak cursed. “Alex, what in blazes are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Exactly what I said. Kira hasn’t launched, and odds are he won’t at all.” Almost casually, the Stormbird’s beam rifle came up and blew a GINN in half. “In any case, your mission is likely to fail.”

“How’s that?” the Duel’s pilot shot back. “We’re winning, and you know it!”

“That’s true,” Alex conceded. “But you haven’t won yet and winning the battle doesn’t mean accomplishing your mission. You need to win; all we need to do is keep from losing long enough for the Archangel to make it to Earth.”

Yzak snarled viciously. “We’ll see about that!” Knowing that the Stormbird was too far away to interfere, he swung the Duel around and hit his verniers, aiming for the heart of the Earth Forces formation…and the Archangel.

He was not alone. Dearka had also spotted the legged ship’s movements and was attempting to intercept. It was not easy; the Buster was significantly slower than the Duel, but he did not have much in his way. One Nelson-class ship tried to hit him with its main cannons; Dearka responded by combining his weapons in shotgun mode and destroying the Earth Forces ship.

Archangel, bridge/hangar

Despite the battle raging around them, the Archangel’s bridge crew kept calm. In a reentry maneuver like the one they were about to perform; a single misstep could be fatal.

“Descent sequence, reconfirm,” Murrue said crisply. “Test the ablative gel dischargers.”

Neumann complied, pressing several buttons on his console. On the underside of the hull, several circular devices extended and discharged a gelatinous substance. This ablative gel would protect the Archangel from the intense heat of reentry, thus allowing the ship and those aboard to survive.

In the hangar, Mu La Flaga felt the ship’s change in attitude. He knew immediately what it meant. “Descending? In the situation we’re in?” He was incredulous; even with their slightly unhinged (in his opinion) allies, it was still uncertain whether they would escape the ZAFT forces.

Kojiro Murdoch shrugged. “What good’s it going to do to yell at me?” He shook his head wryly. “I guess it’s better than doing nothing.”

“Even if we lose the ZAFT ships and GINNs, there’s still those four machines,” a new voice said. “I’ll stand by in the Strike,” Kira went on, smiling. “Still at Level One Battlestations, right?” He drifted to his silent machine.

Mu gazed after him, an almost paternal look on his face. “He sure has changed in over the past three weeks. Did not want to pilot that thing but did it anyway to protect his friends. Now he cheerfully suits up and waits for orders.”

“Yeah, well, I’m glad he’s staying on,” Murdoch said. “Who cares if he’s a Coordinator; I say he’s just a good kid.”

“You got that right,” Mu agreed. “Still, so young and already a veteran…” He shook his head. “It’s gonna make his life tough. Having to fight someone important to him probably doesn’t help, either.”

The mechanic raised his eyebrows. “Huh?”

Mu sighed. “Kira’s best friend is one of the guys trying to shoot us down. Patrick Zala’s son, no less.”

Murdoch winced. “Ouch. I take it the kid flies one of the stolen G-weapons?”

The pilot nodded. “The Aegis. The Captain’s been letting him use disabling attacks if he can, and if she has any sense, she will not change it. Kira’s got enough problems without having to kill his best friend.”

Murdoch agreed. He had wondered what was wrong with Kira after the battle outside Artemis; learning that the kid’s best friend was in one of the enemy mobile suits explained a great deal. He himself had nothing against Coordinators, and he had come to like Kira during the youngster’s time aboard.

That reminded him of something else. “Say, you think that girl had something to do with it.”

Mu glanced up. “Hm?”

“I heard that Kira’s got a thing for that Allster girl,” Murdoch explained. “The only reason he hasn’t done anything is because she was engaged to somebody else.”

Mu snorted. ” ‘Was’ being the operative word; it was Sai Argyle, and they had a pretty explosive breakup yesterday.” He pulled on his helmet. “We may be descending, but I wouldn’t rule out a launch yet.”

Vesalius, bridge

The Archangel’s maneuvers did not go unnoticed.

Le Creuset’s eyes narrowed behind his mask. “The legged ship’s now pulling away?” He clenched a fist. “Halberton, that bastard. Is he using the Eighth Fleet as a shield to allow that ship to get to Earth?”

Captain Ades glanced at him. “Hm?”

“Close in on them!” the Commander ordered. “It’s imperative we destroy it before it makes its descent.”

“Right.” Ades turned to the helmsman. “Boost engines; adjust course twenty degrees to port.” Then, to the man at Tactical. “Prepare main cannon; target the legged ship.” He next addressed the comm officer. “Order the G-weapons to press their attack. I want the black ship’s machines out of the way.”

“Yes, sir!”

open space

It seemed that the Eighth Fleet was finally starting to run out of mobile armors. The few that remained hurled themselves at the stolen Gundams. Such a move was both foolish and futile, as both sides knew; the Aegis simply drew back and blasted one, and another fell to the Blitz.

Having finished his opponent with minimal effort, Nicol looked for the main target. It was not hard to find. “Look at the Archangel.”

Athrun blinked. “It’s heading for Earth?”

“I won’t let that happen,” Dearka growled.

You will not be able to do anything about it, Brian thought; he had been listening in. Shifting the Scorpion to mobile armor mode, he flashed toward the Buster at high speed, his beam cannon spitting green energy. None of the shots connected, but they were enough to make the ZAFT pilot think of something besides the Archangel.

Alex was not even paying attention to the Gundams. He was focused on one of the Laurasia-class ships, the Gamow. It was closing much more quickly than any of the other ships, moving too fast for its comrades to provide support.

Zelman’s being an idiot. He cannot win, yet he is making what he must know is a suicide run. He grimaced. The Gamow was no match for either the Menelaos or the Archangel on a one-to-one basis, but Zelman did not appear to care.

Nor did at least two of the Gundam pilots. Having shaken off the Scorpion, Dearka blew past two of the remaining Earth Forces ships, accompanied by Yzak in the Duel. Athrun and Nicol were not far behind, though Nicol first had to deal with a couple of missiles a Drake had sent his way. Two laser blasts, and he was through.

Archangel, hangar/bridge

Kira sat tensely in his cockpit. Much as he hated battle, he had come to agree with Mu that the waiting was almost always much worse. At least once he was out there, he had more control over his own fate. In the hangar, all he could do was wait, and hope that the ship was not hit before he could launch.

He glanced at his instrument panel. The flower the little girl had given him rested next to his radar scope, but he gave it little thought. Kira was mainly concerned with what the bridge had relayed to him, and it was not good. Despite the efforts of Alex and his friends, the Le Creuset team was steadily pushing the Eighth Fleet back.

Then Chandra came on and made things worse. “The Duel and the Buster have broken through the forward lines!”

Tonomura spoke up mere seconds later. “The Menelaos is engaged in combat!”

Kira cursed under his breath. “Lieutenant La Flaga, we have to do something!”

“Yeah, I know.” Mu punched up his link to the bridge. “Captain!” Murrue looked down at him. “Let us fight to the last second! How much time’s left?”

Murrue stared at him. “Don’t be ridiculous. You want us to-“

“According to the catalogue specs,” Kira interrupted, “the Strike is able to go through reentry on its own.” When the Captain hesitated, his expression hardened. “If this keeps up, the Menelaos will be in great danger. Come on, Captain!”

If Murrue was hesitant, Natarle Badgiruel was anything but. “Very well,” she said, coming up behind Mir. “Launch but return before we begin the descent sequence. The Strike is theoretically capable of reentry, but it’s never been tested, and you don’t have a reentry cocoon like Strassmeier’s machines.”

Kira nodded. “Understood.”

“One more thing.” Badgiruel gave him a look that managed to mix military formality with sympathy. “The special dispensation regarding Athrun Zala remains in effect. So long as it does not endanger the ship, you may refrain from using lethal force against him.”

The Coordinator nodded again. “Thank you.”

Murrue turned to glare at her XO. “Ensign Badgiruel!”

Badgiruel did not give a millimeter. “If this ship is destroyed, then the sacrifices of the Eighth Fleet will have been in vain!”

Unaware of the small drama on the bridge, Kira and Mu moved to the catapults. While they were both nervous, they were also glad to be doing something. Maybe a mobile armor and one more mobile suit would not turn the tide of battle, but it might well buy them enough time.

Mu shook his head. “Even I’ve never made a sortie in this kind of situation.”

Kira braced himself, feeling the heavy clunk of the Aile Striker pack connecting to his machine. “Kira Yamato, launching!” The catapult spat him into space, followed closely by the Zero.

Open space

Kira had a minor problem almost as soon as he launched. The Strike seemed sluggish, as if something were holding it back.

“Tch, must be gravity pulling me down,” he muttered. A few minor adjustments, and he was on his way.

Soon enough, he had company. “There you are, Strike,” Yzak said softly. “You’ve finally showed.” He stowed his rifle and drew a saber. “This is for the nasty wound.”

Kira saw him coming. “The Duel! Upgraded!”

“Now take this!” Yzak shouted, his railgun spitting fire. His saber slammed into the Strike’s shield; Kira dodged back, firing his rifle.

Alex watched the battle, admiring Kira’s prowess. He was not worried about either combatant; Kira had no intention of using lethal force, and Yzak, though he did not know it, could not win. Kira Yamato was far out of his league.

“Aren’t you going to help Kira?” Cagalli asked. “Your cousin looks like he’s going nuts.”

Alex shook his head. “Kira doesn’t need my help; there’s no way Yzak can win at this point.”

“Because Kira’s the Ultimate Coordinator?” she said, skepticism in her voice; despite Kira’s resemblance to Canard Pars, Cagalli still was not sure of his connection.

“Partly,” Alex conceded. “But mostly because of what happened in the last battle. Kira has the SEED, you see.”

Cagalli frowned. “The SEED?” she repeated.

“Superior Evolutionary Element Destined factor,” Alex explained. “Kira’s a Berserker; not in the sense of uncontrolled rage, but rather someone who can go beyond his normal abilities. The results are often spectacular.”

“No kidding. Does your cousin know about it?”

Alex considered that, then shook his head again. “Unlikely. And even if he did, he would not care. He’s too angry.”

If anything, Alex was understating the situation. Completely berserk, Yzak chased after the Strike, alternately firing his railgun and, when he got in close, slashing with his beam saber. Kira, by contrast, was content to lead him on, occasionally snapping off a laser shot.

Dearka, meanwhile, had an annoyance of his own to take care of, in the form of Mu La Flaga’s Moebius Zero. While the Zero’s weapons could not actually hurt the Buster, the mobile armor was a distraction he could really have done without.

He grinned as a linear cannon blast slammed into his machine’s shoulder. “Yeah, this is definitely becoming dangerous.”

Mu glared at the maddening machine. “You’re all beginning to bug me!”

Vesalius, bridge

A radar operator stared at his display in astonishment. What are they up to?

He half-turned in his chair. “Captain Ades, the Gamow is breaking formation!”

“I see it,” Ades said grimly. He gestured to the comm officer. “Get me Zelman.” When the other captain appeared on the screen, Ades leaned forward in his chair. “Gamow, you’re out too far. Just what are you doing, Zelman?” he demanded.

“I can’t pull back now that I’ve managed to corner them,” Zelman said tightly. “Halberton was the one who started all this, and so we’ll see the end of him and the legged ship!” His image winked out.

Le Creuset shook his head regretfully. “He’ll never make it. That copy of the Buster is almost directly in the Gamow’s path, and I highly doubt that one of Strassmeier’s comrades would pass up such an obvious target.”

Ades sighed. “I’m afraid I have to agree, sir.”

They watched in silence as the Gamow made its final, futile run.

open space

Mu spotted the ZAFT ship making its run on the Menelaos. “I don’t think so!” His wired gun barrels spiraled out, spitting high velocity cannon rounds. He scored numerous hits, at least two on the Gamow’s engines, but it was not enough.

However, someone else did have sufficient firepower. Kyle Perry had also spotted the Gamow, and unlike Mu, he had the means to stop them. Turning to face the ZAFT ship directly, he snapped his weapons together in sniper mode, he took careful aim. A heartbeat later, he took a deep breath, let half of it out, and squeezed the trigger.

The bright yellow beam pierced the Gamow in the center of the bow, penetrating the ship’s full length. Judging by the sudden flare of light, Kyle’s shot had struck the enemy’s reactor, resulting in an uncontrollable release of energy.

When the light faded, the Gamow was gone.

Nicol stared in horror. “Captain Zelman!” He started to pursue the Devastator, but Kyle was in the upper atmosphere, reentry cocoon activated.

So much for that. Alex touched a control on his board, priming his own cocoon. “Brian, begin your descent,” he said, keeping his attention on the duel between Kira and Yzak. “I’ll be along shortly.”

“Roger that,” Brian acknowledged. He transformed his machine first; mobile armor mode was better suited for atmospheric reentry.

Alex spared him a glance, no more. He will be fine.

Neither Kira nor Yzak noticed. Despite -or perhaps because of- Yzak’s fury, Kira was pushing the pace. While the Duel slashed wildly with its saber, occasionally adding a railgun shot, the Strike held back, taking the attacks on its shield and mixing laser blasts with bursts from its CIWS.

Then Kira, tiring of the game, drove forward, body slamming the Duel and following up with a kick to the head.

“Arrgh!” Yzak glared at the Strike. “You bastard!” His beam rifle snapped into position, but his view was suddenly obstructed. “What is this?”

Kira knew exactly what it was: after the destruction of the Gamow, Admiral Halberton had ordered the launch of a shuttle carrying the refugees Kira had rescued at Heliopolis. “Oh, no, the shuttle from the Menelaos!”

“How dare you get in my way!” Yzak snarled, shifting his aim to the shuttle, which had by then descended below them.

Kira immediately tried to intercept. “Don’t do it! They’re only civilians!”

“You soldier wanna be cowards and run away, do ya!” Yzak fired once, his aim was true…but it never connected. A blue-and-white mobile suit swooped in, taking the beam on its shield. “What the?”

MBF-X108 Stormbird hovered before him. “You seem out of sorts, Yzak,” Alex said mildly.

“Alex, get out of my way!” Yzak shouted.

“I think not.” With that, Alex suddenly lunged forward. A beam saber flashed out, bisecting the Duel’s rifle. “I suggest you back off. This battle is over.”

Yzak ground his teeth furiously, but he knew his cousin was right. “I won’t forget this,” he growled. He turned away and flew toward the Buster, which was also on its way down.

And that is that. Alex sighed, remembering one more thing he had to do, and turned to face the Menelaos. ÔÇťAdmiral Halberton, this is Strassmeier.”

The Earth Forces admiral’s face appeared on his screen. “Excellent timing. I was just about to call you. You have our thanks, Commander.”

Alex shrugged. “I did what I had to do.” He hesitated. “Admiral, there’s something I have to ask you.”

“Go ahead.”

He sighed. “My sister Andrea was abducted by the Atlantic Federation three years ago, just after the Mandelbrot Incident. Do you know anything about it?”

Halberton reluctantly shook his head. “I’m sorry. I heard about the incident, but I’m afraid I don’t know any details.”

Alex swallowed. “I understand. Thanks anyway.” Turning away, he activated his cocoon and spread the Stormbird’s wings.

“I hope you find her,” Halberton said softly.

Alex looked at the Menelaos one last time. “Thank you.” Now here is hoping the Strike is as durable as the specs say.

Laurasia-class frigate Galvani, crew quarters

A brown-haired young woman in the red uniform of an elite ZAFT pilot studied her mirror image carefully. She was not exactly vain, but she did prefer to keep up appearances. It had been a dream come true when she was awarded the red uniform at her Academy graduation, and she refused to dishonor it in any way, however small.

“Hey, Shiho!”

Shiho Hahnenfuss turned, recognizing the voice instantly. “Troy. What’s up?”

Troy Cadwallader grinned. “Just got a message from the Vesalius. The Earth Forces’ Eighth Fleet was just wiped out.”

Shiho’s eyes widened. “Completely?”

“The flagship got away, but not much else did.” Troy’s expression soured briefly. “The legged ship escaped, unfortunately.” He shook himself. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll go down, sooner or later.”

Troy was in an unusual position. Despite being a Natural, he too wore the red uniform. Some of the more hardcore members of ZAFT resented his position, claiming it was only because of his father. Shiho was not among them; though it was true that Troy’s father was the prime minister of Oceania, he had earned the red uniform the hard way.

In April of the previous year, ZAFT had captured a Moebius Zero mobile armor. Since it was the only type that could stand against mobile suits on even terms, some in ZAFT had thought it might be useful. Unfortunately, there were few even among Coordinators who could handle the wired gun barrels.

Then Troy Cadwallader had joined ZAFT. After some testing, it became clear that his spacial awareness rivaled that of Mu La Flaga or Rau Le Creuset, so he was assigned to pilot the captured Zero. He soon proved the wisdom of that decision, destroying fifteen mobile armors and a Drake-class warship in less than three minutes in his first battle.

While Shiho found that impressive, it was not the main factor in her thinking. Genetics aside, Troy was probably her best friend in the universe. It was more a brother-sister relationship than anything else; Troy was engaged to a girl from his hometown of Sydney, and Shiho’s interest in a certain member of the Le Creuset team was well-known.

“What about the black ship?” Shiho asked.

Her friend shrugged. “They got away, too; no surprise.” He shook his head. “Get this, mate: Representative Joule’s nephew is on that ship.”

Shiho straightened in astonishment. Alex Strassmeier’s hatred for Patrick Zala was hardly a secret, but she had never expected this.

“Can’t quite figure out his motives,” Troy went on, “but you can bet there’s something under the surface.”

Shiho did not answer right away. “I think you’re right,” she said at last. “I met Strassmeier once, and I can’t see him fighting alongside the Earth Forces without a good reason.” Truth be told, she was not Committee Chairman Zala’s biggest fan, either, but helping an Earth Forces ship did seem a little extreme.

“Yeah,” Troy said, running a hand through his blond hair. “Maybe. Well, see you.”

Shiho watched him go. Somehow, though she was not sure exactly how, she knew they would find out what was going on.